Flight attendant reflects on high-flying Blazers
Editor's note: This is the second of four parts featuring excerpts from "Jail Blazers: How the Portland Trail Blazers Became the Bad Boys of Basketball," a new book written by Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune.
The book is available at Portland bookstores, including Annie Bloom's and Broadway Books along with assorted Powell's and Barnes & Nobles outlets. The book also can be ordered through Amazon.
For nine years, Stephanie Smith-Leckness served as a flight attendant on Paul Allen's private jet, which flew the Trail Blazers to all their road games.
"I truly loved a lot of the people who were part of the Trail Blazer organization through those years — people like Brian Wheeler, Jeff Curtin, Geoff Clark, Bobby Medina, Mike Rice, Kim Anderson," says Smith-Leckness, who flew with the Blazers from 1997-2006. "The players would change, but a lot of the same people — trainers, coaches, TV and radio people — they remained. It was like a family, it really was."
The plane was a 38-seat Boeing 757, now owned by Donald Trump, who bought it for $100 million from Allen in 2011. (The jet has Rolls-Royce engines. The seat belts now, like everything else, are 24-carat gold-plated. There is a 57-inch television screen and the sound system of a top Hollywood screening room.)
"We called it B-1," says Smith-Leckness, who also flew the Seahawks and Mariners on "B-2," a bigger corporate jet also owned by Allen. "It was an unbelievably beautiful plane. When Paul would take B-1 to Hawaii at Christmas, the Blazers would use B-2."
Allen had his own private bedroom on the plane.
"The players weren't allowed in Paul's bedroom. A couple of times, a player was sick, and I'd let him go in there and lie down for a while." Smith-Leckness — known as "Stebby" to everyone in those years — found her job both fun and challenging.
"It was a lot of really hard work. Providing safety and feeding a bunch of really young, way-too-rich kids was challenging at times. I was kind of like the mother hen."
Smith-Leckness worked during the coaching eras of Mike Dunleavy, Maurice Cheeks and Nate McMillan. She remembers Cheeks calling her over on one flight and gesturing to rookie guard Sebastian Telfair. "Steph, go ask Sebastian why he thinks he needs to drive a Bentley while living in Tualatin," he said.
"I got a lot of respect from the players most of the time," Smith-Leckness says. "If they acted up or yelled at a flight attendant, I'd talk to them. One time, I was told by Zach Randolph, 'You're not my mama.' I said, 'You would never talk to her the way you just talked to me.'"
Smith-Leckness's first few years were during the Dunleavy era.
"Some of the players were horrible," she says. "J. R. Rider once had his finger in the face of [flight attendant] Donna Clark. It was something over tuna fish, if I remember right, and it happened right in the coaches' portion of the airplane. They sat in the back in the first-class seats. Not one coach even looked at him. No one stood up. I remember running back there and telling [Rider], 'Get your finger out of her face.' She was shaking and had tears in her eyes.
"I know the guy was crazy, but nobody did anything. It was really sad. The guy had a screw loose. He just wasn't well. I was appalled the coaches didn't say anything. No judgment. It was months later when I realized the guy was a really loose cannon."
During that time, Rider and a few other players were boning up on something other than game video.
"We'd be flying somewhere after a game, and they'd be watching 2 Live Crew videos," Smith-Leckness says. "They were like soft porn — not appropriate for a team plane, in my view. I'd listen to the language. ... It was awful. The coaches wouldn't do anything about it. I remember running out and saying, 'Really? You think this is OK?'"
During the early years, several players kept marijuana on the airplane.
"I smelled it a few times. I went to who I thought put it there and told him, 'I'll pull it out the next time and show it to Customs.' Never had that happen again."
During his second season, Dunleavy said Jermaine O'Neal had asked Smith-Leckness to come by and see his new house. Dunleavy went with her.
"Jermaine had a bunch of family members living there. They were all eating and watching TV and playing video games, and the house was a mess. He opened up the garage door. It stunk bad, and there was a load of stuffed full trash bags in there. Mike said, 'Jermaine, it stinks.' He said, 'They told me to put it in the garage.' Mike said, 'You have to put it on the curb, and somebody will pick it up if you sign up for service.' His family members, who were mooching off of him, didn't know enough to say, 'Let's put the garbage out by the curb.'"
Once Rider departed after the 1998-99 season, Smith-Leckness found herself growing closer to players such as Damon Stoudamire, Scottie Pippen, Greg Anthony and Rasheed Wallace.
"I loved those boys," she says. "They were just young and stupid." During her later years with the Blazers, Smith-Leckness came up with the idea of mentoring players with their everyday lives.
