Many of the Bucks’ Off-the-Court Stars Will Be Part of the NBA All-Star Festivities

The game is Sunday in Salt Lake City.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday will be taking center stage, but they won’t be the only members of the Milwaukee Bucks organization who are taking on key roles in the NBA All-Star festivities in Salt Lake City this weekend.

After leading Milwaukee to the league’s second-best record so far this season, Antetokounmpo and Holiday will represent the Bucks on the court at Vivant Arena on Sunday night. The Greek Freak is one of the team captains for the 72nd NBA All-Star Game, along with Los Angeles Lakers’ star LeBron James. He’ll also team with his brothers, Thanasis and Alex, to coach a team in the Ruffles Celebrity Game.

But talent within the Bucks organization runs deep and extends beyond the star players in uniform.

Antetokounmpo, who is making a Bucks-record seventh All-Star appearance, and Holiday, who is an All-Star for the second time but has gone 10 years between selections, are being joined in Salt Lake City by several other members of the organization. They include Johnny Watson, executive producer of arena and event presentation; Shawna Nicols (DJ Shawna); in-game host Melanie Ricks; eight members of the Rim Rockers, the Bucks’ high-flying trampoline dunking squad; and two additional Bucks’ full-time staffers, Kate Ulrich, director of live programming and entertainment, and Allie Stevenson, manager of live programming and entertainment.

Watson, who runs the Bucks’ in-game entertainment and is considered around the league to be a leader in his field, has been selected by the NBA to take part in his seventh NBA All-Star Game. He will direct all in-game entertainment for Sunday night’s All-Star Game, marking the third time he has handled that role.



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“It’s a huge honor. It means a lot to me to be recognized and just to be able to represent Milwaukee is pretty cool,” Watson said by phone from Salt Lake City. “It just says a lot about our organization, with where we are as team on the court and as an organization as a whole and what we do off the court.”

Personal accolades aside, Watson said the biggest thrill for him is having several members of his staff take part in All-Star Weekend.

“To be able to share the experience with them and to see them on this stage is ultimately what makes me most proud,” Watson said.

Watson has led in-game entertainment for basketball at two Summer Olympic Games, as well as a FIBA tournament. When the NBA had to play part of its 2019-20 season with teams sequestered in the “bubble” at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was Watson who handled in-game entertainment there, as well.

He oversees all the action that fans see on the court at Fiserv Forum during pre-game introductions, timeouts, halftime and post-game, what’s shown throughout the game on the big screen and the digital ribbons, and the music and sounds played during the games. He also leads the entertainment teams, including the Rim Rockers, the dance groups, the in-game hosts and Bango, the Bucks’ mascot.

Months of planning have gone into preparing for the All-Star festivities, he said.

“You work through several layers of what the programming entails and the pieces that are going to be involved,’’ Watson said. “It’s a very fluid and creative process.”

The pace has picked up since Watson arrived in Salt Lake City earlier this week.

“You get to the site and it’s non-stop,” he said. “You have rehearsals and meetings. You’re in the arena for 10 to 12 hours a day. You have to bring this whole village together to produce this marquee event for the NBA’s season. You’ve got to make the magic happen. A lot goes into it, but you’ve got the best in the business doing it, not just from the NBA but from several other teams in the league, too, that are here to help produce and put it together.”

Watson is in his 11th season with the Bucks and has seen the team rise from the depths on the shoulders of the 28-year-old Antetokounmpo, the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. The Bucks finished 15-67, a franchise record for futility, in Antetokounmpo’s rookie season, which also marked Watson’s first year with the team. The team took major strides as Antetokounmpo quickly matured into one of the league’s top players and reached the pinnacle of success with an NBA title in the 2020-21 season, the team’s first in 50 years.

“It’s defined my life,” Watson said of his role with the team. “You put so much into it. It’s been the biggest part of my life, both professionally and personally. All the memories, the milestones, the ups and downs. There are just so many emotions. You go on this rapid ascent over the last 10 years tied to the trajectory of Giannis and our new ownership group coming in and the opening of Fiserv Forum and culminating with a championship two seasons ago. To be able to experience all this in a decade’s time has been clearly remarkable.”

Watson has high praise for the Bucks organization at all levels.

“Our players, our basketball operations staff, our business staff, it’s quality, high-character people who have great values,” he said. “They have pride in what they do and in representing this city. They care about doing their very best. It’s been a dream ride and I couldn’t be more thankful to be in the position I’m in. I never take it for granted.”

Nicols, the Bucks’ official in-game DJ, will handle multiple duties for All-Star Weekend, first serving as in-game DJ for the Rising Stars Game on Friday night. On Sunday, she’ll serve as in-game DJ for the premiere event, the All-Star Game.

This marks the third consecutive All-Star Weekend assignment for Nicols, who starred on the court at Pius XI High School and played hoops in college, followed by a stint playing professionally overseas.

“I’m appreciative. I can’t express that enough,” she said. “The NBA is the best league in the world. I love basketball. And then the entertainment, they set the bar.”

Her role, she said, is to add to the entertainment of the players and fans.

“I always look forward to what happens in live entertainment,” Nicols said. “There are going to be celebrities here this weekend and I want to also make sure that I’m playing songs that I know Giannis and Jrue want to hear. One of my favorite things is making their world happy.”

Salt Lake City has made an immediate impression on Nicols, who is making her first visit to Utah’s capital city.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “You are surrounded by mountains. You can’t stop staring.”

The setup inside the 18,300-seat arena, which is home to the Utah Jazz, is exciting to Nicols.

“I can’t wait for you all to see the stage,” she said. “It’s flawless in here. The sound system is incredible.”

Nicols said she’s also thrilled about the game-day schedule, which includes a pre-game performance by Post Malone. Grammy-nominee Jewel will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the halftime show will feature three Nigerian artists — Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and producer Burna Boy, Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated singer Tems and rapper Rema — doing an Afrobeats-themed performance.

“The NBA knows how to throw a party,” she said.

Nicols choked up as she spoke about her seven-year tenure with the Bucks, which includes her fourth season as the team’s official in-house DJ.

“When you are talking about it you are hitting a heart string and I’m holding back tears as I say this,” Nicols said. “This has been such an honor and privilege to be a part of this organization and this team. You talk about Giannis and Jrue and watching them and things like when Jrue hit that (50-foot) shot on Tuesday night to beat the buzzer. I can’t believe I get to witness these things on a regular basis.”

Nicols said she’s acutely aware of how fortunate she is to have a role with the team.

“I never ever take for granted what I do,” she insisted. “If the pandemic taught me anything it’s that all of this can be taken away in a moment. At the end of the day, it’s a basketball game but it’s incredible how much that basketball game can make change and have an impact and have this incredible, beautiful ripple effect on the city. To be a small part of their world and get to be on this ride with them, I’m just grateful to soundtrack these times and moments that I know I’m going to be talking about for the rest of my life.”



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.