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The Man, The Myth, The Legend: Taylor Griffin

"What are you up to this Wednesday night?" was the text message that altered the course of my life in the summer of 2008. Little did I realize that when my good friend Clayton texted me, I would make the decision that would change my entire family's current situation. I had been going to community college for the last two years, not knowing what I was doing with my life, chasing different things that got me attention in high school. Break dancing and video editing didn't have a future according to my parents and in a way they were correct. Still, however, they were things I was passionate about and both of those would come into play later after I had graduated college in ways I wouldn't have expected even if someone from the future had told me.

When I got up to Grand Canyon University on that Wednesday night with Clayton, I was under the impression I would just be playing some pickup volleyball with the team that he got recruited to after high school. I played for my high school as well as for a club program during the off-season and started to develop into a decent player. Not having a single scholarship offer after high school and only to have the opportunity to pursue schools with NAIA programs or club programs dealt quite a blow to my self-esteem and ego since I had won all the awards for my club and high school programs as a most valuable player, senior of the year, and first-team all-region.

The night started well even though I had some concerns after not playing for two years and focusing only on breakdancing. I remember my dad had offered to drive Clayton and me up to Phoenix from Tucson which wasn't expected because my dad traveled for work often since he was the chaplain for NASCAR at the time. It was fun to see him in the stands as the night progressed and remembered looking up at him a few times and he had this shocked look on his face. If I am being honest, I was playing the best volleyball I had ever played and didn't feel like I could do anything wrong. Every athlete knows what I am talking about, it was one of those nights. After the open gym had wrapped up the coach approached me and asked, "Who are you?" I explained I was just a friend of Claytons who I had played club with in high school but was a couple of years older than him. Coach Speer then followed up with "Are you playing for anyone currently?" to which I quickly responded no. He then proceeded to tell me he wanted me to come back next week to prove that tonight wasn't a fluke. I remember being nervous but also excited because I had played extremely well that night and was wondering if I would be able to follow up the next week up with at least the same level of play.

The following week went even better than the first time I had stepped onto GCU's campus. Coach Speer brought me into his office after that second open gym and explained that he was starting the men's volleyball program at GCU and wanted to recruit me as the outside hitter for the program. It didn't take long for me to say yes as long as the money was right and after a few weeks of negotiations I remember telling Coach Speer "Let's do this." I told him that on a Sunday afternoon, packed up my things Monday, and left Tuesday morning for GCU. It was a whirlwind.

I played volleyball for GCU for 4 years starting as a true freshman (didn’t have enough credits to transfer in as a sophomore) and was the first and only player whose freshman year was the first year of the program, that stayed with the team all 4 years. I had a blast traveling the country, everywhere from Hawaii to UCLA and USC, BYU, Las Vegas, Pepperdine, Long Beach, Ohio State, Ball State, Loyola, and New York. My freshman year being the first year of the program we had only one weekend the whole season where we had home matches. Every single Thursday through Sunday of the spring semester we were flying somewhere to play volleyball, life was awesome. I don't play any volleyball to this day because I don't know how to have fun playing it anymore. I immediately go into competition mode and can't distinguish between fun and laid back and it's time to win no matter the cost. Please don't ask me to play in a pickup volleyball league anywhere, the answer will be no.

After a fun and rewarding college experience and a fun college volleyball career, I had no job interviews, job connections, or any leads on a career as I was inching closer to graduation. The only thing I remember was my father introducing me to a woman named Helen Bleach in the GCU arena at a basketball game halfway through my senior year. I remember her bright smile and thinking to myself wow this woman is one of the happiest people I have ever met. Anyone who knows Helen knows she’s a ray of sunshine and one of the sweetest people to walk God’s green earth.

After graduation, my dad said "Hey I think Brian Mueller will be giving you a call in a couple of weeks so pay attention to your phone. We were about to leave on vacation to Mexico so I wasn't thinking about anything other than sunshine, snorkeling, and margaritas. Getting back stateside, however, helped reality set in. I had no options and was banking on the fact that Brian was going to call me. My parents offered for me to stay at their place until that happened and I didn’t even look at other job opportunities. I just figured I would work at GCU. Thankfully in the middle of May, I got a call come through on my cell phone and sure enough I heard Brian’s voice on the other line.

