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VOL. 7 | NO. 5 | Saturday, January 25, 2014

That’s Entertainment

Grizzlies game ops crew takes fan experience to new heights

By Don Wade

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It was late in Game 6 of the Grizzlies’ 2013 playoff series with the Los Angeles Clippers. Already, FedExForum was abuzz with anticipation. The hated Clippers were about to go down. Grizz, the team’s chest-thumping mascot, scaled a ladder inside the arena and unfurled a banner:

“FINISH THEM.”

By itself, that was enough to make a moment. But Jason Potter and his staff are always looking for more. Potter, Grizzlies director of promotions and events marketing, refers to the in-game entertainment that enlivens timeouts as The Show. And what’s a show without music?

Earlier in the series, the games ops crew had played “Whoop That Trick” from the Memphis film “Hustle & Flow.” Fans reacted to the beat and began chanting the chorus. But in Game 6, when that banner appeared, it went to another level. Fans screamed “Whoop That Trick” and – how good is this? – “Whoop That Clip” louder than ever.

“That’s kind of a civic moment that will live on,” Potter said. “In one way or another.”

Potter, 35, is a Memphian. Born here. Raised here. Understands here.

His childhood Saturday mornings were one-part cartoons, one-part Memphis wrestling starring Jerry “The King” Lawler, who you may have noticed pops up from time to time in the Grizzlies’ entertainment package that plays 41 times during the NBA regular season and comes back for encores when the Grizzlies make the playoffs.

Jerry Lawler’s a friend of the show,” Potter said. “Memphis is unique to have that cultural history to draw on. Over-the-top, kind of winking at the cake in the face plays very well here.”

And Potter and his staff love a cake in the face. They’re shooting for their franchise high this season.

Potter’s preferred title to match his gameday duties?

“For lack of a better term,” he said, “ringmaster of the circus.”

While there are no elephants and tigers, there is that edgy bear – Grizz – and plenty of clowning. The players themselves are key characters in this.

Tony Allen’s “Fact or Fiction” features Allen on the giant video board that hangs over the court. Allen, with a one-of-a-kind smirk, introduces a teammate who makes a statement about himself that a fan from the crowd must decide is true or false.

The best part of the bit? Allen’s intro.

“Totally a vehicle for his personality,” Potter said.

There’s another bit where forward Zach Randolph watches a video on his phone – the crowd gets to see on the video board what Randolph is watching – and a fan has to decide if Randolph will deem the clip “funny” or “not funny.” Think of America’s Funniest Home Videos with Z-Bo as judge and jury.

“I had a good time doing it,” Randolph said. “We had some laughs.”

Potter’s personal favorite is “Great Moments in Literature with Jon Leuer.” This amounts to the Grizzlies’ stoic forward sitting and holding a book, presumably reading Tolstoy or such, in total silence. A few notes of artsy background music help set a tedious tone.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES GAME OPS CREW

THE STARTING SEVEN

Jason Potter, Director of Promotions and Events Marketing

Carly Knight, Sr., Manager of Promotions

Tamara Moore, Manager, Entertainment

Eric McMahon, Mascot Coordinator

Joey Thorsen, Coordinator, Game Presentation

Terran Gary, Entertaintment Team Coordinator

Kate Ulrich, Intern

“It’s so painfully awkward,” Potter said, “I can’t get enough of it.”

This might be a good time to mention some of the people beyond Jerry Lawler that have informed Potter’s views on humor. There is David Letterman. There is Andy Kaufman (The King of Awkward). And there is, believe it or not, Bob Knight.

Potter graduated from Indiana University about the time Knight was finishing his tumultuous tenure there as basketball coach/King of the World. Every so often, Knight would give a lecture in Assembly Hall to the students. The last lecture Potter attended ended with a Q&A. Knight told the students to not be scared, go ahead and ask a question.

“If you have a question that you feel adds to the intelligence of everyone in this room,” Knight clarified.

“So,” Potter said, “some kid, like the first question, says, ‘Coach, are we gonna win the championship this year?’ And he would light them up, eviscerate these kids in front of 10,000 adoring fans. It was more than you could ever ask for. So good.”

A show, in every sense of the word.

Having fun is just good business

From Knight to Kaufman, from Lawler to Letterman, they all made a habit out of crossing lines.

But in the world of NBA Game Ops, some lines cannot be crossed.

“We may include (the players) in jokes,” Potter said, “but the joke’s never on them.”

About the worst thing that will happen to a Grizzlies player?

“Last year I had to do the little boxing match with the robots – the Rock ‘em Sock ‘em,” said point guard Mike Conley. “I lost.”

