Walking out of a cramped, stuffy United Center boardroom two weeks ago, Michelle Harris told me that when she was younger and growing up in Chicago, "I dreamed of being a part of corporate America." She said this unequivocally, without a hint of guile, a wink or even a sneer. She loves a good meeting. Almost as much as she loves a good T-shirt cannon.
Harris is the new director of entertainment for the Chicago Bulls. At the next meeting I attended with her, she carried in stacks of paper fastened in bunches by perfectly vertical paper clips, dropped the stacks on a long wooden meeting table, left the room and returned with her arms overflowing with Post-it pads and markers. She had dreams of playoff game entertainment dancing in her head.
She wanted ideas.
Harris, 34, who grew up in Old Irving Park, stepped back to admire her pile of office supplies the way some admire a box of office pastries. She is so enamored of the corporate NBA milieu that — as department heads and assistants filed into a boardroom — she explained to an executive, without irony, that she was already in touch with her "disco ball vendor," had already ordered red-tinted pyrotechnics, and, as evidenced by her paper stack, already had a few zillion thoughts about how to juice up the United Center during the Bulls' playoff run.
As the staff members — manager of game presentation, manager of administrative services, senior manager of branding, production manager, dance team administrator, corporate partnership assistant and so on — took their seats, Harris directed attention to the six clean whiteboards she had arranged at the head of the table.
"Let's focus on playoffs!" she said. "From what I have seen in past playoffs here, there are opportunities to turn this whole arena red! Everything, all our performers, costumes, graphics, lighting, music, everything red, all the time! We want fans to participate, wear red and be part of stunts. Like, I don't know, a red scavenger hunt. A human running of the bulls. But I'm spitballing, just throwing ideas out there. The purpose of today is to let any crazy idea, any idea that you always wanted to do, into this process. Just throw it out here and let me know. Even if we can't act on it, it could lead to an idea. You know I love process. But I don't have all the answers. Post ideas under categories on the boards: fan stunts, music, video/graphics, lighting/special effects, contests/presentations. We'll go board by board, and I won't get into much detail on any. OK, cool?"
"OK, remember, there are no wrong answers with this. And let's just start out with fan stunts, OK? And to get things going, for instance, one of the ideas that I had was … dressing your pets in red!"
A hand went up: "Just to understand … so, fans taking their pets inside the arena?"
"Maybe! We could! I don't know. OK … go!"
Michelle Harris is the Leslie Knope of the Chicago Bulls: zealous, good at her job, more self-possessed than Amy Poehler's character on "Parks and Recreation" but no less in charge of a department that could easily be overlooked. And yet her arrival at the end of last season, after eight years with the New York Knicks (including several as a Knicks City Dancer), has meant that a floor show already renowned for its deliriously over-the-top, near-satirical bombast has grown even louder, more frenetic, more of everything-at-once. For instance, the music: It's no longer the job of an unseen hand but handled by one of three live DJs whom Harris hired and instructed: Never allow a hint of quiet or downtime to creep into the United Center.
"From now on, we never want silence," she told me later. "That's the worst thing that could possibly happen — silence. Music will play at all times (when the team isn't playing), and when a timeout is called and you don't know yet if it's a full timeout or a short 20 seconds. When in doubt, even in that moment, play music. Awkward silence? You don't want it!" Indeed, during the ideas meeting, as if to reinforce her point, she set up a speaker on the floor and set her iPod to play upbeat dance songs — music to jot on your Post-it note by.
Behind the scenes at the United Center, the arrival of Harris has meant a sea change in the way the Bulls think about in-game entertainment. Until last summer, most of the regular game entertainers, from the Luvabulls cheerleaders to the grandmotherly Swingin' Seniors dance troupe to the drumstick-twirling Bucket Boys, were independents, freelancers. Harris made them contracted Bulls employees.
And these idea meetings …
Before Harris started, the Bulls didn't have them. "Well, not organized meetings, and never ones that included the whole staff," said Barry Anderson, manager of entertainment. Also, rehearsals: Before Harris, the Bulls' floor show — popular as it has been, often ranking second in NBA-conducted fan surveys, behind the Miami Heat's in-game entertainment — mostly came together loosely. After her, it's hyperorganized and efficient, every split second maximized for optimum effect (at all times, a fan's head should be trained on the video board or the court). Each home game now requires two hours of rehearsals and a 10-page spreadsheet schedule detailing everything, from video playlists to that night's winner of the Dunkin' Donut race.
"OK, done? Fan stunts," Harris said and walked to one of the whiteboards, now covered in Post-its.
She read: "'Something on the Red Line …' Great. 'Video of dueling neighbors competing to be the reddest' … Perfect. 'Red palms' … 'InstaVid dance-off contest' … 'What would you do for tickets?' … 'Red food eating contest' … 'Something with the cast of Chicago Fire' … This is mine: Those vertical runs? A fan race to the top of a Chicago skyscraper to turn on the red light, to go with the human running of the bulls?"