"Hello, Taylor?"

“Good afternoon Mr. Mueller I have been looking forward to your call.”

“I have a job opportunity for you and want you to come into my office next Thursday are you free that day?”

“Yes absolutely”

“Great I will see you then.”

The call was quick, to the point and simple. I found myself even more nervous because even though he had a job for me I had no clue what it entailed. When I got to his office on that Thursday he said that he watched me play volleyball throughout my career and his words were "You are a sparkplug when you step onto the floor." I had always loved playing in front of big crowds and felt at home performing and competing in front of a lot of people. "I feel like your presence can translate well to a mascot character and was wondering if that interested you?" I said yes immediately but he had a few other things that the job entailed which were helping start a student section and help with game entertainment. I knew nothing about all three things he wanted me to accomplish but I had no other options and I loved GCU.

Remember Helen? Well funny enough she was the one who was in charge of events and other live experiences on campus so Brian had me work for her. They had ordered a new mascot suit and let the last mascot go because they were going for a new look. They wanted a more stunt-oriented and athletic mascot. Translation: I was going to be repelling from ceilings, dunking off trampolines and doing other physical things during games. I remember asking Helen after she handed me the new mascot suit "What kind of character is this? Do they have a certain personality I need to make sure I emulate?” She responded by saying “His name is Thunder and come up with whatever character you think would be good for him.”

It was a really fun opportunity to create something from scratch and I had a phenomenal experience being Thunder. I wanted to create a character who was strong, athletic, clumsy in a comedic way, and someone who students thought was cool and wanted to be around. I started by adding all my favorite characters from movies I had grown up watching into one persona. Indiana Jones, Ned Land from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Han Solo, and Jackie Chan, all formed the athletic action hero part of his character. I grew up watching Abbot and Costello my entire life and Costello's slapstick kind of physical humor was some of my favorite. I leaned on him as the clumsy comedic portion of who Thunder's character was.

Those characters mixed with the understanding that Thunder had to be the king of GCU rounded out what he was going to be like. He had to be able to "fight" had to be a good dancer, fearless, a ladies' man, and had to not be awkward. I saw too many mascots who were walking caricatures of old wacky cartoons and it didn't translate well when interacting with a human experience. The final detail was that he had to smell good, mascots are notorious for smelling bad so I made sure that Thunder used a specific type of cologne. The amount of times I got hugs in the suit and heard “Thunder you smell so good!” is too many to count. That provides for a positive experience when interacting with people at the game and also subconsciously makes them remember Thunder when smelling good cologne. I wanted to make sure they remembered him after the game and were reminded of him at random times in their life.

As I started working in the events department there was a lady named Emily Stephens who was in charge of the cheer program and was the game ops director calling games on headset while I was the mascot. We collaborated a lot on what Thunder was going to do in a game and how we could incorporate his character into the experience, I had a lot of fun working with her and learned a lot about game ops from her while also gaining a newfound respect for cheer and spirit programs. She had me come to camp my first year which happened a couple of weeks before classes started for the students so I traveled to UC Santa Barbara for UCA and UDA camp because they had a mascot portion to the camp and I ended up winning the Camp Champ award as a mascot after being a mascot for only a few months during the summer. Thunder has won the Camp Champ award since 2012 running to my knowledge and just recently won a National Championship. I am proud of the character I had the opportunity to create and the guys I was able to train to take over for me when I told Helen that wasn’t the type of suit I wanted to wear to work anymore. When I told her that she said “This is perfect because Emily just told me she doesn’t want to do game ops anymore and wants to only focus on the cheer program.

While I was the mascot however (before we get to the game production portion of my career) I had to attempt to create a student section. I had a few friends who were a year behind me so they were going to be seniors in my first year working full time. I decided to hire them to be student section leaders and came up with the "Monsoon Section" as a name for the students. GCU was still stuck in a "giveaways get people to games" mentality so I carried out that vision for my first year. We did some on-campus marketing as well as social media marketing but advertised that whoever came to the games would be entered into a raffle to win big-time prizes such as a TV, PlayStations, iPods, etc. We had a giveaway for every game. The great thing was it started to get students to games but it didn’t get students to games for the right reasons. Some students would show up with their laptops and do homework during the game even in the student section just to see if their raffle ticket won them a prize. Unfortunately, most of the time that ended up happening, a student who would show up to one game would win a big prize when there were students who would paint up, get there early and act crazy the whole game. It wasn't fair. By the end of that first season, we needed to make a change, and it had to get rid of the things I would consider industry standard.

