For some Atlanta Hawks, a revved-up game of Uno is diversion No. 1

Credit: Chris Szagola

Credit: Chris Szagola

Lamar Patterson was new to the Atlanta Hawks when he discovered several teammates playing a popular card game at training camp. Patterson asked if he could join them. He thought he knew the rules.

“I’m sitting down with these guys for the first time, and I play all the time, you know what I’m saying?” Patterson, a reserve shooting guard, said before a recent game here. “But they were all like, ‘No, see, we play this way, with the Draw 2s and the Draw 4s from the extra decks. We lay the heat.’ And I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”

The Hawks were laying the heat — playing Uno, the colorful card game favored by countless schoolchildren and, yes, by a group of millionaires aboard the Hawks’ private plane.

“Uno,” forward Kent Bazemore said, “is always a thrill.”

The Hawks, like many professional sports teams, have a lot of free time to kill, much of it spent on airplanes traveling to games. Some of the players keep busy by watching movies. Many sleep. Others play cards, a popular pastime for athletes who are competitive by nature.

Yet the Hawks’ card game of choice might come as a surprise. Teammates who have resisted the urge to wade into the Uno fray know enough to keep a safe distance.

“They get serious,” Justin Holiday said. “Real serious.”

It all started innocently enough when Jeff Teague, the team’s starting point guard, brought a deck of Uno cards on a trip last season. He gradually recruited several teammates — Bazemore, center Al Horford and guards Kyle Korver and Dennis Schroder — to start participating in a regular game.

The conventional objective — first player to get rid of all his cards wins — was enough to keep them interested, but they soon wanted to spice things up. So Bazemore and Schroder hatched the idea of adding some of the more notorious cards from at least two other decks — all the Draw 2s, Wild Draw 4s, Reverses and Skips. The players referred to the extra cards as “heat.” The game was born anew.

“I think everyone should play it that way, because it’s no-holds-barred,” Bazemore said. “It’s the WWE of Uno, man. It’s crazy.”

The games almost always continue from takeoff to landing, and each player is expected to be a full participant, with no excused absences. Guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who was a part of the group earlier this season, learned that lesson. After a couple of weeks spent honing his Uno expertise, teammates said, he wanted to take a break, if only for one flight.

“He said he was tired and wanted to rest,” Schroder said. “So we had to kick him out.”

Hardaway has not been invited back. Those who have stuck with the game cite the value of chemistry and camaraderie.

“You get all these long flights, and you can only watch so many movies,” Horford said. “So it’s a good way for us to interact as a group.”

Horford said they played purely for pride. There are clear rivalries.

“It’s usually Kent and Dennis who are mouthing off most of the time,” Horford said.

Mike Muscala, a reserve forward who sits near the Uno players, has grown accustomed to their histrionics. Muscala has no pressing desire to join the game, he said. He saw what happened to Hardaway, after all, and is aware of the group’s unusual demands — commitments Muscala does not want to make. He typically occupies himself on flights by sleeping, reading and eating. Mostly eating, Muscala said.

“It’s a very tightknit group,” he said. “Even if I wanted to play, they probably wouldn’t allow me. I’m sure there would be some sort of initiation.”

In a twist, four teammates — guard Shelvin Mack and forwards Paul Millsap, Thabo Sefolosha and Mike Scott — play a regular game of Spades on the Hawks’ flights. But it is a low-key affair. They sound as if they are at a yoga retreat compared with the Uno players.

“The Uno guys are screaming and cheering,” assistant coach Darvin Ham said. “It’s every emotion possible.”

For the first 20 games this season, Schroder said, the Uno group had a prime location on the plane: a section in the middle with a large table. It was glorious, he said. He sounded almost wistful describing it.

“But then we started losing,” Schroder said, “and the coaches said we had to go.”

Banished to a spot toward the front of the plane and suddenly absent their table, the group had no choice but to improvise, draping a blanket over Schroder’s suitcase. It had the advantage of being large, with ample surface area.

“He can fit a lot of clothes in it,” Bazemore observed.

For the record, Ham said the Uno players were relocated because of safety issues — the plane’s crew needed a clear path through the aisle — and not because the team was struggling. But if the players were under the impression that it was a punitive measure, Ham did not seem to mind. Schroder acknowledged that he misses the Uno table.

“We have to take care of business,” Schroder said.

It has reached a point, Schroder said, that the team’s Uno practitioners actually look forward to packing their bags and boarding the plane for their next trip. Schroder is responsible for the cards, stashing them in his designer backpack.

“Dennis takes real good care of the deck,” Bazemore said.

Some of their rules are more complicated than others. If a player is holding the same type of card that was just thrown by an opponent, he can play it out of turn. And depending on the circumstances, a player who throws a Draw 4 card can actually force an opponent to draw eight. To explain other tweaks to the game might require a flowchart.

“It’s such a strategized game,” Bazemore said. “You can’t just go up there and play reckless.”

In any case, there is often a flurry of late-game action. Bazemore recently had to draw 50 cards after opponents conspired to hit him with a series of Draw 4s.

“That was pretty memorable,” Horford said, “just because we’d never seen that happen before.”

Horford was the group’s top player last season, he said, so dominant — and his victory total so unapproachable — that the players created a new system in which they compete to 10 wins. Once they crown a champion, the totals are reset for the next round.

Horford keeps track of the score on his mobile phone. He recites the totals after each game to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

“There’s been some controversy,” he said.

Patterson owns the current championship belt — a figurative one for now, although Bazemore has been tasked with ordering an actual belt online. It will be very glamorous, Bazemore said, befitting the high stakes of their game-away-from-the-game.

“I can’t wait,” Patterson said. “I’m going to be walking around with it everywhere I go.”