New Friends and Secret Keepers: They Make NBA Families Feel Welcome

Desiree LeSassier’s phone kept ringing. She had landed in Minneapolis about an hour before, on the Lakers plane from Los Angeles, and p...


Desiree LeSassier’s phone kept ringing. She had landed in Minneapolis about an hour before, on the Lakers plane from Los Angeles, and people needed things.

She apologized by returning text messages and emails. A player called to ask if she could book some time on the pitch for him to shoot the day before the game.

“It’s literally…” LeSassier said, before pausing to respond to another message. “It’s definitely nonstop.”

LeSassier, the Lakers’ player services manager, helps players with everything they need, off the field and non-medical. Except when she makes time for them in court. And when she reminds them of appointment times for coronavirus testing.

She takes care of the tickets for the players’ guests at home and on the road. She helps them acclimatize to Los Angeles. Also, she—

Her phone rang again and she answered without waiting for a greeting.

“Hey, you’re confirmed,” LeSassier said. “I told them 7:30 p.m., but they are ready for you. I’ll see what time I finished here.

She stopped.

“Why, do you want me to bounce for you or something?” she laughed. “Okay, I’ll think about it.”

Credit…Los Angeles Lakers

LeSassier and his NBA colleagues don’t have uniform titles or backgrounds, but they have a knack for making players and their loved ones feel loved and special. As players and their families bounce around in different cities where they may not know anyone, people like LeSassier become crucial to their comfort and sanity. They help players focus on the basketball without worrying too much about everything else. They can be part of a team’s competitive advantage.

“If you talk to guys on different teams, they can always tell you this person,” said Ayana Lawson, vice president of community and lifestyle services for Oklahoma City Thunder. “There’s a real feeling of, ‘Man, this person took care of me. This person took care of me. ‘Hey, can I call them when I’m in trouble?’ And trouble can just mean, “Hey, I’m having a bad day.” Can I talk to you?’ Or, ‘Hey, I’m doing Thanksgiving on my own.’

Before teams started hiring people to do this work, there were those who filled the unspoken need.

One was Kathy Jordan, who worked for the Indiana Pacers for 25 years beginning in 1983. Jordan, whom Lawson called the “godmother of player development,” had married a man who eventually played in the NBA. She knew how difficult it could be for families. adjust to life in the league. When a player and his wife moved to Indianapolis from New York, she offered to help navigate the new city, even though it wasn’t part of her job as a promotion assistant. She didn’t tell her bosses what she was doing.

“Reception staff, we weren’t supposed to mingle with the team – especially the women,” Jordan said.

She helped players and their families find homes, schools for their children, doctors and hairdressers.

“Being African American in Indianapolis, we weren’t the most diverse city back then,” Jordan said. “There were only a few places that did African American hair.”

The Pacers finally made his work with players more official. Then, in the late 1980s, then-NBA commissioner David Stern called her for more information on her efforts. Now most teams have someone like Jordan, and many have departments with multiple employees dedicated to helping players and their families get acclimated.

In Philadelphia, there’s Allen Lumpkin, the 76ers’ senior director of logistics and team relations. He started working for the 76ers in 1977 as a teenage ball boy, a position now called team attendant.

One day, while Lumpkin was working on the opposing bench, a Washington Bullets player named Rick Mahorn sat down next to him and said he planned to foul Julius Erving as hard as he could. Years later, when Mahorn was traded to the 76ers, he asked the familiar face Lumpkin where to live.

In the past, Lumpkin would go out on the town with Mahorn, Charles Barkley and Manute Bol. “We did everything together,” he said. He is still close to current and former Sixers and their families. Markelle Fultz recently timed it with FaceTime. Allen Iverson calls him regularly. Mahorn and his wife are godparents to one of Lumpkin’s children.

“You entrust your loved ones to a team,” said Lumpkin, 60. “They want to be sure, as any parent would, that their child is taken care of. If players have families with children, they want to be sure they are taken care of.

Lumpkin officially began leading player development for the 76ers in 2000, around the time the NBA began prioritizing him.

