Nuggets' game entertainment director brings flair to job
Growing up on the Navajo Nation, the Martinez brothers were like thousands of other Native American kids. Basketball was their primary sport of choice, and seemingly ordinary household objects held the potential to satisfy the competitive spirit.
Without access to a Nerf hoop, the four Martinez boys cut out the bottom of a shoe box and taped the cardboard rectangle to the wall. They found some string and weaved it together to form a respectable net. For a ball, they would simply roll up a sock and let it fly.
“We’d watch NBA games on tape delay and then we’d want to play,” Shawn Martinez said. “We had some tough games. We always wanted to be Dr. J and Darryl Dawkins. We’d be doing dunks and taking long shots, making a lot of noise.”
Fast forward a few decades and Martinez is still making a lot of noise – this time in a much larger venue. The Pepsi Center lights are flashing, and the music is pumping. The atmosphere is courtesy of the youngest brother who rarely sat still as he tried to prove he could keep up with his three older siblings.
As the director of game entertainment for the Denver Nuggets, Martinez is living his dream of reaching the NBA. His contributions aren’t seen in the box score, but they show up throughout the arena as he keeps fans engaged for about 50 nights a year.
Martinez, 43, is entering his fourth year in his current role with the Nuggets. On the club scene, he goes by the name DJ Tribal Touch, a tribute to his heritage and upbringing on the Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Ariz.
Life On The Reservation
The Navajo Nation spans more than 27,000 square miles of desert landscape in northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah. It is larger than West Virginia and island of Ireland.
With an unemployment rate that hovers around 45 percent and a poverty rate among the highest in America, the Navajo Nation also is among the poorest socioeconomic areas in the United States.
“Growing up on the ‘rez’ has its challenges,” said Frank Martinez, the third of the four brothers. “People tend to fall into this trap that you’re a victim and somebody owes you something. Our mom gave us a characteristic of doing your best and being thankful for what you have. That’s what shaped things for us and Shawn. It helped us look beyond our circumstance to see possibility.”
Whether it’s on the reservation or in the inner city, money and a traditional two-parent household have never been prerequisites for playing sports. When the Martinez boys weren’t taking aim at a shoe box, they played on outdoor courts that often consisted of no more than dirt and a battered rim nailed to a wood post.
|Martinez at Window Rock|
As the youngest brother, Shawn had the advantage of playing against older competition. His skills progressed through middle school and high school, and he went on to play for Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., from 1987-90.
“Shawn just loved sports and had a passion for sports,” said Elsie Martinez, who encouraged her four sons and one daughter at every turn. “It helped him stay away from trouble instead of being in a gang.”
Hoping to give her children a better opportunity to succeed, Elsie sent them to a boarding school in Phoenix. They returned to the reservation during the summers and worked odd jobs for the Navajo tribe.
“You’ve got to stay positive and make sure you keep doing positive things out there,” said Shawn, who returned to Window Rock for high school. “We focused on our jobs and tried to keep getting better.”
Along with his mother, Shawn credits Frank for providing leadership and inspiration. After graduating from Arizona State University, Frank earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University and now works for Intel in Denver.
“Frank was an amazing role model for me,” Shawn said. “He took over the reigns as a father figure. We all went to college, but he really took it to the next level. He’s always been that voice in my ear to help me stay in the right direction.”
The Sound Of Music
With its endless miles of high-desert landscape, eastern Arizona was hardly an ideal backdrop for an aspiring break dancer. That didn’t deter Shawn Martinez at a time when 8-track players ceded to cassette tapes in the 1980s.
Often wearing white plastic sunglasses, a headband and parachute pants, Martinez would carry a 10-by-10 piece of cardboard around and let the music and the spirit move him.
“He’d be doing his robot moves and popping and spinning,” Frank Martinez said. “You knew right there that he was going to do something with music.”
With musical tastes that span every genre from country and classic rock to hip-hop and house music, Shawn was an ideal choice when a small Durango club called Party Time needed a DJ in 1987. He immediately started buying albums and teaching himself how to mix music. By the time he graduated from Fort Lewis, he had formal degrees in communications and art to complement his real-life degrees in music and entertainment.
