Life As An NBA Ball Boy
By Matt Shellenberger
Few people have the opportunity to work a job which they actually enjoy while in college. I was fortunate enough to not just enjoy what I was doing, but to love it. If you ever watch an NBA basketball game, you will generally see two or three people on the baseline sitting right next to the players. More often than not, that is usually a ball boy or a “team attendant.” We liked to call ourselves "team attendants" rather than "ball boys" because it sounds much so more important and professional. Here is a run down of some of my former responsibilities and some of the expectations of an Oklahoma City Thunder ball boy.
The Thunder play 41 regular season home games a year, plus playoffs. Every year I worked there, they made the playoffs, so I was working deep into the season. Most Thunder home games start at 7 p.m. No matter what time the game starts, we were expected to be there three hours before tipoff to setup, rebound, etc. A LOT goes into an NBA game. Fans just see the players and the games itself, but there is so much more to it than that. NBA players get workouts and shooting in before games, so all of their equipment has to be ready to go beforehand. One of my main responsibilities was to set up and take care of the officials. NBA officials are usually the most disliked people in the arena, because fans thinks they are trying to cheat their team and blow calls on purpose. I always find it fascinating how a call can be so obvious one way, but the home crowd will still boo and hate the refs no matter what. I really enjoyed taking care of the officials, because they were usually very appreciative and grateful for what you did for them. They gave me good tips for helping, and there were certain referees I always looked forward to seeing when they came into town. The thing about NBA officials is they are their own worst critics. At halftime, they watch film from their calls. After the game - more film. Before the game - stretching and preparing. Never once did I walk into the officials locker room and see them planning how to cheat your team. So I can assure you, they’re not.
After the officials were taken care of, it was time to rebound. Now, before I go into this, I want to be clear, it was awesome rebounding for Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, etc. But at times, it could be extremely difficult. NBA teams use these warmup times to get players as many shots as possible, so they expected us to rebound and get the ball back to the coaches quickly so the players could get the next shot up. It was always more difficult to rebound for the opposing teams than the Thunder, because we knew the Thunder player's routines. Overall, its hard to complain about rebounding for some of the best athletes in the world. There were a lot of cool guys to rebound for. Nick Collison was always one of my favorites for the Thunder. I can honestly say, for opposing teams, one of the coolest guys to be around was Dwight Howard. He was funny, engaging, and just a cool guy to talk to. I always enjoyed it when Dwight came into town. Another player that was really cool was Dirk Nowitzki. For whatever reason, Dirk thought I looked like former NBA player Matt Harpring. I really didn’t see the resemblance. Anytime Dirk came into town, he would say, “Its Matt Harping! How are ya Matt?!” I told him my name actually was Matt once, and he just laughed and it caused him to call me Matt Harpring even more. I always thought it was hilarious, and Dirk quickly became one of my favorite NBA players.
Once we were done rebounding, it was time for dinner. We always ate with the media, and the bigger the game, the bigger the media. It was always cool to eat with the media. I got to see many famous media members, including Bill Simmons and Brian Windhorst. Sometimes, opposing teams front office executives or other workers would eat in the media room as well, like Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.
After dinner, it was time for the game. The games were awesome, because we got to sit just a few feet away from NBA players while they were in action. During the games, our main responsibilities were to give the players their warmups when they came out and keep the floor dry. Pretty simple, right? Its simple until players start slipping and the floor gets wet. You have to remember how many millions of dollars are invested into each player. One slip, and a player could twist an ankle or tear a knee. I will always remember Game Four of the Western Conference Finals when the Thunder were playing the Dallas Mavericks, and the game was extremely close. Nick Collison dove for a loose ball while he was guarding Dirk and fell near the Thunder bench. Collison was known in the ball boy fraternity as being one of the sweatiest guys in the league. If he fell, we knew it was going to make the floor really slick and cause a mess. It came during a crucial part of the game, and the refs had actually called a foul on the play. Dirk was going to the line to try to tie the game with under seven seconds left. After he made the first of two free-throws, the coaches kept telling us to wipe up the floor. It was dry, but they kept telling us to wipe it up. One of the commentators on TV (Marc Jackson) actually says, “smart play by the ball boys and Oklahoma City, ice Dirk Nowitzki.” Its an interesting video, and something I like to watch from time to time, because it was such an embarrassing moment in my ball boy career.
After the game, we were expected to break down equipment and try to get the opposing teams equipment to their bus as soon as possible. Most of the visiting teams fly out to the next city that night, so they usually try to get out of there in a hurry. The coolest part about the end of the games was waiting for the players to leave and seeing if you could collect some shoes. A lot of times I would ask a player from the opposing team at halftime if I could get their shoes after the game. If I did, I usually had them sign the shoes. I think my favorite shoe story was when I got Kobe Bryant’s. Everyone knows Kobe as this insane competitor that was ruthless on the basketball court. This was absolutely true, but I wanted his shoes, and I wasn’t going to get them by just staring at them. He was shooting free throws at halftime of Game Six of the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs in 2010. This was the first time the Thunder were ever in a playoff series, so it was still all pretty new to most people in the arena. Kobe was practicing his free throws with a laser-like focus. I was kind of nervous that he was just going to ignore me, but the thing about Kobe was, he respects it when people aren’t afraid to talk to him or approach him. I slowly just walked up to him and said, “hey man, you think I could get those shoes after the game?” It sounds so lame to put it into words, but hey, it worked. He quietly just kept shooting his free throws and responded, “after the game man.” I really didn’t know what to think, because if a player said he would give you his shoes, it didn’t mean he would remember after the game. The Lakers ended up winning the game and ended the Thunder’s season. After the game, I went into the trainers room where Kobe was, and I asked him about the shoes. He said to ask the equipment manager about them. It turned out they had already been put on the Lakers bus, so I had to go grab the shoes off of the bus and take them back into the trainer’s room to get them signed. I remember Kobe had his ankles in two ice buckets and was on his phone, but was cool enough to sign them for me. I also remember getting Kevin Durant’s shoes. KD would wear his shoes way down before switching them, so it was always cool to be able to get his. Overall, getting player’s shoes was always an awesome thrill.
After everything was put away, and the refs locker room had been taken care of, we usually ate the leftover food from the Thunder team lounge. These were long nights, but it is also extremely unique to be able to have those experiences. I will never forget my moments as a ball boy, because it was something that not very many people get the chance to experience. Sitting on the floor during the NBA finals, meeting a lot of the players, and being around GM’s and owners are moments I will always remember.
Matt Shellenberger is from Oklahoma City, and is a graduate of Bethany High School and Southern Nazarene University. Matt teaches and coaches at Mayfield Middle school, while also being in charge of Intramural sports at Southern Nazarene. He enjoys: sports, Netflix, hiking, hanging out with friends and family, and traveling. Follow him on the TWEETER @mattshelly6