Now the league office has 13 people dedicated to helping players with interests off the pitch. Leah Wilcox, the league’s player family liaison, is well known for her work with families. This group provides resources for financial literacy, education, and social justice initiatives for gamers.

Together with team employees, they form a network that shares information when players change teams. When Kentavious Caldwell-Pope signed with the Lakers, his wife, Mackenzie Caldwell-Pope, and LeSassier became close.

“She had a friend who knew LA and worked for the team,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “It was helpful.”

In Dallas, Kristy Laue became such a part of the fabric of the Mavericks in her developmental role that when she became pregnant with twins, then-coach Rick Carlisle announced it during practice.

That season, the Mavericks won the NBA championship. During the playoffs, as players ran around the field before the game, some would stop to mimic high fives at his stomach.

“I feel like a lot of them are part of the family,” Laue said.

Sashia Jones, vice president of player development and social engagement at Monumental Sports Group, owner of the Washington Wizards, just officially started working with families this year. It has been providing this support to players for 18 years.

“He’s just an incredible person, an incredible human being,” said Otto Porter Jr., who spent five and a half seasons with the Wizards.

Jones helped Porter host a Thanksgiving breakfast for homeless people. When his uncle wanted to bring a high school basketball team from Australia to a game, Jones arranged for them to visit.

His relationship with the players does not always mean saying yes. This can mean telling players things they don’t want to hear – that way she can’t get involved in some personal business.

“Sometimes you just have to stay out of it,” she said.

Lawson, with the Thunder, has become more comfortable breaking unwanted news over the years, and players, like Serge Ibaka, respect her for it.

Ibaka was 19 when he joined the Thunder and had never lived in the United States.

“She took me like I was her little brother,” said Ibaka, who is from the Republic of Congo and naturalized Spanish. “She made sure I was right, even learning my English. I remember we used to argue because she forced me to take English lessons early on game day. I used to say, ‘We’ve got game!’ She said, ‘No, you have to.’

Thirteen years later, he still calls her his big sister.

Players trust she won’t tell their secrets, and Thunder general manager Sam Presti is confident she’s helping even when she can’t say with what exactly.

“It’s hard to go up to your CEO and say, ‘Hey, I kind of need this unlimited budget for this project that I can’t really tell you about,'” Lawson said.

One of her proudest moments was when she helped Deonte Burton buy a house. A two-way player for the Thunder who didn’t have much money growing up, he was the first of his siblings to be able to own a home, she said.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way teams approach player services. This means less in-person interaction. The Toronto Raptors had the added challenge of international travel restrictions, so they spent the 2020-21 season in Tampa, Florida.

“We basically started from scratch and built a network in Tampa,” said Teresa Resch, Raptors vice president of basketball operations, who oversees the Raptors’ player services staff.

The Raptors had also spent the end of the 2019-20 season in Florida, when the NBA ended its season at a restricted-access site at Walt Disney World near Orlando due to the pandemic.

For the Lakers’ large family contingent in Florida that year, LeSassier hosted an outdoor movie night, karaoke night, and pizza night. The adults did wine tastings. They made tie-dye shirts with the kids. Blair Bashen Green, then guard Danny Green’s fiancée, was among the group.

“Obviously we were stuck there and couldn’t get anywhere,” said Bashen Green, who married Green in 2021 and invited LeSassier to the wedding. “She just did the whole bubble experience – it was almost like a vacation for us.”

Poolside yoga classes also gave LeSassier a mental break.

“As you can see, my phone is constantly ringing,” LeSassier said. “So that yoga time – I was there with the families, but it was also time for me to just have an hour to myself.”

Bashen Green recalled attending her first Laker game after Green signed with the team in 2019. She felt like a student at a new school, unsure if anyone in the classroom families of the players would talk to him.

“You always have a little bit of anxiety,” Bashen Green said. “Will people be nice? Do they show up? Do you introduce yourself?

LeSassier, as usual, was there to help.

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Newsrust - US Top News: New Friends and Secret Keepers: They Make NBA Families Feel Welcome
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