Showtime: On-court action only part of Pistons game nights
Detroit — It's not just Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond who are performing on game nights for the Pistons.
Sure, a roster with a payroll north of $123 million is the main event, but there’s plenty on the undercard for a franchise — valued last week at $1.27 billion by Forbes, 26th in the NBA — with a fan base hungry for on-court success and with hopes of stretching their entertainment dollars.
On any given game night, the ancillary entertainment at Little Caesars Arena features about 100 workers showcasing acts that took thousands of hours to prepare.
On Monday, as a centerpiece game for Black History Month celebrations, many contributors came through, not just Griffin and Drummond, who led the Pistons to a 121-112 victory against Washington, Detroit’s fourth straight win.
Here’s are snapshots of several key members of the show, some behind the scenes and others that fans will recognize:
In a league where competition is key, there’s also camaraderie and collaboration between franchises.
Like any superior house guest might, NBA teams do laundry for their visitors.
John Coumoundouros, who has been a Pistons equipment manager for 17 seasons, arrived at LCA at 8 a.m. to pick up Washington’s laundry, worn Saturday night in Chicago.
“That’s kind of how we take care of each other,” said Coumoundouros, known as “Kong,” who directs a three-person staff.
On Monday, Coumoundouros talked with a friend on the Miami Heat equipment staff, getting briefed on the needs of Wayne Ellington, a free agent making his Pistons debut on this night.
A respected veteran, Ellington happens to be easy, but that’s not always the case.
“The best way to put it is, you have a roster of 15, and you have 15 quirks every single year,” Coumoundouros said.
The staff keeps track of what player wants what gear on the bench to stay warm. One of the league’s most prolific perspirers, for instance, Griffin likes a new jersey at halftime.
Coumoundouros’s job is more complicated this season with the addition of a fourth uniform set. The black and silver Nike City Edition “Motor City” look will feature in 18 games, adding to Pistons gray uniforms and the traditional white and blue sets.
That means four sets of tights with specific padding under the uniform for Reggie Jackson, one of many players who employ extra armor for falls after drives to the hoop.
Coumoundouros’ job is easier in February as the league has warm-up shirts branded with action phrases around “Equality” that teams wear before games and on the bench.
Less “quirks” and a little more uniformity to an often unwieldy process.
As director of game operations, Shawn Martinez will lead entertainment at 44 home games this season — more if the Pistons make the playoffs for the second time in 10 seasons.
Monday has a little extra, as 19 youngsters from Detroit’s Spain Elementary-Middle School are performing in the Bucket Band with the Pistons Drumline on one break, in addition to a 35-person halftime show celebrating black history with members of the Drumline and dance team. Oh, and a surprise on-court marriage proposal performance featuring two of the nearly 60 entertainers who work under Martinez.
Monday’s rehearsals start at 3 p.m., sharing the LCA floor with players Ish Smith and Langston Galloway, who are doing their pregame shooting routines at one of the baskets.
During rehearsal, buckets need to be grabbed, kids hustled on and off the court, and dancers and drummers need to put the finishing touches on a one-time show that’s been months in the making.
“Getting 35 people on and off the court for a quarter break is going to be a challenge,” Martinez said of a 2-minute, 30-second performance. “All hands on deck. If you need to grab a bucket, grab a bucket.”
Martinez, a Navajo who grew up on a reservation in Window Rock, Ariz., became a DJ in college and found a career in pro sports, coordinating music at Avalanche, Nuggets, Rockies and Broncos games in Denver.
He’s been with the Pistons for five seasons and this past November coordinated the team’s first Native American Heritage Month performance.
Tribes from across Michigan performed, with traditional drums and dancing combining with rap music for a modern twist.
“I want that to be a staple every year,” Martinez said.
Oh … and she said yes.
Ryan Libiran of the acrobatic Extreme Team popped the question to Jennifer Kennedy of the Pistons Dancers to the tune of “Marry You” by Bruno Mars.
Anthem singer LaShell Renee arrives at her day job as an information technology analyst in Troy at about 6 a.m.
