Original Story | www.nytimes.com
May 18, 2016
By John Branch
OAKLAND, Calif. — The third quarter ended, and the Warriors and the Thunder huddled to plot strategy for the fourth. Between them, seated at midcourt behind the scorer’s table, a man named Brett Yamaguchi had a game plan of his own.
“O.K.,” he said into the microphone attached to his headset. “Let’s drop.”
Hidden in the rafters of Oracle Arena, 12 workers on the catwalks began releasing 100 small parachutes, each holding a McDonald’s gift card. In a dark booth at suite level, someone clicked a computer to change the graphics on the video scoreboards to reflect the sponsor. Nearby, a man at a control board set the 66 moving spotlights in the ceiling in motion. Someone else triggered the nearly 20,000 light-up bracelets that had been given to fans to blink red and yellow. The in-house D.J. played the Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me.”
Most of the fans stood, looking and reaching skyward for the gifts as they slowly descended. A small digital clock on each basket, below the shot clock, counted down the seconds to the end of the timeout. The last parachute was caught, the fans still standing, just before the ball was inbounded to start the fourth quarter.
“There was still a lot of hope at that point,” Yamaguchi said later, minutes after Oklahoma City had upset Golden State, 108-102. Around him, fans shuffled quietly out of the arena and the dozen workers in the catwalks made their way down. They had stayed up there for the fourth quarter, intending to drop 50 pounds of confetti to celebrate a victory.
That is the way it usually ends. A Warriors game at Oracle Arena has been called the best show in sports, with Stephen Curry and his teammates leading a high-energy, high-scoring team working toward another N.B.A. championship.
But most of the show is not basketball. Game 1 lasted 2 hours 33 minutes. Basketball was played for 48 of those minutes. The other 105 minutes — 1:45 — was something else.
What Yamaguchi oversees each night, orchestrating every nonbasketball bit of entertainment from the moment the doors open hours before the game to the rooftop fireworks that send fans home after a victory, might be more complicated than anything Warriors Coach Steve Kerr draws up.
He has a full-time staff of three: the assistants Alicia Smith and Marco Nicola, and the dance team director Sabrina Ellison. But on game nights, Yamaguchi employs more than 100 others, from anthem singers to halftime acts, dancers to D.J.s, pyrotechnicians to scoreboard controllers, roving M.C.s to camera operators, T-shirt throwers to confetti droppers. They are the people who take over the show when the basketball players step away.
Yamaguchi, 42, has worked for the Warriors for 19 years, including several seasons during which the team won fewer than 20 of 82 games. (The best on-the-job training for fan engagement? Meaningless, midwinter, weeknight games against the Bucks, the Grizzlies and the Wizards.) Now, during the playoffs, he wears a large championship ring on his finger.
On Monday, four hours before tipoff, Yamaguchi and his assistants watched Bell Biv DeVoe rehearse for a halftime show with the Warriors Dance Team. Yamaguchi then headed up the arena stairs through the sea of about 19,000 yellow giveaway T-shirts draped neatly over the back of the arena seats.
He opened a door to a luxury suite, this one converted into a crammed production room lighted mostly by the glow of monitors and flashing colored lights. Hidden inside were about 15 people sitting at screens that blocked their view of the court below. Their fingers fiddled with keyboards and controls.
They are the team of technicians controlling the videos and graphics, lights and sound throughout the arena. Some operate the huge, four-sided video scoreboard that hangs above center court, the two circular “halos” above it and below it, and the ribbon of video board that rings the entire arena on the face of the second deck. (During the season, they also control the video board fronting the scorer’s table next to the court. In the playoffs, that prime real estate is taken over by the networks.)
When the teams are playing, after every 30 seconds of game time, the boards change sponsors — in this case, Jack in the Box from 7:00 to 6:30 in the first quarter, then American Express, then Crown Royal. Yamaguchi’s command overrules all plans, however. Taking the pulse of the crowd and the moment, he may demand a quick change to a “Defense!” chant or a “Make Noise!” appeal instead of an advertisement.
Yamaguchi handed out the Game 1 script — four pages of minute-by-minute, quarter-by-quarter plans for promotions, announcements and entertainment before the game and during every planned stoppage in play. (Some things are planned to the second; for the 6:03 p.m. tipoff, Warriors player introductions would begin at 6:00:35.)
