A COUPLE OF SEASONS AGO, the Olate Dogs, winners of the seventh season of "America's Got Talent," performed at halftime of a Memphis Grizzlies game. The act consists of a series of tricks and rarely travels with fewer than a half-dozen dogs. Canines being who they are, it's not unusual for them to leave a little something extra out on the floor.
At the time, Grizzlies live entertainment coordinator Kate Ulrich was merely an intern, and it fell upon her to attend to the situation as the halftime clock at FedExForum ticked down. As the players returned from the locker room to the court to warm up for the second half, the contents of the problem hadn't moved.
"I had to have a whole conversation with Dwight Howard about how he could not walk on the court because there was a giant pile of poop from the Olate Dogs," Ulrich said. "He was like, 'I need to go to the ball rack.' I was like, 'You're going to need to go -- there are, like, feces on the court. You need to go around!'"
Most fans at an NBA game won't spend timeouts debating potential adjustments on the pick-and-roll or noting a change in the substitution pattern. Most attendees come to the arena for a night out. World-class basketball will carry some of them, but for the overwhelming majority, it's the overall entertainment event that's appealing. It's a sensory experience with music, a video screen larger than anything you'll find at the local Cineplex, acrobats dunking off trampolines, dancers, mascots, contests.
This spectacle doesn't create itself. It's the product of creative professionals who are every bit as precise and ambitious about their game plan as the players and coaches in the nearby locker rooms. This is the game operations team -- or game ops. Theirs is the game within the game, the stuff fans might not notice at an NBA game, but would be lost without.
This is the story of the Memphis Grizzlies game ops crew on a Saturday night in March.
LISTEN: Amanda Jones, coordinator, promotions and regional marketing
The Grizzlies Grannies & Grandpas Dance Team goes through a rehearsal hours before taking the floor on game night. An offbeat take on the traditional dance squads that are common at NBA arenas, the grannies and grandpas are favorites in Memphis, with fans and the game ops crew. The senior member of the team is an 81-year-old yoga instructor.
LISTEN: Jerry "The King" Lawler, professional wrestler and commentator
Long before the Grizzlies arrived in Memphis, professional wrestling dominated the sports scene in the city. Fans packed into the Mid-South Coliseum on Monday nights for exciting cards that included some of the brightest stars in the sport, including Jerry "The King" Lawler. "The fever, the excitement that was always at our Monday night wrestling shows in Memphis -- it's now at the Grizzlies' games," says Lawler.
With the Grizzlies' Wrestling Night scheduled for later in March, Lawler films a segment for the video board intended to hype fans up.
LISTEN: J.T. Sullivan, Memphis Grizzlies Claw Crew
People go bonkers for free T-shirts. It started with pep squads throwing them up into the stands, and then mascots would fling them into the upper decks with large rubber slingshots. In the mid-1990s, the T-shirt gun started an arms race in the free apparel game. T-shirt launchers became smaller and more accurate, and generated more velocity. Today, large gun launchers are common in NBA arenas.
The early 2000s brought the introduction of the parachute drop -- T-shirts dropping in behind fan lines. The Grizzlies Claw Crew climbs high to the catwalk of FedExForum and sets up 75 parachutes on mechanized turnstiles designed to rotate and stagger the drop of the coveted cloth to the masses.
LISTEN: Jason Potter, director, content and live entertainment
Jason Potter confers pregame with Grizz, the team's intrepid mascot, known for stunts that pay tribute to Memphis' rich history as a wrestling hotbed. Later tonight, Grizz will attempt to balance atop a 25-foot ladder perched on a stage in the upper level while waving a large flag. "The challenge for our team for the particular show that we talk about is, we do have a lot of physical elements," Potter says. "We have put a relatively high bar for what we've done and pulled off in the past. So something like this ... was kind of a natural progression. But that's where I get nervous, too, because then you pull that off, you think, 'Now what do we do?'"
Grizz Girl Ciera applies the last bits of glitter before heading out to greet fans and perform during breaks in the action of the Grizzlies game against the Atlanta Hawks. "I'd say on average three years," Tamara Moore, the Grizzlies entertainment and retail marketing manager (i.e., choreographer for the Grizz Girls and Grannies and Grandpas) says when asked how long cheerleaders stay with the group. "I've got a girl on my team right now that's been here -- shoot she's probably in her ninth or 10th season. ... They try to do it as long as they can. But, you know most of them -- which people don't realize, they think 'Oh, just a pretty face, just out there dancing' -- these girls have full lives. I've got on the team right now: teachers, dietitians, architects, full-time students, pursuing their MBA."
