On The Road With The Nets

By Cory Wright

Beneath the stands at Amway Center in Orlando, the Brooklyn Nets huddle together. It’s a pre-game ritual, everyone close together, hands in the middle, a prayer and a pep talk.

“Brooklyn on three. One, two, three…”

“Brooklyn” is said in unison then they break and run down the tunnel to the court. This isn’t unique to the road, but when there’s a hostile crowd surrounding you, that moment together fosters a tangible sense of solidarity.

“I love it,” Sean Kilpatrick said. “You do have that us-against-the-world mentality on the road. I think it’s good. It brings the whole team together. It makes it to the point where it’s the only thing that we have is us.”

Orlando isn’t filled to capacity, but it’s still loud on a Friday night. The Nets are within shouting distance of fans in the first seven rows. Some people want to throw shade, but that’s just part of the deal. And for players who see themselves as scrappy underdogs like Kilpatrick, Jeremy Lin and even rookie Caris LeVert, it serves as motivation.

“For me I’ve always liked road games more than home games because of that,” LeVert said. “I thrive being an underdog, when people are betting against you. I’ve always liked that.”

The road keeps everyone together as one tight group. So it’s fitting that the rally cry changes two nights later when the Nets huddle up at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

“Together on three. One, two, three...”

“Together.”

Life on the Road:

There’s nothing quite like being on an NBA road trip.

You’re flying from city to city in a private charter to play basketball. You stay at nice hotels, you eat good food and you’re surrounded by your teammates. It’s a blessing to be on a trip and experience that doesn’t – or at least shouldn’t – get old.

Perhaps no one values the air travel and the ritzy lodgings more than the former D-Leaguers. Sean Kilpatrick still remembers the long bus trips and stopping at Wawa to get snacks. Life is a little different eating salmon at cruising altitude.

“You don’t have to worry about being on a bus for 12 hours now,” Kilpatrick said.

This exclusive experience doesn’t come without a lot of hard work and sacrifice and even on the road, the work doesn’t let up. There are still workouts, practices, shootarounds and team meetings. Even a trip to the pool in Orlando serves a performance purpose.

On the road, the team is together almost all the time, whether it’s eating team meals, bussing to games or flying to the next city. That time together helps to reinforce the foundation they’re building at home.

“You see everyone cracking jokes on one another and that’s a part of team building,” Kilpatrick said.

The Nets’ recent multiple-game trip took them as far south as Orlando, north to Toronto, with a stop in Philadelphia in between. It is these late night flights, morning shootarounds – these stretches of time and miles in which personalities surface, bonds among teammates strengthen, and team character is defined.

The Road Takes Rondae Home:

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson runs back out to the court in street clothes after the Nets-76ers game on Sunday night. There are about 80 people – friends, family and coaches – waiting to see him in the stands because it was the Chester, Penn. native’s first pro game playing in Philadelphia as last year’s homecoming was put on hold due to injuries.

The team bus leaves at 9:15, so he’s got maybe 25 minutes to see everyone – roughly 19 seconds a person, enough time to dap up and take a picture. The looming bus deadline has the laid back rookie a little tense as he attempts to thank everyone for coming out, but really, too much love is a good problem to have.

“It was good just to be there and see my family and friends and their support,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It was good just to see them there for me and I was excited.”

Brooklyn is only a couple hours away, but Hollis-Jefferson said his grandmother and others can’t make the trip to Barclays Center, so it was a meaningful game for Hollis-Jefferson.

“It was kind of like a sweet moment,” he said. “My mom was there, my grandma was there – she can’t really travel, so it meant a lot.”

The one-night stay in Philadelphia was the shortest stop for the Nets on the three-game trip, but Hollis-Jefferson said he was happy from touch-down to take-off. He wears his pride for Chester on his shoulders, the city’s name tattooed across them. It’s where he delivered two state championships in high school, continues to support the community and recently Instagram-ed a video of himself dancing at a pep rally. He’s proud of it all and on Sunday night, they showed how proud they were of him.

“Just to be at the game and hear them chanting your name and cheering you on, it was just amazing,” Hollis-Jefferson said.

Luis Scola, the most popular man in Toronto:

Luis Scola and Anthony Bennett receive a similar treatment to Rondae’s homecoming when they’re back in Toronto. Bennett, a Toronto native, has already experienced the homecoming several times over and even suited up in 19 games for the Raptors last season. It’s still a cool experience. Fans yell for him during pre-game warmups and he gets some attention from local media.

Scola, on the other hand, is returning to Toronto for the first time since playing for the Raptors last season. The 6’9 Argentinian doesn’t have a big family contingent in the crowd per se, but he looks like one of the most popular guys in the building on Tuesday. Scola comes out early to chat up former coaches and athletic trainers from the Raptors and a few media members and crew guys seek him out by the Nets locker room. One guy tells him he still can’t believe he’s not back and that he misses his presence around the arena. Scola – who started his first game as a Net that night – felt honored by the behind-the-scenes reception.

“It was fun. It was a fun year last year. On the court, off the court, I had a chance to come back and remember all that and see a lot of people who treated me really, really well,” Scola said after the game. “I had a smile on my face every day when I was here and I had a smile on my face today again. Just got a chance to see them and catch up with them for at least a couple of minutes.”

End of the Road:

Ultimately, this trip doesn’t end the way the Nets planned. The team goes 0-3, losing a pair of close games in Orlando and Philadelphia before falling into a hole early in a loss to the Division-leading Raptors.

Coach Atkinson said the compete level wasn’t where it needs to be, which could be a symptom of playing the last game on a trip. The Nets have been on the move since Thursday, travelling 2800 miles by air and the constant travel takes a toll. It’s hard to describe, but time feels stretched out on the road, so the fatigue at the end of a trip may be more mental than physical.

Traffic on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway and a customs check at Pearson International Airport delay takeoff until almost 12:30 a.m., so the team doesn’t land at home and really split up until closer to 2 a.m.ET. The team gets Wednesday off, but this is still the less glamorous side of travelling.

But even in the tired moments, it’s hard to lose focus of how special the road experience really is.

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