Inside the arena, the home opener has a first day of school feel. On one side of you are the season ticket holders you got to know last year. It’s good to see them again. On the other side are some new people and you introduce yourself and make small talk: about the team’s prospects this year, about the cost of the tickets, about your kids or their kids or how many kids are on the team this year.
After the team is introduced and you cheer because you haven’t forgotten how, you watch the players go through their pre-game shooting routines. Maybe somebody’s shot looks a little better, you think, or maybe you haven’t gotten a chance to see some of the new players at all. It all approximates with eerie fidelity the charged, vibrating atmosphere of that first day back in homeroom — the novelty and nostalgia, the light giddiness and nerves, the familiarity, the potential, the mix of unspoken doubt and confidence.
The horn counts down. The colors are presented, the anthem is sung. And then blackout, the rising roar of the crowd joined by a low, inchoate hum as the sound system thrums to life. Everyone lifts their eyes to the scoreboard.
Prepare to be hyped.
A month before this moment, a dozen or so stations are set up in the withered husk of what used to be the Hard Rock Cafe on the first floor of what used to be the Block E shopping center across the street from the Target Center. Each station has a camera, some have sound, all have stage lights, and many have a table of props full of junk: Christmas sweaters, wigs, cheap electric basses, inflatable electric guitars, ‘80s sunglasses and windbreakers. Hulk Hands. Black silk robes and rose petals. These last two are for the Kiss Cam and Valentine’s Day, and Executive Producer of Live Programming & Entertainment Chadwick Folkestad is giving the crew manning that station a few last minute instructions when it comes to directing the players.
“Don’t make the kiss cam sexual,” he tells the guy in charge of the station. It should be, he explains, charming, a definite “Hey ladies” type of moment. It also has to be achieved very quickly: each player will be at each station for nine minutes. Not about nine minutes, not ten minutes. Nine. Minutes.
For the Minnesota Timberwolves and most other NBA teams, Production Day is shadow version of Media Day. It happens simultaneously with the first big press event of the season and everything fans will see up on the scoreboard from opening night to the final game in April is made of what they get on this day. As such, there are priorities, something of a ruthless calculus.
The coverage of players they get here has to be spread around because, simply put, things change. In 2014-15 the Wolves suited up 25 total players over the course of the season. It was a year when Barea was waived days before the season opener, when Ronny Turiaf and Corey Brewer were traded in mid-December, when Thad Young was traded to the Brooklyn Nets for Kevin Garnett at the trade deadline. Everything featuring any of them had to be recut and there was no chance to shoot more. Folkestad and his team have this one day — basically a generous six to eight hours with players who are being shuttled here and there constantly — to get everything they’ll use for the rest of the year: sketches, skits, intros, material for scoreboard animations.
At one station, Zach LaVine is asked to jump up and pretend to dunk a ball for one of the latter. “Can I have a ball?” he asks. No, he cannot; it will be put in digitally. He’s told not to really jump too high, but LaVine pretending to jump jumps higher than most human beings actually dunking a basketball. He does it a couple times. The cameras roll incessantly, because B-roll is essential.
Folkestad says for all they ask the players to do, it’s often the moments before and in between what’s planned that will be most useful. In the instant before a player is asked to mean mug for the camera, he might shake his hand out at his side, look introspective for a moment as he looks down, casually toss a ball in a genuinely unscripted moment. This is often where the gold is. How much of what they film today will they actually get to use?
“Conservatively,” Folkestad says, “thirty percent.”
It’s impossible to know what’s going to work and what isn’t, so they try everything. Any given player’s willingness to participate in the funnier stuff is reliant on a complex matrix of factors that change and shift constantly.
“When we’re putting this stuff together,” he says, “we’re putting it together with the knowledge that we don’t want the guys to look stupid. We don’t want them to come across in a bad way or a weird way.”