Renee hits the floor about 13 hours later on game nights — after eight hours on the phone during the day — and delivers a strong and soulful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner each time.
This night, Renee is also singing Lift Every Voice and Sing, also known as the Black National Anthem, for the Black History Month celebrations. She first remembers hearing the song when Detroit icon Aretha Franklin sang it on a television program years ago.
It’s Renee’s first time singing anything at a game other than the national anthem, which she has been performing exclusively for the Pistons since 2012.
“The whole ride from home to the arena, I was just rehearsing it over and over again,” she said. “It’s a very easy and simple song, but just like the anthem, it can go awry if you’re not careful.”
Renee said one part that has tripped up her preparation has been the potential mixup of “faith” and “hope” in consecutive bars on the song, similar to the national anthem’s “gleaming” and “streaming.”
Renee started singing as a teenager at City View Missionary Baptist Church on Detroit’s east side, but got her big break after winning a singing contest on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2004.
She was an occasional Pistons anthem singer after that until the new entertainment team under owner Tom Gores offered her the regular gig.
Renee said she’s looking forward to a March game where she will have some company at center court. Alongside her three sons, a daughter and a nephew, she will sing a special rendition of the anthem arranged by her son.
As for Monday’s special anthem, Renee nails it.
“I was a little nervous because of the time we’re in right now,” Renee said. “I literally prayed before I even made it into the arena.
“‘Let it be received and let it be seen as a unity song. Let it be known as a song for everyone to come together.’
“It was a good feeling.”
Like Renee with the anthem, John Mason knows his game-night verbiage comes with potential pitfalls.
The energetic public-address announcer said his eyes got big last week when he saw the Pistons acquired Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk in a trade.
Mason did not want to repeat old follies, like the time he blanked out on the pronunciation of Emmanuel Mudiay’s name when he was with the Nuggets. Or the time when a Toronto newspaper wrote a story about all of his mispronunciations during a preseason game of a Raptors roster full of foreigners.
“I used to keep the article, because I was kind of proud of it, that they would even take the time to do that for a preseason game,” Mason said. “I was scared to ask (how to pronounce the names), and I thought I could fumble through it.”
But Mason’s rise to an essential part of Pistons games coincided with Detroit’s rise back to NBA prominence.
The signature “DEEEE-TROIT BAS-KET-BALL” chant is known worldwide, and was synonymous with the beloved "Going To Work" era of Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups.
Like his predecessor, Detroit rock and roll radio icon Ken Calvert, Mason thought he was filling in temporarily at first. That was in 2001 and the urban radio legend has kept his seat at center court since.
When he did morning radio, Mason would nap during the day to prepare for a long night and an early rise. Now, each weekday, the Cleveland native does his afternoon show on 105.9 FM and then heads over to LCA to prepare with game notes and pronunciation guides by about 5 p.m., two hours before tip-off.
“I just need to be in the atmosphere and relax,” Mason said. “Just soak that up and let my day go away from me.”
Mason also adds to the experience of visiting players. Last week, with hundreds of fans in from Flint to watch homegrown Monte Morris start for Denver, Mason announced Morris last, adding, “From the Flint Beecher Buccaneers…” to the applause of many.
“It has been special to my life to be part of the Detroit Pistons,” Mason said, also adding about Mykhailiuk, the new Piston from Ukraine: “It’s My. Hi. Luke.”
While Mason’s performance count inches toward 1,000 Pistons games, 19 students settled in for their first performance in front of a live crowd on Monday.
And playing music in front of 15,246 fans makes for quite a debut.
“I am excited and very ecstatic,” said 11-year-old Michael Barclay, a sixth-grader at Spain, three hours before the 7 p.m. tip-off. “I just really like to express myself and hear a lot of music.”
The students — Barclay, Mariah Smith, Aliyah Irving, Alysia Burris, Timothy Cooper, Arthur Barney, Hassan Echols, Ean Wilson, Damario Wortham, Devianna Hines, Elias Black, Zion Lewis, Kingston Watson, Mickya Griffin, Da’shanae Siggers, Da’Vonna Moldrough, Roland Stegar, Zarya Lewis and McKynzie Harris — performed in the second quarter alongside the Pistons Drumline.