If I am being honest, I was more interested in the mascot and the show portion of the job I had started doing. The idea of creating a production, executing that production, telling a story, and having to manage the student section took away from that. So the responsibility of the student section fell on Emily Stephens, to begin with. I remember when I wanted to transition from being a mascot to game ops and producing games, Emily was going to focus on the cheer team but also help get the student section going. So my second year turned into a hybrid year of me being a mascot as well as learning how to call games. Mandi Jo (a girl who worked full-time in events and was a cheerleader for Emily) helped teach me how to write rundowns and PA packets and we both pitched Midnight Madness to Brian Mueller together after it had been deemed a failure by Brian Mueller my first year as a mascot. We told him that the event needed to happen it just needed to be done right. Emily was in charge of that event that year and I remember many things going wrong and it being an event that seemed pretty tacky. Where Emily failed when it came to creating Midnight Madness I was able to be successful, and where I failed putting the student section together, Emily succeeded in getting it started.

I remember the first time I heard the word “Havocs” and it was during the summer of 2013 when we held initial interviews for students interested in starting a student section that would be student-led and a senior named Justin Macari showed up. Emily and I talked with him outside of Antelope Gym and Emily mostly led the conversation. When we sent out an email saying to bring some ideas you had we talked about potential names for the student section and both Justin and Emily had the word "Havocs" written down in their list of ideas. It was really weird to be honest that they both had the same potential name for it. It seemed like that was the direction we wanted to go so we presented it to Helen and Brian and it became official. The Havocs would be the craziest part of the Monsoon section and go nuts during the game. If you wanted to still sit in the student section you were part of the Monsoon but just not a Havoc. After a while we realized there was a lot of brand confusion and students didn’t realize what was going on so we dropped the monsoon and it exclusively became the Havocs.

I remember the first year I was working for GCU there were these four dudes who always showed up to games, got painted up in the first row and acted crazy. Crazier than the seniors I had hired to help me run the student section. Out of the four guys, I remember three of them. Josh Girgenti, Brennan Williams, and Brandon Kaiser. They were insane. I knew Josh well because he was only one grade behind me and we saw each other at chapel and other events through college, good dude. Didn't know Brennan and Brandon though because I later found out they were freshmen. Josh however approached me one day and said “Hey T, we love coming to games and acting crazy, but none of us have won any of the giveaways and it seems a little unfair since we are at every single game no matter what." He was right, we were going about this student section experience all wrong and that's when it hit me that we needed to change. I responded with "Tell me what you want and I will make it happen.” The three of them said they wanted Spartan outfits so I said alright I will get them for you and bring them to your apartment. So I went to a Halloween costume store, bought the outfits and brought them to Josh’s apartment and they were pumped. They wore them every single game. It became Brandon’s alter ego.

Alright so, after that first year, multiple things happened that I feel changed the course of where GCU was headed. We had the Havocs section started, I was more focused on the Mascot and starting to learn how to call and produce games, Mandi Jo and I vouched for a Midnight Madness event that we pitched to Brian Mueller, and we had student leaders that we hired for the student section, we announced that we were transitioning to D1, and Dan Majerle was being hired as the head men's basketball coach. I remember being in a meeting with Brian, Helen, Emily, Mandi Jo, and a couple of others that summer and he said "Our team on the court won't be good for a while but our experience can be. I want to have the best atmosphere in the country." Naturally, Emily, Helen and I felt a ton of pressure to deliver that experience, so we started doing our research. Emily Stephens traveled to Gonzaga to see what their student section setup was like and understood that it being student-led was crucial. No full-time staff driving the initiative. I had been through my first year as a mascot as well as my first season as a dunker for the Phoenix Suns, which I had auditioned for and made in September of 2012 before basketball season had started at GCU. So I was not just a mascot who was attempting to put together a student section and help with game entertainment at GCU, I was also doing flips off trampolines with the Gorilla at Suns games and learning what a pro production was like behind the scenes from an entertainers perspective. It was a wild year, to say the least.