Rookies, generally, are up for whatever — it’s all new to them. Stars can be more leery of the skit stuff, although there are exceptions and everyone is, of course, different. Role players overall are down for whatever, but that’s in an inverse relationship to how well known they are to the crowd who will watch them on the scoreboard. Every player has different strengths, and Folkestad strives to bring the best out of them even when they’re not totally comfortable reciting lines.
Take Nikola Pekovic: voluble in the locker room, but never one for goofing off in front of the camera. He became one of the Wolves’ most popular players on the scoreboard just by saying, “Meat.”
“We told him, ‘Look like you don’t care’ and he said, ‘Well, that’ll be easy,’” says Folkestad. “It’s how you deal with anyone. You gotta read them a little bit, and you gotta know that when you’re really putting yourself out there and you really need this one thing that they don’t [disgruntled noise]. You have to know the risk you’re taking in pushing them to do it. If they hate it, you’re not gonna get another chance.”
So there are plans — extensive plans — for everything they’re going to try to get on Production Day but then nearly all of it can be tossed at a moment’s notice. A bit with guys playing air guitar is quickly binned when it doesn’t look right. A bit where players pretend to watch and react to a movie requires a little more acting: They shouldn’t look directly at the camera. “Also,” Folkestad instructs the crew at the station, “not everyone should be Michael Jackson eating popcorn in ‘Thriller.’” They added 30 seconds to the end of the Christmas sweater station so the players can get in and out of them. And “added” means they took 30 seconds out of the brief nine minutes they already have. The clock is constantly ticking and guys end up at the wrong station or out of order and they just have to roll with it.
A seemingly minor but actually huge thing in the giant, warehouse-esque space is sound. Many stations don’t have sound — they’re just capturing video that will have music over it. But a few do, and it’s astoundingly important to get clean audio there. This is sound that will be pumped through Target Center’s (new and finally improved) sound system and random noise and chatter in the background will be a big problem.
Bit by bit, the gold shows through in places. Karl-Anthony Towns’ dramatic spoken word reading of Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” is spot on, although it’s too long and will have to be mined further. Zach LaVine’s capsule reviews of movies he hated are hilarious, carried by LaVine’s natural charm and confidence. Nemanja Bjelica looks amazing in a neon windbreaker and ‘80s shades.
So amazing that the crew and other waiting players start to crack up at it while Cole Aldrich listens to country music on headphones and reacts to it. They need the players to be as relaxed, comfortable and natural as possible, but they also need it RIGHT NOW. Folkestad shushes them quickly and forcefully.
“That’s the worst,” he says, “but this is our content for the whole year.”
Upstairs, the Mayo Courts have been converted from a practice facility to an impromptu film studio and the logistics have been a challenge. Offices overlooking the courts had to be blacked out. Thousands of feet of carpeting was brought in to prevent damage to the hardwood. A whole chunk of the set had to be moved out of the way for a couple players to get in an impromptu shooting session the night before. A sort of box of 4K monitors was built to flash video around players dramatically — an element Folkestad had wanted to do before but couldn’t pull off. Getting it all synced means lining the monitors up perfectly to make sure the video transitions from one to another seamlessly. And it’s all going to appear on the scoreboard for the briefest of seconds.
These are the stakes of the job, and if the sketches and skits press home just how much work they have to shoehorn into a few hours, the setup for capturing the material for the video the NBA calls the “show open” reinforces how tight the goalposts are. If everything comes together flawlessly, the crowd shouldn’t even notice. The scoreboard (which is new and impressive on its own) will do its job and everyone will swell with an excitement that evaporates into the game itself. But if anything falls flat, suddenly everyone focuses on that.
It is — if you’ll excuse the leap — a text case for Husserl’s phenomenology: All of the content Folkestad and his team put together recedes from our consciousness when it’s present and functioning as intended. We notice it only when it is “broken” in some way, when it juts out into our consciousness.
“I will say that we cannot create the experience, period,” Folkestad says. “But we can enhance the experience. We hope that anything we’re doing is buried by a buzzer beater or something like that. We kinda hope if something we did didn’t go as well that there’s a buzzer beater so people will forget about that, too.”
