Athletes fly a lot. A very lot. So much so that they probably "befriend" a few flight attendents throughout the season (if you know what I mean, and I'm sure you do).
Not all sports are created equal in this regard. NFL players typically fly twice a week if it’s a road game: one there, one back. If Goodell succeeds, his players would have to fly once more a year (which isn't a huge deal in terms of time, but the possibility of extra injuries present real problems). In a few years, they might even have to fly to London, which is a bigger deal because jet lag will become an even larger factor (a phenomenon I’ll mention a bit later).
Baseball players travel extensively, sure; they play 162 games, after all. But those games are divided into series, which keeps players in a given city for at least a few days while the series progresses.
But NBA players fall into the “mix” category of the two previous configurations of professional team travel. They travel every day and sometimes play on successive nights. But what do these constant cross-country treks do to players? Their teams? Their play? Their psychology?
Teams feel comfortable here. They know the quickest route to the arena; they know their pre-game routine probably won't get disrupted. They know (or hope, at least) die-hard opposing fans won't prank call their hotel rooms at 2am.
The home fans will cheer them (probably). At least in their introduction (...probably). Anyway, there’s a good chance they’ll receive a significant deal of support at their home environment.
Getting on the Plane
Here begins the complications of a hectic travel schedule. Consider the numerous possibilities for delays: bus to the airport arrives late, plane arrives late, player arrives late (Ron Artist, whose name should be “Attest” because that’s what people always say when talking about him: “Yeah, I have witnesses who can attest to the fact that Artest got on the bus wearing nothing but his boxers” (not a real quote, or at least not one attributable to a credible source... yet, but the story holds some truth. He went on Jimmy Kimmel in his boxers). Perhaps the plane needs unscheduled maintenance, resulting in even more delays.
Even if the first thing goes wrong—a bus arriving late—player are already planning how to sue the bus company after submitting a lackluster 4 PTS 6 TO 1 RBD performance.
In the Plane
Now players have time to think, be introspective, and analyze their games—or watch videos or read People Magazine. They always have the possibility of bonding with teammates, which of course, means those bonds can tear apart just as easily. With so many enormous egos confined within a small space (plus their germs), inevitably personality “issues” will arise.
Getting off the Plane
Now players have landed in a new city. Let’s say the New York Knicks are flying cross-country for a meeting with the Clippers (though with how horrible these two teams are, I’m not sure flying in Bill Gates’ private jet would make them play any better). Well, the bus meant to shuttle New York from their arena to the plane is late, meaning they take off late, meaning they arrive late. In this hypothetical case: 3 a.m. PST. To the Knicks, it actually feels like 6 a.m. because they’re accustomed to EST.
They now have to spend an hour-or-so getting to the hotel, unpacking (maybe), and preparing for the game later that day. Only then is rest an option. Considering many coaches at least like to conduct a small run-through, less-intense practice, that opportunity for more rest becomes less likely. I suspect players are lucky to accrue five hours—and the reality is probably far less.
Say the team has the luxury of an extra night to do as they please (within the “limits,” i.e. Don’t be a jackass). But that proposition can be daunting when the destination cities (excluding maybe OKC) offer so many was to have fun. Those ways usually exist within a night-time atmosphere, further reducing the amount of sleep they’ll get. Most of the attractions come in female and bottled form (sometimes the former has the latter), which is usually not the greatest combination for a player trying to remain cautious and safe—especially when that player is young, good-looking, and rich beyond belief.
Party cities are renowned for offering easy avenues to poor behavior. Remember the All-Star game in Vegas? Hopefully you don’t (Google it for all the details among the 403 arrests).
Players visit these cities frequently and repeatedly within a season. Only half their games are at home; they spend the rest of the time in those airports and airplanes and hotel rooms and clubs and streets outside clubs. Even at home, it’s almost like a hotel, because they only stay a night before they depart again.
Especially for rookies, homesickness probably emerges fairly early in a season. They may have had some experience with travel in college, but nowhere near the brutal schedule of the NBA.
Back in school, they weren't enduring week-long stretches without seeing their families unless they were participating in a tournament. Most college road games are within conference, meaning the destination will be relatively close. Pros consistently embark upon cross-country trips.
By mid-season, players have already hit a common notion of a “wall.” They’re sick of travel, sick of not being physically and mentally prepared, sick of missing their homes and families, sick of rowdy opposing fans. Quite frankly, I bet a lot of them are simply sick of basketball.
The playoff picture starts solidifying, and players lose hope if their team doesn’t have a legitimate chance at winning a championship, let alone winning a playoff game. When they realize their championship aspirations are unattainable, they shut down.
That’s simply human nature. Players find it even easier to shut down when so many ancillary aspects of the profession (flying, fast food, irregular sleep patterns) wear them down before they even step foot on the court where a team might wear them down further.
Teams try desperately not to hit a wall, but unless they’re part of the Dynasty-Bulls and have Jordan punching them in the face, they always do. Like I said: human nature. How often do you crave a break while working long hours? A nice vacation, perhaps? Well players don’t get any respite until the season’s over (and in this era, training continues through the summer months).
That “wall” is made much larger by all the complications caused by unreliable flights, irregular sleep patterns, different time zones, poor eating habits, “side attractions” available within all cities, among the tedium of playing basketball five hours a day, every day.
Some players break through it as the playoffs near, but teams out of contention let that wall crumble on their heads, hopefully resulting in some new building blocks acquirable in the draft.
These travel factors will continue inhibiting good play and experiences. Players must ignore their fatigue, malnourishment, and taunts from opposing crowds in the arenas (and hotel rooms), and adverse playing conditions (e.g. Denver's altitude). They have to leave their families for the majority of the year, and in the rare occasion they’re home, they only see their families for a few days.
Damn, six teams even have to forgo Christmas with the family because they have to play more basketball. Once they’re done with the Christmas game, it’s off to another city. And another. And another. The cycle continues.
I’m not trying to give fans a reason to feel sympathy for multi-millionaire professional athletes, but at least fans get to see their families most days and go to sleep at a reasonable hour after watching some Letterman. Most fans don't constantly get disrupted by jet lag and changing altitudes. Plus, fans don’t have 35,000 people heckling them for an ostensibly lackluster effort given on two hours of sleep at an unfamiliar time of day in an unfamiliar city after eating some Pop-Tarts for breakfast.
Even after that disappointing experience, players only have more of the same to look forward to in the next city. And the next…