WASHINGTON — It’s minutes before tip-off, and there are flames shooting into the air as red and white lights splash across the crowd at an otherwise darkened Verizon Center.
As Wizards players are introduced prior to Game 4 against the Celtics, bursts of fire mark their arrival. Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire” blares from the sound system, the sirens at the start of the song aligning with the blazes as he raps on the hook, “It’s a bonfire, turn the lights out.”
The stands are filling up as fans pour into the arena, each welcomed by a T-shirt and a game program in their seats. A healthy contingent of Celtics fans tries to raise its cheers and counterbalance the boos heaped on their team.
It’s a familiar postseason scene, with the anticipation of the game heightened by two warring teams who don’t much like each other.
These minutes leading up to tip-off, these precious ticks of the clock, are the culmination of a day’s work by hundreds of people after weeks of planning by the club’s marketing and operations departments.
Just six hours before game time, the arena was simply a calm workplace for staffers charged with transforming it, bit by bit, to bring about just the right playoff atmosphere.
The work begins
It’s half past noon and the arena is quiet.
There are no bright lights dancing on the court. The big screen hanging above midcourt is off, a dead gray space that looks unfamiliar when not flashing lineups, highlights, or advertisements.
There are boxes of T-shirts stacked near the tunnels, some opened and empty, others yet to be touched. Pieces of clear tape are strewn about and hanging off the opened box flaps.
The sound of tape being ripped from cardboard breaks up the white noise and is chased by the rattling of a hand truck toting more T-shirt boxes through the tunnel.
Once the T-shirts are draped over each seat, they will depict the Washington, D.C., flag in the lower level — three red stars over two red stripes on a white background. Charting which seats get what color T-shirt was done far in advance; now it is a matter of this crew of about 20-30 carrying it out.
“This looks way better with the T-shirts,” one staffer remarks while walking through the court area, comparing the T-shirts with the rally towels for Game 3.
The majority of the pattern has come together by 1 p.m.; an 8 a.m. start time will do that. Workers now are finishing up the upper levels, loge boxes, and club suites.
“Do you have any red boxes up there?” one worker shouts to another on the club level.
“Four and a half.”
“OK, we’re going to come up and help with the PWC club . . . and I didn’t want to bring boxes if there’s some already up there.”
Two other workers, one on the court level and the other in the upper level, talk on the phone to check progress. Another worker piles white T-shirts into a trash bag to make it easier to lug them to a higher level.
It will be a few more hours still before each T-shirt has made it to a chairback.
The big screen lights up before 1 p.m., followed several minutes later by the wraparound digital display on the upper levels.
The playoff atmosphere starts to flicker.
Making yesterday disappear
The cleaning crew is spread throughout the arena, wiping away any evidence that a hockey game had been played here last night in front of 18,506 fans.
Drink splatters are mopped up from the aisles and rows. Workers carry buckets up each section’s stairs, stopping at the handrails to thoroughly wipe them down. Other staffers clean the loge boxes and club suites, sweeping up spilled popcorn, the thud of a broom against dustpan adding to the growing noise in an arena that gets busier with each passing hour.
Courtside, the hum of a vacuum cuts out and then starts back up again every handful of seconds. The noise grows louder as the staffer vacuums in chunks the carpet underneath the scorer’s table and team benches, moving the plug to a new outlet as she makes progress.
She finishes the final section and rolls the vacuum back to a cleaning cart, where she grabs paper towels to wipe down the scorer’s table.
She quickly finishes and exits through a tunnel.
Ready to launch
Two workers have a pair of ladders — one taller than the other — and are alternating them to examine the confetti blasters attached to each basket.
After testing one of the blasters, one of the workers collects the few pieces of confetti that landed on the court.
Several minutes later, he appears from the tunnel with four attachments for the blasters, two for each basket. He sets the taller ladder just in the right spot on one side of the basket, ascends, screws in the attachment, climbs down, moves the ladder just slightly to the other side, screws in the second attachment, and climbs down.
He repeats this process on the opposite goal, this time noticing that a slight change is required after examining the attachments from below. He climbs back up the ladder, readjusts the attachment — keys jingling from a carabiner on his belt loop — and climbs back down.
He carries the ladder off the court, back into the tunnel, before reemerging with a roll of white tape. He rips a handful of small pieces, placing them carefully to secure cords behind the basket.
He then refills two air tanks and totes them back onto the court, setting one behind each basket and then hooking it into a hose.
This would become part of the celebration that night for the victorious Wizards.
Time lapse: Pyro fixtures installation
Location is everything
Celtics team photographer Brian Babineau wheels in two suitcases and a duffel bag and begins his setup routine. He leaves the duffel bag on the baseline, claiming his spot for the game. He then carefully unzips both suitcases and begins methodically removing equipment.
He sets up a remote camera underneath the basket and tests his strobes multiple times. On the final strobe, he gets it fastened to the basket just so, steps under the hoop, and hits his remote, expecting to see strobes from the rafters go off. No luck.
“It’s not working,” he says with a smile as he walks back to examine the problem.
