Low-budget fun on Mercury road trip

The most interesting thing about hitting the road with the Phoenix Mercury? Finding out it is exceedingly ordinary.

Go ahead and picture luxury bus rides, private charters, side-door entrances for these professional athletes. It's not happening.

The Mercury headed out last week for a one-game trip to Seattle and made their way through the airport, looking pretty much like all the other summer travelers -- but taller.

For many of these players, the WNBA barely resembles the travel experience they had in college.

"We chartered everywhere at Tennessee," Mercury guard Alexis Hornbuckle said.

"Yeah, we chartered at Maryland, too," second-year forward Lynetta Kizer said.

WNBA teams fly commercial, booking flights through airlines, paying baggage fees, sitting through delays and scrambling after cancellations like most of the traveling public.

And no first-class tickets here. Players, coaches and staff fly coach, folding long legs and arms into small seats.

"It's annoying sometimes," Hornbuckle said.

Mercury president Amber Cox recalled the day after the team won the WNBA championship in 2007 in Detroit. The next morning, their nonstop flight from Detroit to Phoenix was canceled and the entire team had to be rebooked on a connection through Chicago, all the while lugging the WNBA championship trophy in a large carry-on bag.

She remembers it with a smile.

Lugging bags is a theme here. While the staff helps players get their bags loaded onto the buses that take them from the airport and to the hotel, players pull their own bags off the baggage carousel and through the airport.

And unlike their college days, there are no structured team meals and curfews. Free time is indeed free time for dinner, rest, meeting up with friends, shopping. The players' time on the road is largely is their own.

"I love the travel," rookie Brittney Griner said. "It makes me feel like a professional athlete."

Travel day

11 a.m., practice: It starts on the practice court at U.S. Airways Arena, prepping for Thursday night's game in Seattle. The usual group of male practice players is on the floor, helping out with scout team offense and defense.

Pop star Bruno Mars is in concert at the arena Wednesday night and the halls are full of roadies and crates with concert equipment, the stage being erected on the floor while the Mercury practice.

Charde Houston, for one, wanted to go to the show.

"Yeah, I'm bummed," Houston said.

Kizer, meanwhile, wasn't as worried about it.

"Bruno Mars, seriously?" she asked.

The players don't get to attend many of the summer concerts at their home arena. Problem is, the big acts come when the arena is free, and that usually means the team is on the road.

Practice ends at 12:20 p.m. and it's paycheck day, a team staffer handing out pay stubs and sponsor checks as the players head into the locker room to finish packing.

1:15 p.m., bus leaves for the airport: The team bus is parked out at the curb behind the arena instead of in its usual spot in the tunnel. Mars' phalanx of tour buses are parked where the players usually board.

But it's better than it was a few weeks ago when the circus was in town -- literally -- and the parking ramp was used to house the animals. The smell lingered for a couple of weeks.

The players trickle on to the bus, heading toward the back. A few are going to meet the team at the airport.

As the bus pulls away, a voice is heard from the back: "Love you, Bruno."

1:30 p.m., bus arrives at Sky Harbor Airport: As the bus arrives, team trainer/equipment manager/travel coordinator Tamara Poole is waiting at the curb at Terminal 2. She already has worked with the ticket agent at the airline and paid for baggage fees, and is handing out boarding passes as the players get off.

Kizer, Griner and Houston are waiting as well, having come separately.

Kizer had to run home before heading to the airport because she forgot something: her plush Maryland throw blanket. It has gone everywhere with her since her freshman year of high school.

"She has a blankie," Hornbuckle said.

Kizer threw it around her neck, not caring even a little about the ribbing she would take.

"I take it everywhere," she said.

Cox has started calling Kizer "Linus," after the Peanuts character who carried a blanket wherever he went.

Players check in one by one and then scatter to get through security and grab a bite to eat before they get to the gate. Team staffers stay behind to check in the rest of the baggage.

In one of the quieter terminals at Sky Harbor, the players sit in the gate area, eating or chatting quietly, many wearing their headphones.

