Walking out of a cramped, stuffy United Center boardroom two weeks ago, Michelle Harris told me that when she was younger and growing up in Chicago, "I dreamed of being a part of corporate America." She said this unequivocally, without a hint of guile, a wink or even a sneer. She loves a good meeting. Almost as much as she loves a good T-shirt cannon.
Harris is the new director of entertainment for the Chicago Bulls. At the next meeting I attended with her, she carried in stacks of paper fastened in bunches by perfectly vertical paper clips, dropped the stacks on a long wooden meeting table, left the room and returned with her arms overflowing with Post-it pads and markers. She had dreams of playoff game entertainment dancing in her head.
She wanted ideas.
Harris, 34, who grew up in Old Irving Park, stepped back to admire her pile of office supplies the way some admire a box of office pastries. She is so enamored of the corporate NBA milieu that — as department heads and assistants filed into a boardroom — she explained to an executive, without irony, that she was already in touch with her "disco ball vendor," had already ordered red-tinted pyrotechnics, and, as evidenced by her paper stack, already had a few zillion thoughts about how to juice up the United Center during the Bulls' playoff run.
As the staff members — manager of game presentation, manager of administrative services, senior manager of branding, production manager, dance team administrator, corporate partnership assistant and so on — took their seats, Harris directed attention to the six clean whiteboards she had arranged at the head of the table.
"Let's focus on playoffs!" she said. "From what I have seen in past playoffs here, there are opportunities to turn this whole arena red! Everything, all our performers, costumes, graphics, lighting, music, everything red, all the time! We want fans to participate, wear red and be part of stunts. Like, I don't know, a red scavenger hunt. A human running of the bulls. But I'm spitballing, just throwing ideas out there. The purpose of today is to let any crazy idea, any idea that you always wanted to do, into this process. Just throw it out here and let me know. Even if we can't act on it, it could lead to an idea. You know I love process. But I don't have all the answers. Post ideas under categories on the boards: fan stunts, music, video/graphics, lighting/special effects, contests/presentations. We'll go board by board, and I won't get into much detail on any. OK, cool?"
"OK, remember, there are no wrong answers with this. And let's just start out with fan stunts, OK? And to get things going, for instance, one of the ideas that I had was … dressing your pets in red!"
A hand went up: "Just to understand … so, fans taking their pets inside the arena?"
"Maybe! We could! I don't know. OK … go!"
Michelle Harris is the Leslie Knope of the Chicago Bulls: zealous, good at her job, more self-possessed than Amy Poehler's character on "Parks and Recreation" but no less in charge of a department that could easily be overlooked. And yet her arrival at the end of last season, after eight years with the New York Knicks (including several as a Knicks City Dancer), has meant that a floor show already renowned for its deliriously over-the-top, near-satirical bombast has grown even louder, more frenetic, more of everything-at-once. For instance, the music: It's no longer the job of an unseen hand but handled by one of three live DJs whom Harris hired and instructed: Never allow a hint of quiet or downtime to creep into the United Center.
"From now on, we never want silence," she told me later. "That's the worst thing that could possibly happen — silence. Music will play at all times (when the team isn't playing), and when a timeout is called and you don't know yet if it's a full timeout or a short 20 seconds. When in doubt, even in that moment, play music. Awkward silence? You don't want it!" Indeed, during the ideas meeting, as if to reinforce her point, she set up a speaker on the floor and set her iPod to play upbeat dance songs — music to jot on your Post-it note by.
Behind the scenes at the United Center, the arrival of Harris has meant a sea change in the way the Bulls think about in-game entertainment. Until last summer, most of the regular game entertainers, from the Luvabulls cheerleaders to the grandmotherly Swingin' Seniors dance troupe to the drumstick-twirling Bucket Boys, were independents, freelancers. Harris made them contracted Bulls employees.
And these idea meetings …
Before Harris started, the Bulls didn't have them. "Well, not organized meetings, and never ones that included the whole staff," said Barry Anderson, manager of entertainment. Also, rehearsals: Before Harris, the Bulls' floor show — popular as it has been, often ranking second in NBA-conducted fan surveys, behind the Miami Heat's in-game entertainment — mostly came together loosely. After her, it's hyperorganized and efficient, every split second maximized for optimum effect (at all times, a fan's head should be trained on the video board or the court). Each home game now requires two hours of rehearsals and a 10-page spreadsheet schedule detailing everything, from video playlists to that night's winner of the Dunkin' Donut race.
"OK, done? Fan stunts," Harris said and walked to one of the whiteboards, now covered in Post-its.
She read: "'Something on the Red Line …' Great. 'Video of dueling neighbors competing to be the reddest' … Perfect. 'Red palms' … 'InstaVid dance-off contest' … 'What would you do for tickets?' … 'Red food eating contest' … 'Something with the cast of Chicago Fire' … This is mine: Those vertical runs? A fan race to the top of a Chicago skyscraper to turn on the red light, to go with the human running of the bulls?"
Benny the Bull (or, rather, the person who plays Benny and asked not to be identified) spoke up: "Actually, I had this idea a while ago, where Benny does this, and at the top he goes to pull the lever … and it breaks!"
"Yup, yup," Harris said, beaming. "Let's keep it going. Next category, video and graphics."