The same season that he somehow worked up the nerve to ask an ailing Michael Jordan for his shoes, Preston Truman forged a bond with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Kobe Bryant that lasts to this day.
Truman, who worked as a ball boy for the Jazz from the 1996-97 season to the 1999-2000 season, says it helped that the two were the same age. Plus, Bryant was often "kind of off by himself" in a Lakers locker room that was ruled by surly veterans Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones.
"That Lakers team was so dysfunctional," Truman says. "They didn't want to give him the time of day. It was kind of like he found refuge in talking to me."
And team centerpiece Shaquille O'Neal was "such a jokester," he says. "He'd sit there with his headphones on and start bobbing his head up and down. Then he'd look at somebody and if they didn't start bobbing their head up and down with him, he'd go act like he was about to [fight them]."
Other times, Truman says, he'd break dance. "It was kind of like a clown show."
Bryant was much more relatable. They discussed their girlfriends and 1980s basketball games, and after Bryant fired three airballs in the waning moments of the 1997 Western Conference Semifinals, it was Truman who played his highest level of basketball at Pine View High telling him to keep his head up.
Through the years, Truman learned to cater to Kobe's preferences, like placing a towel at the foot of his locker so he didn't have to put his bare feet on the carpet. When Truman finally quit in 2000, Bryant told him, "If you ever need tickets, let me know."
He estimates that he's taken Bryant up on that offer eight or nine times, including once at the Staples Center when he and his two daughters were visiting Disneyland about five years ago. Most times, he goes down to the tunnel afterward to chat with him and introduce friends and family.
He thinks it's a shame that Kobe gets such a bad rap.
"He comes across as an arrogant guy, but he's the coolest guy you'll ever meet."
Reality bites • The most surprising thing about being an NBA ball boy, Truman says, was seeing what these world-class athletes were consuming.
Karl Malone would come in at 4 p.m. to watch "SportsCenter" while wolfing down popcorn, barbecue potato chips and Coke. (Truman says he would wait for the anchors to mention him and inevitably be offended at the characterization.)
John Stockton usually took better care of himself, but Truman recalls an exhibition game at the Dee Events Center in Ogden where he snatched five snickerdoodle cookies from the press room. His teammates gave him grief, and he said it didn't matter; he was only playing 10 minutes. Then he told a ball boy to go grab him some more snickerdoodles.
When the games were over, Truman says, the players drank a lot of beer. And not only in the locker room: The ball boys were often instructed to wheel out a cooler to the visiting team's bus.
Incidentally, Charles Barkley gave Truman the nickname "Zero" when he, not being a drinker himself, didn't know to tilt the glass while pouring the Chuckster's beer.
Barkley was left, perhaps appropriately, with a big head.
'Earn the right' • The choice assignment for a ball boy, Truman says, was the visitor's locker room, because you not only got to meet a new cast of players each night, but the trainers paid you an extra $40 and the players often tipped $20 or more just for handing them a bag of peanuts. Or they gave you something even better, like their shoes.
Truman says a more recent Jazz ball boy was flabbergasted when he shared these stories.
"He's like, 'I can't get anything. I can't get any shoes," Truman says with a laugh.
"You have to do something for them, or make sure they notice you. I've always been a good salesman, and the way to sell people is to get to know them first. We call it 'earn the right' in the [sales] world."
Truman says being a ball boy was the best job he's ever had. He sweated his way through the Rocky Mountain Revue to make the roster, and then he always made sure he was the first one in and the last one to leave.
"He's not afraid of hard work and he's not afraid of going after what he wants," says his mom, Jackie Platt. "I think he'd have been a ball boy forever, if they'd have let him,"
Truman bought season tickets at one point, but even sitting 10 rows up in the lower bowl doesn't compare.
"When you get closer to game time, the access you get is unbelievable," he says. "With that uniform on, you can walk anywhere you want in the Delta Center and no one even questions you."