You see the O2 decked out in NBA gear. You see the players, the cheerleaders, the entertainers and the camera crews. What you don’t see is the sheer amount of hard work and organisation that goes on behind the scenes at an event like Europe Live…or, indeed, each and every NBA game. On Monday night I was lucky enough to be a part of the backstage team. This is how it went…

It’s easy to be overwhelmed – even after multiple visits – by the O2. I heard more than a few of my American colleagues talking about how it was “just like being at Staples” (L.A.’s state-of-the-art arena). But as the public packed the bars and restaurants under the domed roof, I headed backstage.

Our small office was rammed with staff, boxes, paperwork, laptops and monitors – as well as a small fridge with all the Powerade, Coke and water we wanted. After a few brief introductions I was taken to get my official pass that would basically allow me to wander wherever I wanted for the entire night. Sweet.

First place I headed was the court. There’s something magical about standing on an NBA hardwood floor, looking around at the thousands and thousands of empty seats that will be occupied by people in a matter of hours…the eerie quiet replaced by the roar of an NBA crowd. It was an incredible moment that I won’t forget in a hurry, even though all I really wanted to do was get some shots up!

Hallowed ground

Everything about game night is meticulously rehearsed down to the finest detail, to ensure that proceedings run smoothly. The cheerleaders, the MC, the mascots and the crazy-dunkers (who spring from trampolines to pull off jams that should only belong in a video game) all get some practice in. The whole thing reminded me more of a Broadway show than a basketball game. Meanwhile, my colleagues were all linked to each other via wireless headsets so they knew exactly where they were, and what they were doing, at all times. Sponsors and other League officials were walking around, on their phones, tying up the loose ends…and some of the media had arrived already – I recognised former NBA-star Jon Barry getting ready to call the game for ESPN.

A few hours before tip-off, the stars themsleves began to turn up. First to arrive were the Laker Girls – not exactly looking how they eventually do when they get on court in front of the crowd, but lovely nonetheless. I got to chat to a couple of them, and they seemed very impressed with both the venue and the fine city of London as a whole.

The Laker Girls

Then came the players.

One by one they walked past me down the corridor… Ron Artest, Shannon Brown, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, the one-and-only Kobe Bryant and the dominating presence of coach Phil Jackson, as wide as he is tall.

Everything was in place and the nerves started to set in as game-time approached.

It sounds all glitz and glamour and, for the most part, it was – but not all of it. One of the many little odd jobs I had to do was to attach large Foot Locker signs (one of the many sponsors) to the ball racks for a three-point shootout. This involved painstakingly attaching strips of sticky-back Velcro to both the boards and the racks – it was as time-consuming as it was dull. It made me realise, however, that it’s the hundreds of small jobs like this that are so important when putting together an event so huge. So even this was enough to make me feel like an important cog in the NBA wheel.

My main task for the evening, though, was to pull people out of the crowd for the entertainment during time-outs and quarter-breaks: a tug-of-war, a TV Trivia game, a three-point shootout, a mini dunk contest and more.

When doors opened at 6:30, the pressure was really on. Did I want to be the guy to let the side down? No way. I headed to the main entrance to catch people when they first came into the arena. And let me tell you, I had strict targets to hit: five kids, preferably as young as possible, and two teenagers (who had to be able to play ball) to deliver before tip-off….then two ladies for mid-way through the first quarter (the latter being the easiest, most enjoyable job I had all night)…and others throughout the game. I had to approach them, welcome them to the arena, explain who I was and then just lay it on them: how would you like to go on court in front of 18,000-odd people?

You’d be surprised how many people say no. I’d say, over the course of the night, about the same amount of people who actually signed up and were game, didn’t want to do it. Hey, it is a daunting prospect to say the least. But, for me, it just felt good knowing that I was responsible for handing these people an experience that they will never forget – especially as two of the kids I picked were at the game as part of their birthday present, so it was a great feeling seeing the looks on their faces, knowing that I had made their birthday that little bit more special.

They had to fill in a form, give me their seat number and look out for me later, when I would be coming to collect them. Then it was a case of taking them down to the court and along to the entertainment tunnel, just adjacent to the Lakers’ bench. This is where I spent most of the night, the highlight of which was probably the player introductions and the spine-tingling reception that Kobe received when his name was called (the crowd, I guess, not realising yet that he would unfortunately only see six minutes of action, something we already knew). The contestants got t-shirts, shoes and other souvenirs to take away from their experience. Everything was checked down to the finest detail before they could go on court, not least their attire.

One thing I didn’t even think of before I started was the footwear; if they were wearing Nike shoes – or anything else Nike, for that matter – it had to be covered. So it was down to me, or one of my colleagues, to tape over any Nike swooshes we could see with white tape before they went out into the spotlight. I suppose when you have a partner as powerful as Adidas, you want to keep them happy, and that involves not showcasing their main rivals in front of the countless number of people watching.

Everything went to plan and I was told the people I had picked were perfect. Though I had been on my feet for nearly 12 hours, running around like crazy, it seemed as though I had blinked and it was over. The game was a blur, going on, it seemed, in the background behind me as I walked around the floor, up and down the stands, through the concourses of the arena and underneath it all, along the winding corridors that are like the veins of a beating heart. Four quarters of basketball had never flown by so fast.

Odom gets involved

With the game over and the fans starting to stream out into the Greenwich night, the mad rush continued. There were prizes to give out (the strangest of which was a TV set built into a cuddly toy giraffe), celebrities to show around (Michael Essien of Chelsea walked right by me with some friends, and there were others, too) and a press conference to set up. Not mentioning the hectic effort going on to pack everything up and move out (things being taken down, dismantled and put away left, right and centre) as it was next stop, Barcelona.

I left the arena exhausted, but filled with adrenaline. What an experience. I said my goodbyes, wished everybody good luck for the rest of the tour and revelled in the feeling of being part of the NBA family. And as I queued for my Thames Clipper boat back down the river to London Bridge, there was just enough time to look forward to next March, where the Toronto Raptors and the New Jersey Nets will become the first teams to play a regular season NBA game in Europe…

I’ll see you there.

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