Poole has been talking to the gate agents about arranging for an exit-row seat for the 6-foot-8 Griner and 6-foot-4 Krystal Thomas. She manages to get one for each of them, but they are middle seats.

The 3:15 p.m. flight takes off on time and lands 10 minutes early in Seattle.

6 p.m., arrival in Seattle: The team arrives at Sea-Tac Airport and makes its way through the terminal toward baggage claim as fellow travelers stop and watch. A few recognize Griner.

Griner is the first one to help pull bags off the carousel. Star guard Diana Taurasi grabs her bag and she and Mercury coach Corey Gaines head out, getting picked up at the airport separately by friends.

The rest of the team walks to the bus, Kizer with her blanket draped over her shoulder. Cox grabs the blanket and tries to run by Kizer, who catches her quickly.

"Her big ol' hands grabbed it away," Cox said with a laugh.

Assistant coach Julie Hairgrove said the Mercury have had good traveling luck so far this season. The biggest delay has been a mere 30 minutes. It has not always been that way. Traveling on the East Coast in the summer comes with its share of weather-related issues. And there is still one big East Coast trip left on the schedule.

"So far it's been really smooth," Hairgrove said.

As the bus arrives at the team hotel, Poole hops out first and heads to the table where room keys are waiting, along with snacks, fruit, energy bars and water.

Once the players grab their room keys, they are free for the night. Dinner and a good night's sleep are on the schedule for most.

Taurasi is already out with former Connecticut teammate and close friend Sue Bird, who lives in Seattle but is sitting out this season with the Storm because of an injury.

"Ten years coming here and I told Sue, 'Tonight, we need to eat somewhere we have never eaten before,'" Taurasi said. They ended up having sushi.

Game day

10:30 a.m., bus leaves for Key Arena: As the players board the bus for the pregame shootaround, a small crowd is gathered outside on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, fans holding pictures and magazine covers featuring Griner. She signs them all before hopping on board.

The bus arrives at Key Arena and the players wait in the locker room for the Storm to finish their shootaround before heading to the court to warm up -- and give one another a hard time.

As practice ends, rookie Jasmine James comes out and asks the coaches if they are able to leave their shoes behind in the Storm locker room until they return for the game. She says Taurasi told her to ask.

The coaches chuckle. Taurasi already knows the answer is yes. She's just having a little fun with the rookie.

Noon, head back to the hotel: After a short trip back to the hotel, the players are told the bus will leave for the game at 4:45 p.m. As they return to the hotel, many head out for a quick lunch, and for some, it's time for their regular pregame routine.

"I'm going to go to the hotel room, take a shower, a two-hour nap, wake up, have some coffee, a bowl of cereal and get on the bus," Taurasi said. "Same thing every time."

Taurasi is the most veteran traveler on the team. Ten years in the league, plus her extensive international experience, have left her with a bit of a seen-it-all perspective.

"I like traveling," Taurasi said. "But I like sleeping in my own bed better."

4:45 p.m., bus to the game: Thomas is the first player on the bus, at about 4:25 p.m. She's just dropping her stuff because her pregame routine is to take a two-hour nap that ends exactly three hours before tipoff and then grab a sandwich before the game.

"I scout out the places ahead of time where I know I can get something fast," Thomas said.

She is back in minutes. The rest of the team boards -- Griner with a chocolate sprinkled doughnut she calls her "energy drink" -- and the bus pulls away, making a left turn into the middle of a protest blocking the intersection that leads to Key Arena.

The protest is over increasing the minimum wage and a group of about 100 people are circling with signs in the middle of the street, and traffic is backed up in every direction.

The bus driver finds a police officer to help guide the bus backward down the busy street while the players go to the back window to watch.

The delay costs the Mercury about 15 minutes, easily made up when they arrive at the arena and jump right into their pregame preparation.

Gaines said he trusts his players to figure out their own routines on the road.

"You don't want to force anything on them," he said. "The young players figure it out. Usually, I just push them toward a veteran."

That's exactly how Houston said she learned how to be a professional athlete on the road.

"Follow somebody who has been around for a while and do what they do," Houston said. "And then I started doing things on my own."