There were some other things to consider, he told the crew. After Bell Biv DeVoe at halftime, he said, we might have to keep the house lights down, because TNT does not like the sudden change in the background during its halftime. Several members of the Oakland Raiders, including Coach Jack Del Rio, would be sitting together, and Yamaguchi wanted them up on the video board in the second quarter.
Back down on the court, just before the doors opened to fans, players warmed up. Yamaguchi was in his chair, on his headset, with his neck craned to the scoreboard. He was directing a test run of several elements, making sure the advertisements looked right and everything was spelled correctly. He was nervous.
“I still get the adrenaline going,” he said. “You have to. If you don’t, I think you let a lot of things slide by.”
The goal of any game, he said, was to “hit all our cues and be clean.”
“But, obviously, the team winning,” he said, “first and foremost.”
Fifteen minutes before game time, Yamaguchi settled into his seat between the public-address announcer Matthew Hurwitz and a league official responsible for coordinating the timeouts with the network production truck outside the arena. (Sometimes the glare on the floor from the video boards is so noticeable that Yamaguchi is relayed a message to turn down the brightness.)
For nearly three hours, until the end of the game, the soft-spoken Yamaguchi talks constantly. He has two channels on his headset — one for the production crew upstairs, the other to direct the action on the floor through Smith and Nicola, stationed on opposite ends of the court. They take on the roles of traffic cops, shouting at performers to get on the floor and directing the roving M.C.s, Ruby Lopez and Franco Finn.
The house lights dimmed. Fans fell to a hush as the national anthem began. Rubber bracelets that had been handed to fans when they entered twinkled in red, white and blue, and the fans shared a collective ooh.
An operator for PixMob, the company behind the technology, sat high in the arena, controlling the lights remotely. During the game, every time the Warriors scored, the bracelets glowed yellow for a couple of seconds. During halftime, they flashed to the beat. Adobe had bankrolled the promotion, and Yamaguchi hoped success would lead team management to procure bracelets for future games.
Introductions, all lights and volume and theatrics, pushed fans into full frenzy. They stayed that way as the Warriors took a big first-quarter lead, prompting the Thunder to call a timeout. It was not one of the scheduled ones on the script, so Yamaguchi directed music and fan shots on the video board.
“Brett just keeps it hot, trying to keep the energy high,” Smith said from the mouth of the tunnel. She soon spotted the former Warriors player David Lee in a set and called into her headset. Within minutes, Lee was on the video board, receiving a standing ovation.
The basketball game moved in spurts, but Yamaguchi and his crew never took a timeout. There was a glitch at halftime –— one of three microphones mysteriously did not work, forcing the three members of Bell Biv DeVoe to share two working ones — but fans were in a good mood, buoyed by a 13-point Warriors lead.
But the lead shrank in the third quarter and the mood ebbed. At a timeout, at Yamaguchi’s cue, Hurwitz introduced a drum line called Aftershock. Drummers banged, fans stood and bracelets pulsed. Yamaguchi watched a small clock above the basketball hoop, just below the shot clock.
New this season in the N.B.A., it counts down the length of each timeout so that coaches, officials, television producers and game operators like Yamaguchi know just when play will resume, with far more precision than before.
“Before, we would program for the three minutes it’s supposed to be, and it ends up being four,” Nicola explained from one end of the arena. “Then you have lots of dead space to fill. It kind of sucked the air out of the building.”
But the Warriors lost their lead early in the fourth quarter, and the fans fell into a quiet restlessness. Yamaguchi scrapped plans for a video at the first timeout and requested the Warriors Dance Team. Nicola shouted for someone to get the dancers. In a minute, they were lined up, ready to take the floor.
“They’re kind of our go-to, high-energy timeout,” Nicola said.
But the Thunder kept scoring, and the Warriors kept missing shots. The teams exhausted their timeouts, and a sinking feeling permeated the crowd. Yamaguchi called for T-shirt guns, more dancers, more “Make Noise!” demands on the video board — his full arsenal of desperation.
At the end, Yamaguchi and his team were the last ones on the floor. The players were in the locker rooms, and the fans were mostly in the parking lot. Stashes of confetti stayed high overhead, awaiting the next home victory. Not everything can be scripted.
“It’s one of those things, where we do the wristbands and the big halftime show,” Yamaguchi said, “but then the team loses, and no one will remember that stuff.”