Saturday, January 12, 2008

She's Got Nets 

Posted by James at 11:30 AM ET

Secaucus Woman Orchestrates On-court Entertainment for NBA Team

By E. Assata Wright
The Hudson Reporter
The opposing team has been introduced. It could be any team, the Knicks, the Wizards; it doesn't really matter which one. The frivolities having been dispensed with, it's now time to get down to business.

The house lights in the Continental Airlines Arena in Newark are lowered for dramatic, anticipatory effect. The New Jersey Nets' starting lineup is introduced as rapper Kanye West's hit Stronger pours from the stadium sound system. Next, highlights from the season are replayed on giant screens. And, in a final dramatic effect, flares explode from a large flag carried by Nets mascot, Sly.
Petra Pope
The dramatic windup and excitement leading up to the tip-off, in addition to the spectacular halftime show featuring dancing cheerleaders, isn't particularly unique to the New Jersey Nets. Every NBA team these days has its own pre-game and halftime show. But this wasn't always the case. When basketball legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird were in their prime, on-court entertainment amounted to little more than the singing of the National Anthem and some vigorous pop-pom shaking on the part of cheerleaders.

The modern evolution of on-court entertainment at NBA games dates back to the early '80s, when the Los Angeles Laker Girls shook up the hardwood with their innovative and edgy dance moves. And Secaucus resident Petra Pope, now vice president of entertainment and event marketing for the New Jersey Nets, was the Laker Girls' manager.

"In the '80s it was all about the game, not so much about the fans' overall experience," Pope remembers. "So there wasn't a lot of additional on-court entertainment at that time. Now we have various acts. We might have a dog act. We might have breakers or skaters. We might have different musical acts."

'Army brat' until 18

Pope never planned for a career working behind the scenes of professional men's basketball. Instead her life's work and passion fell into her lap through "pure luck."

Born in Niederweisel, Germany, to an African-American father who was in the U.S. military and a German mother, Pope was raised as an "Army brat." Every three years the family would move from Germany to the States, then back again.

This continued until Pope was 18, at which time she went job hunting and, through a friend of a friend, landed a position as an assistant to Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss. After two years of being Buss' assistant Pope became the manager of the Laker Girls in 1983. The job entailed hiring choreographers for the women, managing their promotional appearances, and negotiating sponsorship and sneaker deals for them.

"These days, of course every team has tried to enhance the fan experience by hiring lots of exciting acts, and every team has someone who oversees and coordinates that entertainment. But at that time it was definitely unusual. Most teams didn't have anything that was comparable to the Laker Girls," she said.

After managing the Laker Girls for six years, Pope moved to New York City, where the Knicks soon recruited her to revamp their pre-game and halftime shows. She answered the call by developing the Knicks City Dancers and a children's dance team for the Knicks and New York Liberty.

Board room or locker room?

On the surface of it, the machismo culture of professional men's sports does not appear to be a place where a woman would thrive. But that dark side of the sports world has not been part of her personal experience, Pope said. "The challenges that I've faced in my position are not based on gender," she said. "The challenges that I've faced are, what new act can I find, do we have the budget to cover it, things of that nature."

Net Dancers
The New Jersey Nets Dancers

Not only has Pope flourished as a front office exec, she maintained that she is not unique. She said many women have been equally successful as marketing V.P.s, general counsel attorneys, and finance directors either at the NBA league office or with individual teams. She estimates that roughly half the executives in these positions are men and half are women. "I can only speak from what I've seen, but there have been so many women that have been in such a position of power that I would say that it is not difficult for women to enter this business and advance and do well," she said. "There are plenty of women who are talented and bright and who are rewarded for that."

Pope's account of life at the hallowed courts of the NBA may raise more than a few eyebrows, due in no small part to the fact that it paints a sharp contrast to the image created by the recent Anucha Brown Sanders lawsuit against the Knicks organization. Sanders filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Madison Square Garden, Knicks owner James Dolan, and team president and head coach Isiah Thomas alleging that the Garden was a hostile work environment for women. The civil suit, which Sanders won, exposed what many have described as locker room working conditions at Madison Square Garden, where female executives routinely had to endure potty-mouthed language and unwanted sexual advances.

Without addressing Sanders' case specifically, Pope, who spent 14 year with the Knicks before being hired by New Jersey in 2005, said she has personally neither seen nor experienced the locker-room-meets-board-room behavior described in the lawsuit. The biggest obstacles to her job, Pope said, are "universal" to anyone in the NBA, women and men alike, who does marketing.

Secaucus feeds the spirit

Given the somewhat glamorous nature of her job, Pope admits that people expect her have a tony address somewhere in New York City, in Park Slope Brooklyn, say, or the rapidly gentrifying Harlem.

But Pope makes no apologies for not living somewhere "sexier" than Secaucus.

"There's such a dichotomy to my personality," she stated. "My job is very sexy and I meet amazing people and get to do really fun things. But my spirit calls for a kind of quiet, woodsy area."

"I live in Harmon Cove, which is very woodsy and kind of like a cabinesque place," Pope continued. "When I saw it, I fell in love with it. It is not a sexy place to live, but it feeds my spirit like no other area has."

Pope, who owns a home here, has been a township resident for nearly two years. Previously she lived in Jersey City's Port Liberté.

Moving out

As much as she loves New Jersey in general, and Secaucus in particular, Pope's team will soon be making the move into New York City - Brooklyn, to be exact, where the Nets have a new stadium being built. For now, Pope says her focus is still on New Jersey and on the fans here, although she concedes that will change at some point down the line.

Her hope is that the Nets will ultimately be viewed as a "regional team," that will attract convert fans in Brooklyn without losing the longtime Jersey fan base here.

For now, Pope is enjoying her last year sitting among the Nets' fans at the Continental Airlines Arena who have a unique appreciation for what she brings to the overall game experience. Comparing Nets fans to those of the Knicks, whom she labeled "more corporate," Pope said Jersey fans "Get into the game, but they also get into the entertainment. The kids love Sly, the team mascot. They love the Nets Dancers. They love our gymnastics team. They get into the music. They're there to have a good time. In addition to rooting for the team, they're there to have fun - and it's obvious."

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