My focus that summer was to create a Midnight Madness event, we knew we had enough students who were interested in the game experience because of the turnout we had at the announcement of going D1 and having Dan Majerle as our new coach. So it was hustle mode leading up to our date in October when we would have a rebranded, intense, non-traditional Midnight Madness event. We were just going to throw a party, and have a little bit of a show but with no dead space, quick transitions, and no basketball being played. Just the hardest-hitting 40 minutes humanly possible. The idea was to leave students wanting more and to give them a taste of what game day would be like. Even if we weren't quite sure whether or not that would be accurate. We pulled off a real-life Inception movie moment where we planted a thought in the students' minds. Is this really how insane games will be? I guess I have to go to find out. Which we made sure to capitalize on when they were there. We had a specific entrance for the students where they all ran in at a certain time to their seats to the song “Animals” by Marin Garrix. The EDM scene was starting to blow up at that time with Skrillex and other OG EDM artists so I feel like we were ahead of the curve when it came to incorporating that type of experience into the students' immersive game day experience.

We started to realize that students would kind of just do whatever we told them in-game if they were prompted beforehand. Which led to the student section turning into a living breathing programmable organism. I refer to it as Frankestein’s monster and my job as a game producer was to figure out how to send electricity into it and make it “COME ALIVE!” The first big idea I had hit me when I heard the song “Springen” by Makj. At this point Brandon and I were close and had been working on projects together for a little while so I texted him when he was in class and said “Meet me in the arena I have an idea.” He was so bought in and focused on the student section that he left class immediately and ran to the arena. I had my phone plugged into the system there (a trick some of the audio guys showed me if the system itself wasn’t turned on or tuned to the right levels I could just operate from my phone) and played him the song. Told him that we should play this song right before tip-off and right when it says "Jump" all the students point at the other team and jump to the beat. It seemed so intimidating and scary to have 1,500 students all locked in doing that at the same time. So Brandon said, love it we will incorporate it next game. To this day that is still that tradition, a decade later.

After the first year of the Havocs was when we dropped the Monsoon and it became exclusively just the Havocs. From there I trained a couple of guys to take over the mascot program so I could be at the table and be responsible for making the games happen correctly. The second Midnight Madness event we planned was a Star Wars-themed Midnight Madness because the newest installment was coming out that year and we wanted to connect it to the student experience. The First Midnight Madness I built was called "Fever" after "Saturday Night Fever" because we just wanted to throw a fun party, and we filled about half the arena. The Star Wars-themed one which we named "Episode 3" ended up having security turn students away from the arena because we were in standing room only.

This was Brandon's senior year and we completely blew it out of the water. We had the coaches repel from the ceiling, very little basketball being featured outside of the team being introduced, a very intricate themed story etc. I remember creating a hologram for the lobby as students walked in of Thunder waving at them because I drew a lot of inspiration for the event from my time growing up next to Disneyland. I knew that it couldn't just be a themed event it had to be a story they stepped into. That year I started with the lobby setup feeling very immersive and like a scene from a movie, and in the years after that extended the experience throughout campus. The hologram started rumors that I had spent $20,000 on a hologram of Thunder. It was a compliment because we spent a total of $150 on the hologram. We built the setup for it, shot the footage needed, and utilized the equipment we already owned to finalize the hologram prop. The only money we spent was on the wood and the metal needed to build the actual “portal”.

Anyway, the story continues. Brandon's senior year was when we were operating officially at full capacity in the student section with an experience that was completely geared towards them. All of our ideas for in-game were thought of through a filter that focused on what would benefit the student section and how we could make them look awesome and insane. We had so many highlights that year but the two that stick out most as far as the season goes were playing Louisville at home and having Coach Pitino say it was the hardest place he's played in his career and nobody in the country stacks up to it. He mentioned the coordination between when music was played and how the band was utilized gave me a lot of confidence because the band director would always tell me things like ”I have your back just let me know when you need me.” We made sure to bring hell to Louisville while they were at our place and Donovan Mitchell said it was by far the hardest place he’s ever played. Huge compliment since he played against the biggest college basketball programs in the nation and is now an NBA all-star as I’m writing this. The second was beating New Mexico State at home with the students storming the court after the game. We had formed a rivalry against them but it’s not officially a rivalry until you beat them and that’s what the team did. It was official.

