USC's tallest battle cramped seating on air-bound road trips

dcloninger@thestate.comFebruary 18, 2014 

USC's Laimonas Chatkevicius goes up for a basket over Ole Miss's Sebastian Saiz (11) and Aaron Jones (34) in the first half of Saturday afternoon's game. After leading by as many as 12 points and trailing by as many as 8, USC lost 74-75 when a last second shot fell short of the basket.

C MICHAEL BERGEN — mbergen@thestate.com

The cruising altitude and the lilting strains of the Avett Brothers through your headphones are willing you to sleep. You’ve stopped praying for a safe takeoff and can hold off on praying for a safe landing for at least an hour or two. Now’s the time, 30,000 feet above the earth, to relax.

Until you crack open your half-mast eyelids and see an angular face, complete with thin beard and buzzcut, hanging upside down in front of your own.

“I stand up twice an hour just to stretch out,” 6-foot-11 South Carolina center Laimonas Chatkevicius apologetically says. “I try to do it when everybody’s asleep, but it’s not easy. There’s always someone who’s awake or wakes up.”

Airplane seats are not meant for comfort, especially for lanky basketball players who often seem to be a set of arms and legs mashed together. On charter or commercial flights, players like Chatkevicius have to grin and bear it – plus do whatever they can to ease the uncomfortable feeling of being folded like a python into a sardine can.

Chatkevicius, if he’s not lucky enough to land an emergency-exit aisle seat or score two side-by-side seats so he can flop his body over both, has to stand up and stretch his ailing limbs. Sometimes there’s no choice but to bend over the seat in front of him, which may not be the most pleasant dream for a startled-awake passenger.

It’s either that or be cramped. Or the always-popular gamble of throwing his legs in the aisle, where they’re unsuspecting prey for stewardesses and battering-ram service carts.

“They’re trying to serve people with the carts, it’s just the worst part of every flight,” Chatkevicius lamented. “They keep hitting your feet and your knees … it’s just terrible.”

Most college basketball players dream of playing in the NBA. If they’re 6-4 or taller, the dream may be fueled by realizing how many NBA teams travel. No three-to-a-row, straight-backed chairs there -- some NBA squads have custom-made jets, complete with reclining leather chairs and couches, to ferry their giants across the country. Throw in the special menus and it must seem like heaven.

College players deal with college accommodations. USC is big-budgeted enough that it can afford to give players some very nice perks, unlike many mid-major teams.

“Smaller schools might take a 10-hour bus ride,” director of operations Andy Assaley points out. “We fly on regional jets. Fortunately, the plane holds 50 and our travel party, it’s probably about 40. There’s enough room for everybody to stretch out.”

Chatkevicius is 6-11 and the Gamecocks have two 6-9 players in freshmen Demetrius Henry and Desmond Ringer. Mindaugas Kacinas stands 6-7 while Reggie Theus Jr. is 6-6. USC isn’t overcome by height, which is one less thing to worry about when it comes to traveling.

“Our first year at Kansas State, we had a young man by the name of Jason Bennett, who was 7-foot-2,” coach Frank Martin said. “We always tried to get him an emergency-exit aisle, but that doesn’t always work, and the other thing with him is he’d fall asleep on every flight, so his legs would be out in the aisle. Planes are not made for people of that height.”

Chatkevicius is in the middle of his sophomore season, but he’s already flown to New York, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Hawaii and Mexico, with a trip to Arkansas Wednesday night. Throw in the rides to his native Lithuania and it gets downright painful.

“Probably 50 percent of the time, I get an aisle seat but not emergency-aisle,” Chatkevicius said. “When we’re going on the road trips, usually I get two seats, so it’s not that bad, but if I’m going home, for an eight-hour flight, that is terrible if I don’t get an extra seat.”

Assaley and the Gamecocks have their trips down to a science. They take bus rides to games at Georgia and Clemson. For flights, USC usually books a charter. The flights are usually no more than two hours because the team is expected to miss as little class as possible – a 2 a.m. Columbia arrival still means the players should be in class the next morning.

There are meals on the flights or after the games – a lot of Jason’s Deli and Chick-fil-A box lunches – and the team’s academic coordinator is a constant, ready to proctor tests or hold study halls.

It’s the logistics that are impossible to predict.

“A 6-10 guy has to flop his legs over the seat,” Assaley said. “With a late-night flight, he may have to go to the bathroom in the back of a plane, so that he’s crawling over so many legs.”

Chatkevicius has to duck getting on the plane, duck walking down the aisle to his seat, crossing his fingers every time. If there are two or three empty seats beside each other when he arrives to his seat assignment, no problem. He can deal with it for an hour or two.

If there are people there, or worse, if he’s in the dreaded middle seat, he’s wishing he’d been born with the frame of 5-11 Brenton Williams.

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