Benny the Bull (or, rather, the person who plays Benny and asked not to be identified) spoke up: "Actually, I had this idea a while ago, where Benny does this, and at the top he goes to pull the lever … and it breaks!"
"Yup, yup," Harris said, beaming. "Let's keep it going. Next category, video and graphics."
A few moments later, she turned off Katy Perry on her iPod. "OK, video," she said, looking at the board:
"'Red Hot Player of the Game' … Love it! 'Minute-to-Win-It with red items' … Yes! 'Benny on the ledge of the Willis Tower as city turns red in background' … 'Video: Red, Redder, Reddest' … 'Celebrity shoutouts from red celebs. Example: Robert Redford' … Ha! 'Kissed by a Rose-Cam' … 'Lady in Red Cam' … Yes!"
Harris' story is quick: Having grown up in a large Filipino family, she says, "I have always felt affinity for lots of action around, having lots of people around." She was a cheerleader at St. Ignatius College Prep on the Near West Side. As a college student — she studied business at New York University — she continued dancing, first landing a cheerleading spot with the WNBA's New York Liberty, then, senior year, on the Knicks' cheerleading squad. She soon became squad captain, and, after presenting the Knicks front office with a Power Point presentation for "enhancing revenue opportunities" with its dance teams, she rose quickly in the organization, landing celebrity guest DJs (Questlove), replacing red carpets with Knicks blue, hiring Alicia Keys for in-game videos and bringing in the Beastie Boys to kill the arena lights at tipoff.
Her name circulated.
About a year ago, Jeff Wohlschlaeger, the Bulls' longtime director of game operations, left for NASCAR. Then another Bulls entertainment exec quit. And then, after three decades with the team, the Luvabulls manager retired. Harris was brought in, her director of entertainment title created to designate her a kind of entertainment czar.
And yet her plan, she said, is strictly evolution, baby steps leading to vast, ambitious spectaculars.
This season she introduced an in-house, in-game ringleader/host of sorts. Next season, she plans to scrap the decade-old "Running of the Bulls" pregame video of digital bulls stampeding through Chicago (directed by Chicagoans Andy and Lana Wachowski, of "The Matrix" fame). Bulls will still run, only now in a "super-realistic, Batman-Hollywood-blockbuster thing" requiring some helicopter flyover work this summer and created by Wondros, an in-demand Los Angeles commercial production company that counts director David O. Russell as part of its creative stable.
That's for starters.
"My vision for the Bulls is this: I want games looking like Jay Z-Justin Timberlake concerts," she said. "That is literally the reference I use with vendors now. The latest, most current stage technology, I want it." For instance, the Cleveland Cavaliers recently employed a bit of "augmented reality," she said. Holograms, basically. Harris is envious. She sees ghost bulls storming the United Center court. Maybe next year.
Back on Planet Bulls, in that Madhouse on Madison boardroom, Harris clicked off her iPod again and read the staff's suggestions for songs to play during the playoffs: "'Red Strokes' by Garth Brooks … 'Red Nation' by The Game … The extra-clean version, yes? … TLC's 'Red Light Special' … Which would be funny, really dramatic. Sexy! … 'Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,' Elvis Costello … Cool! … 'Little Red Corvette' … OK!"
It went like this for an hour: Staff hunched over Post-it pads; Harris reading the notes, giving limitless praise. For lighting: "'Red searchlights in parking lots' … That's awesome! … 'A red Michael Jackson light-up floor' … Great!."
For contests/presentations: "'Get DJ Flipside to have a red Mohawk' … Cool! … 'Red props for all contests!' … Yup. … 'A military presentation' … Of course. … 'Turn the brewpub into a red light district' … Ha!"
Only once did I detect a shiver of tension: Someone suggested putting "See Red" T-shirts on every seat in the United Center, and a longtime Chicagoan replied: "Won't work. One person will gather up those shirts." To which Park Ridge native Emily Livacari, manager of game presentation (who worked with Harris in Manhattan), said: "New York is worse than Chicago like that, and we did this for the Knicks. It worked."
Harris listened and nodded.
She likes a grand gesture. As Livacari said later, "Michelle tends to think beyond what is possible, in a good way." For instance, when it came to a question of live acts, she lit up at the thought of hiring Bill Murray for team introductions, gushed at the idea of British act Simply Red, dreamed of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Then wrapped the meeting: "Awesome, guys! This will all be summarized in a document. You will all receive it!"
A few days later, at a rehearsal, I stood alongside Harris as she watched a saxophone player at midcourt practicing the national anthem. She told me that she was introducing two new "fan pumper" videos that night, and everything looked great, but the singer they asked to sing the national anthem got sick and dropped out. A graphic flashed across the video board. She glanced up quickly, then returned her gaze to the saxophonist.
"I get bummed if things don't work," she said. "Or just sorta work." She didn't mean the saxophonist — just in general. "When fan response to something is lukewarm, I get bummed. But then we have another meeting."
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