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ONE(S) FOR THE ROAD

The Deets Delivered With Door Dash

For a select few people in every organization, the NBA season begins in August.

With free agency mostly wrapped up and Summer League in the rear-view mirror, much of the league begins to take time off up through and around Labor Day weekend. When the schedule for the upcoming season is released in early-to-mid August, however, those responsible for team logistics, like Miami’s Director of Team Operations Rob Pimental, get to work.

First, Pimental communicates with all the principles on his team and puts down in pencil exactly what they want to do and how they’re going to do it. Do they fly out the night of that mid-January game or do they spend the evening in place and fly in the morning? Once preferences are locked in, it’s time to get in touch with the hotels. Who has what they need, the meetings spaces, the suites, the right room availability? Some hotels they’ve stayed in for over a decade, but every city has potentially complicating events. It all takes months. Typically by mid-October everything is nailed down.

“As we go for trips we nail down who is traveling which trips,” Pimental says. “Start setting up room lists. Start setting up meals.

“Then you just kind of play it by ear and see what happens after that. There’s a lot of moving parts.”

The work is just beginning.

TOUCHDOWN

Nothing impacts a trip quite like the weather. The day of any scheduled flight, Pimental is checking the weather report and making sure the plane is where it should be while communicating with a airline coordinator – who flies with the plane wherever it goes – to make sure there aren’t any unforeseen issues. Charters may be private, but the planes don’t just sit there all hours waiting for a single team.

“The planes fly so much that certain teams,” Pimental says. “They’re dropping off a hockey team then picking you up in the evening. Or dropping off another basketball team. There’s a lot of logistics of, where is the plane at right now, is it here?”

Assuming everything goes smoothly with the flight, each destination begins with the bags. While retrieving checked baggage can be anything but a simple process even for someone traveling by themselves, lone voyagers at least don’t have to sort out an entire airplane’s cargo once they deboard. Weather permitting, personal bags go to their owners on the spot. Team staff huddles around the baggage belt and waits for their personals that they can then transfer to their respective busses. Then the busses take off for the hotel and the equipment staff hangs back to pack up a cube truck that Director of Equipment & Team Facilities Brandon Mango – Mango to everyone on the team – will escort to the hotel and, depending on the timing of the game, later the arena, sometimes returning to the hotel and a bed when the sun is just about to start rising.

If the weather isn’t so good? All the bags go into the truck and team staff can either wait for their bags at the hotel or for the equipment staff to sort through and deliver to their rooms. That takes just a little bit longer, but the worse the weather the less likely everyone is aching to get out and do their own thing.

ALL YOUR BASE

It’s easy to think of equipment as simply everything the players need to get on the court – jerseys, pads, shoes, socks – plus a handful of laptops for the coaching staff and think that’s all anyone needs.

The reality is that moving a team between cities means moving a small village.

In most every city, the team hotel will accommodate with a ballroom or equivalent, and in each one of those the training staff – Vinnie Aquilino and Ian Lackey in the photos above – builds a new temporary home base. That means training tables, massage tables, exercise equipment, the works. Short of the various water treatment options they have in their own home locker room, if the players need it for treatment then its packed up and taken on the trail.

Those ballrooms often double as meal rooms, with specific windows each day for various meals – organized by Director of Sports Nutrition Betsy Berthin – depending on the general travel schedule, that typically includes a buffet plus a pasta bar, a smoothie station and hot waffles and pancakes available upon request. Each hotel has two points of contact, someone from sales and someone who handles on-site service. Some of them Pimental has known for over a decade, and not always at the same locations. Just as support staffers will sometimes move between teams – Assistant Athletic Trainer Jeff Bangs was previously with Washington, for example – hotel employees often transfer from city to city.

“It's funny how small a world they live in, just like us,” Pimental says.

In some situations, those ballrooms even triple as a court. Yes, they’re generally carpeted rooms but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful for a morning walkthrough if getting the entire team off site for a 45-minute meeting during wintery conditions is prohibitive. In those situations you still need reference points for strategy, which means a staffer like Remy Ndiaye gets to lay down some athletic tape at precise, on-court measurements.

And of course there’s a load in at the arena itself. Those lockers don’t fill themselves, and there has to be treatment options available there as well, which means staffers arriving either the night before or the morning of ahead of a shootaround or practice.

