To the casual fan, a Portland Trail Blazers game typically starts at 7 p.m., when nearly 20,000 fans settle into their seats at the Moda Center and the lead official tosses a basketball up for tipoff.
But, in reality, a Blazers game starts about three hours earlier, at 3:58 p.m., when Jake Layman steps foot on the hardwood, becoming the first player to reach the court.
As Layman arrives, a BlazerDancer is twisting and twirling by herself at midcourt, working through steps of a routine in a pregame rehearsal. A man climbs a ladder beneath the basketball hoop and places a camera above the backboard, which will be used for those slick close-ups around the hoop during the television broadcast. Overhead, a heated matchup between the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors is airing on the jumbotron.
NBA players don’t just show up a few minutes before tipoff, get dressed and play ball. In the modern NBA, game days are elaborate and structured, organized in a way that is designed to foster development, health and peak production. Each player, depending on his playing status and pecking order, uses a three-hour window before tipoff in different ways, going through a scripted routine developed through years of practice and persistence.
Some prefer to work out early. Others late. Some insist on eating the same pregame meal before every game. Others don’t eat at all. Some have to work out with one coach and one coach only. Most go through the same shooting routine, without change, every time. Some even sneak into the Moda Center in the morning for a little private shooting session.
The Blazers’ pregame is detailed down to the minute, with end-of-the-bench players like Pat Connaughton, Jake Layman and Tim Quarterman starting workouts at 4, and veteran players rotating in two at a time every 20 minutes, from 4:40 to 6:20. They work with an assistant coach, sometimes while support staff plays defense, and focus on everything from three-point shooting to ball-handling to post moves. All the while, behind the scenes, players lift weights, watch film, read scouting reports, eat, lay down for a massage and even sit for chapel.
NBA players are creatures of habit. And these habits seem to surface more than any other time on game days.
Game day starts early
The Blazers’ on-court routines prior to tipoff are only a small portion of the game-day process.
“Game days usually start at 8, 9 in the morning,” forward Moe Harkless says. “We come (to the practice facility) for shootaround … we go over film, we go over (opponent’s) sets, get shots up.”
When the players arrive at the practice facility on game days, they stop by the dining area for breakfast, then sit through a film session that usually begins around 10 a.m. After a relatively short look at film, players split up to lift weights, soak in the hot tub, outlast the cold tub and lounge in the steam room. Afterward, they nibble on a prepared lunch, then head home around noon. Before too long, they settle into perhaps the most cherished part of the NBA game-day routine: a nap.
“I get home, obviously take a little time to wind down … probably (fall asleep) about one o’clock,” Damian Lillard said. “I get up at 2:59. I don’t know how it ended up at 2:59, but that’s one of the alarms I have set (on my phone).”
A morning workout, a familiar meal
Late in the morning on most Blazers game days, the quiet stillness of the Moda Center is disrupted by the arrival of Evan Turner and his buddy, Mike. While his teammates prefer a little light shooting at the practice facility during the team’s morning shootaround, Turner has a different routine.
“I just need time to focus by myself,” he said. “Even in college, I was wary of who was in the gym and working out. I needed enough time to just find myself to work on my game. Same type of thing now. A lot of times, it’s better for me to just shoot by myself in an empty gym to kind of get my focus right.”
So after shootaround, Turner, who lives a couple miles from the Moda Center, drives to the arena for a 30-minute shooting session. It’s a luxury he rarely had during stops in Philadelphia and Boston, because those cities share venues with NHL teams, so he appreciates the accessibility Portland offers. Lillard and CJ McCollum steady the Blazers’ offense and have free reign to shoot. If they start slow, they can work themselves into a rhythm during the game. But Turner, who might see six or seven shot attempts, likes to try to get a good feel for his shot well before tipoff.
He drags Mike to the arena to rebound as he hoists a series of pull-up jumpers and midrange shots that mimic those he might get later that night. The goal is to get a “feel for the rims” and get his mind right.
“I just like to get a lot of shots up,” Turner said. “Try to envision somebody in front of me, different scenarios during a game.”