It is a simple fix.
“Maybe I should turn this on,” he says with a hint of self-deprecation.
Meanwhile, a TV worker fetches a stool for his talent to use during pregame spots. A few minutes later, two more stools are lugged out and set on the baseline. Another TV worker pushes a luggage cart loaded down with two equipment cases and two stools to the broadcast table.
Soon, the baseline is dotted with TV cameras, stools, lights, and mikes. Each setup will be used for a pregame spot at the top of the hour before being broken down and taken off the court.
The side shows
A few minutes after the first rack of basketballs is rolled to center court, the Wizards dancers stream onto the court for their warmup 3½ hours before tip-off. They stretch and get loose at midcourt, with bursts of laughter echoing out. As the dancers run through their routines with music coming from a speaker on the scorer’s table, a few staffers cleaning and adjusting T-shirts in the stands pause briefly to watch.
From the same tunnel through which the dancers arrived, a pair of staffers wheel in two pyrotechnic fixtures featuring a Wizards logo. Above either end of the court, two similar fixtures dangle from steel cables in the rafters, displaying a Capitals logo from the previous night’s game.
The staffers signal for the Capitals fixture to be lowered. Once it hits the hardwood, they unhook the steel cables from it, wheel it to the side, and move the Wizards fixture in line with the cables. They hook the cables onto the Wizards fixture, fasten a couple other straps, and signal for the fixture to be raised back up, repeating the process at the other end of the court.
The flurry of activity increases as Celtics and Wizards support staff start to trickle onto the court, and more indications of basketball appear.
A Wizards staffer brings to the court four nonslip pads (one at each baseline and two near midcourt), two trash cans (one behind each bench), and two floor buffers (one at each basket). A Gatorade and taping cart is parked behind each bench.
Guards Isaiah Thomas and Terry Rozier are the first Celtics on the floor, about 2½ hours before tipoff. Jaylen Brown, wearing his shirt inside-out, joins them several minutes later.
As the shot clock and buzzer are tested two hours before tip, Tyler Zeller emerges and Rozier heads back to the locker room.
Roman Allen, son of Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen, wearing an Al Horford jersey, handles a ball at midcourt and a Wizards staffer messes with him briefly, trying to knock the ball loose. The two share a laugh.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge emerges, his game pass in his left hand. He talks to two people, walks the length of the court, greets two people on the Wizards bench, and walks out.
Over the next 40 minutes, Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, Jonas Jerebko, Marcus Smart, James Young, Demetrius Jackson, and Horford take their turns getting warmed up.
Bradley fist-bumps Roman near midcourt as Young tests out balls at the Spalding rack, and the three briefly talk sneaker selection.
A few minutes later, Jackson asks Roman if he gets straight A’s in school.
“I got geometry!” Roman blurts out.
“For real? You don’t got geometry!”
“Ask my dad! I do!” Roman says matter-of-factly.
As soon as the hoop is clear of Celtics for a brief moment, Roman hits a reverse layup.
An hour before tipoff, Gerald Green comes out to the court, alone, wearing a dark gray hoodie with short sleeves. After making his way around the 3-point arc firing off shots, Green pulls his phone from the pouch of the hoodie, adjusts his music, and slides it back.
He wraps up about 45 minutes before tipoff.
Ushers start to gather in the stands by the baseline at 10 minutes to 5, awaiting their instructions for the night.
“How y’all doing?” asks a supervisor wearing an earpiece and holding a clipboard before he runs through the agenda and tells the ushers what they should watch for.
“A lot of tension between both teams,” he says. “If a fight breaks out on the floor, make sure no fans get involved.”
“Y’all are doing a wonderful job,” says another supervisor before the group disperses after about 15 minutes.
Some ushers head to the upper levels to take their posts. Others head to the sections closest to the court, where the seats and rows do not have permanent numbers. (These sections are temporary seating added for Wizards games and removed for Capitals games.)
In one section, three ushers share a laugh as they straighten T-shirts. In another section, ushers crouch to write seat and row numbers in chalk on the floor, some using pastel orange, some light green, and others pale purple.
Wizards point guard John Wall concludes his warmup and makes his way to his team’s tunnel. He is greeted by an eager group of fans awaiting in the stands next to the tunnel, leaning over with pens, posters, hats, jerseys, T-shirts . . . anything for Wall to sign.
“John! John!” young boys shout.
A staffer facilitates the exchange of items and pens between Wall and the fans. After inking several of them, Wall hands the final item back to a young fan and is whisked back to the Wizards locker room.
As each Wizards starter is introduced, flames shoot from two pyro towers on the court and the two fixtures dangling from the rafters that were tended to hours earlier. The crowd’s acclamation grows louder, reaching a fever pitch when Wall’s name is announced.
Amid all the chaos in the minutes before tipoff, two workers push the pyro towers across the court, weaving through the traffic and bodies, before disappearing into the tunnel.
Those remaining on the court dart away, leaving just 10 players and three referees.
Then, an official blows his whistle and tosses a basketball in the air.