Asked what the biggest disaster he ever had to deal with was, Folkestad struggles to come up with the right answer. It’s not, he makes clear, because everything goes off flawlessly, but rather because there’s hardly a game where something doesn’t go wrong at some point. But once you’re off and running, you just have to get up again when you stumble.
On Production Day he’s doing what he can: rotating from station to station and trying to make sure he gets enough. As players dribble up the court, lights flash and video screens strobe. He tweaks the pattern of flashes, shouts, “Now! Now! Now!” to the guy who punches the button that manually shoots off the klieg lights. The vocabulary of this stuff is well-established: dramatic, intense, stark. Players dribble the ball hard into the floor, grab it with both hands, hold it out with one hand, tilt heads, yell — all the stuff you feel like you’ve seen a thousand times. The magic can be worked more or less with, well, just about anyone.
But each team’s approach is subtly different. Some reels are heavy on highlights, some feature players in a fully lit arena, one might have amped up soul music, one might have hip-hop, one might lean more heavily on EDM. Folkestad favors contrast, drama, darkness shot through with light for video clips. To supplement what happens on the scoreboard, the Wolves have doubled their lighting package in the arena. The crowd at a basketball game is diverse in their expectations: there are diehard fans, diehard basketball people, casual newcomers, kids, everything. And every city’s fanbase skews this way or that. The right approach will blend familiarity and tradition with a few things that nudge people out of what they expect. None of it, in short, is as generic as you might assume before you get to see exactly how it all gets put together.
Players filter through the darkened practice facility. At first, there’s not enough fog, then there’s too much. The fog guy has to find that perfect inflection point. The monitors set up to check the work display tiles of what’s happening at all the stations. Ricky Rubio silently screams in front of a ring light while a camera on a boom arm flies by Zach LaVine. For the briefest moment, you can see an exit sign flare in the otherwise completely black background, the camera hitting an angle that admits a little of the real world into the inky, dramatic dark. But it’s only a split second and there’s likely enough on either side for the shot to work. For all the audience will see at the home opener, this stuff could have been shot on the surface of the moon.
When the lights drop and the arena starts to thrum on opening night, people are at their most ready to believe. Sure, the most hyped Wolves team in more than a decade is 0-2 but this is the home opener. The season will not, in truth, live or die on this moment and the Wolves as a whole are still a long way from being a team where those moments even happen. In the Finals last year we had LeBron’s Block and Kyrie’s Shot and Love’s Defense — all moments that we can capitalize now. This is the stuff of storytelling and that — at its root — is Folkestad and his team’s job, from show open to karaoke skit to scoreboard animation.
The last few years haven’t provided many opportunities for great natural stories. Kevin Garnett’s return was one. Instead of frontloading the hype, the intros played like every other game for the first four players. Then there was a brief flash on Garnett and then cut to black, build back up, and the retrospective started. For anyone who was in the arena, Garnett’s first game back was a legitimate chills moment. With that much narrative heft, it was a gift for Live Programming & Entertainment and they nailed it.
In truth, they didn’t have to write that story; they just had to not screw it up. But if we’re being honest, something like ninety percent of your life is not-screwing-it-up. Given the talent they’ve got, ninety percent of the Wolves becoming a real playoff contender is going to be not-screwing-it-up. Not-screwing-it-up is an underrated lifeskill.
The aerated giddiness of the first day of school doesn’t stem from the prospect of unalloyed success. No one who’s been through a year of school could think that. It comes from the combined nervousness and excitement of victories and failures, from the hope that you can tally more of the former than the latter, from a belief that hard work can still make a difference ahead.
Production Day is a month in the past and all the material is there, but the work isn’t done when the lights drop and the year’s first show open lights up the scoreboard. Folkestad estimates they’ll hit their stride with everything in mid-December, maybe like the team itself. For them and the entire Wolves organization, the work is always just beginning.