Going into summer after that year was hectic, Brian Mueller would address me in big athletics meetings with all the big wigs asking what I had planned for Midnight Madness the next year and my response was “You will find out when you get there.” This newfound confidence I knew rubbed him the wrong way but he would always laugh it off and still trust me with the job which I was thankful for. I had proven myself by this point with the game experience and Midnight Madness as well as accomplishing the game ops duties for the other sports we had.

It was time to expand into another event that we needed to grab students' attention during welcome week and help support the other sports besides basketball. By this time, basketball sold itself so we needed to make sure that we were on it when it came to teaching culture, and kind of “brainwashing” the freshman so they knew what the expectation was for participating in athletic events at GCU. We came up with an event called “Lopapalooza" which was essentially just a hype event for hype's sake while helping set the tone for the season and accomplishing the goals listed above. Another wild event outside of Midnight Madness and the men's basketball season. It had a purpose though and it jacked up all the new freshmen during their first week of being on campus. The event was a hit, students went absolutely bonkers and it was a blast to produce, just had to throw a party. No story, no props, no costumes, holograms, or people repelling from ceilings. Just HYPE. That started the 2016 year and we were headed towards Midnight Madness which I had started working on the day after we got done with the Star Wars Midnight Madness from the previous year.

It was time to expand into another event that we needed to grab students' attention during welcome week and help support the other sports besides basketball. By this time, basketball sold itself so we needed to make sure that we were on it when it came to teaching culture, and kind of “brainwashing” the freshman so they knew what the expectation was for participating in athletic events at GCU. We came up with an event called “Lopapalooza" which was essentially just a hype event for hype's sake while helping set the tone for the season and accomplishing the goals listed above. Another wild event outside of Midnight Madness and the men's basketball season. It had a purpose though and it jacked up all the new freshmen during their first week of being on campus. The event was a hit, students went absolutely bonkers and it was a blast to produce, just had to throw a party. No story, no props, no costumes, holograms, or people repelling from ceilings. Just HYPE. That started the 2016 year and we were headed towards Midnight Madness which I had started working on the day after we got done with the Star Wars Midnight Madness from the previous year.

This Midnight Madness was Mad Max themed since the movie was coming out that year, and it was our final year in our transition to D1 so we treated it like it was "The end of times, the final year". So naturally it was named "The ApocaLopes". See what I did there? We had fire all around campus leading up to the event, apocalyptic signs saying Midnight Madness 2016 with the date of the event and Havocs leaders walking around doing on-campus marketing in costume telling students to come to the event. Since this event was gasoline-fueled adrenaline I asked Dan Majerle if he was cool with riding his Harley into the arena, knowing full well he would 100% be down to do it. Dan was so much fun and so easy to work with in my experience. He was a producer's dream. Any crazy idea I had he would say "I got you Taylor let's make it happen." The students loved him for it, they loved Dan and he had a blast coaching in front of them it was easy to see. That Midnight Madness was an absolute blast and had some fire elements in the arena which was fun. It was even more fun outside the arena when it came to pyro because there were no restrictions out there. We had a ton of pyro structures set up in the grass outside the arena next to the students (at a safe and legal distance obviously) that helped with setting the tone of the event. One thing that helped provide a student's perspective of Midnight Madness was a group of students filmed their experience waiting in line and going into the event. I remember watching that video on YouTube over and over and over again thinking, how can I improve the waiting in line experience for students while they are leading up to Midnight Madness?

That 2016-2017 season was fun and we made a bunch of new timeout traditions for students to participate in. The two that come to mind were "Listen to Your Heart" and "Thunder Hype" which are still being done today. We were firing on all cylinders and felt like we had finally hit our groove on the national stage executing a game-day experience that everyone was envious of. We faced a ton of criticism as far as it being "impossible" to get students to the game in that amount and with that kind of participation. Honestly, it was a ton of work behind the scenes with what Brandon had done with the student section and systemizing the process and with us being diligent in creating new experiences that hadn't been done before and putting the student experience first above everything else. The Havocs were bigger than the spirit programs groups, the band, the team, and even the university itself. A rumor started that we paid students to come to games which was obviously untrue and even if it was it still doesn't explain how the involvement and energy on their end was created.

