Iam sitting in the corner of a dimly lit room and the smiling face of CJ Miles looms over my right shoulder. The only illumination to be found comes from low-wattage track lighting which hangs from the ceiling and the glow from a wall of monitors that cascades the front of this otherwise neutral-toned space. This wall, split into seven main columns, houses roughly three-dozen televisions alongside six staggered – and considerably larger – flat-panel computer displays.
Perched on a desk below these monitors are panels upon panels, each housing rows of switches and buttons, banks of knobs and dials and levers. I envision similarities to that of a room tasked with the launching of a space-bound shuttle — there is even a bright red switch that is labeled “fire” which immediately piques my interest. At the very least, I can mentally transport myself to the security room within the bowels of the Bellagio in Ocean’s 11. Terry Benedict’s eyes in the sky.
Four men – each with varying degrees of facial hair and comedic wit – sit fastened to their chairs, fixated on the images which sit before them. These displays vary in terms of content. There’s a prophet system located on the far side of the desk, queued up with countless images awaiting deployment. Three of the monitors transition from a graphic of 1980s television icon ALF, complete with a foam finger and Cleveland Cavaliers hat, to one of Megan Fox, the 20-something starlet who also happens to be clad in Cavaliers apparel. Each of the smaller televisions are fed visuals from one of the many cameras located just down the hall where the lights are brighter and the music is louder.
These video streams will, ideally, become a part of the headlining show as the Cavs will be playing host to the widely popular New York Knicks on this very evening – fans from both sides will be converging on to Quicken Loans Arena to join the festivities. Two rows of court-side seats have morphed into five. The bass emitting from the overhead speakers feels stronger, reverberating through bodies. Even the cabal of children shooting free throws before the game appears to have wider smiles, mimicking that of Miles, whose likeness is the subject of the Fathead-branded decal which is affixed behind me.
The lights and sounds and smiles, however, are just a few of the ingredients for the in-game equation being formulated by the production staff that is employed by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The task at hand is no different than any night before. This team of individuals must band together and visually meld the steadily growing crowd into the action, but do so roughly one hour before the team – led by superstar-in-training point guard Kyrie Irving and a cavalcade of high-ceiling talent – even takes to the court. The medium through which said melding will take place: The “Q Tube,” a dynamic 28-foot-high state-of-the-art scoreboard that sits high above center court. This glowing orb is equipped with four Light Emitting Diode (LED) high-resolution “virtual scoring matrix” screens as well as a circular LED ring that is displayed along the bottom of the structure. These accouterments come in handy in the event that the four corner-based flamethrowers are not enough to grab ones attention.
The first weapon in their collective crowd-capturing arsenal: Gangnam Style.
The eyes in the sky
The man behind camera No. 4 is ready and waiting as the team’s in-house announcer, Ahmad Crump, stands by, awaiting his queue. Following a brief in-headset countdown, Crump goes live where he verbally queues up a taped segment from the team’s flagship radio broadcast team which will inform fans of what they should be keeping an eye on within the impending contest. When the camera turns back on, Crump promptly kicks the focus over to the team’s DJ, Cleveland-based Steph Floss, who will do his best to help the team back in the control room. After Floss mouths a few words of the unavoidable K-pop single, it is up to AJ Johnson, the team’s director of video production, and his team to find fans who will not only participate in on-camera choreography, but do so with the utmost of entertaining value.
Right on call, Johnson’s crew of cameramen pan through the venue, searching for the next big Q Tube star — the five seconds of fame are entirely complimentary. A young girl and her father appear to be enjoying their time together, at least until her unsuspecting face is smack in the middle of the giant scoreboard. Not getting much in the way of dance-move feedback, the screen quickly transitions to another group of fans. This crew of teens enjoys the spotlight, but their attempt at the signature dance is more of a full-body gyration than in-sync, on-beat moves. Next up: a teenage girl who has been signaling the cameraman in front of her. Once she gets her chance to shine, she quickly starts swaying her shoulders from side to side with her arms dangling in front of her torso. She then runs her right hand through her hair while looking away, the signature move of another pop-song dance craze. “Oh, no…not ‘the Dougie,’” Johnson exclaims in disappointment before calling for another camera.
The fourth attempt is an elderly couple who are innocently sitting near the court, seemingly out for a night on the town, both complete with stark white hair — the woman with considerably more — and bifocals. Within seconds, the man and woman spot themselves on the screen. Without hesitation, they simultaneously throw their hands in front of their bodies, crossed at the wrists, and flawlessly perform the phenomenon known as the Gangnam Style dance for the entire arena — and control room — to see. Their charm, unavoidable. Their choreography, impeccable. Jackpot.
