Alicia Santana, Bulls receptionist, celebrates 20 years with the team
The mother of three from Humboldt Park who this month celebrated 20 years answering the Bulls phone.
The Bulls are trying to find the face of the franchise, though Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine all had pleasing moments in auditions this season. It's still to be determined. But they do have a voice of the franchise, a diminutive and perky 53-year-old whose lilting, sing song vocal—a cheerful, exclamatory, Chicago Bulls!—is the one you hear when you call the Bulls.
Bulls receptionist Alicia Santana is a mother of three grown children from Humboldt Park who this month celebrated 20 years answering the Bulls phone, a women who once was among the many lined up for Bulls tickets, often overnight wrapped in blankets and community camaraderie, who realized a dream in representing her favorite team while never forgetting or taking for granted the humanity and passion of being a fan.
So she's a therapist and day care worker, a psychologist and palliative care agent; she oversees the lost and found of people's dreams while being both psychologist and Grant Park rally leader, all from her third floor desk in the United Center in front of a 20-foot-wide video board of Bulls highlights.
On her desk is her most prized possession, a photograph of her with the late Bulls general manager, Jerry Krause. "It's my most treasured moment," she says. "I had to drop something off at the Governor's room. I was shaking I was so nervous. He got off the elevator and I introduced myself. Such a nice man. What a shame he was not alive when he got into the Hall of Fame. I gave him framed pennies (Krause always carried pennies, a sentimental tribute of advice from his father) to take to the draft with him. What a pleasure."
Just another step on Alicia's red brick road leading to her rainbow.
Hers is a personal dream come true stuff for a kid from the troubled West Side, but also another of those assists that make up everything good about a basketball team. Not every day is what you hope, but keep a smile because better days may be ahead. It's the people; Alicia Santana represents that. It sometimes more than answering a call, but a calling.
"There aren't too many receptionists these days," she notes. "Everything is automated. It would be easy to do the automation like so many places. But it's important to the Reinsdorfs that when fans call that there is an answer for them. I feel I am their first impression. So I want to make a great first impression like all the people who work here. It's my responsibility to give everyone the best customer service they have ever received when they call our office.
It's important to make sure they are comfortable talking with me so they will ask all the questions they need to ask. It's my job to connect them to the person who will help them. It's my job to find the answer for them. It's important to listen to what they have to say.
"I enjoy talking with people," Alicia adds. "I can do little things for people. Something that may be small for me; for them it's very big."
Like the time the older sounding man called. He was so proud of his son who did well in school and always has been so good and wanted to reward him with tickets to a game. Could he get an autograph? Well, the players cannot do that specially, but Alicia had an idea. She had lower level tickets to that game. She'd exchange them with the father, who had upper level tickets. His son could stand by the tunnel as the players come onto the court, where sometimes they stop. His father was able to capture his 10-year-old in full glee.
"He called me back the next day and said, ‘You really made me look like a hero to my child,'" Alicia recalled, actually tearing up as she recalled. "It cost me nothing. But to make a father look like a hero; that's just amazing. Something that doesn't cost me anything and it means the world to him. That's something that little boy will remember and it wasn't like the player being a hero, but your parent. They have to be the hero. We love our players and the game, but he saw his dad as the true hero. I could be just a small part of that; it means so much."
Or the time the young boy kept calling every day after school to talk about the Bulls, the players, how was the team doing? Did they win last night?
"I told him, ‘Hold on, you have to get permission from your mother.' I think his mom was a CTA bus driver and he had a little sister," Alicia recalls. "He called back and said his mom said it was OK. I said, ‘Well, here's the deal. You can call, but before you call my office you have to do your homework. And have to help your sister with her homework and get both done.' He said all right. I asked him to ask his mom if it was OK to have his address and I'd mail him Bulls magazines, anything to encourage reading. He just wanted to know about his favorite players, the team. He just loved watching the games. He stopped calling for years. Then one day I get a call from a man and he said he was that boy who called every day and he graduated college and had a good job and just wanted to thank me for talking to him."
Alicia says it's not really part of her job, though it is part of her life. It's not a requirement she says; just a passion.