Notice how the jerseys are rolled up nicely for transport – roll up your t-shirts, folks, it’ll save you luggage space – rather than being stacked flat? That brings us to maybe the most interesting and the most mundane aspect of the road.

THE BROTHERHOOD

Ever wonder how teams decide which jerseys to wear on which nights? Home teams get first pick, and if they pick their home white uniform then the visitors typically have a slew of alternate choices. There are always marketing and league initiatives to be mindful of, naturally, and there are occasions where teams don’t get to make the choices on their own, but behind the scenes equipment managers are trying to script out the entire season in part to ensure players always have a clean jersey available.

Yes, laundry is a major logistical hurdle. At home all jerseys and gear is collected into large laundry bins – if don’t have your head on a swivel in a postgame locker room you may inadvertently walk into the airborne path of a pair of shorts on their way to a bin – and taken directly to an industrial laundry machine, either at the arena or a practice facility. Relatively simple process. On the road, however, what does one do with all that sweaty gear?

“Back in the old days you had to go to a laundromat,” Pimental says.

Fortunately, that’s not the case anymore. Laundry may be the least glamorous aspect to professional sports – it doesn’t matter where, who or how good you are, dirty clothes are dirty clothes – but it’s the most telling of the relationships between teams. Where does that laundry go on the road? It goes right to the other teams, and when those teams are in Miami the favor is reciprocated.

“[By] the grace of our fellow equipment managers in the home city,” Mango says. “That’s pretty much it. You got me on the road and I’ll get you when you’re here.”

If the HEAT are staying the night in a city, either to play a two-game baseball series or to fly out the next morning, their hosts will take laundry postgame and get it back to them before they fly. If they’re flying out immediately, that laundry comes with the team and the next host picks it up from them at the hotel. It all may be a necessary tradeoff, but nothing tells you more about the closeness of what is a relatively small club than their willingness to take each other’s dirty gear.

“Travel guys stick together. Equipment guys stick together,” Pimental says. “We all stick together. A lot of travel guys used to be equipment guys. You always want to help your brother out.”

And there’s no room for competitive shenanigans.

“We understand the frustrations that everybody has, too,” Mango adds. “It wouldn’t benefit anybody to not help out. We don’t forget something on purpose.”

You look out for the guys wearing your colors, always, but the league doesn’t function the way it does if some staffers aren’t looking out for the guys on the other side, too.

ON CALL

“These are just ‘Oh s***’ shoes for me,” Mango says in his office at Kaseya Center, gesturing behind him at a wall full of footwear.

Shoes are packed up in specialized cases after every road game but they aren’t built to last forever. Shoes can blow out their support systems. A player can be traded while the team is on the road and there may not be enough time to acquire the right footwear for the new acquisition. Pads may get shredded, jerseys torn or accidentally dyed in the wash, and weather might keep a team grounded overnight with not hotel booked.

Pimental and Mango have to have a plan for every eventuality. If they don’t, they need to know how to put one together pretty quickly. Mango has contacts with all the major shoe brands that can get him a pair of above-retail sizes in about 24 hours. Pimental knows exactly who to call when weather gets in the way.

They’re planners first, but they’re also problem solvers. And problems can happen at any moment.

“I’m just a worry wort,” Pimental says. “I stress out about the littlest things because you want everything to be perfect. The one thing I’ve been taught is that nothing is ever going to be perfect, it’s just how you respond. As you get frustrated, like back in the day I would say, ‘Oh ****’ the plane broke down, I take it upon myself like I’m the one who broke it. It is what it is. You just have to roll with it. Everybody goes through it. You keep thinking you’re the only team that goes through certain things, but when you start talking to your counterparts, everybody has had that issue. Everybody has had that day where you just don’t want to do this anymore. But it’s a great job. I don’t think I would want to do anything different.”

It's all bags and boxes on an airplane, but only in the same way that what comes through your television is nothing but wires and lights in a box. Behind even the most taken-for-granted parts of life, there are people who make it work, who make it possible, people whose work allows you to enjoy a game or the show or the movie and not have to think about the logistics that make it all happen.

Before every great, incredible, holy-s***-did-that-just-happen play you’ve ever seen, someone made sure that player had a training room to get ready in, clean clothes to wear and the right shoes to wear. And long after the lights have been turned off, after the players have showered and taken off and the media’s questions are but an echo in the bowels of an arena, someone still has to clean those uniforms, pack up those training tables, sort the shoes and make sure everything gets home safe.