Potter is on his second go-round with the Grizzlies. He rejoined them in the 2008 season after working in marketing for the Redbirds. So he has gotten to know the core of this Grizzlies team and built some trust. But players have limits, too. Last season, Potter asked the team’s All-Star center to do a gag they called “Marc Gasol Medical Doctor.” Gasol told them, “You can’t do it. I feel stupid.”

The story might have ended there, but “he didn’t want to make us feel bad,” Potter said, and so they struck a compromise. The bit could run during two games of Gasol’s choosing, including a Tuesday night in April against the Charlotte Bobcats.

Asked if the Powers That Be at NBA Entertainment have ever slapped his hands, Potter smiled and said, “No … yes.”

“Whoop That Trick” required a little explanation.

“My argument with them is you have to be here to get it,” Potter said.

It is the same all around the league. Memphis is home to music and Elvis impersonators, The Grindfather and Z-Bo, barbecue and a movie about a pimp trying to find himself. Minnesota is home to Prince – “When Doves Cry” plays as Timberwolves games tip off – about nine months of winter and an All-Star named Kevin Love.

“The weather is a big star up here,” said Chad Folkestad, the Timberwolves’ director of live programming and entertainment. “We’ll sled Santa down the stairs after the first big snow.”

They also do player bits, including, “What Does Love Hate?” Fans are given several choices in food, or music or movies and they have to decide which one Kevin Love loathes.

Folkestad says while they get good mileage out of all things local, it’s important for fans to have a bigger feel about the game experience, that they are part of a “national event, an NBA event.”

Just as the Grizzlies broke new ground last season with a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the game ops crew has been recognized for its efforts, including ranking No. 7 out of 122 North American professional sports teams for stadium experience in the 2013 ESPN Ultimate Team Rankings.

Last season, the “Rendezvous Ribs 2 On ‘Cue Basketball Challenge’’ – where three people in giant foam rib costumes play a 45-second game against two fans – was honored as a Top 5 Sponsored Timeout in the NBA at the league’s sales and marketing meetings. There also have been write-ups about the Grizzlies game experience in The Wall Street Journal and other national publications.

Said Potter: “If we can do an entertaining bit that gets people to talk about one of our partners – like Rendezvous with the ribs or City Gear and Tony Allen’s Fact or Fiction – that’s a gold mine.”

A Memphis star is born

Perhaps no one has taken on a larger persona in The Show than a local trial lawyer named Malenda Meacham.

You know her as Bongo Lady.

At a game last season the fan cam found her, and there she was playing air bongos as fast as her little arms would go.

“She was just killing it,” Potter said.

But what made it really funny was that her teenage son, Hayden Meacham, now 17, was sitting next to her and dying of embarrassment. Now it’s a regular bit. Mom lets her inhibitions go and the son melts into his chair.

It’s unscripted, but not all natural. Bongo Lady confesses to drinking coffee on Bongo Cam night. Don’t know if she takes sugar in the coffee, but there is a sweet side to the story. Hayden surprised Mom with a Christmas gift: a blue Grizzlies jersey, No. 39. “The age I’m always going to be,” she said.

Back at FedExForum this January, she played her part, the crowd cheered, and then she stopped and turned her back to the camera to show that the jersey also bore her name: “Bongo Lady.”

The fans cheered louder.

Rivaling Bongo Lady for popularity is the Grizzlies Grannies and Grandpas dance team, decked out in Grizzlies warm-up suits. The Grannies in particular, eh, hold nothing back.

“Someday, I hope to be a Grizzlies Granny,” Meacham said.

For now, Bongo Lady is something of a Twitter sensation and Twitter and smartphones are fast becoming part of The Show.

“The greatest part of that is the instant feedback to what you’ve just done,” Potter said. “The smartphone is beginning to open up another platform in how you engage fans. Over the next couple of years you’ll see that become more a direct part of the fan experience.”

Instant feedback wasn’t always great earlier this season when things were not going so well on the home court. There were home games that were lost well before the clock struck zero. And fans had more reason to drop their heads and use Twitter to see what was going on elsewhere.

But The Show? It had to go on.

“We don’t like to raise the white flag in game ops,” Potter said. “We joke amongst ourselves, ‘always play to the buzzer.’”

It actually makes good business sense. Decades ago, New York Yankees center fielder Joe DiMaggio was asked why he always played so hard. His response: some kid might be in the stadium seeing him play for the first time.

“I cite that directly,” Potter said. “It’s always someone’s first game. If we lay it up, it’s an insult to the good times we get to have.”

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