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Garbage Time
Phil Taylor
November 22, 1999
What transpires when the outcome is decided but the game is still on? Well, unselfishness gets canned, and teamwork is trashed
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November 22, 1999

Garbage Time

What transpires when the outcome is decided but the game is still on? Well, unselfishness gets canned, and teamwork is trashed

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Frank Layden is fuzzy on the details, which isn't surprising: No one ever remembers all the particulars of a garbage-time story. If anyone did, garbage time wouldn't so richly deserve its name. The best Layden can recall is that it was around 1982, and he didn't see what purpose it would serve for him to witness the final moments of a drubbing the Utah Jazz was taking from some now-forgotten opponent. The problem was that because Layden was the Utah coach, he couldn't try to beat the traffic like most of the other spectators. Wanting to get ejected, he started screaming at referee Earl Strom, but Strom ignored Layden's barrage of four-letter words. Finally, he asked why Strom refused to do the decent thing and kick him out. "Earl just looked at me," says Layden, now the Jazz president. "He said, 'I know what you're trying to do, Frank, but if I've got to stay out here and watch this s—-, so do you.' "

That's the description often applied to garbage time, those waning moments of a blowout when the margin on the scoreboard is greater than the number of fans still in the stands, when the nearly forgotten players on the end of the bench get in the game long enough to warm up their muscles just as the buzzer sounds. "Garbage time is a horrible time," says Miami Heat president and coach Pat Riley. "I don't care how you coach or who you coach."

That's partly because everyone is preoccupied during garbage time. The reserves are in the game, either silently fuming over not playing meaningful minutes or recalculating their scoring averages with every basket. The starters are either on the bench discussing post-game plans or scrambling to make the final score respectable. The losing coach is wondering when his general manager is going to get him a small forward who's not allergic to defense. The winning coach is thinking about whether to hold a light practice tomorrow or give his team the day off. Fans are trying to remember whether they parked on the green level or the purple. Even the broadcasters keep only one eye on the proceedings. A few years ago former Dallas Mavericks play-by-play man Ted Davis passed the time during a Portland Trail Blazers rout of Dallas by doing movie reviews. Garbage time is everything its name implies—a meaningless span that's always discardable and often stinks.

That nothing matters, however, is precisely the beauty of garbage time. The two most revealing situations in sports are when everything's at stake and when nothing's at stake, and garbage time is the ultimate example of the latter. It's when almost all pretense of team play is abandoned, often leading to spectacularly sloppy basketball. Naked self-interest takes over, and players try to pad their stats, no matter how insignificant the numbers. "Garbage time was great," says Scott Brooks, a backup point guard for six teams from 1988-89 to '97-98. "It allowed me to take my scoring average from 2.5 to 2.8."

Garbage time should be embraced, not ignored. It's the equivalent of a campy soap opera, with the performances often so bad that they're good. You might not want to watch it every night, but every once in a while it's a guilty pleasure.

As in most soaps, the key characters when the rout is on are motivated by greed. When a true garbage-time gunner (think Mavericks forward Cedric Ceballos) has the ball in his hands, it would take an AK-47 to get him to pass. "It's everybody for himself," says Trail Blazers point guard Damon Stoudamire, who became a garbage-time expert during his 2½ years with bad Toronto Raptors teams. "Some guys' stats get so exaggerated at the end of a game. If you averaged 19 points a game with Toronto, you could cut it down to 16 or 17 with a good team." Garbage time often looks like 10 players who don't realize they have teammates, but despite its chaotic appearance, it's not without a certain structure. The elite garbage men understand that there are certain keys to success.

Open or not, put up the shot. It can't be said too often—gluttony is good. In garbage time the only bad shot is the one not taken. Many players instinctively understand this, including former Rockets standout Calvin Murphy, who recalls being sent in for garbage time as a rookie in 1970-71. There was 1:51 left, and the Rockets' star, Elvin Hayes, had 48 points. "He came up to me and said, 'Hey, rook, I just need one more basket, so get me the ball.' "

Says Murphy, "I told him, 'Well, I hope you remember how to rebound, because I'm getting off at least 10 shots in this 1:51, and the only way you're going to get 50 is to get the ball off the boards.' He wasn't happy about that, but you know what? I got off nine shots." And Hayes didn't get his 50.

The most productive current garbage-time players clearly believe, as did Murphy, that a conscience only gets in the way. Forward John Wallace squeezed off 16 shots for Toronto in a blowout loss to Miami, undeterred by the fact that he missed 12 of them. While playing for Minnesota, James (Hollywood) Robinson once turned garbage time back into a real game by scoring 23 points in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers and nearly leading the Timberwolves to a come-from-behind win. Other highly regarded garbage-time performers are Dennis Scott of the Vancouver Grizzlies, Mark Strickland of the Heat and, according to the Detroit Pistons' Grant Hill, "everybody from last year's Bulls. Every game for them was garbage time."

Avoid the dread "trillion." In other words, if for some reason you can't get off a shot, do something] In garbage-time lingo, trillion is the line in the box score a player gets when his minutes-played stat is followed by zeros in the nine other categories. "A trillion means you played, but you didn't do anything," says Vancouver Grizzlies assistant Lionel Hollins, who was an NBA guard for 10 seasons. "No shots attempted or made, no assists, no rebounds, no fouls, nothing." If he still has a trillion in the final seconds, the experienced garbage-time player will commit misdemeanor assault to break up his zeros with a "1" in the personal foul column.

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