The Cavaliers in-game video production team rosters roughly 20 individuals including, but not limited to, the men behind the video cameras and the men who are seated in front of me with their hands careering from switches to knobs as if they are playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Für Elise on the shards of colored plastic. There are several individuals behind me who happen to be tasked with scouring Twitter to find specific fans who submit something worthy of being shared to the 20,000 fans in attendance. Many fans opt for the self-shot photographs of their parties — “selfies” as the kids say. One fan opts to submit a picture of him with his lips planted a bobblehead of the team’s All-Star, Kyrie Irving. The six-inch tall figurine was one of the more anticipated promotions of the entire season — this fan, a teenage boy with blond hair cut in the infamous cabbage style, obviously felt that this would be the best way to show his appreciation and enthusiasm. While potentially being not the most sanitary of actions, the moment was, naturally, Q Tube gold.
The far right side of the room is walled off by a giant piece of glass. The individuals housed on the other side are those who are in charge of instantaneously feeding the Q Tube staff with must-see instant replays of in-game action. If Irving dazzles with a spin-move, it is the hard work of this team who allow fans in the arena to revel in the moment several more times. If Tristan Thompson promptly displaces what would be an easy two points for the opposition into the fourth row of the lower bowl, it is this group who ensures that the moment lives on.
The vast majority of this video production crew is what Johnson refers to as “seasoned,” having been with the team for 10-to-15 years. Just as unified as those who wear the wine and gold jerseys, this team is fostered on unity and chemistry — there is room for little else when some work weeks can creep into the 70-hour territory after factoring in pre-game preparation and the actual game itself. On a given night, games can extend well north of two hours in duration. When there is only 48 minutes of actual play, it is the video production staff — providing all of the fanciful filler — that ends up putting in more time during a game night that the team takes to the floor.
Hours are spent putting together what the production staff refers to as “packages,” those kitschy in-game clips that typically involve players informing fans of little-known secrets or doing their best to serenade the crowd in an off-key manor. One specific package asks players how much cologne — if any — specific members of the team wear. After several players discuss their fragrant-applying rituals, it is Irving who finishes off the clip by saying that he gives multiple sprays to his neck, chest and body. After a long pause of on-camera radio silence, Irving rhetorically asks “What? It’s not like it’s dripping down my neck or anything,” immediately drawing a laugh from the crowd which enjoys the point guard’s childish body language.
Up on every moment of popular culture, this is the same crew that managed to put together what was referred to as the “Manti Te’o Kiss Cam,” just hours after the Notre Dame linebacker was infamously caught in a nationally-dissected “catfishing” scandal earlier this winter. The idea: locate select fans who happen to be sitting next to empty seats and slap a graphic of a heart around them and their invisible counterparts. The move drew a mixture of belly laughs and sympathetic wincing, but it undoubtedly had people talking about the team that very evening.
“There are a lot of decisions to be made,” says Johnson. “It’s live. If we’re not having fun, the fans are not having fun. We’re always looking for that next fun idea.”
As the game inches closer to tip-off and fans are filing into their seats, Johnson and his crew are preparing themselves for the one specific stretch of time — lasting roughly 90 seconds — where they get to sit back and watch: the player introductions. Though the Cavaliers have had their fair share of lineup changes during the season, this night was even more of a challenge as it was reported just minutes earlier that neither Dion Waiters nor Tyler Zeller — the team’s starting shooting guard and starting center, respectively — would be playing as they had recently contracted a stomach virus that bought them each tickets to the hospital. In turn, the Cavaliers would be starting two player who were acquired via trade a mere few weeks earlier in Wayne Ellington and Marreese Speights.
While this would result in obvious changes for head coach Byron Scott and his impending rotational decisions, the production staff not only has to swap out the graphics of the inactive players, but swap in those of their replacements. The cameramen, who would typically seek out the pair of rookies as they head down the greeting line of teammates, will now have to find the two former Memphis Grizzlies. After a bit of laboring wherein members of the crew attempt to describe the appearance of the new starters, it is decided that the man behind the camera responsible for the first visual to be displayed on the Q Tube would simply “zoom in and focus on the guy who stands up.”
As the introductions draw closer, the production team pre-loads of the requisite graphics and stat lines which will serve to appear under specific players as they participate in the pre-game lay-up line. From there, the singing of the national anthem will take place and the visiting New York Knicks will have their starting five read aloud before their randomly dispersed fans who happen to be in attendance. Once the Knicks are given their just due, the lights in the arena, as well as the Q Tube, are cut and the venue is immersed in darkness. Cleveland’s public address announcer Oliver Sedra takes to the microphone and delivers his trademark excitement-inducing growl.
Johnson flips two red switches located on the left side of the panel in front of him into the ‘on’ position, effectively queuing up the impending show of graphics, highlights and the musical arrangement “Invincible” as performed by Cleveland’s own Colson Baker, better known to the masses as Machine Gun Kelly. A quick countdown ensues. Once the numbers run out, Johnson pushes the bright red “fire” button, effectively launching their visual shuttle in front of the eyes of every fan watching within the venue and at home. The 20,000 in attendance, however, feel the reverberations in addition to the rod-and-cone-rocking stimulus.
