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Ball Don't Lie

Take a look inside the Memphis Grizzlies’ NBA-best in-arena music team

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Memphis Grizzlies fans cheer for the latest Grimes mp3 (Joe Murphy/ Getty).

Each professional sports venue has a standard rotation of songs, including but not limited to "Let's Get It Started," that one Pitbull song about the neverending party, and the collected works of LMFAO (video links barred from BDL by editorial choice). There are obviously some region-specific hits that get more play in some cities than others — think Randy Newman's still-satirical "I Love LA" or Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" — but for the most part the same few songs get played around various leagues. There's not much room for change, if only because it takes effort.

However, a few NBA arenas are doing their best to expand the conception of acceptable game music. In Brooklyn, the Nets have gone with slightly outside of the mainstream rap, perhaps because of the general influence of part-owner and style councilor Jay-Z. But the real progress is being made at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, where the Grizzlies' in-game entertainment crew has embraced various types of music outside of the jock jam world. Andrew Unterberger spoke with the men responsible for The Basketball Jones:

I first noticed this watching Grizzlies games a year or two ago, Memphis long being a league pass favorite of mine. Some stadiums have one or two weird musical cues that will perk my ears up during the course of a game — that “EVERYBODY / Clap your hands” bit they play in OKC, the weird “Breaks”/”Rappers Delight” mashup they used to play in New Jersey, I think the Pepsi Center is still the only place I’ve heard serious in-game dubstep — but nearly every time I watched a Grizzlies home game, there was a new song selection that caught my attention. Woah, are they playing “Yonkers” by Tyler the Creator? Is that the horn riff to Outkast’s ‘”Spottieottiedopalicious?” DJ Shadow’s “Organ Donor?” The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind??” [...]

I figured the surge in awesome left-field music selections at FedEx couldn’t just be by accident, so I tracked down Jason Potter, the Grizzlies’ Director of Promotions and Event Presentation. Unsurprisingly, he sounded like he’d been waiting for someone to come and ask him about all the awesome music the stadium’s been playing. “I think the in-play music started a lot in the NBA as kind of a differentiated thing, but it got homogenized, and I think a lot of the fans tuned it out,” Potter says. “We challenged the guys to have some fun with it.”

But when it comes to the game’s ear-catching in-game music, the responsibility falls to [Justin] Baker, a 34-year-old ex-raver who’s DJed in various capacities since the late ’90s. Baker handles the Click Effects, named for the software which operates the in-game music, choosing dozens of short, usually instrumental tracks to play during team halfcourt possessions throughout each Grizzlies game. “Once the ball comes in bounds, on either end of the court, I have music cued up,” explains Baker. “As soon as play stops and the Grizz Girls or the MC come running out, I take a break and Nate takes back over.” [...]

Now, the fans have gotten really into it. Potter says he’s “getting emails from people requesting stuff. ‘Oh, the Crystal Castles album! This xx song would be perfect!’” Not only that, but Potter also says that people have been sending him stats based on how the team has been performing based on what song has been playing — “Like, when you play the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack, you’re shooting that percentage.” He later quips, “I’ll have to ask [John] Hollinger what kind of stats he wants,” no doubt the final frontier in advanced stat analysis for the Grizzlies’ new VP of Basketball Operations.

The artists Baker plays aren't that far out there in a broader musical sense — most of these names fall into what we can call an indie mainstream — but it is notable that an NBA team is asking its employees to stray from the middle of the road and make some more interesting musical selections. I doubt that most fans particularly care, but the vocal minority who do have another way to connect with the franchise. Background noise has been turned into something cool and exciting.

Again, picking different music isn't a big deal in and of itself, but it does demonstrate that there are fairly simple ways for teams to reach out to fans. All it requires is a small willingness to move away from the norm and explore new options. This is an issue of an organization's philosophy, not just its employees' musical tastes.

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