During that year I was honestly focused on one thing, Midnight Madness of the following year. I had already come up with the theme. Pirates of the Caribbean. I grew up less than a block away from Disneyland and could hear the noises from the park in my backyard. We had season passes growing up and my mom grew up close to Disneyland as well. The first theme park ride I remember going on was Pirates of the Caribbean and sitting next to my grandmother. I remember being terrified, excited, confused and mesmerized all at the same time. Growing up going to Disneyland played a huge role in how I approached the game day experience as well as Midnight Madness events. I had to create something that students could escape into, I wanted them to forget everything that existed outside the arena while I had their attention. The same way Disney created rides at the park was the same thing I wanted to do with the student experience. When you are waiting in line waiting for a ride it didn't feel like you were waiting in line, you were immersed in a story. I wanted to create that same experience with my responsibilities.

While students would wait in line for Midnight Madness 2017, I had speakers set up throughout campus that was close to the line that the students waited in for Midnight Madness, and I pumped the queue music from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride through the speakers to mimic the same feeling that you would have when waiting in line for the ride. Anyone who has been to Disneyland knows that the churros are a must-have on every visit. So of course we offered the opportunity for students to buy churros while they were waiting in line by having churro sellers walking through the line all that night leading up to the doors opening. $1 churros were hard to beat. I took Midnight Madness 2017 very seriously because of my memories of growing up going to Disneyland with my grandparents. It was something that formed my childhood. Disney's Treasure Island movie from 1950 was a movie I grew up on, pirates, adventure, treasure, swords etc. I wanted to do the best I could with that event mainly because of the theme. To this day I will have graduates message me saying that Midnight Madness that year was their favorite event I had done during my time at GCU. That is something I hold very dear because of how important the event was to me personally.

The 2017-2018 season was an absolute blast, continuing to create and innovate when it came to the student experience. Had a ton of great coverage from ESPN and still received national attention for the game-day experience and what we were doing. Everyone wanted a piece of what we had and constantly had producers and game day people from around the country reach out and want to know how we did it, local people who would come to games and record what we would do. Even had schools try to implement what we did in almost the same way. As Oscar Wilde said, "Imitation is the highest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness."

As the season was wrapping up I was already about 6 months into planning the 2018-2019 Midnight Madness which we had a Batman theme. Before that, we had to execute Lopapalooza and that was an extremely hectic experience since there was a storm that night that knocked out power to the arena about 20 minutes before the event was supposed to start. Naturally, when the power went out, that means the lights went out and when that happens everyone thinks it is show time. Well, it wasn't, not yet. Our start time for Lopapalooza was always 7:49 on the dot. Why you ask? In military time 7:49 pm is 19:49. 1949 was the year that GCU officially opened as a university so we wanted that to be an important easter egg to the event. The event was about tradition, culture, and the GCU way and what better way than to throw that small detail into the event? Well when the lights went out I had to jump up from the table and get the band to play music to kill time, it was pretty majestic the band playing all out in pitch black. From there I ran to the cheer team and dance team and told them to get ready to rally because the first thing that would come back on would be the lights. Lopaplooza was very video heavy so I had to check with Hap Hopper who ran all the video boards as well as the LEDs in-house about the status of his system and if we were good to go. He said he had to reload all the videos into his system before we could play anything due to the power outage and the event was scheduled to open with an intro video. I was stressed, to say the least. Every minute Hap would give me an update and they all loaded until we got to the last one, and only had 60 seconds left before the event had to start.

“Hap we have 60 seconds before we need to start the show how is that last video?”

“It’s almost ready.”

“Hap we are 30 seconds out now.”

“Almost there not quite.”

“Hap we have 15 seconds.”


Hap we have 5 seconds.”

“Video is ready let’s roll.”

“Standby for Lopaplooza intro video in 3…2…1. GO.”

It was as if we were in a movie. The timing was perfect. Everyone was sweaty because it was August, in a packed arena, with power that went out, which means the AC had gone out too. The students didn't care, and it was one of the most insane events during my time there. So much energy, so much controlled chaos. The beginning of an amazing year.

