On the outside, it looks like a normal passenger plane. A stripe across the top and the tail are painted light maroon. Across the middle of the gray body, "NORTHWEST" is spelled in white. But on the inside, there's nothing normal about these accommodations.
The first part of the cabin features first-class seats that recline like your favorite Barca Lounger, with almost 7 feet between each row of seats. Twelve rows back and there are two card tables surrounded by four swivel chairs. Behind the tables, there are two 21-inch flat-screen televisions and more first-class seats. In the back, there's an 8-foot-long sofa.
During the season, Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett are among players on 13 NBA teams that share six planes with identical interiors, part of the NBA's charter plane program.
As the game became more popular in the late '80s, waiting at gates and boarding commercial flights was no longer a comfortable option for the league's players, who didn't care to be bombarded by photo takers and autograph seekers.
The NBA was forced to be at the forefront of team travel because its players were stepping on planes almost twice as much as Major League Baseball players and more than five times more than NFL players. Only the NHL compares with the NBA in the frequency of trips their teams make over the course of a season.
In the NBA, some owners bought their own planes, while others -- who didn't want to make the colossal investment or care for overnight stays after a late game -- used charter companies or contracted with different airlines throughout the course of the season.
Before the 1996-97 season, NBA commissioner David Stern, as well as several team owners, expressed concern over the disorganized state of team travel. There were gaping disparities between the league's 29 teams. Some traveled in luxury indulgences, while other teams were flying on planes with bare-bone accommodations and operated by companies teetering on bankruptcy.
"It's fair to say that we were concerned over who the teams were flying with," said Robert Criqui, the NBA's vice president of finance who heads up the program. "So we decided to get involved in order to give the teams the security that they needed, since the assets that they have in the players are obviously so valuable."
A year later, the NBA signed a seven-year deal with GE Capital, among the world's largest lessor of commercial aircraft. The league would lease the planes, which would be operated and serviced by Northwest Airlines. During the season, the Boeing 727-200's, which normally hold 160 passengers, would be luxuriously reconfigured and would have only 56 seats. After the season was over, the NBA-leased planes would be returned to its normal passenge reconfiguration and rented from the NBA by Northwest for a four-month period.
|Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he was so fed up with airplane food that he bought his own Boeing 757.|
In the program's first year, seven teams, including the Lakers, Clippers, Spurs, Pacers, Rockets, Nuggets and Warriors, were part of the program. Since then, mostly as a result of ownership changes and aging individual team planes, an average of two teams a year have joined the program.
The program also serves as a contingency plan should teams experience problems with their own planes. On March 14, an unknown object was sucked into one of the engines on the Sonics' 727-200 during takeoff in Everett, Wash. The plane landed safely in Milwaukee, but since the plane needed repairs, the team was forced to temporarily switch to the NBA's charter flights. Because the plane was not part of the team's sale to Starbucks owner Howard Schultz, which was finalized on March 30, the Sonics have returned to the NBA's charter program for the final three road games of the season.
Criqui declined to divulge differences between the costs of the charter program and teams that have private planes. James Clarke, a former vice president of GE Capital who was instrumental in negotiating the deal with the NBA, said the costs between the two were "comparable" because the league leases its planes and pays higher service costs from Northwest than an average charter company.
At least three of the NBA's planes were once part of Eastern Airlines' fleet and were built during the late '70s and early '80s. While the safety records of those planes are unclear due to the "boxes of maintenance papers that suddenly disappeared" when Eastern Airlines was shuttered by bankruptcy, Clarke said the planes were stripped and completely repaired to meet GE Capital and Northwest standards.
Fortunately, the league's relationship with Northwest has been marked by few incidents over the past four years, according to Bill Wernecke, manager of Northwest's charter department. Wernecke said the company has maintained an on-time performance of 97 percent over the life of its relationship with the NBA.
If there's one major complaint, it seems to be -- surprise, surprise -- the food. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said that there's little regard for the professional athlete's nutritional requirements.
"Players have to work harder to overcome plane food," said Cuban, who offered up the menu of breaded chicken stuffed with blue cheese and apple pie on a travel day in mid-February when the Mavericks traveled to play the Lakers in Los Angeles.
That's one of the reasons why Cuban's team will be abandoning the league's program next year for their own plane -- which is scheduled to be ready by next season. Cuban said he will have a team nutritionist determine the individual requirements of each player before a meal is prepared.
At the start of the program, the idea was to have teams choose to order from restaurants in each of the 28 cities, but only eight or nine cities have restaurants that have been approved by the Food and Drug Adminsitration for traveling across state lines, Wernecke said.
Teams currently in the NBA Charter Program:
Golden State Warriors
Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles Lakers
San Antonio Spurs
*for the remainder of the 00-01 season
"If Shaq got sick on the plane from bad food from some rinky dink restaurant in L.A. that's not FDA-certified, we'd get torched in the press," he said. "It's just not something we're willing to risk."
But food issues shouldn't overshadow credit for the well-oiled machine that the NBA's charter program has become. In a four-year period of time, the program has undoubtedly revolutionized high-profile professional league travel.
And don't think the other leagues aren't taking notice.
Four NHL teams -- the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild -- already are involved with the NBA's charter program.
The NHL is currently working on a similar program, according to Frank Brown, the league's vice president of media relations. "We are looking into all aspects of it, but it is a work in progress at this point," he said.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|'If Shaq got sick on the plane from bad food from some rinky dink restaurant in L.A. that's not FDA-certified, we'd get torched in the press,' Northwest Airlines' Bill Wernecke said.||
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