After college, he went to work at National Audio & Video and sold mix tapes to get his name out in the Denver club scene. He later did internet advertising for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News before joining Kroenke Sports & Entertainment as a game entertainment coordinator in 2002.
The move to the Pepsi Center came after then-KSE senior director of game entertainment Harlan Hendrickson saw DJ Tribal Touch play in a club.
“It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of the circumstances that pop up,” Martinez said. “You’ve got to be ready. If you’re ready, you’re going to be successful. It was the right time, right place for me to end up here.”
Career In Entertainment
Martinez spent five years coordinating the in-game entertainment and promotions for the Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Crush and Colorado Mammoth before moving to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to spice up games for the Colorado Rapids. When Hendrickson left to take a job with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008, Martinez returned to the Pepsi Center as director of game entertainment for the Nuggets.
“Shawn is one of many KSE success stories,” said KSE chief marketing officer Kurt Schwartzkopf. “He is the kind of employee who will do whatever it takes and pitches in anywhere as needed. Shawn loves the Nuggets and comes to work every day ready to go.”
On game days, Martinez hits the ground running. He spends two to three hours preparing a detailed script aimed at engaging fans of all ages and interest levels – from hard-core NBA followers to elementary school kids just hoping to catch a glimpse of Supermascot Rocky.
Every minute is accounted for: Pregame presentations, the national anthem, team intros, skits by Rocky, routines by the Denver Nuggets Dancers, timeout contests and promotions, halftime entertainment. The list goes on and on. Martinez is in the middle of the action from his seat near midcourt, but he makes sure to enjoy the moment as well.
“My favorite part is probably intros,” he said. “That’s the start of the real show. It’s definitely a production. You’ve got Rocky, the dancers, the team, CO2 coming off the backboard. How can you not get excited? It never gets old. We try to keep it fresh. That’s something that’s always on our minds.”
Martinez credits his staff – game entertainment coordinator Lynette Nickelson, in-game host Mark Randall, public-address announcer Kyle Speller, dance team coordinator/choreographer Amy Jo Wagner, DJ Bedz, Supermascot Rocky and Superassistant Robert Sanchez – for keeping things efficient, exciting and entertaining.
“Those guys are the nucleus to how everything comes together,” Martinez said. “Without them, there wouldn’t be any entertainment. I appreciate everything they do.”
|Martinez with son Austin|
Austin, now a senior lacrosse player at Columbine High School, was at the microphone for several national television and playoff games. Passing on the values he learned as a young student-athlete, Martinez required Austin to keep up with his studies in order to take the spotlight at Nuggets games.
“For me to stay eligible for sports growing up, I had to have good grades and do everything at home that I needed to do,” Martinez said. “It wasn’t just a given that you would be able to play.”
It’s also not a given that everything will go right on game night. Martinez remembers scrambling when Vanilla Ice’s DJ hit the wrong button and the music didn’t start for the halftime show. Martinez and his crew got things going with a backup track they had prepared for that exact scenario.
Troubleshooting and making sure everything runs smoothly sometimes prevents Martinez from enjoying the actual games as he sits courtside next to Speller. That’s not an issue for his mom, who retired and moved to Denver in 2007 after 36 years of working in administration for the Navajo tribe.
“She’s the biggest Nuggets fan,” Martinez said. “Whenever I get tickets, she gets them. She comes to every game religiously and if you talk bad about the Nuggets, she might slap you.”
As a husband and father of two – Martinez and his wife Kirsten have a 4-year-old daughter Caden – family comes first. As was the case growing up in Window Rock, he still has trouble staying still for too long. When he’s not entertaining fans at the Pepsi Center, Martinez stays active on the Denver club scene. He performs Tribal’s Groove once a month at the MiniBar in Cherry Creek and coordinates the music at University of Colorado football games.
“Family, sports and music: that’s my life right there,” he said.
With a successful career and stable family life in the big city, Martinez has never lost touch with his native roots. He returns to Window Rock several times a year, and he hopes to have a Nuggets event on the reservation in the future. In the short-term, he and his family will attend the annual Navajo Nation Fair after Labor Day. It will be a chance to reconnect with friends and provide a guiding hand for the next generation.
“Mostly my cousins and nieces – they’re the ones who need the most direction right now,” Martinez said. “They want to go to college. I just try to let them know that they have to be ready. You always have to keep pushing.”