The life of an NBA ball boy
|Our friends at Versus have launched a new show called Sports Jobs featuring former NFL star Junior Seau, where he travels the sports world in search of the toughest jobs in sports.
In the NBA, that distinction has to go to the Ball Boys.
Every NBA team has a staff of pimple-faced kids who sit courtside with the players and tend to their needs on the bench. From a distance that seems like a basketball junkies' dream job, but the actual duties of the Ball Boy often make the job anything but a dream.
Ball Boys pledge to keep what they see and hear inside the locker room to themselves; however, HOOPSWORLD recently caught up with a veteran Ball Boy who we'll call "Jack" for the purpose of preserving his identity, the condition under which he spoke with us.
"Jack" works for one of the larger Eastern Conference teams and shared some details about being a Ball Boy in the NBA.
"When we get here [around 4:00pm] we usually open up the locker room," explained Jack. "We set out towels. Make a few ice bags. Put out game notes for the team. We wait for the bus to get here. It usually comes anywhere from 4:15 to 5:30 for a 7:00 game. Once the players get in, we generally run any errands for them that they need."
As the buses trickle in, the Ball Boys attend to helping with ticket requests and game passes and fetching whatever the players may want pre-game.
"Food is primarily the big thing in the locker room," explained Jack. "Getting them whatever we have on hand food wise… Chicken tenders. That's the big thing."
Ball Boys get all manner of food requests from the normal batch of chicken fingers and fries to salads and fruit. Not all requests are normal, and not all requests are reasonable.
"Strangest request? I went to the Cheesecake Factory a couple weeks ago," revealed Jack. "I thought it was going to be for one order for a player and it was for the whole team. [The Player] asked if I'd take his order for the Cheesecake Factory, in my head I'm trying to figure it out if I can get to the Cheesecake Factory and back before the game is over, so I am thinking I can do it. But as I am taking his one order he tells me to ask the whole team for their order, so I had to let the whole team order and place this big $500 order. I got it done, but it made for a stressful evening."
When they are not tending to the needs of players, Ball Boys tend to handle most of the grunt work for the team's training staff.
"Before the game we make a handful of ice bags," explained Jack of his pre-game process. "We put out heat packs for the players to keep the muscles warm. They have their [pre-game] meeting, we leave. After their meeting, we straighten up the locker room a little bit.
"Once we're out on the court, we're keeping the game uniforms out there. We'll take stuff back to the locker room that they don't need, whether it's a shooting shirt, a jacket or warm up pants.
"I put out drinks at halftime, heat packs. The heat packs and drinks are put right in the middle of the room. There are only one or two teams that want a heat pack or towel and a water at each locker."
Ball Boys tend to have the best seat in the house sitting on the floor next to the players during games, but they are not just spectators. They have a job to do.
"The guys on the floor pretty much decide who is going to get up and follow the player to the half court line when they are taking their warm-ups off, " explained Jack. "The guys will decide who is going to do that for the night. The other guys will be folding uniforms and make sure the guys coming out of the game have their uniform, a towel and a water."
Once a game concludes the glamor parts of the job fade away fast.
"Players after the game have their post-game meeting," details Jack. "When that's over, we go in and we start to help pick up all the sweaty uniforms. Jocks. Underwear, whatever it takes. I am really thankful for the guy that developed rubber gloves - it's a big help... Yes, we have rubber gloves on.
"We pack up the uniforms," explains Jack. "We count them all and make sure we have everything. Shoes, we pack up all the shoes... One of the main things after the game is what the jersey and short count is, whether it is 13, 14 or 15. They give us a number and we have to have that number or somebody is in trouble. If something is missing we have to find it.
"Some of these guys, when they are changing, they will throw their shorts. Sometimes it looks like a bomb went off in the locker room after a game. There are clothes everywhere, we have to get it in nice neat piles and then count everything up and pack everything up and take all the bags out to the truck or bus, load it, and get them out of here."
Once the equipment is accounted for, the real fun of the job begins.
