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Brendan Ross
RST junior Brendan Ross was part of a three-student crew working the NBA All-Star Game in Chicago in February

NBA All-Star Weekend Was A Slam Dunk For RST Students

Chatting with Bill Murray was a highlight. Seeing NBA owners such as Mark Cuban up close was dazzling. Finding themselves in a room with more than $1 million in NBA merchandise was overwhelming.

But for three students in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism, their five-day experience at the NBA All-Star Game in Chicago was about one thing.

“Helping people,” said Matt Maguire, a sophomore in the RST program.

Maguire, junior Brendan Ross, and sophomore Harry Figiel were hired to help NBA events coordinator Lauren Mroz—herself an Illinois College of Media grad—with the corporate services portion of the All-Star Game, arguably the sport’s most-important event of the season.

Responsibilities included preparing the NBA’s command center for visiting dignitaries such as league owners and celebrities, putting together gift baskets for stakeholders and delivering credentials and tickets across Chicago, Mroz said.

“All-Star Weekend is way more than just a game, obviously,” Mroz said. “They were very good at doing whatever needed to be done.”

Mroz was happy to have RST students in the employee candidate pool because though she was a College of Media student, she often took RST classes and even took one of professor Mike Raycraft’s RST 180 courses in which students visit some of the most iconic sport and tourism sites in the country.

Mroz explained that the students were hired by Zorm Event & Transportation Services, which works with the NBA on several events and whose owner is RST alum Kevin Mroz, Lauren’s brother. Zorm, contracted by the NBA, has hired Illini students such as Ross to work on other NBA events such as the Draft Combine.

While the All-Star Game experience involved “pretty typical office work” as Maguire described it, none of it seemed mundane or menial to the students.

“We were walking to the elevator and saw (Dallas Mavericks owner) Mark Cuban walk out and we're just like, ‘this guy's worth billions of dollars,’” Maguire said. “I talked with Bill Murray for like 15 seconds. That's a huge highlight for me, I love Bill Murray. He's one of my favorite actors. So it was really nice to just meet these people you would never meet in a normal circumstance and get to talk with them, even if it was only for a few seconds.”

Celebrity chef Guy Fieri, director Spike Lee, and Bears coach Matt Nagy were among the luminaries with whom students got to interact.

“The chance to talk to Spike Lee … we got to banter with him a little bit and just talk with him, and it was a great experience,” Ross said. “And it was just so cool just to be around there and be in a more professional setting but still get to see those very wealthy and famous people.”

All three students plan to pursue careers in the sports industry and they took lessons away from their NBA experience.

“I was like, whoa, there's a lot more that goes on here than you would really think of,” Maguire said. “Normally everyone thinks ‘Oh, the glamor in sports, you get to work for playoff teams, stuff like that.’ But when we're there, it's 1 a.m., and we're just doing stuff. It makes you realize that it's not all glamor and there's hard work that's going to go into it, too.”

For Ross, it cemented his career plans.

“Ever since getting the opportunity to do the NBA Draft Combine last summer, I have put it in my head that I would like to work for the NBA,” he said. “So an opportunity like this was not just cool, but educational. And I learned so much.”

Figiel, who works for the Kankakee Daily Journal as an Illini sports beat writer and photojournalist, agreed.

“It was an intense experience,” he said. “I got to see the operation and even though we played a small role in it, just being a part of the experience from a work side as opposed to a fan side, you get a lot more information, and I will have a much better appreciation for those things in the future.”

Mroz said that was the lesson she hopes the students took out of the experience.

“You need to be willing to do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door,” she said. “To make those connections and build those relationships. They’re seeing what it takes to be doing what they could be doing, or they could see what they don’t want to be doing.”

Other highlights for the students included helping former NBA star Grant Hill find his room, seeing some of the participants of the NBA Rising Stars Game—including former Illini hoops star Kendrick Nunn—and seeing Aaron Gordon, who many believed should have won the All-Star Slam Dunk contest, check in. But for the RST students, they got just as much joy out of that as seeing people enjoy all the festivities.

“One of the coolest parts of the last week was that they gave each of us two tickets to each event,” Ross said. “These tickets are selling for insane amounts of money, but I get to call my buddy and say ‘Hey, grab somebody and get to Chicago and you're going to go to the game.’

“And that was just so rewarding and awesome, and it felt good to give them that experience, but it felt good to watch them have such an awesome experience. That's why sports are so awesome, and that's why I want to be around sports.”

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