Put two dozen of the planet's top basketball players on a court
during All-Star weekend, and defense will be the last thing on
their minds. Put them out on the town, though, and it's something
they'll take very seriously. When the NBA's best descend on L.A.
this weekend, most will have pistol-packing bodyguards with them
to watch over their friends, their families and their bling.
A decade ago Michael Jordan was the only NBA player with personal
security, says Robert Gadson, a 25-year NYPD vet who is now
director of security for the NBA Players Association. That's no
longer the case in the wake of several attacks on players.
Security is an especially sensitive issue during All-Star
weekend, the league's premier social event. "It's the private
parties that concern us most," says Gadson.
While the NBA and the players' association provide security at
league events, players are on their own at outside shindigs,
which is why Mavericks forward Antoine Walker--who was robbed at
gunpoint of a $55,000 watch in Chicago four years ago--will spend
$5,000 to have an armed bodyguard all weekend. In a league with
an average salary of $3.7 million, Walker is not the only player
who has been victimized. His former Celtics teammate Paul Pierce
was stabbed in a Boston nightclub in September 2000, a few months
after Knicks guard Stephon Marbury had a $150,000 necklace
snatched from his neck after he got into a Bentley in Manhattan.
Dikembe Mutombo, who was chased by two cars after leaving a party
in Philadelphia, now pays $85,000 a year for a full-time
Walker, like most players, will spring for the bodyguard's
first-class air travel and expenses, because, he says, "You want
somebody watching your back." Once that meant a friend with
bulging biceps, an intimidating stare and zero training. Now,
most bodyguards at All-Star weekend will be off-duty cops who not
only travel with their employers but also do intelligence work
and stake out venues ahead of time. "Everything isn't brawn,"
says Marvin Cross, director of security for the Cavaliers. "A lot
of it is brain." Cross stands just 5'10" and weighs 176 pounds,
but he's a 23-year veteran of the Cleveland Police Department and
a graduate of the FBI Academy. His assignment this week is to
watch Cavs rookie LeBron James, who also had hired a bodyguard in
New York the night he was drafted No. 1 in June. "Every
professional player should have security," says James. "It's good
to have some eyes in the back of your head." --Irving Scott