Staging NBA All-Star Game Entertainment No Easy Feat

For basketball fans, few things can beat the excitement of the annual NBA All-Star Game. This year, however, the February event at Philips Arena in Atlanta offered a lot more than just basketball. The weekend also included the fan interactive Jam Session, the All-Star Saturday Night skills events, and the Read to Achieve Celebration, which boasted celebrities such as Justin Timberlake, LL Cool J, and Shaquille O'Neal. While the game itself was obviously the weekend's centerpiece, it also featured plenty of musical performances and more than a few staging challenges, as a result. Among the performers on the basketball court turned stage during the pre-game, halftime, and postgame concerts were Mariah Carey, Kool and the Gang, the Village People, Gladys Knight, Martina McBride, and Gloria Reuben.

NBA officials point out that live entertainment is more than just window dressing for a high-profile basketball game — it's meant to turn the game into “basketball theater,” according to Kevin Dobstaff, director of production for NBA Entertainment. “We're combining the best elements of a concert and a basketball game and trying to jam it all into an arena,” he explains.

Stage and Light

Having a concert meant having a portable stage at the venue — a stage that could move easily on and off the court without interfering with the basketball game. Designing the stage used this year was the responsibility of scenic designer Mike Swinford of UpLate Design, Hermitage, Tenn. “We usually use separate sets for the events on Saturday and Sunday,” Swinford explains. “This year, we wanted to combine everything into one corner of the arena, so we utilized an area near one of the vomitories to erect the stage,” he notes.

Swinford's stage was a hybrid of fabricated and pre-fabricated decking units. “They wanted every possible square inch of space available in the area, so we had to make some custom decking that we used in conjunction with some of the arena's Stage Right decking,” he explains. “Then I made a number of custom plugs and pieces so we could utilize every square inch.”

Color Kinetics iColor units illuminated the stage, which also featured a removable 32ft. ramp. Swinford also used the Color Kinetics units as vertical scenic pieces upstage, to the right and left of the player's entrance.

“They are basically 8ft. fluorescent tubes that are chock full of LEDs,” Swinford explains. “The tube is totally DMX-controlled, so you can have 16 million colors come out of the tube, and you can control the color every foot.”

The lighting package, however, went a lot further than those located on the stage.

“This year, we put in more Vari-Lites than we've ever used before,” comments Dobstaff. “We used them theatrically, as eye candy.” He adds that the Vari-Lite tally came in around 200, primarily VL7 and VL 2416 units, provided by VLPS, Orlando, Fla.

The Vari-Lites were scattered around the building, either on the floor, in the concourse tunnels, or on a truss. “It took a lot of extra time to hang trusses under seats and to get our lights down so they'd be in the picture,” notes staging supervisor/technical director Larry Sedwick. “Usually, we rig the Vari-Lites over the vomitories, but they didn't have any voms in that area,” he adds.

The Vari-Lites were only half of the lighting picture. This year, the NBA decided to light the game floor using 500 PAR cans, rather than using the house lighting system.

“We were able to have dimmable control over the conventional lighting during the entertainment portions of the show, which is something you don't really have with the metal halide lamps in the venue,” explains Dobstaff. “By adding the PAR cans, we had complete theatrical control from a lighting perspective.”

Because the main purpose of the venue was to host a basketball game, obviously, there was no space available for gear on the floor. “All our dimmers and amp racks had to go in the ceiling, and all the power had to be up there,” explains Sedwick, who adds that the Philips Arena's modern design helped ease this complication. “The arena is relatively new and has power in the ceiling, which was great,” he adds.

Audio Augmentation

To complete the basketball theater experience, Dobstaff augmented the venue's sound system with eight additional line array clusters, courtesy of ProMix in Mt. Vernon, N.Y.

“We basically put in additional JBL Vertec line array clusters to supplement the house system,” he explains. The audio was controlled at a front-of-house position in the lower bowl, a sound-isolated TV mix position, and a monitor-mix position near the stage.

There was also substantial audio preproduction involved in the project, as well. “Everything we do is live vocals to tracks,” explains Dobstaff. Consequently, something seemingly as straightforward as player introductions, which could not be timed down to the second, might seem simple, but they weren't.

“We took part of Kool and the Gang's hit ‘Celebration’ as an instrumental bed, and after the first 1:30 of their live vocal performance, we were able to cue it into a loop as a bed for our announcer to introduce the Western Conference team,” says Dobstaff. “We took it out of loop for the second live vocal verse, then went back into the instrumental loop to introduce the Eastern Conference team. Using the [360 Systems] DigiCart [Ethernet-based audio recorder], we could cue between the live vocal sections and the instrumental loop seamlessly. It was more complicated than anyone would realize, taking five different music cues.”

Dobstaff adds that the preproduction work for the segment was done in New York at Pilot Recording, using Pro Tools.

Putting it Together

This year there were 15 trucks of gear used for the production, and the load-in took three full days. With the game on Sunday, rehearsals started on Wednesday. During those days, the crew (including about 100 local stagehands) worked the venue from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., tweaking the intricacies of the show, with the goal being to “entertain the fans every single time there is no basketball being played,” says Dobstaff.

For many people, the halftime portion of the show was the highlight because it included a musical tribute to basketball legend Michael Jordan by Mariah Carey, who performed her second and third songs on a 16ft. stage at center court.

“Everything that we do, we either have in small pieces that can be broken apart really quickly with a lot of stagehands, or we figure out a way it can live there,” reports Dobstaff. The center court stage, obviously, had to move to accommodate the basketball game. It was broken down into eight pieces, and put together at center court, accompanied by four 61in. plasma screens on custom stands. “Between lighting, sound, and scenic, about 50 pieces went out,” including a ramp from the corner stage to center court, confirms Swinford.

Detailed rehearsals and hard work from the large local crew made the halftime show come off as scheduled. “When you have 2:30 to do a change, everyone has to handle one thing one time — you can't go back and get something else,” Sedwick points out.

The halftime preparations also included 30 seats and 20in. flat panel screens for the players to rely on, since they couldn't see the Jumbotron. After Carey's performance, the crew was given just 5 minutes to clear the floor while the players returned to the locker rooms, but “we were actually able to strike everything off the basketball floor in that time,” Dobstaff says proudly.

In 2004, the All-Star Game will be held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and Dobstaff's team is already planning for that event.

“I fully expect that next year will be very star-studded, along the lines of ‘the NBA comes to Hollywood,’” Dobstaff says.

No matter how elaborate the event might get, though, Sedwick promises “we'll figure out how to make it all work.”


Sharon Stancavage is contributing editor for Lighting Dimensions magazine and has penned articles on a variety of topics for numerous trade publications over the years. Email her at sharonxs2001@yahoo.com