He Showed Michael Jordan A Thing or Two

Well, actually, it was just one thing - and it wasn't about basketball. Still, it's fun to be a 'ball kid' for the Utah Jazz

WHEN the Utah Jazz basketball team takes the floor for a home game, Chris Packer and his friends are on the court waiting for them. They're ready to serve. Chris is a ball boy for the Jazz, which puts him right next to the action in professional basketball games.

The 10 to 12 young men and women who work for the Jazz spend each home game handing out drinks to players during timeouts, giving them their warm-up jackets when they come out of the game, mopping sweat off the playing floor, and handing out towels. And more towels, and more towels.

"Whenever a player uses a towel or just picks one up, it has to be washed," Chris explains. And with a lot of hard-playing guys working up a sweat out on the floor, that means a lot of towels. "We start washing as soon as enough towels are dirty for the first load, and it doesn't stop until after the game is over," he says. He estimates that they wash about 150 towels during a game.

For Chris, the real fun is being there. "I love playing basketball and watching it," he says. "This gives me a chance to be involved." He was never on his school's basketball team, but enjoys playing the game with friends.

One of the best parts of the job for him is the players. "They're all really nice to me, even when we're losing. Most of them know me by name," he says. "It's really great because these are people everybody hears about and wants to know, and I get to be involved with them."

Chris also enjoys interacting with players from visiting teams. During one Jazz game against the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippin, and a few of their teammates on the sidelines were trying to solve a metal puzzle in which you have to remove a ring strung between two horseshoes connected by chains. Chris picked up one of the puzzles and solved it in a matter of seconds. "I showed them how to do it, and at first they were a little unhappy that I made it look so easy," Chris recalls. "Then they laughed and made some remarks about how high school kids are smarter than they thought."

Ball boys and girls start out older now than they did a few years ago. Terry Clark, assistant trainer for the Jazz, explains that the new child-labor laws require that all workers be 16 years old. This is because they are paid for their work, though it's only the minimum wage. But younger kids can still serve with college teams, where the ball kids are volunteers and don't get paid.

Although some ball kids are only with the Jazz for a couple of years, Clark says that many serve for five or six seasons or longer. Chris started with the Jazz when he was 16 and is now in his fourth season. To become a ball boy, he had to apply for the job, along with a lot of other young people. The team likes to hire those who have some knowledge of basketball and who are also good students. Chris had a little help getting his position, since his brother Kurt had served as a ball boy for three years.

When he isn't at the Jazz games, Chris attends college in Salt Lake City, where he is studying photography. With college classes, homework, and games, he's got a very busy schedule. During each home game, Chris and his fellows show up at the Delta Center at about 3:30 p.m. to get ready. They stock the coolers with drinks, fold towels, and prepare ice bags.

Chris says that Karl Malone is usually the first Jazz player to arrive for warm-ups, at about 4 p.m. Soon, other players start to trickle in. By 5:30, all the players are on the floor and Chris is chasing balls for players' practice shots.

Since ball kids don't travel to road games, two of the Jazz ball kids help the visiting team. Three or four work on the Jazz sideline, and one or two more serve under each basket with towels to keep the floor dry. The kids take turns on different nights in the different positions.

After the game, there is cleanup work, often until 11 or 11:30 p.m. It is Chris's job to wash the players' uniforms and hang them up to dry.

By the time he's through, it's been a very long day.

During the last few years, the Jazz have made it into playoff games at the end of the season. So has Chris. "Everyone is more 'up' for the game in the playoffs," he says. "It's even more exciting, especially when we win."

Win or lose, Chris is out there at each Jazz home game, a part of the action in professional basketball. He hopes this season will be a long one for his team, right through the playoffs to the championship.

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