If you read my last entry, you know that this has been a typical road trip for the Lakers on the court (3-0 with another game today in Detroit), but anything but normal off of it. What happened last night after the win in New Jersey kept that theme alive.
When we woke up in our New York City hotel on Saturday morning, the news reports were fast and furious about an approaching Winter storm. A blanket of snow was heading for New Jersey just before tip off, and was expected to pound the entire Tri-State area for a good two days. Immediately, that put Gary Vitti, the Lakers' Athletic Trainer and de-facto Traveling Secretary into damage control.
Of course, whether or not we flew to Detroit after the game as scheduled wouldn't be up to Vitti, or anybody else who works for the Lakers. That decision belongs to the FAA, which controls all air travel in the entire country. Once they cancel your flight, you're forced to go to plan B.
For the Lakers, this wasn't as easy as it sounds. Not only was air travel a problem, but just driving on the roads was dangerous. The Lakers had to prepare as if their flight would be grounded, because almost every airline had canceled all flights out of New York and New Jersey starting at around 5 pm. It helped that the Lakers used a private charter company, because that meant they only had to get one plane in the air, which is a lot easier that dealing with thousands of passengers. Still, the snow was coming down and things didn't look good.
The Lakers looked into multiple scenarios:
--They could go back to their New York City hotel and spend the night there. That would force them to bus back to Manhattan from Jersey in a snowstorm, which certainly wasn't ideal.
--They could try to find hotel rooms near the Newark airport, and spend the night there. That would keep the team closer to the airport and avoid the roads, but also was a logistical nightmare since trying to find 40 rooms the weekend before Christmas is never easy.
Of course either scenario was dependent on the storm clearing by morning, allowing the team to fly to Detroit the next day. This was by no means a certainty. Early Saturday evening, Phil Jackson told me that he had never missed a game as a coach due to the weather, but it was looking like a real possibility.
Throughout the game, the writers who regularly cover the team began to receive word that all of their commercial flights had been canceled. Even worse, many were told that they wouldn't be able to get out of the Tri-State area until Tuesday. None of the five writers who are regularly on the beat--Mike Bresnahan and Brad Turner from the LA Times; Kevin Ding from the Orange Country Register, Elliott Teaford from the LA Daily News; or Jeff Eisenberg from the Riverside Press-Enterprise are expected to make it to Detroit in time for the game. If that happens, it will be the first time in my eight years of traveling with the Lakers that no beat writer has been in attendance at a Lakers game.
But the Lakers checked with their charter company, who continued to remain hopeful that the team's flight after the game would go off as scheduled. By the time the final buzzer sounded, we knew this would be close. The snow had arrived and showed no signs of letting up. But the pilots were experienced and at 10:30 EST, they made the call: the flight would go off as scheduled.
I asked everybody from Phil Jackson to Joel Meyers if they had ever flown in conditions as bad as this, and they all said no. It took us over an hour just to drive the 12 miles from the arena to the airport, and another 45 minutes to de-ice the plane. But these guys somehow got the flight in the air, and landed in Detroit at around 3 AM. By the time the Lakers arrived at the hotel and hit their beds, it was after 4 in the morning.
Since the Pistons game is an early start--6 pm EST and 3 pm in LA--Phil Jackson canceled their scheduled practice and will instead do a walk-through in a hotel ballroom.
The Pistons aren't a great team this year, but if the Lakers win, they won't just be beating Detroit. They'll be 1-0 against Mother Nature.