"I remember talking with Nate [McMillan] about creating a job especially for me. I wanted to teach those guys how to write a check and pay a bill and take garbage to the curb. How to talk nicely to people and to put their hand out when they meet somebody. I told him, 'If we can make them winners off the court, we can do it on the court.' Nate was with me, and he asked Paul Allen about it, but there was no backing from the team."
Smith-Leckness was Allen's personal flight attendant for nine years.
"He used my name one time. That was when I accidentally locked him in the bathroom. I hear this 'ding, ding, ding.' Then I heard him screaming, 'Stephanie!' I ran back and opened up the door. He said, 'You locked me in the bathroom.' That was the one time he used my name.
"But I knew what my role was. I didn't care if he liked or didn't like me. Paul is super gifted, super smart, just socially inept. I wish he could have felt more comfortable. He'd spend thousands of dollars catering food he may or may not like, and then he was nervous about asking, 'Do you think I could have pizza on the way home tonight?'
"Really, he was a very nice man. I wasn't there to be a friend of his. I wasn't there to crack his shell."
Smith-Leckness heard plenty of stories from the players. A lot of times, they weren't too worried about curfew, since there rarely was any. "I'd ask them, 'Why do you go out until 4 in the morning and know you have to be at shootaround at 10?' Once in New York, several of them had been at some famous strip club the night before the game. They all got back to the hotel at 6 or 7 (a.m.). Then they lost to the Knicks that night.
"But I liked those guys. They were good to me and the other girls. They weren't disrespectful to us. But what they were doing off the court was not going to make them winners on the court."
Smith-Leckness was privy to some stories about players with groupies, too.
"I'm naive and kind of a Pollyanna. We're checking into the Houston Galleria hotel at about 3 one morning, and I see a bunch of women in the lobby. I said to someone, 'I don't think there would be a wedding at this time of night.' Scottie told me, 'They're hoochie mamas. They're here for us.' And I said, 'But I don't understand. If you're going to do that, why are you married?' I just couldn't understand that aspect.
"Maurice Cheeks was really afraid to fly. If it was really bumpy and late at night, we'd sit together sometimes, and he'd explain to me why he is and will always be the way he is with women, even if he has the most beautiful girlfriend. He said it wasn't natural for him [to be with one woman]. I asked, 'What if she were the same way?' And he said, 'Well, it wouldn't work.' I never understood it."
Smith-Leckness calls Wallace "one of my favorite men in the world.
"He was one of the few guys on those teams who never did anything like that," she says. "Rasheed gave me a card one time that said, 'Thank you so much for all you've done. I love you.' He was like a kindred spirit. Everyone thought he was really mean. He was wonderful in a lot of ways."
Smith-Leckness had mixed emotions about Shawn Kemp.
"I adored the man. He was really troubled, but a great guy. We were told at one point we couldn't have any desserts on the airplane. He needed to lose some weight and had an addictive personality. We couldn't have cookies and stuff out for the other guys. Everybody knew that he was addicted to drugs, alcohol, women, sugar. And the sugar was what they all focused on. I knew he was beyond that."
In the late '90s and early 2000s, "Tonk" was the players' card game of choice on the plane.
"Usually it was Scottie, Greg, Bonzi Wells and Dale Davis — the same four guys. Everybody was getting off the airplane, and they'd have a heavy hand, and we'd be cleaning up around them. Finally, I'd have to say, 'Guys, it's 2 a.m., we still have to restock this airplane and fly to Seattle so we can get home to our families. Get off the airplane.' And they were like, 'Stebby, this is a $30,000 hand.' I'd say, 'Now you're really out of here.' They were betting hundreds of thousands of dollars sometimes. We're talking big dough."
The players would never leave a tip, though.
"But if those guys lost a C-note on the airplane, you'd have to tear the whole airplane upside-down. They never left a penny. But they would have $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 hands. It was unbelievable."
Several times, Anthony would take a case of Evian water out of the compartment in which it was stowed and leave the plane.
Once, Smith-Leckness confronted him.
"Every time you take one of those off the airplane, one of us girls has to restock it and carry it up the stairs."
"'But my wife really likes it,' he told me.
"Finally, Mike Dunleavy stood up for us and said, 'For Christ's sakes, Greg, they sell Evian in Portland, too.'"
The year before she left her job with Paul Allen, Smith-Leckness and her husband built a house in Kirkland, Washington.
"One day I got a huge package at our door. It was a plethora of goodies from the Pottery Barn from Maurice Cheeks, with a loving note. It brought me to tears.
"There was a lot of love during my time [with the Blazers]."