'Damn, This Game Is Long': The Dos and Don'ts of Life on an NBA Bench

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2018

Detroit Pistons' Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, from left, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joel Anthony watch from the bench during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday, March 16, 2016, in Auburn Hills, Mich.  (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)
Duane Burleson/Associated Press

Spencer Dinwiddie was hungry. NBA games, after all, can be long, tedious affairs, especially for players forced to watch all 48 minutes of action—which in real time takes an average of two hours and 15 minutes—from a seat on the bench.

That's where the 24-year-old Dinwiddie used to spend the majority of his evenings. The Detroit Pistons drafted him 38th overall in 2014, and he appeared in just 46 games over his first two NBA seasons. One November night during his second year, a local TV camera followed teammate Andre Drummond's walk from the court to the open seat next to Dinwiddie on the Pistons bench.

Dinwiddie, not realizing the camera had settled on him, reached down into a green Gatorade cup he was clasping. Using his right thumb and index finger, he yanked out a chocolate bar and took a quick bite. His eyes were wide and scanning the arena, like a kid trying to avoid his parents' peering eyes.

"Yo, the red light's on," Drummond whispered to him, as Dinwiddie recalls. He was referring to a TV camera. Dinwiddie, recognizing he'd been caught almost literally with his hand in the cookie jar, hunched over as if trying to avoid the camera's gaze. But it was too late.

"Sometimes bench dudes get hungry," Dinwiddie, now averaging 13.2 points in 28.2 minutes per game for the Brooklyn Nets, says. "It wasn't even so bad. It was a Gatorade bar. But it was right around Halloween time so I became a GIF."

Dinwiddie's not the first player to use a cup as a cloak for food. According to Miami Heat center Kelly Olynyk, Gerald Wallace used to keep Skittles in one. Gerald Green, Olynyk adds, sips coffee "with like 12 creams and sugars" while watching games. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Channing Frye says he's seen teammates—he won't name names—eat full meals behind the bench. And even the sport's biggest stars, who also find themselves watching from the sidelines for nearly 30 minutes in real time every night, grow hungry. During a preseason game this October, cameras discovered LeBron James picking popcorn out of a paper cup.

The key, Dinwiddie says, is to avoid getting caught. Think of that as the guiding principle to life on an NBA bench, an ecosystem away from the court's spotlight but full of its own set of strict rituals and conventions.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 30:  Doug McDermott #20 of the New York Knicks reacts after scoring a three pointer during the first half of a NBA game against the New Orleans Pelicans  at the Smoothie King Center on December 30, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Where players sit when not in the game, for example, is treated seriously.

Doug McDermott learned that last season after being traded in February from the Chicago Bulls to the Oklahoma City Thunder. He doesn't remember by whom, but shortly after the deal he was warned.

"I was told not to sit at the end of the bench, that Russ sits there when he comes out," a smiling McDermott, now a member of the New York Knicks, says. "He got two assigned seats. A lot of times he was hot when he came out, so guys liked to give him a little room."

Russ was Russell Westbrook, the dynamic, dramatic Thunder point guard and the reigning Most Valuable Player. But in the NBA, such policies aren't reserved for high-profile stars like him, not when teams consisting of 12 to 14 players can only put five on the floor at once.

Each team's bench consists of two rows of plush leather chairs. The first row must consist of a minimum of 13 seats. The second row, solely for assistant coaches and staffers, must have at least six. Rookies generally sit nearest the coaches—who occupy the seats closer to half court—the equivalent of the front row of a classroom. The end of the bench is reserved for veterans, with the last seat typically viewed as the most desirable.

"Usually the OG gets that seat," Olynyk says. "Everyone else takes their seat at the beginning of the year and pretty much rocks with it."

Olynyk says for the Heat, the Original Gangster chair is reserved for Udonis Haslem, the Miami native who's spent his entire 15-year career with Miami. For the Orlando Magic, that seat belongs to 10-year veteran Marreese Speights.

"I always have the last seat," Speights says. "It's cool. You can get up, move around a little bit, talk to fans. If I come out and someone else is in it, they know. Move down."

Yet as much respect as veterans receive, star players often act as the paper to their rock.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Take Ed Davis' predicament. At 28, he's the Portland Trail Blazers' second-oldest player. Unlike most of his peers, Davis always preferred the seat closest to the assistant coaches.

"You can discuss coverages, things like that," Davis says.

There's only one problem: Damian Lillard, the Blazers' franchise point guard, prefers that seat, too. He's a year younger than Davis and played two fewer NBA seasons. Yet Davis understands what's required of him when he's on the bench and Lillard comes out of the game.

"I slide over," he said.

Situations like those are exactly why Portland rookie Jake Layman dedicates so much thought to his seat selection each time the team gathers during a game stoppage. For one, he doesn't want to wind up like Davis and get displaced. More importantly, though, he makes a point of trying to avoid the seats adjacent to Blazers forward Noah Vonleh.

"You want to stay clear of the super-sweaty guys," Layman says. "Noah's one of them."

Layman isn't alone in this thinking. Most players try to steer clear of larger teammates and their sweaty, long limbs. Big men also take up more room in what's already a tight setup. Chairs are only between 18 and 19.5 inches wide, despite the fact they're propping up some of the world's tallest men.

"Some guys like to be all wide and s--t, but you let them know, 'Hey, I need space,'" Davis says.

There's not much teams can do about the width between seats. The league mandates that the chairs be lined up in a "continuous" fashion, but some have come up with ways for players to better unwrap their lengthy legs.

"The Knicks have these elevated pads they bring everywhere with them," McDermott says. "It gives them the most comfortable seats."

In the end, though, what players are looking for most are ways to occupy their time. "Seventy-five percent of the time you're talking about basketball," Knicks center Kyle O'Quinn says. "But the other 25 percent it's like, Damn, this game is long."

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Choreographing celebrations can help. Frye says players now are more into designing original handshakes. The Jumbotron can provide entertainment, too. "Everyone pays attention to the half-court shots and the dancing grandmas," Frye says. He even acknowledges players are open to discussing a woman they spot in the stands, though his teammate Tristan Thompson made it clear that's not an activity he partakes in.

"No, I got a girl, so I ain't looking at a girl," Thompson says, referring to his girlfriend, Khloe Kardashian. "I ain't getting my ass knocked out. I'm taken, so I'm good. I ain't got nothing to look at."

Then there are the players who develop more creative ways to combat the boredom. O'Quinn says while playing for the Orlando Magic he and former teammate Maurice Harkless would see who could feign stretching for the longest or dare each other to stand for six minutes straight.

"You get a feel for what's going on in the game, but it's hard sitting on the bench for a long period of time," O'Quinn, a career reserve who's never averaged more than 17.2 minutes per contest, says. Then he smiled.

"Trust me," he added. "I know."

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here, and sign up for his newsletter here.