Next up and not far away was Midnight Madness 2018. Since it was Batman themed, we had a ton of ways to incorporate the theme around campus. Grand Canyon Beverage Company (GCU's coffee shop) made a menu for that week alone that had names of drinks called "The Batmobile" "The Joker" "Cat Woman" etc. Also, we renamed GCBC the Gotham City Beverage Company as well as GCU Arena to Gotham City University. It worked too well and we had to capitalize on it, adding another layer to the immersive experience for students. Jason Botello, who helped me execute the lighting for all games and events, and I worked on a light show for Midnight Madness all summer and created a rig that kind of blossomed that hung over the basketball floor. It was an extensive project but we had a blast putting it together and Jason is an absolute wizard. Hands down one of my favorite people I worked with at GCU along with Hap Hopper. I have so many great memories with both of them and still talk to them often to this day. I would not have been successful without them and if you are a fan of the GCU basketball game day experience then you are a fan of their work.

Midnight Madness was a blast and we didn't have a single hiccup. Dan Majerle rode into the arena on a slingshot vehicle in a Batman suit and the women's coach wore a Wonder Woman suit riding shotgun in the vehicle with him. The place went nuts and we wrapped the night with everything going perfectly.

The season had started and I honestly felt like I was in a way plateauing a little bit in regards to what I was producing. It wasn't a good feeling so we got creative with some of the pre-game moments that we created with the Havocs section before the team would come out onto the floor. The Havocs leaders at the time said they wanted to come up with something Purge themed for our rivalry game against New Mexico State. So again I was given the keys to come up with a unique experience that featured them and had to do a lot of audio editing as well as lighting schemes (thank you, Jason, for being a wizard as always) The idea I came up with is one of my favorite moments I have created while I was at GCU and thankful that it went well. I believe they still use that as a pre-game moment to this day for the New Mexico State game every year.

At GCU we had many themed nights for students and one of our favorites was our Electrolope Night (Neon Night). It was very on-brand for who GCU was and how the Havocs responded to events. A lot of neon lights out pre-game etc. I remember working with my DJ at the time (Shout out to Austin Forney for always helping my music edit ideas come to life) and we sat down and decided that an intro to the Havocs pre-game experience was something we could get away with so we created it, implemented it, and asked for forgiveness later. What I didn’t know at the time was the game entertainment and production department for the Phoenix Suns showed up at that game because they wanted to see what kind of experience we put together. I’m glad they did show up to that one because it was one of the more unique game day production experiences we would do throughout the year. I went to bed that night and woke up the next morning not thinking anything of the night before and I got a call from a number I didn't recognize.

"Hello, this is Taylor?"

“Hey, Taylor this is Brett Samet with the Phoenix Suns.”

“Hey, Brett great to meet you what can I help you with?”

"Well just wanted to let you know that I and my department were at the game last night and were impressed with what we saw. Do you have a few minutes to talk?"

I was blown away. Never would have thought that an NBA team was going to reach out to me. I thought if I wanted to leave GCU I would have had to take that step myself. In February 2019, I went through my interviews with the Suns and was offered the job in March. I said yes and was starting with the Phoenix Suns and the Phoenix Mercury on May 1st of 2019 as the game presentation manager.

Anyone who works in pro sports knows it’s a beast. I was not prepared for what it was like even though I had been on the dunk team for the Suns for 5 seasons from 2012-2017. Working in a full-time role and seeing the ins and outs of how a professional team operated was eye-opening but also extremely helpful for my career.

I started producing and calling games for the Phoenix Mercury first to get prepared for the Suns season coming up in October of 2019. It was a really fun experience, and I learned a lot about calling and producing as well as what it was like at the pro level vs. the college level. After getting through my first Mercury season we started the Suns season and it was all hands on deck, a pro basketball season is insane and the times and days worked get no sympathy. I realized this was much different than my time at GCU and kind of bummed that the glitz and glamour you see disappear once you work on the other side. Don't get me wrong I still had a ton of fun, met a ton of great people, got to produce a game in Mexico City with the Suns vs. the Spurs and gained a ton of knowledge about how everything works. What we weren't prepared for was March of 2020. Everyone was affected in some way shape or form and we had to adjust to producing a virtual season that we couldn't be present in the building. It was odd, to say the least, and the live production world suffered greatly.

