For sports fans, voyage is hoops heaven

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Cruise editor Fran Golden sailed on the 820-passenger Norwegian Star from Houston on a Sports Afloat Basketball Cruise. Her report follows:

ABOARD THE NORWEGIAN STAR -- It must be every basketball fan's delight, sidling up to the likes of NBA Hall of Famers Sam Jones, Earl "the Pearl" Monroe and "the Iceman," George Gervin, in the comfort of a cruise ship, where the old-time players, and some of the current NBA players, as well, are there to spend time with you.

BeeballSince I don't follow the sport very closely, I brought along two junior fans, my 11-year-old son, Eli, and his 11-year-old friend Nick. The guys were utterly enthralled with the concept of spending a week with "real basketball players." From the moment we spotted Adam Keefe, forward for the Utah Jazz, waiting for the ship's bus at the airport, the boys were hooked.

They came aboard the Norwegian Star hoping to grab as many autographs as possible and also to play a little basketball, and although they ended up getting fewer shots than signatures -- adults pretty much monopolized the ship's Sports Deck, with sometimes very aggressive play -- the boys had fun, and the experience proved unexpectedly educational to boot. For instance, they learned that if you're over seven feet tall you may have to bend down as you go through doors or you could conk your head. We saw Artis Gilmore, the legendary center, conk his head several times during the cruise.

The boys also had a chance to hear what it's like to be a professional athlete; how some of the players would just as soon be playing for fun rather than money, and what price some of these guys pay for their fame. And there was, of course, talk about salaries. "We were all very fortunate for someone to pay us for something we loved to play," said Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry. "Now they pay crazy money, and we all wish we were 30 again." The importance of getting an education was stressed, and the boys learned that basketball players are real people with real families, which a lot of them brought along for the trip.

Norwegian Cruise Line has been offering sports cruises for a dozen years, and the basketball cruise had a special staff on board to make sure everything went smoothly. The players were assigned sessions -- time for autographs (the most popular of the offerings with both adults and kids); questions and answers, and clinics. They also helped out and offered moral support during contests for passengers -- most geared toward 14-year-olds and up -- such as a foul-shooting tournament, a three-point-shooting contest and a three-on-three competition. Player jerseys, T-shirts and basketballs were among the prizes.

Due to liability issues, the NBA players do not play, per se, although passengers who entered the three-point shoot-out were treated to Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry grabbing their rebounds. Jaren Jackson of the San Antonio Spurs offered advice to the competitors, like "put a little arc on the shot" and "use your fingertips and let it fly." The 18 past and present players on the trip, whose compensation was a free cabin and air fare, also had time to relax and enjoy the cruise. They could be spotted everywhere on the ship and at the port calls, and they readily mingled with the other passengers.

In addition to the players, guests included an NBA referee, who officiated at the three-on-three tournament and during a game of Simon Says, and professional announcers, including Bill Raftery, who taped a segment for "Coast to Coast with James Brown," a national radio sport show.

NCL's representatives advised the players the first day on how to deal with overly aggressive passengers, but most seemed to have no trouble chatting with fans. Jones, who has participated in all of the line's basketball offerings and helps recruit the players, said he looks for those who are most personable. "It's really a people's cruise," he said. Jones has done so many of the cruises -- he also participates in the line's fitness sailings -- that he knows the tricks of the trade, such as the fact the showers in the spa are more suited to tall people than the showers in the cabins.

There were plenty of basketball fanatics on board the Norwegian Star -- one passenger wore a "Basketball Is Life" T-shirt and several brought along their own basketballs -- but many passengers booked the cruise without realizing basketball was the theme. Sandra Lerch, sports marketing representative for NCL, said the line estimates about 65% of passengers on the basketball cruise (one of the most successful of NCL's sports offerings), are drawn by the theme.

Bill Meredith of Irving, Texas, was on board with his sons, ages 14 and 18, and his wife. He said he was "thrilled with the theme," which he said was an added incentive to book the cruise. He said he wanted to give his kids a chance to meet the players and talk to them. He booked his trip through an agent, who he said got the sale because she had information on the cruise at hand.

Chuck Siegel of San Antonio said he's a frequent cruiser and said it was his wife's idea to choose the basketball cruise. He's also a corporate sponsor of the San Antonio Spurs, which had past and present players on the sailing.

"It's kind of fun to come out here and meet the Hall of Famers, live your fantasy," he said.

Other than specific basketball events, which took place on the Sports Deck and in the ship's various lounges at different times, the ship operated pretty much as normal: You may be standing in a buffet line behind an extremely tall person; during breakfast in the Midnight Lounge you could hear the melodic tones of the balls hitting the deck overhead, and the ship's comedian picked on the players a bit during his act.

But you could avoid the basketball action and still also enjoy this cruise. I wasn't thinking about basketball during my massage in the ship's spa, for instance, or when catching a quiet read on deck. Nor were the boys thinking about the game much when they spent as much time as I'd let them in the ship's video arcade. And basketball was just a brief topic of discussion at our dinner table.

Next year's basketball sailing slated for Norwegian Sea in July

Next year's Sports Afloat Basketball Cruise will take place on the July 25 sailing of the 1,496-passenger Norwegian Sea, which is taking over NCL's seven-day Texarribean itinerary -- from Houston with stops in Calica and Cozumel, Mexico, and Roatan, Honduras -- in December. The Norwegian Star, meanwhile, is being reassigned to Australia, where it will sail for Norwegian Capricorn Line, a new firm in which NCL is a joint-venture partner.

NCL's Sports Afloat lineup for 1999 also includes football, hockey, baseball and fitness cruises as well as a cruise done in partnership with Sports Illustrated.

Reservations: (800) 327-7030.

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