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The Ringmaster: At US Airways Center, Kip Helt Runs The Show

One man controls all the action at US Airways Center and it's not the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. Kip Helt is the man behind all in-game entertainment, from The Gorilla to the player introduction videos. And yes, the dancers work for him, too.

Kip Helt In Action at a recent Phoenix Mercury game. (Photo by Ryan Malone)
Kip Helt In Action at a recent Phoenix Mercury game. (Photo by Ryan Malone)

The whistle blows. Timeout. Players struggle to catch their breath on the sidelines while the coaches game-plan in the huddle. The crowd restlessly adjusts themselves, eagerly awaiting the resumption of play. Not Kip Helt, though. Every production needs its director. His moment has just started.

He is the man of many jobs, all of which are interesting. A friend to national anthem singers. The creator of arena rocking music videos. The guy who convinces Joe Johnson to belt it out and encourages Pat Burke to campaign for Congress, because frankly, he just isn't that busy.

"We had an instance at a Mercury game a couple years ago," Kip recalls, "where a gal forgot the words."

These words, of course, only happen to be the most famous lyrics in our country's history.

"When I'm doing the P.A.," he explains, "I'm also going through the words in my head in case there is a problem." His voice softens into the pitch of a proud father as he sheepishly admits, "I just want to be able to [step in to help] if they need that."

Kip Helt's official title is Vice President of Game Entertainment for the Phoenix Suns, the Phoenix Mercury, and the Arizona Rattlers. He is the man calling the shots for all of the timeout entertainment, player videos, and pre-game introductions, which are produced and directed by Helt.

All P.A. announcements or scripts are run past him, and all camera personnel for timeout performances are structured through him. The job inherently breeds variety. But, as the old phrase goes, variety is the spice of life.

"That's one of those things that I love about this job," Kip explains, "The being able to do lots of different things."

Amongst the myriad of projects that Kip works on, his favorites are the player features.

You've seen them: those two minute videos that play during television timeouts and feature the newest zany adventure starring the athletes. There have been a number of infamous videos under the Kip Helt regime, from Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson's one-off shot at The Bachelorette, the trifecta of performances put on display by Casey Jacobsen's, Scott Williams', and Joe Johnson's tryouts for American Idol (spoiler alert: they didn't make it to Hollywood), to Bo Outlaw and the Bo & Go Show's notorious teepee-ing blunder. (They set out to teepee coach Frank Johnson's house, but, in a case of mistaken identities, ended up teepee-ing poor Randy Johnson's house. Surprise, surprise: the Big Unit was none too happy).

"Players are such a big part of what we do," Helt says. "My job is to make them bigger than life. They are the show. I go into every game saying ‘Ok, what can I involve our players in'."

Coaxing the inner movie star out of these athletes is a big part of the challenge for Kip.

"What I love to do is take a player like Joe Johnson, who is shy, and be able to talk him into being able to do something that I think the fans just gravitate towards and love, and hopefully make him even more popular with the fans."

Tasked with naming his favorite athlete that he has worked with, two specific answers come directly to Helt's mind. The first of which happens to be the lovable, offensively-challenged Bo Outlaw.

"The first time I ever worked with Bo, we were an hour an fifteen minutes into the shoot, and I said Bo, ‘I'm so sorry this is taking so long'," Kip recalls. "We were at an arcade, and I said, ‘Hopefully, you know, we'll be done quick. We appreciate you staying here,' and he said, ‘Man, I'm here as long as you need me.' He ended staying there for three hours."

Helt's second response is as definitive as can be. "One of my favorite people to work with of all-time, in any sport, is Bridget Pettis.

Endorsing of the former-player-now-turned-coach of the Phoenix Mercury, Kip enthusiastically declares, "I always say she should quit basketball and be hired onto Saturday Night Live. One of the funniest people that I have ever worked with."

Still, regardless of how many player features he works on, the most broadly seen production of Kip Helt's is the pre-game introductory video. The heart-pounding feature is seen by hundreds of thousands of fans throughout the year and is the one thing that ignites the crowd and players alike. Though, suffice to say, its creation is quite an undertaking.

"There's a lot of work that goes into it. It's probably a two to two-and-a-half month process from the start: the origination of the idea, the selection of the song, the development of the entire storyboard, the shooting and selecting shots, the final editing and all of the graphics that are laid into that."

Though, even with all of these rungs in the ladder, Kip admits that one step is easily the most important -- the song.

"It really is the driving force in a lot of occasions. A couple years ago when we did ‘Firestarter', I mean that really drove things, and the lyrics were big on that." Kip explains, "Once you come up with the song, then shots kind of come from that."

So it stands that the experience you, the fan, receives at a Suns' game is directly manipulated through Kip Helt's hands. In truth, though, it was never supposed to be this way. In 1997, Kip was hired onto the Phoenix Suns' sales staff. Luckily, it didn't work out as planned, as he acknowledges with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, "I was such a lousy sales guy that the boss moved me into game entertainment in 1999. So, I've been doing this, basically producing and directing the shows, since."

Though he may have moved past that sales position, Helt still understands the dilemma that fans face regarding the high price it takes to attend the average sports game. In this respect, he sees his team's work as a contributing factor that can hopefully make the costly commitment worthwhile for the fans.

"What we do, hopefully, increases [the ticket's] value," Kip explains. "You spend ‘X' amount of dollars on a ticket, and not only am I coming here and seeing the greatest athletes in the world, but I'm getting to see some amazing performers." Helt continues, "I'm getting to see some fun player videos. I'm getting to see some great performance teams like the dancers and the drummers, and great mascots like the Gorilla and Scorch. I'm getting to see fabulous halftime acts."

This line of thought, however, quickly brings to mind a common claim that is made these days: the notion that we have stumbled onto the age of too much entertainment at sporting events. Helt wholeheartedly dismisses the idea.

"I am a basketball junkie. I am a basketball purist, and have been a basketball fan from the minute I was born. I grew up a Kansas City Kings fan, so I am a type-A diehard NBA fan." Kip concludes, "I think the entertainment really adds to it. I think you'd be missing a lot if you took that away."

Kip Help controls the action at a recent Phoenix Mercury game at US Airways Center. 

As a result of his eleven years on the job, one particular idea has become Kip's mantra.

"You always need to be ready for any situation," he somberly declares. "You've just got to be as prepared as possible. One thing that I've learned in doing this is you must also have a back-up plan."

In the chaotic world of sports, pauses can come at any point. If Alvin Gentry needs to call a timeout, the last thing on his mind is consulting Kip.

As a result of this sporadic system, Helt tries to keep his team in a constant ‘ready' state. "So going into a timeout, I'm stressing to my people, ‘Hey, this is the planned programming. But, if for instance, the Gorilla's not ready, or the dancers aren't ready, here's what we're going to go with.' And you must always have that plan because you just never know."

In truth, it genuinely does speak to his character that despite all of his successes, Kip is still as grounded as the day he started. "I feel incredibly blessed to be doing this. I mean, I'm a guy that grew up in Topeka, Kansas, and was a basketball junkie."

Faced with the reality of living his dream job that he never quite dreamed about, Helt gets emotional as he confesses to the good fortune that he has received.

"Every day -- it sounds corny -- but I thank God that I have an opportunity to work here. I mean, this is really my life. I feel extremely blessed to be able to do it, and I absolutely love it. I've never missed a game."

As the director of this great spectacle sits back and appreciates the moment, a smile creeps across his face. "It's a great place to be. I always say it's the Disneyland of the NBA."


SB Nation Arizona intern Shaun Al-Shatti contributed significantly to this story.