It didn't take long for John Leach, the Oklahoma City Thunder's director of events and entertainment, to realize who he was working with four seasons ago.
The preseason home opener in 2008 immediately showed Leach what to expect from the ever-passionate Thunder fans.
It was Oct. 14, 2008, and the Thunder was making its Oklahoma City debut against the Los Angeles Clippers in a preseason game.
Leach had worked with the Houston Rockets, Charlotte Bobcats and Seattle SuperSonics. This was far from his first NBA experience and so going into the final quarter, Leach asked the public address announcer to say to the crowd, “Hey get on your feet for the fourth quarter.”
And the announcer did.
“After I asked him to say that, I just kept doing my job,” Leach said. “Because when I'm working, I've got 8 million things I'm doing. I'm talking to the video guy, I'm talking to our stage manager, I'm talking to the spotlight guys, I'm talking to the lighting guys, the music guy and everybody else, and so I'm doing my thing.”
About four or five minutes passed before Leach stopped what he was doing. He looked around. The crowd of 16,410 was still standing.
“I was like, ‘I'm going to love it here,'” he said. “I was dumbfounded. This is a preseason game. When I say that I was dumbfounded, I mean I would have never expected them to already be there, that's usually something that you find in the playoffs with fans. Or maybe you see that towards the end of the season when your team is jockeying for a seed in the playoffs. You don't really factor that in during the early parts of the season because it's such a long season. Our fans were connected from day one.”
A new season
The Thunder opens the 2012 preseason with a two-game road trip beginning Oct. 10 in Hidalgo, Texas, versus the Houston Rockets, followed by an Oct. 12 meeting in Salt Lake City with the Utah Jazz. The preseason home opener is Oct. 16 against the Charlotte Bobcats at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Stoking the emotion
If Leach were to name everything his department is responsible for, or a part of, it would be one of those lists that hits the floor and just keeps rolling.
So he's gotten good at the CliffsNotes version.
“We produce the show that you see when you go to the Chesapeake Energy Arena,” he said.
That includes, but is certainly not limited to, the Thunder Girls, Rumble, drummers, the national anthem, halftime entertainment, on-court promotions, concourse activities, videos and music.
“We don't create the emotion,” Leach said, “we just stoke it.
“It's very important to know how to carry the energy and not let it die out much. You want to let it die out a little bit and then bring it back up, like you're stoking a fire.”
Say the Thunder goes on an 8-0 run after being down by six points. Now the team's up two and the opponents call a time out.
“As soon as they call that timeout, we're going into a song that carries a tempo that makes fans want to stand up and clap their hands,” said Leach, 42. “A lot of the old ‘tried and trues' are still what we use, like ‘Rock and Roll Part 2' or ‘Mony, Mony.' And we also mix in some of the current stuff like Sean Kingston's ‘Party All Night' and Usher's ‘More.'
“There are a lot of different songs. It just needs to be one that is kind of up-tempo that gets them to continue on with that emotion.”
Although the responsibilities are many, each comes with a goal. So, the studying, preparing and planning is ongoing.
Take for instance that moment that comes as the lights go down just before the Thunder players are announced. They update that video eight to 10 times a season.
“Last year in the playoffs, we made a new video for every round,” he said.
What about the halftime acts? There are the fan favorites that likely will be included each season, like the woman who rides the unicycle and flips the bowls onto her head, Leach said.
“Then we're always looking for new acts,” he said. “We feel like we've come up with a few new ones that would be good for this upcoming season.”
He said they'll continue to produce fun videos that highlight Rumble and other entertainers.
“Also, you'll also see new uniforms on the Thunder Girls,” Leach said, “and maybe a few other surprises that I can't mention yet.”
With so many aspects to consider, Leach was asked if he keeps a notebook by his bed in case he wakes during the night with a thought.
“I use my phone and if I come up with an idea or a song that I want to remember to use, I'll just email it to myself,” he said. “Sometimes I'll get to work and I'm like, ‘What's the meaning behind this?' and then I go, ‘Oh yeah.'”
Leach's staff includes 13 full-time and 100 part-time employees.
Although the work is ongoing, he said his job is made easier by the fact that the support of Thunder fans is never-ending.
Throughout the summer, Leach would be somewhere shopping and notice fans wearing Thunder gear.
“These fans stay connected year-round,” he said, “and I love that because obviously it makes my job easier.
“So, we have a lot of fun in what we do.”