After being traded from Chicago to New York this past summer, Derrick Rose was elated when free agent center Joakim Noah, his close friend and ex-Bulls teammate, signed with the Knicks. But Rose, who had played in his hometown of Chicago for eight years, had a piece of advice for Noah now that he’d be playing for a team a mile from where he grew up.
“I just told him to be careful,” Rose said, after congratulating Noah, “because everybody’s going to ask you for tickets, and the demand is about to be crazy.”
Noah is far from the only guy who’s getting a brisk education in what it’s like to play at home 41 times a year. An unprecedented number of NBA veterans signed with their hometown teams this past summer, and many of them are encountering an awkward predicament: What to do with all these seemingly random junior-high classmates who blitz them with ticket requests?
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 122 NBA veterans switched teams this past summer. Of that group, 10 — or 8 percent — joined a club within 100 miles of their birthplace, according to an analysis run by David Corby of Basketball-Reference.com at FiveThirtyEight’s request.1 That’s the highest number of veteran players to make their way home during a single offseason since 1988, the year unrestricted free agency took root in the NBA, and more than triple the average annual number.2
It’s unclear what caused the spike in players going home this past summer. It might have been a fluke. But perhaps LeBron James’s decision to return to Cleveland in 2014 for a second stint with the Cavaliers, 30 miles from his hometown of Akron, Ohio, influenced more players to consider the possibility.
“I think that’s definitely had an impact,” said Miami native Udonis Haslem, who has spent his entire NBA career with the Heat and watched ex-teammates James and Dwyane Wade leave South Beach to go back home to Cleveland and Chicago, respectively. “There’s nothing like playing for the team you grew up watching as a kid. You can’t replace that.”
That sense of home initially appealed to 2015 All-Star Jeff Teague, who was thrilled to be traded from Atlanta to play for his hometown Indiana Pacers in June. (The three-team swap — which sent George Hill, also an Indianapolis native, away from his hometown club — was the only trade to bring a veteran back to his hometown last offseason. The other nine players making a return trip all signed as free agents.)
Teague, a point guard with a mural of Indianapolis tattoos on his left arm, says he prioritizes his family; after the trade he moved into the basement of the house he bought for his parents. But as much as he loves being around his folks, the 28-year-old said in an interview that playing at home “is definitely not what I expected” so far. It’s been challenging to deal with so many people coming out of the woodwork to ask him for tickets, Teague said.
“Honestly, it’s a lot easier playing in a place where you don’t know anyone, because no one really bothers you,” said Teague. “At home, everybody knows you. People ask for everything. And I try to tell them, ‘Talk to my parents,’ or just turn them down. But it’s hard to say no. Sometimes I just end up giving into it.”
Requests, some of them from family friends he doesn’t know, weigh on Teague. “I end up having to buy and buy and buy, because there’s no way around it,” he said. “It’s not cheap, and it’s definitely not ideal.”
Generally speaking, NBA teams allow their players to give out three complimentary tickets for home games, and two free tickets for road contests. But some teams handle their distribution differently, according to interviews with two dozen players in NBA locker rooms. A few clubs offer better seats than others, and in a handful of smaller markets — where sellouts are rarer — teams are occasionally more flexible in letting players have extra tickets.
When players need more than their own allotment of free tickets, they do have options. The most common solution is to borrow a teammate’s seats that night, then return the favor later in the season, whenever the club visits that teammate’s hometown.
“That usually works. But it can get a little hairy if you don’t ask people far enough in advance,” said Cole Aldrich, who grew up near Minneapolis and signed to play for the Timberwolves this past summer. He recalled a preseason game in Kansas City, Missouri, that led to a ticket rush between him and teammates Andrew Wiggins and Brandon Rush, who “were all fighting over our teammates’ extras right up until the game,” Aldrich said. (High ticket demand can extend beyond players’ hometowns: Aldrich, Wiggins and Rush starred at Kansas in college.)
Players can often buy additional tickets if they run out of their own and can’t get any from teammates. But not everyone is willing to pay for acquaintances and distant relatives to attend games for free.
“I bought my parents courtside seats, and I got a suite for my kids. Other than that, people are grown and there’s this thing called Ticketmaster that they can use,” said Dwight Howard, the Atlanta native who in July signed with the Hawks. “Everybody knew I was gonna handle it that way, because I sat down with them in advance and told them I’m not spending extra money on things like that.”
|Joakim Noah||New York|
|Langston Galloway||New Orleans|
Noah is more willing to shell out for tickets for some of his many New York supporters, but he has set a modest budget for himself. He is adamant that he won’t let things get as far out of hand as they did for Rose, who had dozens of friends and family members come to each home game in Chicago.
“His situation got out of control to where he was scrambling, trying to round up tickets right before games,” Noah said. “I definitely don’t wanna get like Derrick was.”
Rose said he developed a nightly routine before Bulls’ home games: Get to the arena three hours before tipoff to work on his body; sit in hot and cold tubs; and assign tickets for his loved ones to pick up. (Some players — including Louisiana native Langston Galloway, who joined the Pelicans this past summer — say they hate the inconvenience of creating ticket lists before games, as it interrupts pregame routines such as watching film of that night’s opponent.)
“I ended up just buying a box [at the United Center]. Had to get anywhere from eight to 10 tickets every night, plus a [suite] that held 16 people. Probably 26 to 30 tickets a game, for every single home game,” said Rose, describing a batch of tickets with a face value of six figures each season. “That’s crazy, right?”
Asked whether the Bulls gave him extra tickets or the suite since he was a star and 2011 MVP, Rose, who’s earning $21 million this season, responded, “What do you think? I wish it had been like that. I had to pay for everything.”3
Playing for your hometown team isn’t all ticket headaches; there’s plenty of upside, too.
Howard, for instance, says he loves being able to enjoy regular Sunday dinners with his family. Bucks forward Steve Novak said that because he grew up an hour from Milwaukee and knew the city well before he signed there, he faces fewer potential distractions from basketball. And Wade said his ticket distribution has surprisingly become easier since signing with the Bulls.
“When I used to come back to Chicago, it was always really hectic, because my family could only see me play in person once or twice a year. So for those games, I’d get about 50 tickets for my family. And that’s serious money,” said Wade, who added that he later vowed to never spend so much on tickets again. “Now I play here 41 times a year. So I can lower the number of tickets for each game and spread things out over the whole season. And it’s much easier.”
Players said veterans generally are better about standing firm on money than their younger teammates. Many hire staff to help handle their ticket-distribution responsibilities so as not to hinder their game-to-game focus.
Haslem said he used to buy 20 or more tickets for every home game — like Rose in Chicago — but began managing his finances better about six years into his career, when he put his stepmother in charge of his tickets.
“I appointed her as my head of ticket sales, because she just tells everybody to go to hell. She don’t care,” Haslem said. “She tells people, ‘You ain’t been there with him since the beginning, so you ain’t coming to his games!’ ”
Some players find that a good, old-fashioned guilt trip is the most effective way to get people to stop asking for tickets: Make them aware of how much the extra seats cost, and most people will think twice before requesting more.
“With a lot of them, I don’t think they know that we have to pay for those extra tickets,” says Knicks forward and Brooklyn native Lance Thomas, who, until last season, never had a guaranteed contract and was careful with his money. “So I make sure to let them know afterwards, so it doesn’t become a habit.”