At Home, the Warriors Are Just Part of the Show


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.

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Brett Yamaguchi, who runs the floor operations at the arena, at his courtside control panel watching a scoreboard video with Alicia Smith, an assistant.

Credit
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

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.

“The stars are on the court, and we know that,” said Yamaguchi, whose title is director of game experience. “It’s Steph Curry 1,000 percent. And we feed off that energy as much as we can. But there is a lot of time between that we try to keep the fans engaged.”

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.

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A performer waited for Smith’s cue to take the floor.

Credit
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

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.)

The N.B.A. dictates television timeouts at the first whistle after the 6-minute and 3-minute marks of the first and third quarters, and the 9-, 6- and 3-minute marks of the second and fourth. Yamaguchi had them filled precisely.

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.

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Before the Warriors-Thunder opener, the seats at Oracle Arena were draped with free T-shirts that read, “Strength in Numbers.”

Credit
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

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.

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