At every Thunder home game, he sits courtside, head down, diligently directing his team’s strategy while the action unfolds. Even early in games, there’s utter chaos in every direction. He remains calm and collected as he calls each shot according to a game plan constructed weeks or even months in advance. He’s a key figure for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but one most have never heard of.
John Leach is the Thunder’s events and entertainment director. From his seat in the courtside media and production section, he orchestrates the sights and sounds at Thunder home games.
From content on the Jumbotron to the actions of Rumble and the Thunder girls, Leach runs the show. Each contest or interlude is mapped out down to the second, with Leach leading 13 full-time production staff and roughly 100 part-time team members like the Thunder Drummers, Thunder Girls, Storm Chasers and others.
Everyone takes cues from their courtside ringleader.
Curtains up, it’s Thunder showtime
On Feb. 1, NonDoc had the chance to go behind the scenes, witnessing Leach and the entire Thunder circus in action as Oklahoma City’s top athletes hosted Wizards from Washington, ultimately winning 114-98.
Despite the chaos and intensity he faces, Leach keeps every Thunder home game moving, hiccups and all. Minutes before tip-off Feb. 1, he found himself already making adjustments on the fly.
“That’s not accurate,” a production team member said to Leach as the arena big-screen flashed the game’s injury report. “Cameron Payne isn’t injured, he’s playing.”
The E&E director, as they call him, remained calm.
“Well, that’s what was on the injury report,” Leach said as he called for the next series of lights and video. “The fans will just get a nice surprise.”
‘There’s always something different’
High above Leach on the opposite side of the arena, Thunder producer Bill Hooker consults a wall of monitors to keep pace with Leach’s plans. Hooker directs his camera and production crews to cue up shots and camera angles for promos and replays on the Chesapeake Energy Arena’s Jumbotron.
Asked what role he and his video-production team play in the metaphorical circus, the New Jersey native said sometimes he thinks they are the clowns.
“You get that replay up there, you want to show it again because you just showed that a foul was not a foul, and now you’ve got the crowd all riled up,” he said.
Hooker, who also worked with the New Orleans Hornets during their time in Oklahoma City, says sticking to the script is always a challenge.
“The best part about our show is that it is timed out by the second,” said Hooker, who is in his seventh season with the Thunder. “But, if something happens down on the floor and we were trailing and now all of a sudden we’re turning the tide, then I might call for a different video or a different angle. There’s always something different, and I think that’s the most exciting part about doing our job.”
Hooker’s team makes the video presentation look easy, but live basketball often doesn’t care about carefully crafted plans.
“If you go into the fourth quarter and it’s a tight game, you might as well throw [the game log] away,” he said. “When the crowd’s into it, you want to stay up with the crowd, and you want to keep it moving.
“At that point, you’re just running off adrenaline. The crowd starts going crazy, you play to what they’re doing. We’ll shut the music off, and we’ll let the crowd go by themselves because this crowd will take it. It’s crazy.”
Depth and detail
In a way, the rigorous backstage planning and scripted intentions are emblematic of the entire Thunder organization. Leach, Hooker and others work diligently all year long — particular during the off-season — to plot and plan every element of the biggest show in town. It’s a tightly controlled process to showcase the talents of a tightly controlled franchise that rarely tips its hand on roster decisions.
As this year’s Feb. 18 trade deadline approaches, for example, the NBA press corps’ chattering class is already in full speculation mode about what, if anything, the Thunder might do.
For the Thunder’s events and entertainment department, however, days leading up to the annual transaction deadline pose a different kind of challenge.
“Those are the worst because you’ve got to change anything that has the players who were traded out,” Hooker said. “Anything that has those guys in it all has to be updated, and then anything new has to be updated with the new guys.
“Last year, for our trade deadline (…) We had a home game that night or something, so that was hard.”
Planning lead time for new player graphics to render is just one challenge on a laundry list of others. From General Manager Sam Presti, to his media relations team, to the elevator operators and ushers who are instrumental in keeping the stadium’s arteries open, the entire Thunder operation can come off as a human hive mind.
While he probably wouldn’t use that word to describe his operation, Leach is the first to say that most observers are shocked by the depth and detail of his group’s planning.
For example, halftime acts are usually booked far in advance, and Hooker’s team refreshes its video packages regularly, revamping fonts and designs between seasons so the Thunder circus never appears stale, even after 41 home games a year.
“Once the season’s over, we start planning for October to get ready,” Hooker said.
Hop aboard the ‘Booty Train’
Fortunately for Leach, he can trust his team to make his job easier. He doesn’t have to think about whether the Thunder Girls will be prepared because choreographer Paige Carter’s system has both rigor and flexibility. She can know in advance what routines to run when, but she also has to follow Leach’s lead and improvise with nothing more than a signal and a radio.
“John will call me on the radio and say, ‘Thunder Girls are on next timeout,’ and he’s just going to tell me which song they’re going to play so I can picture the song in my head and decide which dance is going to fit that,” Carter said.
Carter said the individual Thunder Girls have to be detail-oriented and capable of time management. Despite being part-time employees, her 20 dancers practice three nights a week in addition to pregame preparation. They run a new featured routine nearly every game and keep a rotation of about eight sideline routines runnable on cue for timeouts and downtime — again, all planned and rehearsed long before circus season ever even starts.
“All of our actual Thunder Girl routines, we just name them by the name of the song,” said Carter, a former squad member with the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Cardinals. “But in the fourth quarter, all of our sidelines have specific names. We have one called ‘China’ because we made it up in China. We have one called ‘Booty Train’ because it has this train motion in it. We have one called ‘Slide,’ we have one called ‘Pom,’ we have one called ‘Rodeo.'”
“The culture of Oklahoma speaks a lot to how my dance team functions, which I think is very, very unique,” she said. “I’m friends with a lot of dance team managers — and not that there’s anything bad going on with those teams — but I don’t think you have such a strong connection a lot of times. So I think just the camaraderie and the true friendship these girls have and the respect for each other and myself is pretty amazing.”
Leach said people don’t typically think about what goes into a Thunder game. They don’t really know what a monumental task it is to put on 41-plus home games every season.
“It’s live,” Hooker summarized. “Anything could happen.”
(William W. Savage III contributed to this report.)