The bucket band is part of a multi-year partnership between the Pistons and Detroit Symphony Orchestra to enhance music and education programming for Detroit youth.
The DSO did a presentation at Spain at the beginning of the school year. Interested students, ranging from second through eighth grade, were chosen for the band, which has practiced three times a week this school year.
“These kids really pick up on stuff really fast,” said Darell “Red” Campbell, a creative jazz teacher for the DSO, who leads the band. “I even teach them how to read music a little bit, kind of tricking them into it.
“This kind of stuff translates to that, and of course the teamwork, and becoming a family and working together and listening to each other. Stuff they learn without thinking about it.”
Barclay said Campbell raps for the students and sometimes shows difficult drumming moves.
The bucket band is also performing at a hip-hop show at the DSO’s Orchestra Hall in Midtown on Saturday night.
“They get two big venues for first and second performances ever,” Campbell said. “And they got Saturday night gigs already — with some in second grade.”
Added seventh-grader Zion Lewis, 12, who also plays basketball and clarinet at Spain, about the two debut performances for the band: “I’m excited but nervous at the same time. But it’s going to be a good experience.”
The bucket band got a surprise guest recently as Drummond dropped in to a recent practice.
The Pistons star center, who released his first album “FYI” this offseason, rapped with a beat the students provided. He’s creating a song about staying in school, melding his talents and off-court interests to help connect with and inspire members of the community.
It’s that connection that’s the core of Erika Swilley’s efforts as the Pistons senior director of community and social responsibility.
“It ties it all together,” she said.
Swilley has helped Reggie Jackson promote literacy campaigns and library renovations because of the love for reading he developed as a nomadic military child. Former players Reggie Bullock, whose transgender sister was killed in 2014, and Stanley Johnson, whose mother died of breast cancer after he was drafted but before he made his NBA debut, raised awareness and did local community outreach for these causes.
On Monday, Swilley also spoke at a networking fair put on by the team, detailing her three years in her current role, her second stint with the Pistons.
The Pistons hosted a scholarship event Tuesday night at the Detroit Institute of Arts, will host a Business of Sports Seminar later this month at Detroit King High School, and are partnering with the DSO for a concert with rapper Nas and the orchestra on March 5.
The team also is honoring members of the local community for their efforts this month, including Jimmy Settles, group executive of Neighborhoods for the City of Detroit; Portia Roberson, Focus Hope CEO; William Packard, Global Automotive Alliance chairman; and Rick Mahorn, Pistons ambassador. The team will honor the legendary Franklin, who died in August, at their Feb. 25 game.
“Black History Month is super important to our organization as a whole,” Swilley said. “We try to amplify it probably more than any of our long-term programs because it’s so engrained.”
Diane Ferranti had her first day with the Pistons as an intern for the first game when The Palace opened in 1988.
Now vice president of programming production and game operations, she makes sure the whole show runs smoothly at Little Caesars Arena.
“You keep hanging around long enough, they just keep kind of pushing you up,” Ferranti said. “Now I oversee all of it.”
She’s been in many behind-the-scenes roles, directing the video board, working as floor manager and then game operations director. She also worked on the broadcast side, producing pregame shows.
Separate from the Fox Sports Detroit broadcasts of the game, Ferranti oversees a large control room, choosing what fans see on LCA’s 5,100-square-foot scoreboard.
It’s bright lights and a big stage for a unique show.
“We’re so fortunate because the NBA just lends itself to this,” said Ferranti, who praises the commitment Gores and his wife, Holly, put into the show. “It’s the best sport for showcasing and entertaining.”
Ferranti arrives at LCA at 10 a.m. to start the day, with a 1 p.m. meeting for the arena’s 15 cameras to coordinate the game plan.
At about 4 p.m., the final meeting takes place to run down the night, with doors opening for the public at 5:30 for showtime.
“When doors open, the show starts,” Ferranti said. “It’s a well-oiled machine, as I like to say.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.