"When the players leave and get on the bus we clean up all the towels on the floor, and the most 'fun part' I guess would be the shower. That's always exciting. Picking up the wraps and washcloths and trying not to slip and fall in that filthy mess. We clean up all that nonsense."
Ball Boys do to get some perks. For one, they get to see the inner workings of the game, and it's no surprise that the teams that tend to have the most success on the floor on game night, tend to be the most organized and prepared.
"Most prepared?" recalls Jack. "You think of teams and it kind of translates into who they are. Like the San Antonio Spurs are so professional. Everything is so smooth in the locker room and it almost translates onto the court with their whole organization. They are a real professional organization. The Lakers. They really have their stuff together."
Ball Boys also see and hear what's said before and after games, especially after tough losses.
Raw emotions tend to boil over in the locker room, however player-on-player disputes are pretty rare, but coach-on-player altercations are far more common.
"Not players. I have never witnessed that," revealed Jack. "The closest thing that I saw to a very heated 'discussion' was Avery Johnson and Jason Terry a couple of years ago. Very heated. I would say that was pretty intense."
While there are clearly some nasty parts of being a Ball Boy, most of the guys do it for the environment and the life style.
"The best part of the job is having some kind of rapport with some of the players," explained Jack. "Being able to tell what kind of music they are listening to on their iPod, listening to their basic conversations in the locker room - sometimes they are talking about the schools they went to, when they are talking about the college football season and the college basketball season . . . they get so into it!
"If there is a big event like the World Series or the Super Bowl or playoffs they are so engaged; they have these conversations that you would have with your buddies."
Not all players are easy to work with, but the cream of the crop doesn't contain many surprise names.
"Grant Hill is one of the best," explained Jack. "Shaquille O'Neal is a great guy. Chauncey Billups is an awesome guy to be around. Dwyane Wade is great."
For the most part players understand what the Ball Boys are there to do and tend to treat them decently, but as you'd expect there are a few that are not as fun as some of the others.
"I wouldn't say they are tough to work for, they're just not as approachable," revealed Jack. "They are not guys you'd be surprised about - your Iversons, your Rasheed Wallaces. Not as approachable as you'd like. Most of the guys are pretty good to us, they understand we have a job to do and we just try and stay out of their way."
The pay scale for Ball Boys is not very impressive, some make as little as $100 a game if they are paid at all.
"From what I have heard, it is different in different cities. Some teams pay their ball boys, some don't pay their ball boys, and some teams pay them with a couple tickets in the upper bowl."
Every NBA team handles the recruitment of Ball Boys differently, some do open try-outs, while some hire friends and family members of other staffers.
The lifeblood of the Ball Boys are the tips they receive from players. Some of the best tips come from retrieving phone numbers from the attractive ladies in the stands.
"I have had some really big tips over the years," revealed Jack. "Those pizza runs, Cheesecake Factory runs ... those have bought many things around my house. The big tips are great.
"It's pretty much like being a bellman at a hotel. Taking care of whatever they need, most of the time we can do it, on occasion we can't... It is tough, they are never told no.
"I hate to tell them we're out of french fries," joked Jack. "I rarely say no, if I do, I say 'hey we can't do it', but I cringe because I know it's going to hurt my tip fund."
The amount of money players tip Ball Boys varies greatly, and a lot of it has to do with the players themselves, not always the strangeness of their requests.
"It's different every game," said Jack. "From the guys that don't get it that tip $5 to the guys that do get it and tip us a $100 for going and getting them chicken fingers and fries. It depends on how some of these guys are raised and taught. Some are amazing tippers some are not."
The next time you're watching a game, and you think about how cool it would be to be the guy sitting next to Kobe Bryant on the bench or following him to scorer's table when he checks in, keep Jack in mind. He's not just folding his warm-up jacket, he's also cleaning up after Kobe in the shower, and that's likely the least glamorous job in the league.
Don't forget to check out Sports Jobs with Junior Seau on Versus December 9 at 11:30 p.m. ET to get details on other tough jobs in the sports world.
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