The video undoubtedly does it’s job as fans in the arena are instantly transported to an adrenaline-fueled place. The grin-inducing part arrives when the men who helped create the clip and have seen it countless times before sit upright in their chairs, energized and wide-eyed, mouthing every word as the video plays before them. There is a point within the beginning of “Invincible” where a quick double-bass is tapped emphatically — the Cavaliers video marries this with a clip of Kelly mixed with one of Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao, both men pounding their chest to the beat. Almost as if it were an involuntary act, all four men — “so when they feel this…” — instantly connect their right fist to their chest, twice, recreating the same deep sound within the confines of their video-based laboratory.
The recently spliced highlights rolls. A CJ Miles dunk over the outstretched arm of Toronto’s Amir Johnson. A Tristan Thompson block complete with an overlay of Cavalier legend Austin Carr encouraging the opposing player to “get that weak stuff outta here.” And the piece de resistance: Kyrie Irving draining a dagger three-pointer against a stunned Oklahoma City Thunder in front of the home crowd. The crowd soaks in every second; the game can officially begin.
Once the video ends, the break is over — the graphics are ready to roll, the camera men are waiting for their players to stand up. Thousands of fans have already assumed the position. Crump takes over the microphone at center court, and delivers his patented line.
Cleeeeeeeeeeeevelannnnnnnnnnnnddd…It’s time…to meet the starting lineup of your Clevelannnnnnd Cavalierrrrrrrrrrrs….
One by one, the players rise as their name are respectively echoing through the arena’s high-powered speaker system. Irving, then Ellington, then Alonzo Gee, then Thompson, then finally Speights. The camera work is flawless. The graphics align perfectly. The flames booming from the corners of the Q Tube look bolder than ever. Johnson orchestrates as his team queues up additional graphics — what to find and when to implement. He points at the screens as if his cameramen can see what he is looking at. Essentially involuntary actions, it makes him feel more comfortable as if he is literally making things happen with the wag of an index finger. Each request, and how to do so, all spoken in a language understood by only those who live in this native land of video production.
Frontside. Backside. Dissolve. One clean. Go.
Another job well done, but we are just getting started. The focus must now return to the crowd — who will the eyes in the sky find next? The collective fixation returns.
Resting on top of this giant wall of monitors is the result of said fixation. Several awards – ranging from Emmys to Tellies to Golden Matrices – sit proudly between various other team-based personalia, their video instruments serving as a shelf. One of the Tellies came in 2008 when the team won an award for the best head-shot package in the entire NBA. In 2010, the team won a Regional Emmy for promotion within a sports program. The Golden Matrix awards are given to the team who is considered to exude excellence in video production as voted on by the entire league. All awards, a product of the hard work and countless hours of dedication by QTV staff which sits otherwise unknown as the game action rolls on.
Make no mistake: as I sit in my corner of the room with a headset affixed to my curious ears, I hear each and every direction given by Johnson to his staff, but also become privy to the wire-to-wire barrage of one-liners and long-standing jokes. Quick quips, anecdotal observations and playful inside-joke jabs at other members of the production team all met with vaious levels of laughter. With “Harlem Shake” videos being all the rage, Johnson’s crew puts together a video made strictly of Cavalier-addled bobbleheads. The crowd eats up every second of it. Fulfillment enters the room.
Every ounce of every decision is rooted in Cleveland fans and fun. As the production staff unleashes a new concept, the inherent pride can be seen from a mile away as the laughs in the arena lead to 20 smiles inside of the production room. The smiles lead to more jokes which merely serve as creative fuel for the next idea. Granted, some of the ideas have a bit of a narrower demographic — ALF, for instance — but given the age range of those behind the scenes, it’s akin to hanging on to that one George Carlin bit before going to see Louis CK perform. After all, you can’t forget where you came from.
Though Johnson is the ringleader of this award-winning team, he is the first to admit that it is the collective dedication that makes the machine run. Each member owns their role, executing with perfection as to not impede anyone who may be counting on them. The cameramen may not see the screens that Johnson is pointing at during any given moment of the game, but almost as if connected by some cross-arena wavelength, everything the director things magically appears on the screen before him. Though this was just one night over the course of years that this team has performed, the mutual respect and understanding is unavoidable. The pride and accolades, undoubtedly deserved.
Gangnam Style will eventually fade away — some may even say this can’t happen soon enough. The elderly couple who turned their date into Dance Dance Revolution will soon give way to another willing participant who will either master or butcher their opportunity. There is no telling what will be the next “fun” idea or which highlight will be the next to be spliced into the team’s montage. While Dan Gilbert’s camera-laced casino is a few blocks down the street, there’s a good chance that, if you step foot in Quicken Loans Arena, someone in this very room has their eye on you, waiting to make you the next big Q Tube star. There’s a good chance that Johnson and his team will make you shine. And there’s a good chance that, for their hard work, all of the awards which are perched on top of this massive wall of televisions will soon have a few more welcomed additions.
Image credit: Q Tube/cameraman via Mike Brenkus/cre8ive_juice, Control room via Scott Sargent/WFNY)