We produced the rest of the season virtually and then were on standby from home waiting to see what the NBA was going to do with the following season. The start date kept getting pushed back and in November was told that I would be getting furloughed. We were told however that even though we were getting furloughed the plan was to have us back by no later than June 2021. All I had to do was find some odd jobs to help pay the bills until they asked us to come back and they said it could be even sooner than that. So while I was waiting for that call I ended up working at a facility that provided all the marijuana products for the state of Arizona. Growing, packaging, and even baking edibles was something that we did there. I got the job because my brother was working there and a guy we had known for over 20 years was the manager of the kitchen. So while I was there I learned how to make gummies, brownies, cookies, and other marijuana products. I needed a job and the guy we knew who had been one of our youth leaders in church growing up oddly enough told me “I know you just need something to hold you over so I will give you some work until the Suns call back.” It was the last thing I wanted to do but I knew I had bills to pay and it was immediate money so I took the job. I didn't want to be there, I didn't smoke marijuana and knew nothing about how it all worked. I was a stranger in a strange land. During my time there I met some good people and some really interesting people.

In April of 2021, I got a call from a number I recognized, it was the HR department of the Phoenix Suns and a familiar voice responded.

“Hello is this Taylor?”

“Hey, Karen yes this is Taylor I’ve been looking forward to your call.”

“Well, this will only take a couple of minutes but wanted to call to let you know that the Suns won't be renewing your position.”

It hit hard, and I felt out of breath. I was lost. I was told that I had a specific date to come get my stuff out of my office. It was an embarrassing and demoralizing experience. When I showed up to the arena they said they had put my things in the parking garage and I would have to pick everything up from there. I couldn't even enter the building again to get my things. When I arrived at the parking garage a security guard gave me a yellow ticket and said "You have 7 minutes to get your things and leave." The icing on the cake was that the items they had packed up for me were in two boxes, both of which had my name misspelt. Couldn't even spell my name correctly after letting me go. I don’t have a difficult name to spell either, I was pissed.

It was a painful drive home, I was so confused, I thought my whole career had led to working in pro sports, all the things I had accomplished, all the experience and knowledge I had gained, for me to be let go? None of it made any sense. What did God want me to learn from this? I had no idea at the time. I continued to work in the facility I was working in and tried to apply to a bunch of different production jobs. I applied to the Coyotes, and the Diamondbacks, I considered applying to ASU (heresy I know being a GCU grad). I never even got an email back. I knew I had the experience and the credentials needed. I helped create the GCU game day experience with the Havocs, I was a pro entertainer on the dunk team for 5 seasons, I worked in the WNBA and the NBA, had both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in my respective fields. Why wasn’t I getting any calls?

I did get a call before that summer though to help produce the Rattlers IFL season and was excited about that opportunity for a couple of reasons. Covid restrictions had pretty much lifted in regards to live events and the better reason personally was that the Rattlers played in the Suns arena. It was going to be awesome to get to walk back into the arena and sit at the table and produce games again in a place that I knew didn’t want me there. I loved it honestly. Producing Rattlers games was electric and an insane rush. It was just as wild if not crazier than producing NBA games. I was having the most fun producing games since I had worked for GCU. If the Rattlers gig would have been full time it honestly would have been really hard to step away.

I remember with a few games left and no production jobs in the works for me, I was getting nervous about what my future had in store. I knew I didn't want to work in insurance or corporate jobs, and felt I had experience that was extremely valuable to a specific world that could benefit me and my family with job opportunities. I had friends who constantly would send me jobs online that I could apply for and I didn’t go for a single one of them. Was told I was crazy, I need to grow up, I need to pay the bills, I need to do this do that etc. They weren’t wrong in a way, just none of them felt right. I remember with two games left in the Rattlers season I got a call on my cell phone. I didn’t recognize the number and the area code wasn’t a Phoenix one so I let it go. Only to be left with a voicemail from a very familiar voice.

Brandon Kaiser had left me a voicemail and I called back immediately. He said he had started a company helping high schools and colleges build up their student sections and recently had universities ask if he had any game production experience. His response? “I personally don’t have any game production experience, but I do know a guy. “


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