After the session, he hops in the sauna, heads home to relax and — like virtually every player in the NBA — lays down for a pregame nap. When he awakes, he eats a pregame meal. Over the last decade, nutrition has dramatically evolved in the NBA, as teams have embraced the benefits of healthier eating. It used to be commonplace to see Sergio Rodriguez and Patty Mills gnawing on chicken strips and fries in the locker room roughly an hour before a game. Nowadays, outside of a few rookies like Layman and Cliff Alexander, players tend to eat healthier.
A couple of years ago, Meyers Leonard went through a phase where he ate a mammoth omelet before every game. Now he almost always eats the same thing: Grilled chicken, rice and broccoli, all prepared by his private chef. Shabazz Napier doesn’t miss a pregame peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Allen Crabbe mixes up his pregame cuisine, but never goes without eating something in the locker room before a game.
But no one is as particular — or picky — as Turner, who likens his eating habits to those of a 6 year-old. Turner’s favorite food is pizza and he could eat it anytime, anywhere. Sitting at his locker an hour before a recent game, he pointed to a nearby video room and sheepishly admitted, “If there were a slice right there, I would go grab a slice.” But on game days, he forces himself to eat healthy, and that means the same meal every time: Chicken breast, broccoli, asparagus or corn, and potatoes. It has to be plain, without sauces on top, the foods cannot touch and there better not be a white condiment in sight.
“I don’t mess with mayonnaise,” Turner said. “I don’t trust white condiments. I just don’t feel it. I don’t even like looking at them.”
A team chef prepares Turner’s meal at the practice facility and he takes it to go after shootaround, choosing to eat it at home before he leaves for the arena. Even on nights the Blazers don’t play, he sometimes makes a variation of the same meal for himself. “It’s always plain,” he said. “Honestly, I go get a microwavable bag of vegetables and then throw a piece of chicken on the George Forman (Grill). Anything else is a waste of time, because I don’t try new things.”
A time for development
Before Layman arrived in Portland, he had no idea the NBA pregame was so all-consuming and elaborate.
“I thought it was just … guys get here and they play,” the Blazers’ rookie forward said. “I wasn’t expecting this at all.”
Back in the day, he would have been correct, as it was rare for players to arrive to the arena more than an hour or 90 minutes before tipoff. There are stories of exceptions — most notably, legend has it Larry Bird used to regularly hop in a cab and visit road venues up to three-and-a-half hours early for a workout — but it was not commonplace. Things started to shift in the mid-1990s, coach Terry Stotts said, after Tim Grgurich landed in the NBA as an assistant coach with the Seattle SuperSonics.
Grgurich, who coached in college and the NBA for decades — including with the Blazers — and still runs a well-regarded summer camp for big men in Las Vegas, convinced those around him that spending time before games working out was a natural and sensible way to foster individual growth. Before Grgurich, when a player like Bird wanted an early sweat, he’d hop in a cab, talk his way into the arena and make ball boys shag rebounds for him. Now, when the Blazers play on the road, they have three buses that shuttle players, coaches and support staff in waves, departing at 4, 4:40 and 5:10 for games that start at 7.
The youngest players — guys like Layman and Connaughton and Quarterman — are always on the early bus. They start workouts three hours before tipoff, going through a series of 2-on-2 and 1-on-1 competition and other drills that range from working on their jumpers to improving ball-handling to defensive footwork. While Layman might focus on developing a Euro step, Connaughton might work on fine-tuning his midrange floater. Their workouts last twice as long as their teammates (about 40 minutes) and they sometimes run stairs afterward with assistant coaches to stay in shape.
Under President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey and Stotts, the Blazers have excelled at developing draft picks into capable NBA players. From Lillard to McCollum to Crabbe to Will Barton, the Blazers have shown a knack for grooming and nurturing talent. Most of them have spent time riding that first bus and working out in empty arenas across the United States.
“I definitely feel like that time prepared me,” Crabbe said. “When I was a rookie, coaches took me under their wing, taught me the ropes of the league and how to be a pro, even when I wasn’t playing. I learned how to put in the work. Those workouts were my games. I had to go hard. This organization is great when it comes to player development.”