LISTEN: Kate Ulrich, coordinator, live entertainment
Kate Ulrich is one of the primary point people on game night, managing the flow of dance numbers, mascot bits and halftime acts -- on this night, ensuring Percy the dog is properly taken care of. The job isn't without its peculiar trials. "When I was an intern, we had this machine that shoots balls into the stands, and it was broken," Ulrich says. "I was trying to fix it and I dropped the wrench inside of it. Instead of really thinking it through, I just decided to climb in headfirst to get it out and got stuck."
LISTEN: Christian Stoinev, acrobat and performer
Christian Stoinev, of "Christian and Scooby," practices a handstand for his halftime act. Stoinev appeared at 14 games during the NBA season. The son of two performers, he grew up in the circus before leaving home. "Most people run away to join the circus," Stoinev says. "I kind of ran away from the circus." Scooby, Stoinev's childhood pet, was the original Chihuahua, but retired in 2015 at age 12. Percy, 4, has assumed the role of Stoinev's partner.
LISTEN: The performer who portrays the Jazz Bear, who prefers not to be named
To celebrate Grizz's 21st birthday, the Grizzlies flew in Minnesota Timberwolves mascot Crunch (left), Philadelphia 76ers mascot Franklin and Jazz Bear (not visible). The game ops team -- led by Grizzlies mascot coordinator Eric McMahon (i.e., the guy inside the costume) -- scripted out a series of sketches that played out over the course of the evening. "Right now, I feel that players and fans have a little bit of separation, and I feel that a mascot is that connection to the fans, the one thing that's on the floor that wears the jersey of the team and is approachable," says the performer who portrays the Jazz Bear.
LISTEN: Jason Potter via control operator headset
Almost everything fans hear over the booming sound system inside an NBA arena is carefully scripted by the game operations team. Jason Potter (left), director of content and live entertainment, leads a team of experienced professionals who do everything from write timeout sketches to coordinate in-screen video elements. Before the game, Potter and public address announcer John Paul Stevenson review the plan for the March 11 Grizzlies game vs. the Atlanta Hawks.
The ball is tipped at center court as the Memphis Grizzlies take on the visiting Atlanta Hawks at FedExForum. In addition to the contest on the court, an entire staff of entertainment professionals, audio and video staff, furry mascots, and logistics specialists perform an enterprise called game operations. They provide all the action you don't see between the lines, from the music inside the arena to the contests during timeouts. Game ops is truly the game within the game.
LISTEN: Eric McMahon, Memphis Grizzlies mascot coordinator
The Rendezvous Ribs, named after a local barbecue restaurant, get ready for their appearance on the court. Memphis is one of the nation's barbecue capitals, and the Ribs are among the many recurring characters who populate the FedExForum. "We were trying to figure out how to use the Ribs at first," Eric McMahon says. The Grizzlies' game operations team ultimately decided to cast the Ribs as the goons in the elaborate wrestling universe they've created. The Ribs match up against unwitting contestants in games of 3-on-3 basketball. "These guys are just alpha male brutes," McMahon says. "Knocking someone down in a big rib costume with a smiley face -- I always like the humor."
LISTEN: Justin Baker, in-house DJ for the Memphis Grizzlies
Justin Baker prepares his "click effects" for the upcoming game. Baker selects the musical riffs that are played over the sound system during the live game. Rather than rely on standard clips that most arenas play, Baker gravitates to a more eclectic mix of music that differentiates the game experience in Memphis. "That's sort of become a rule around here," Baker says. "No 'Mexican Hat Dance,' no 'Day-O,' no 'Everybody Clap Your Hands.'" Baker sizes up what's happening on the floor before making his selection, calibrating the music for tension and game situation.
LISTEN: Jamie Dunham, fiancée to Eric McMahon
Grizz waves a Grizzlies flag atop a 25-foot ladder after sprinting up from the court. "I thought it went really well," McMahon says. "It was tiring. At one point, I was reaching down to get the flag and I was like, 'I'm not so comfortable right now!'" For McMahon, the rest of the night is all downhill from here -- he'll pump up the crowd during the remaining timeouts -- but the real thrill is in set pieces like the ladder climb in which there's an element of physical risk. "I live for those moments when I'm out of my comfort zone," McMahon says.