Hoops all in your face

Mar 27, 2002 at 12:00 am

It’s easy to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” when you’ve got 10 6-foot-plus millionaires running up and down the court slam-dunking, shot-blocking and trash-talking.

You can certainly be forgiven if, while engorged in the celebration of yet another dazzling Jerry Stackhouse dunk, you don’t consciously register the sounds of “Brick House” by the Commodores. But you know what? No matter how masterfully he runs the Pistons’ offense every night at the Palace, Stack’s not the man pulling the trigger on the countless “in-between moments” that you probably take for granted whilst whooping it up as “Detroit Goes To Work.”

And that’s as it should be. If Palace multimedia director Pete Skorich and his crew are doing their job, you’re too busy having a good time, shouting your ever-loving head off for the home team and splitting your attention between the Jumbotron overhead screen and the hardwood to notice that just about every aspect of your experience once you enter the Palace has been taken care of for you.

But let’s take a peek behind the bombast, shall we?

Skorich is as close to a director as this show has and chatting with him from his courtside workstation during the 20 minutes before tip-off is an education in multitasking. As I’m tossing off my journo-queries and gawking at the preternatural enthusiasm of the six twentysomethings who comprise the quasi-military-looking Palace Patrol, shooting T-shirts into the crowd with pneumatic cannons, Skorich is making snap decisions over the headphones that connect him and his 12 lieutenants who call the shots. Polished and dapper, he is certainly not what I usually associate with the phrase “behind the scenes.”

“We want to entertain and educate without taking away from the dignity of the game. Our job,” he says nonchalantly as an errant basketball whizzes past longtime Pistons broadcaster George Blaha’s head, “is to make a 22,000-seat stadium feel intimate.”

As game time draws near, Skorich is looking over the detailed script in front of him. The sheet, with its dozens of cues, accounts for the announcements of Pistons’ voice John Mason, donut races, 90-second blasts of funky R&B from house band the Sun Messengers, canned sound effects, crowd shots on the Jumbotron, a flying, remote-controlled horse-shaped blimp, the halftime performance by the Blue Man Group and the dancing gyrations of a score of spandex-clad cheerleaders, the Automotion. It’s enough to make your head spin. But Skorich and his crew pull it off nearly 50 times a year — enough to make the routine so familiar that it usually doesn’t feel scripted at all.

This is the Sun Messengers’ first full year playing at courtside and the energy difference is palpable. Before this year, the eight-member Detroit R&B icons had been tucked away in an upper-upper-level booth, visible only to the very curious wandering eye.

“The first time down here, we kind of felt like we were under a microscope,” says Sun Messengers co-leader Rick Steiger.

“We don’t really make set lists,” he says. “When you play 250 gigs a year, you get a feel for what’s going to hit. The walk-in music, before the game, can be pretty varied. But once the game starts, we like to keep it pretty pumped up. And it doesn’t hurt that we’re all pretty big basketball fans, either.”

The rhythm of our conversation is dictated by the action on the court, and Rick keeps one eye and one ear peeled for an unexpected break in the game.

“You’ve just gotta stay flexible,” he says, glancing at the script in his hand. “If they call a time-out ahead of an official time-out, you have to call the audible and play something.”

“I’m the audio cheerleader,” says Steve Conway, the Palace’s chief sound engineer, with more than an ounce of pride. “Everyone I know thinks of me when they see that [MasterCard] commercial where they play ‘Loving You’ at the Steelers stadium.”

We’re standing in a 5 foot-by-10 foot sound booth, perched high above the upper level of seats. Steve’s stationed in front of a massive mixing board. All of the arena audio passes through this tiny room. This includes Mason, backstage headsets, ambient arena noise and, of course, the pumping anthems blasting from the arena speakers.

Behind him is a CD collection that could double as a Harmony House store — thousands and thousands of CDs to choose from. Each month, he’s also sent three CDs of the hottest current hits (and some tunes the record companies would like to “break”) from a subscription service that caters exclusively to arena audio folks. He keeps these close at hand.

“Whoever had my job in the ’70s when ‘YMCA’ came out has a lot to answer for,” he laughs.

The hazards of the job are many (and the results blooper-worthy). “Once, I hit the wrong music for Automotion, and they were left just standing there.”

Indeed, a near-miss happens just seconds later when an in-house camera fixes on Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Someone misidentifies His Honor as Palace regular Jerome “The Bus” Bettis. Steve is a half-second away from loosing the Who’s “Magic Bus” on the crowd. Phew.

“When it’s quiet, it’s my job to pump people up,” says Steve. “But when it’s close, the crowd’s into it and my job is to sit back and not let the music get in the way of the crowd’s energy.”

Want in on a little trade secret? “We pump up the court sounds through the house speakers so that people in the upper level can feel and hear the game like they were courtside.”

Want in on another little secret? You are being watched. “That guy can’t keep his finger away from his nose!” shouts one of the six people staring at monitors in Palace’s cavelike video control room.

In easily the most surreal of the Palace’s backstage environments, the denizens of the video booth are creating a live video mix — on-the-spot and meant for immediate consumption. This means that at any given moment, Palacevision director Jim Pearce, the “mixmaster,” could be directing the cameramen who train their lens on the crowd for those ubiquitous “dancing fan” sequences, calling for any one of dozens of ad messages and graphic backgrounds to be displayed on the Jumbotron, mixing in courtside action from one of two cameras under the hoops or asking one of the staff to ready the ’NSync bobble-head footage. (Though, truth be told, one of the crowd cameras was trained on a particularly nubile fan for most of the time I was in the booth.)

Overheard: “Popeye Jones has five. I’ve got the alligator cued up.” Sure enough, a couple minutes later, Washington Wizard Popeye Jones takes his sixth foul, and audio and video spring into action with Bill Haley’s “See You Later Alligator” pumping through the loudspeakers and footage of an über-cheesy hand-puppet alligator gracing the Jumbotron.

This is the convergence of multimedia at its finest. Sometimes, the man behind the curtain is having a good time and taking you along for the ride. As I leave the video booth late in the fourth quarter, an elementary-school girl standing outside the upper-level press box who looks up takes her cue from the Jumbotron and shouts “de-fense!” with all her might. Then, a disgusted look crosses her face as she says to no one and everyone, “That’s why they put it up there! So you say it! Jeez!”

That about sums it up. Heading out through the glamorous media entrance (aka the loading dock), I mix with the throngs of autograph seekers and notice Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins waving amiably to a couple of Pistons players as he heads toward the team bus. Not long afterward, Sports Radio 1130 WDFN’s slightly nebbish everyman Mike Stone ambles out nearly arm-in-arm with Stackhouse. All is right with the world.

Oh, I nearly forgot: The Pistons won the game.

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]