"Little things like that mean a lot and we want people at the end of the day to know they are special whether they come to a game or watch it on TV," she says. "Watching on TV is just as important, especially when they are young fans. They may be our future season ticket holders. It's also the mother in me. I've been on the other side, the parent waiting in line to buy a ticket for their child. I know parents want to go that extra mile for their children. So I know doing something special like that really helps."
Like the time a father hoped for his disabled son to meet Benny. They were sitting in the 300 level, a bit too far up for Benny this night.
"I was able to exchange some tickets and Benny learned what seat he was in and it was just something I could do and what that meant to him," Alicia said. "I wish I could do these things for everyone; you can't. But when I can, I will."
Obviously, the most difficult moments are with ill children. She's mostly responsible for referral. Those requests are passed on to the community affairs department, and calls are routed. "If I don't know, I'll ask for their number to call them back when I find out," Alicia explains. "Everyone deserves a proper response."
Like the time the man called from Cleveland. His parents were big Bulls fans and they wanted to see a Bulls game in the United Center before they died. His mother had stage 4 cancer and he wanted her to have a good time.
"I took down the information and spoke with (entertainment director) Michelle Harris," Alicia recounted. "She just stopped by with some t-shirts and they had some confetti and the man later called back and said his parents had the best time of their lives. You want people to come in and have a wonderful experience.
"People always are calling John (Paxson) to talk," Alicia says. "I explain he can't accept all those calls, but that I am more than happy to listen. I write the information down so they know I am paying attention. We want fans to know someone is listening to them. It's just as important to have complaints as suggestions because it shows they care. Grown men call all the time asking to speak to players, kids especially when there is vacation."
Most days there are at least 50 calls; some days hundreds when there are trades or a bad loss or a great win or a draft or trade rumor. Alicia started as receptionist the year the Bulls won their sixth title in 1998 and there were calls from all over the world that day after, hundreds and hundreds, just thank yous. Busy, but those are joyous days.
There was the time the man called for a congratulations wish on the scoreboard. This involves several days notice. But Alicia says found out their seat numbers and put together a little goody bag as a memory. Or the times she sends birthday cards when the scoreboard doesn't work out.
"It's something I can do, going the extra mile, which people here try to do," she says. "I was in their shoes of those fans. My daughter getting a birthday card from the Bulls. She'd be on Cloud 9."
Alicia attended Roberto Clemente High School and has been imbued in her own way with the mission of the baseball player who was on a humanitarian mission when he died in a plane crash.
She was that kid you knew who never missed school, which would later help her get her job with the Bulls. She worked her way through high school as a junior secretary for the Ogilvy & Mather advertising firm and then worked full time there after graduation.
She left to raise children, but then returned for a while before looking forward. She mailed a resume to the Bulls, though it went to the United Center. She got a job in the souvenir warehouse, then worked her way up to cashier in the store and in food and beverage for a few years. But the late hours were difficult with children not yet on their own, so she applied for the receptionist job.
It happened to be a blizzard that day, classic Chicago stuff, couldn't see your hand in front of your face, hardly anything moving. She got there. Figured if she could get there in that sort of storm, they'd know she was reliable. She got the job.
Which isn't always pleasant. Which everyone experiences, at times, working in public jobs. People can be angry, frustrated, hungry. Which also makes them cranky, like a losing team might.
"Yes," Alicia acknowledges, still the bright eyes and the smile that almost never vanishes from her expressive face, "there are times they will yell at me and swear at me. And there are times I do have to ask for a quick break to go to the bathroom and dry those tears. But it's maybe one percent of the time and that makes me appreciate my job more.
"Sometimes they want to talk to a player and if they don't get the answer they want they'll be very upset," Alicia acknowledges. "They might be upset about John and Gar, or when the team broke up (in 1998) they were mad at Jerry and I have to listen to that. It hurts because I know they are good people, but I understand they are calling and are upset and frustrated. But you have to appreciate that side, also, because it means they care and when they stop calling, then you worry. I appreciate being able to walk through the doors every day. Every day is different; every day feels like it's my first day."
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