Creatures of Habit
The Blazers claim they are not a superstitious bunch. And maybe they’re telling the truth, since you won’t find lucky charms hanging in the locker room. But like most professional athletes, they are fiercely habitual.
It’s why Lillard sets his alarm for 2:59 p.m. to wake up from his pregame nap. And why Napier eats lunch at exactly 3:15, before leaving the house by 4:15. If it works, players stick with it. If it doesn’t, that part of the pregame routine is likely to disappear forever.
The Blazers are all keenly aware of the rhythm and flow of the game-day process, so players and coaches strictly adhere to the pattern of preparation.
“I just think routines are huge,” Turner said. “Us pros, we’re experts in the game, but we’re also creatures of habit.”
On most game days, Napier is the last player to go through his shooting routine and he says he aims to arrive at the arena at the same time each night, lest he inadvertently mess with any of his teammate’s possible superstitions. The only exception is if he wants a little extra pregame work. Those nights, he shows up about 90 minutes earlier than normal to play full-speed, half-court games with the rest of the Blazers’ young, end-of-the-bench players. But even when he alters a pregame habit, there is one thing that always remains part of his routine: Napier eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, always with grape jelly, before heading out on the court to work out.
“If anything, that’s the only superstitious thing I have,” he says. “I want to have a PB&J.”
Every Blazers player has his own unique quirk and most approach game day like Napier, with an unwavering and familiar routine. Their naps, meal times — even when they arrive at the arena — remain the same virtually every night. In the 396 games Lillard has played in the NBA, he has gone through the same on-court pregame shooting routine with Blazers’ assistant coach David Vanterpool. Only once, during Lillard’s second season at a game in Sacramento, has he switched things up.
“I don’t remember where (Vanterpool) was,” Lillard said. “I think he was sick or something. He wasn’t on the court and me and (assistant coach) Nate (Tibbetts) did the whole shooting routine and I made every shot.”
But once the game started, Lillard inexplicably went ice-cold. He made just 1 of 15 shots and finished with a career-low four points.
“Now Nate won’t come near me during pregame,” Lillard said, laughing. “He won’t touch my ball or nothing.”
As Lillard recalled the story, Tibbetts happened to walk by.
“Never again,” Tibbets said, smiling and shaking his head. “One time … one and done.”
The jelly is always grape and a Blazers coach steers clear of their two-time All-Star point guard during his pregame shooting routine. One could be forgiven for mistaking such habits for superstitions.
Building the routine
Each Blazer has a different on-court routine tailored to their skillset and role. Leonard runs through a series of pick-and-pop jumpers with assistant Jim Moran, Harkless battles Tibbets in the post and Noah Vonleh works on spacing along the baseline, receiving passes from assistant John McCullough.
“Over the course of the season it changes a little bit because you start to know where exactly you’re getting shots at,” Harkless says. “So that’s what you try to focus more on.”
For veterans like Harkless, Leonard and Lillard, they craft their own pregame workout, discuss it with assistant coaches and, together, tweak it as necessary throughout the season. Lillard shoots pull-ups, catch-and-shoot three-pointers and plays some “light” 1-on-1. Leonard spots up around the arc and mixes in mid-range jumpers. Harkless mostly plays one-on-one in the post, before extending out to three-point range.
McCollum’s pregame routine looks a lot like his in-game arsenal. He shoots a bevy of mid-range pull-ups, hoists floaters with both hands and then shoots threes. Last season, he added an elaborate dribbling routine to the mix. McCollum stands at mid-court, alternating two basketballs between his legs and around his back, while Blazers video coordinator Jon Yim slaps at his wrists and leans on him to test his balance.
The functional routines are conceived behind the scenes according to each player’s wishes, then implemented during the 82-game marathon NBA season.
“We just talk about what we want to do and then we do it,” McCollum says. “Now it’s consistent every night.”
— By Joe Freeman and Mike Richman
A behind-the-scenes look at Portland Trail Blazers game day – OregonLive.com