High-flying Minnesota Lynx actually fly coach … and pay bag fees

Chuck Barta
Chuck Barta

The job description underplays the responsibility. The Lynx list Chuck Barta as head athletic trainer, when it ought to be something like trainer/travel coordinator/troubleshooter/facilitator. 

The WNBA isn’t bloated with staff or drowning in cash — yet — so certain employees take on multiple assignments. Thirty years ago, when the NBA teetered as a mom-and-pop operation, trainers often doubled as traveling secretaries, booking flights and hotels as well as taping ankles; Mike Abdenour just finished his 35th season handling both for the Detroit Pistons. That’s what Barta does for the Lynx.

It’s a tricky juggle because the league’s collective bargaining agreement prohibits teams from taking charter flights, which pro and college men’s teams prefer these days. (Why? Fairness. Some teams can’t afford it, so this prevents a flush team from gaining a competitive advantage.) So everyone flies commercial, on coach tickets, dealing with the same annoyances we all grumble about.

Like? Bag fees. To get around them, players and staff pool the free bags permitted on their Delta SkyMiles credit and elite status cards, with Barta coordinating. If that’s not enough to cover the 17-person travelling party, Barta can cover nine bags — his, plus eight more — for free on his American Express card.

I’m not making this up. Fly a different airline or get an uncooperative out-of-town gate agent, Barta said, and it adds $200 to $250 to the cost. And with airfares soaring this summer — $737 round-trip to Tulsa? Really? — every dollar counts. Especially for a team whose bottom line depends on a long playoff run. 

“You take care of what you can take care of,” said Barta, the Lynx trainer since 2007.

So this weekend, when the 7-0 Lynx play in Seattle on Friday and Los Angeles on Sunday, Barta fills a role as vital in its way as Maya Moore’s and Lindsay Whalen’s.

“He makes it go very smoothly,” Whalen said. “Chuck has done a great job.”

Lindsay Whalen
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Lindsay Whalen

If you follow the NFL, Barta’s name may be familiar. He worked 18 seasons for the Vikings, seven as head trainer, before incoming coach Brad Childress let him go and brought in his own people in January 2006. (That’s not uncommon in the NFL. But it still stinks if you’re the guy shown the door.)

A year later Barta joined the Lynx, exchanging a world of charter flights and team buses with police escorts to … well, something closer to the real world. 

NFL teams employ travel specialists, so Barta never dealt with airlines until coming to the WNBA. And even if he had, NFL travel is a different animal. Big charters with all middle seats vacant; full meals on the plane; specially arranged security screenings to avoid lines and gawking fans at the airport.  Makes everything else feel like steerage on a steamer out of Naples, circa 1905. 

“The travel piece is a stressor for me because I want it to go smooth,” Barta said.

“Coaches worry about coaching. Players worry about playing. I deal with everything underneath. If I’m running around with head cut off, putting out fires left and right, they shouldn’t know about it. They should be worried about coaching and about playing. Nothing else.” 

Planning starts in the off-season. Team operations coordinator Clare Duwelius reserves plane tickets and hotels with input from Coach Cheryl Reeve as soon as the WNBA releases its schedule. The Lynx usually fly Delta because it’s the local hub, and most veteran players hold Delta elite status after racking up multiple overseas flights. And yes, players keep the miles they accrue on WNBA travel.

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“When we check in, we don’t have to pay for bags, we get upgrades, that sort of thing,” Reeve said. “You get your priority boarding and priority screening. That makes the travel a little easier, a little smoother, a little quicker. When you fly an airline you’re not usually on and don’t have status, now you’re standing in the long security line, you’re waiting until the flight is basically all boarded, and your carry-ons don’t fit.” 

The Lynx generally arrive in a city the day before game and leave the day after. Duwelius never travels, so on the road, Barta handles the day-to-day grunt work, assisted by Lynx radio producer John Focke and public relations manager Ashley Carlson. Duwelius fills seat assignments based on WNBA seniority and individual preferences. Among the mandatory tasks: Scoring an aisle seat for 6-foot-10 assistant coach Jim Petersen.

“I feel worse for Jim than myself,” said center Janel McCarville, an antsy flyer who cannot sleep on planes. “Jim doesn’t have to play, but he still has to sit in the seats.”

Among players, any free first class upgrades go to Whalen first. She and Rebekkah Brunson each have 10 seasons in, but Brunson isn’t travelling while she recovers from right knee surgery. “When we had Taj (McWilliams-Franklin), it was all about Taj getting in first class,” Reeve said. “I needed Taj to be able to spread out. Now it’s Lindsay that’s our focus. If Brunson was there, she would be our focus, to make travel as comfortable as possible.”

Organization and a deep cellphone directory help Barta. He hates seeing players and coaches schlep their bags through airports. Over the years Barta collected phone numbers for skycaps in every city, so 10 minutes before the team arrives, Barta texts alerts to see who is available. Likewise, Barta texts the hotel when the team in en route, so room keys are ready on a table in the lobby when the Lynx arrive.

Coach Cheryl Reeve
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Coach Cheryl Reeve

“The nice hotels will give us some fruit and some water,” Reeve said. “Once we land and we get our bags and get on the charter bus, from that point forward, it’s pretty smooth. Not spoiled, but pretty smooth.” 

Some things, though, are out of everyone’s control. Take that brutal three-games-in-four-days stretch the Lynx played in late May.

A scheduling conflict at the Shock’s BOK Center pushed the opening game in Tulsa, originally May 22, back to the 23rd. Delta flies 50-seat regional jets on the route and could not rebook everyone on the same flight. Reeve refused to split up the team. So the Lynx took American Airlines instead, non-stop there, connection through Dallas coming back. And it meant more than $200 in bag fees, Barta said.

Except for one flight cancellation last year that forced the team to spend an extra night in San Antonio, the Lynx have not had a major transportation snafu in Barta’s tenure. Whalen said the players appreciate everything Barta does.

 “We’ll surprise him with a treat, Subway or something,” Whalen said. “He’s always so busy with treatments and stuff. And he never asks. He takes care of us, so we try to take care of him. It’s like a big family on the road.”

By the way: Reeve said Barta’s one piece of WNBA notoriety — an unusual technical foul last Friday night — has been rescinded by the league office.

Referee Tony Dawkins whistled a tech when Barta ran onto the court to assist Damiris Dantas, drilled by a Kayla Alexander elbow to the head midway through the second quarter, because the Lynx had not called timeout first. Reeve insisted the refs should have granted time and tagged Alexander with a flagrant foul.

Reeve said Dawkins admitted after halftime he made a mistake. League supervisor of officials Dee Kantner called the next day, Reeve said, to apologize to her and Barta. According to Reeve, Kantner said the technical was nullified, Alexander received a type 1 flagrant foul, and the officials were fined an undisclosed amount for mishandling the situation.

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