New Friends and Secret Keepers: They Make N.B.A. Families Feel Welcome

Desireé LeSassier’s phone wouldn’t stop chiming. She had landed in Minneapolis about an hour before, on the Los Angeles Lakers’ plane, and people needed things.

She apologized as she returned text messages and emails. A player called to ask if she could reserve him some time on the court so he could shoot the night before the game.

“This is literally …” LeSassier said, before trailing off to answer another message. “It’s definitely nonstop.”

LeSassier, the Lakers’ manager of player services, helps players with anything they need, off-court and nonmedical. Except when she reserves court time for them. And when she reminds them of appointment times for coronavirus testing.

She arranges tickets for players’ guests at home and on the road. She helps them get acclimated to Los Angeles. Also, she —

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

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

She paused.

“Why, you want me to rebound for you or something?” she laughed. “All right, I’ll think about it.”

Credit…Los Angeles Lakers

LeSassier and her colleagues around the N.B.A. don’t have uniform titles or backgrounds, but they have a knack for making players and their loved ones feel cared for and special. As players and their families bounce around different cities where they might not know anyone, people like LeSassier become crucial to their comfort and mental health. They help players focus on basketball without worrying too much about handling everything else. They can become part of a team’s competitive edge.

“If you talk to guys on different teams, they can always tell you that person,” said Ayana Lawson, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s vice president of community and lifestyle services. “There’s a genuine sense of: ‘Man, this person looked after 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 having Thanksgiving by myself.’”

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

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

“The front office staff, we weren’t supposed to be commingling with the team — especially females,” Jordan said.

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

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

The Pacers eventually made her work with players more official. Then, in the late 1980s, then-N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern called on her for more information about her efforts. Now most teams have someone like Jordan, and many have departments with multiple employees dedicated to helping players and their families acclimate.

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

One day while Lumpkin was working 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 Lumpkin, a familiar face, where to live.

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

“You’re entrusting your loved ones to a team,” Lumpkin, 60, said. “They want to make sure, as any parent would, that their child is taken care of. If the players have families with kids, they want to make sure they’re taken care of.”

Lumpkin began officially leading player development for the 76ers in 2000, around the time the N.B.A. began prioritizing it.

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

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 that knew L.A. 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 development role that when she became pregnant with twins, Rick Carlisle, then the coach, announced it during practice.

That season the Mavericks won the N.B.A. championship. During the playoffs, as players ran out onto the court before the game, some would stop to mime high fives toward her belly.

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

Sashia Jones, the vice president of player development and social engagement at Monumental Sports Group, which owns the Washington Wizards, just began officially working with families this year. She’s been offering that support to players for 18 years.

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

Jones helped Porter organize a Thanksgiving breakfast for people without homes. When his uncle wanted to bring a high school basketball team from Australia to a game, Jones arranged their visit.

Her relationship with players doesn’t mean always saying yes. It can mean telling players things they don’t want to hear — like that she can’t get involved in certain personal matters.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to stay out of it,” she said.

Lawson, with the Thunder, has grown more comfortable with delivering unwelcome 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 was taking me like I was her little brother,” said Ibaka, who is from the Republic of Congo and a naturalized citizen of Spain. “She was making sure I was right, even learning my English. I remember we used to argue because she used to force me to do English classes early on a game day. I used to be like, ‘We have game!’ She said, ‘No, you have to do it.’”

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

Players trust that she won’t tell their secrets, and Thunder General Manager Sam Presti trusts that she’s helping even when she can’t say with what exactly.

“It’s hard to go to your G.M. and be like, ‘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. It’s meant less in-person interaction. The Toronto Raptors had the additional challenge of international travel restrictions, so they spent the 2020-21 season in Tampa, Fla.

“We basically started from scratch and built a network in Tampa,” said Teresa Resch, the 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 N.B.A. finished its season at a restricted-access site at Walt Disney World near Orlando because of the pandemic.

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

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

Poolside yoga classes gave LeSassier a mental break, too.

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

Bashen Green remembered attending her first Laker game after Green signed with the team in 2019. She felt like a student at a new school, unsure whether anyone in the room for players’ families would talk to her.

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

LeSassier, as usual, was there to help.

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