Atlanta — Luka Garza and Chris Smith place towels in front of each veteran’s locker. Jamorko Pickett carries big equipment bags in from the team bus. Even No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham isn’t exempt from rookie duties.
All of them are supposed to carry custom pink backpacks, with a blinged-out unicorn on the back.
It’s like college rush week, but it lasts all season for NBA rookies. Each team has its own particular spin on the tradition, and for the Pistons, the veterans have a simple set of tasks for their first-year players.
The requests could range from ordering and picking up dinner before boarding the flight for the next city, or late-night runs to get snacks. Or whatever the vets dream up. It’s all part of the rite of passage for rookies, learning the humility to do small tasks for the veterans.
It’s a tradition that goes back a number of decades, and the vets give the rookies valuable nuggets and knowledge about the league, so it’s something of a fair exchange.
“They obviously ask us to do stuff like that, but they’re really welcoming to rookies, and they’re teaching us and helping us every single day to get better,” Garza said. “I feel like I’m learning so much every single day, just being around the team and the coaches and everybody we have.
“I’m a guy who craves knowledge about the game of basketball and who wants to learn, so it’s amazing having this opportunity. I’m trying to soak it up and get the most out of it.”
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It’s not hazing, it’s just getting things done. And by most accounts from the veterans, the Pistons’ rookies this season have been slacking on their duties — mostly due to the pandemic. Because the players are more limited in the places they can go and things they can do when they’re on the road, the full effect of the rookie duties isn’t quite there.
“There’s a lot of bad (rookies), veteran guard Cory Joseph said. “Luka and Chris are the best ones. It’s COVID, so they got lucky; you can’t get much done during COVID.”
The one constant in recent years has been the rookies carrying the pink backpacks, which come courtesy of team equipment manager John Coumoundouros. Each rookie has his own backpack, and Coumoundouros added shoe bags to carry around to complement the look.
He said everything is player-driven and it helps to build the culture to have the rookies stand while also helping the veterans. He ordered the brightest pink backpacks he could find — and the unicorn was a special touch.
“Everything is custom-made,” Coumoundouros said. “It’s just messing around with (the rookies). I just thought it was fun. It was one of the things with my daughter had. It just made a great backpack, and she had one too, at the time.”
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Garza says he relishes the advice that he gets from all the veterans, including Jerami Grant, whom he admired from his time going through the basketball ranks in the Washington, D.C. area. Joseph, Rodney McGruder and Kelly Olynyk also have provided valuable wisdom in helping Garza adjust to the NBA.
Been there, done that
Rookie duties aren’t a new trend; they’ve been around for many years, and it could include singing, “Happy Birthday!” to the veterans, performing songs or skits at team meetings or whatever the veterans decide.
“It’s just part of the process and it’s a thing that’s been in the league forever, and it allows a rookie to come in (and learn),” said Joseph, who is in his 11th season. “Other than basketball, it allows you to build that rapport and that trust between the teammates.”
When Joseph was a rookie with the San Antonio Spurs in 2011, he and fellow rookie Kawhi Leonard had specific duties for the veteran group, which included Hall of Fame center Tim Duncan.
“I used to go to Shipley’s (Donuts) for Timmy, and then Kawhi used to handle the Krispy Kremes,” Joseph recalled. “A dozen or a couple dozen, on game days, mostly.
“Timmy needed coconut doughnuts — he has that island in him … He was a healthy guy too — he may have only eaten one or two but just in case he wanted it, it had to be there.”
Sometimes, the veterans might have a craving on a whim, which might require some ingenuity and improvising in getting those tasks done. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little bit inconvenient — the job needs to get done.
“The weirdest one I had to do was for Alan Williams my rookie year,” veteran wing Josh Jackson said. “I think we were in Indiana and he made me run to CVS to get some whole milk at like two in the morning, because he was ordering cookies in the room at late night.”
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The Pistons’ rookies have been lucky during COVID, in that the veterans have had to scale back a little bit on their requests. It’s not the same as a normal year, but the feeling across the board is that this crop of rookies isn’t quite living up to the usual standard.
“Hey, JG,” Joseph yelled after practice to Grant. “He wants to know how the rookies are doing?”
Grant shook his head in disappointment. Jackson and McGruder told anecdotes of how the tradition is getting off to a slow start on the team’s first road trip.
They’re rookies, so they’re just learning. There are still plenty more road games to go. And dozens more donuts to grab.
“You always dream of being a rookie in NBA, so you understand what comes with it and you’ve seen it before — stories of guys and different things like that. I kind of embrace it, just knowing that I’m here,” Garza said. “To be in the NBA, I’ll do whatever it takes. If I have to wear a pink backpack with a unicorn on it, I’ll do that. It’s just a blessing to be here and part of a great group.”
PISTONS AT 76ERS
Tipoff: 7 Thursday, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia
TV/radio: BSD, NBATV/97.1
Outlook: Pistons leading scorer Jerami Grant (elbow) didn’t practice Wednesday and remains questionable, as are Sixers centers Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond.