Behind the scenes at JPJ

Being a contributor, not just an audience member, makes the University community thrive

“Dude, we look like Home Depot workers,” my friend says to me, referring to our bright orange aprons. But no, we haven’t actually taken new jobs at the hardware store — we’re handing out programs for the basketball game against Notre Dame.

We know we’ve signed up to earn a little extra money and help a friend pass out a few thousand programs, but we didn’t expect the peek into what it takes to run an event at John Paul Jones arena to be so fascinating.

A University basketball game, I quickly learn, is a production of insane proportions. When we arrive at 11:45 a.m. for the 2 p.m. game, an army of staff has already been there for a sizable chunk of the morning. There is sound equipment to test, last-minute cleaning to be done, concessions to prepare and droves of people’s bags to check for firearms and illicitly stashed vodka-waters.

With my highly official “GAMEDAY PROGRAMMER” badge and pockets stuffed full of booklets, I feel a sense of power I’ve never felt before. And I feel fear. I am about to interact with the 4,500 people who are about to walk through my gate alone.

Not just anyone can do this job. A gameday programmer must have a sparkling personality and mildly aggressive interpersonal skills. Fast, leathery hands resistant to paper cuts are a must. An ideal programmer will also take minimal offense to someone saying, “No, I already have a program in my private suite.”

There is an undeniable sense of family among people who have worked backstage for more than a few games. They laugh and joke with each other when there aren’t fans walking through the gate, and when there are, they laugh and joke with the fans. The sweet older lady working next to me says to a group of gentlemen, “I hope you have the best game today that you’ve ever had!” One man stops and says, “Well, I’ve been to quite a few good games in my day…” From there, a lively conversation ensues.

JPJ has an infectious energy in the air before the game. Maybe it’s because of the excitement of the sport and anticipation of a good game, but I think there’s something special there — a deep, familial commitment to do everything we can to “make ‘em win.”

“Wahoowa” extends past the boundaries of student, faculty and alumni labels — it’s in the blood of a larger community that actually cares about whether we win or lose.

Up until this point, I have remained a privileged consumer of the University experience — an attendee of sporting events, enjoy-er of all things art and music, listener at talks and lectures, but never an actual contributor. Stepping out of the audience and into the shoes of one who helps make it happen feels fantastic. Getting to sit back down in the stands and cheer my heart out after passing out all my programs has been even better and sweeter for the experience of having worked to help make it happen.

My experience leaves me with a simple, yet crucial observation: the flow and interchange from audience to participant to audience make us better members of this very alive thing we call our University community.

Kristen’s column runs biweekly on Wednesdays. She can be reached at

Published February 25, 2014 in Life

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