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Purveyor of Fun: Miles Plumlee Leans on Burning Man Experience to Lead Hawks

Miles Plumlee isn't afraid to try new things. He unicycles through New York City, endures grueling workouts and parties at Burning Man. At the end of the day, he uses all of those experiences to help lead a young Hawks team.

Roughly 100 miles northeast of Reno, over 60,000 people descend on Black Rock City each August, collectively forming the temporary civilization that is Burning Man. It is the ultimate human experiment of fostering community, art and self-expression, and where Atlanta Hawks center Miles Plumlee celebrated his 30th birthday this summer.

“It was the culmination of a journey I feel like I’ve been on for the last couple of years, trying to realize who I am and what makes me special,” Plumlee says. “I just feel like I have a newfound confidence in who Miles Plumlee really is and a new love for myself.” He was transfixed by the myriad art installations, especially the million-dollar carts that encircle the artificial Man burning. He would pull up on his bike to stop and create alongside strangers. “The way people include you in things, you can go there and just get lost,” he says. “It’s like a Utopian society, but out of a Dr. Seuss book.”

Plumlee’s accommodations ultimately proved far from fanciful. He discovered his RV for the week was without power upon arrival, offering no air conditioning or electricity to use the private toilet. “It’s a living coffin,” he says. So Plumlee and his girlfriend rigged an AC unit up through the camper’s window, replacing the duct tape whenever the desert heat melted the adhesive. They slept under layers of coats and blankets to combat the frigid evenings and bathed exclusively with baby wipes and coconut oil. “It’s such an arid climate by the end of the week… I didn’t smell,” he says. Plumlee’s camp provided restroom refuge, and he befriended fellow members who happen to own the burgeoning company WTRMLN WTR. A New York City chef named Sarah Cardell introduced him to a stunningly nutritious diet he plans to replicate next summer while he trains out of SoHo. “You have to survive together,” Plumlee explains.

“You have to figure out how to work together around the conditions. It just felt like I could bring those things back to my team, in terms of chemistry, building team camaraderie and being open with one another,” Plumlee says. “What you need, what you see in one another, being just a positive influence throughout a season and growing as a team.”

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Plumlee has seen just 9.8 minutes per game through Atlanta’s first seven contests, appearing in only four. Yet as head coach Lloyd Pierce embarks on his first head-coaching campaign, fresh off withstanding the Philadelphia 76ers’ process, Plumlee’s veteran presence is as valuable as Trae Young’s dynamism, Kevin Huerter potential and Omari Spellman’s versatility. Plumlee’s summer odyssey can only benefit Pierce’s efforts to foster a fresh Hawks culture. “The common bond between human being and human being there, it’s different,” Plumlee says. “When you leave Burning Man, you want to share that with the world and try and spread some of that.”

Plumlee has long brought joy to others. “He’s the self-proclaimed, ‘Purveyor of Fun,’” says Mason Plumlee, the Denver Nuggets center and Plumlee’s brother. He has unicycled competitively since his youth. He juggles and plays the trumpet. He finished high school as his class Salutatorian, regularly acing AP Physics exams. “He’s very talented,” Mason says. “And whatever he gravitates towards, he’s very good at.” Even discluding his Burning Man experience, Miles Plumlee may very well be the most interesting man in the NBA.

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Plumlee’s Nevada excursion concluded an offseason as eclectic as his talents. He’d rise each morning in his Manhattan apartment and bike across the Williamsburg or Brooklyn Bridges to strength train with his guru Adam Cobb. Plumlee has ballooned to 257 pounds of chiseled muscle since tipping the scales at 195 as a freshman at Duke. For 90 minutes, Cobb would run Plumlee through exhaustive body weight and pliability exercises, a steady dosage of rope-climbing and repping push-ups while balancing atop medicine balls. The 120-pound dumbbells in the Hawks’ weight room are now too light for Plumlee’s bench press.

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He cycled home for lunch and then cruised down the Fifth Avenue bike lane towards Bryant Park for on-court skillwork at the Players Association. Wheeling around town, Plumlee developed a new appreciation for New York. “It’s a whole different vibe being on the bike and taking it in,” Plumlee says. The folks at Ride bike shop in Brooklyn affixed sturdier mountain bike parts onto Plumlee’s frame, his 7-foot, brawny build stressing atypical pressure onto the material. “One time I was riding home and the whole crankshaft just came off,” Plumlee says.

The youngest of Perky and Leslie’s three NBA sons, Marshall, who most recently played in Milwaukee, recently constructed his own custom bike. Next summer, Plumlee will likely personalize his own ride, with an exclusive frame tailored perfectly to his massive measurements. “You’re making NBA money. I used to save up and look in the CCS Catalog every day in school. I just couldn’t wait to buy a piece for my skateboard,” Plumlee says. “Now it’s like, I’m like a big kid. I can get this skateboard, I can get that skateboard. I can make a new bike from scratch.”   

Plumlee’s affinity for riding began after discovering Kris Holm, the Tony Hawk of professional unicyclists. He promptly begged Leslie for the solo-wheeled ride the following Christmas and soon practiced balancing atop its perch each day in the family’s Indiana garage. Upon mastering the technique, Plumlee and his friends dared to dip into Holm-style tricks, jumping down stairs, off the top of soda machines and even from roof to roof above his old Winona Lake elementary school. They recorded videos edited with graphics and music.

Plumlee won several local competitions, even braving mountain bike trail courses on his unicycle. “Up until my sophomore year of high school, people knew me more for unicycling than they did for basketball,” he says. Hoop now clearly takes precedent. NBA contracts bar players from extreme sports, although locals may see the Hawks center unicycling along downtown's Piedmont Park or rolling atop one of the four skateboards he keeps in his Atlanta apartment. 

Back in New York, Plumlee saw a Thai massage guru each Wednesday. James studied under an old female sage in Thailand, bequeathing her teachings to only a few pupils throughout the world. He has combined that technique with a background in western massage and physiology, dubbed “neuromuscular rebalancing.” For two hours, the masseuse would stand on Plumlee’s hulking body, contorting his long limbs further than ever before and digging deeper into his muscle tissue than Plumlee previously thought imaginable. “All my flexibility and range of motion went through the roof,” Plumlee says. “I felt like I was buying stats in NBA2K.”

The sessions only added to Plumlee’s distinctive summer history. In 2015, he joined former Pacers teammate Jeff Ayres and Hall of Famer Tim Duncan in San Antonio, borrowing The Big Fundamental’s custom GTR in between kickboxing bouts. “I always tell people Tim Duncan is not someone you want to get in a fight with. It reminded me of that Bruce Lee movie with Kareem,” Plumlee says, referring to the 1978 film Game of Death. “He’s just throwing these kicks that are reaching across the room.”  

The Hawks currently sit at 2–5, a prolonged season of growing pains on the horizon. Young’s tiny frame will take a beating. Losses will likely pile. Yet seasoned pros like Vince Carter and Plumlee will offer an influential presence for Atlanta’s young core. At 41, Carter is still flushing acrobatic dunks in pregame layup lines. Plumlee has the unthinkable athleticism to match, an impossibly wide range of unique talents, and a newfound perspective ripe for shaping the Hawks’ future.