Go-To Guy

Abdenour keeps Pistons operation humming smoothly on the road

Mike Abdenour has been on the Pistons' bench for over 3,000 games during 32 of the last 35 seasons.
D. Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Mike Abdenour’s duties don’t stop when a game starts – and he’s now started more than 3,000 of them. You’ve seen him on Pistons benches alongside coaches for all but three of the last 35 seasons, keeping track of timeouts, fouls, opposition substitutions and the shot clock. But what you see for those 48 minutes is the tip of the iceberg for the Pistons’ trainer.

“Trainer” doesn’t very accurately describe the breadth of Abdenour’s responsibilities. He’s also their travel agent and equipment manager, among a smorgasbord of duties that keep the operation running smoothly. And when the Pistons embark on an eight-day trip that takes them to four cities all about 2,000 miles from home, Abdenour is the nerve center of the trip.

He’s the conduit between the basketball operations department and the flight crew for Roundball Three, for the ground transportation the Pistons require when they land at airports or need to be shuttled to and from their hotel and for lodging. He’s the guy responsible for making sure the Pistons have a place to practice when they’re away from home and the one who had better have an extra pair of shoes at the ready if somebody blows one out.

When Roundball Three, put in service just this season with its greater capacity than Roundball Two, was loaded and ready for takeoff Monday, Abdenour sent Joe Dumars an e-mail: I think we just set a record for the amount of cargo for a road trip.

“The beauty of our new plane is it holds more,” Abdenour said Thursday after the Pistons practiced at UCLA and he had gotten all the equipment loaded off the bus and made sure the bellman at the team hotel had it safely en route to his room. “It has two cargo bays. The forward cargo bay was completely packed and half of the aft cargo bay was packed. And I can tell. When they start unloading that truck and the luggage is on the street, there’s a lot of luggage that’s got to be moved to a lot of places.”

The process for Abdenour starts in August, when the NBA released the league schedule.

He maps everything out in a master travel calendar after consultation with the head coach. For this trip, one of the decisions that needed to be made was whether to fly from Portland to Los Angeles immediately after the game on Tuesday night – the Pistons weren’t scheduled to play again until Friday night against the Clippers – or spend the night in Portland.

“This particular trip we planned out in August and the four games in seven days that we’re on has a weird aspect to it,” he said. “You never spend more than a day in a particular city when you’re not playing. Here in Los Angeles, we’re spending two extra days, which means you’ve got to bring an extra set of practice gear, you’ve got to find extra gym space. You’re out of the routine, on top of the fact you’re out of town as long as you are. So it has some challenges, along with the fact that you’re making changes on the fly simply because as you examine the trip, once you get into it, some of the details you thought were going to be OK in August aren’t OK in November. So you have to make changes as you go.”

Abdenour has seen the NBA transition from a mom-and-pop league dependent on commercial airliners to a 21st century behemoth of private jets and shiny new areans.

In some ways, though, he says it was easier to manage in the days before teams had their own private jets.

“The old-timers among us will comment about the fact that when we won our first championship in Los Angeles and our second one in Portland, there were 19 people on the plane and you didn’t travel with the magnitude of equipment you do now. Times have changed. Back in the day, guys carried their own practice gear, carried their own shoes and in some cases carried their own uniforms.

“All you basically did was carry a medical kit, a couple of other as-needed pieces of equipment. There were 12 players, two coaches, a broadcaster and myself. You traveled with 16 people. That was easy travel. There were no trucks, no extra buses.”

Despite the best planning, not everything goes off like clockwork. When the Pistons were returning from Miami after their Oct. 5 preseason opener – with Jonas Jerebko and Terrico White having been injured and requiring medical attention on the plane – Abdenour was making contingency plans for the team to turn back from the airport to a hotel when there was a minor mechanical issue with the plane.

“It’s 12:30 at night, you’re in the middle of nowhere at an airport nowhere near any kind of major civilization,” he said. “How do you get your bus to get you back to a hotel that you have absolutely no reservations for? That’s where you burn your battery on the cell phone.

“The grief, you try to reduce it. You know there are going to be snafus along the way, but you try to reduce them as much as possible. I hate it. I know the coaches hate it. I know Joe (Dumars) hates it. I know the team hates it when you have to wait an unusually long period of time. Now, if the bus is at the gate but security won’t let them on, I can’t do much about that. But if the bus just doesn’t show up, that’s a problem, or if you walk into a hotel and the rooms are all messed up … that’s why you try to make sure all the ducks are in a row before you even get on that airplane.”

The all-time worst experience?

“The worst that’s ever happened was Joe’s rookie year (1985-86),” he said. “We had the trip from hell out on the West Coast. We were inundated with fog from the third day of the trip to the end of an eight-day trip. For five days, we saw nothing but fog. We played in Sacramento at the start of the trip. We couldn’t get out of Sacramento to get up to Seattle. To make a very long story short, we had to fly into Portland and rented cars for the guys to drive up to Seattle on a game day.

“We walked into the arena like two hours after we had gotten there, played and won a game. We broke like a five-game winning streak, but couldn’t get out the next day. We sat at Sea-Tac for eight hours before the league decided to pick up the price for two jets to charter us from Seattle. We played in Seattle on a Friday night and had to play a Sunday afternoon game in New York City. I walked into the hotel at 4 o’clock in the morning only to leave at 11 for a 1 o’clock game. We ended up losing that game by four. That was the trip from hell.”

After the Pistons play the Clippers in Los Angeles on Friday night, they’ll get on a bus that will deliver them to Roundball Three for a flight that will get them into Sacramento in the wee hours of Saturday morning. From there, a bus will whisk them to their hotel, where players will soon find their luggage waiting for them in their rooms. They won’t have to give anything else a second thought. Because Mike Abdenour started planning for this trip three months ago.