With the NBA Playoffs in full swing, and LeBron James trying to reach the NBA Finals for an inconceivable eighth consecutive season, the eyes of the basketball world are once again on Cleveland.
That means that Antony Bonavita ’99, ’09 is busy making certain those like what they see…off the court, anyway.
Bonavita is the senior vice president of facility operations for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Quicken Loans Arena, along with the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Monsters, the Arena Football League’s Cleveland Gladiators and the NBA G-League’s Canton Charge. It’s been an eventful eight years in Cleveland for Bonavita, punctuated by a four-month stretch in 2016 when “The Q” was host to the NBA Finals (won by the Cavs), the AHL’s Calder Cup Final (won by the Monsters), the Republican National Convention and UFC 203 (where Cleveland native Stipe Miocic successfully defended his UFC Heavyweight Championship in the main event).
Still, before Cleveland, and before San Antonio (where Bonavita was an assistant general manager for the San Antonio Spurs and AT&T Center), there was Stony Brook, where Bonavita earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a master’s degree in Liberal Studies. He also met his wife, Jaclyn Bonavita ’00, ’02, and got the hands-on education that prepared him for his work in Cleveland, starting as a marketing intern and working his way up to become Assistant Director of Athletics for Facility and Event Operations.
On the eve of the Cavaliers’ 105-103 win over the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Bonavita took a moment to discuss his work in Cleveland and how the lessons he learned at Stony Brook continue to serve him with the Cavaliers.
What’s the feeling around the building right now, with the Cavs coming back up 2-0 and the run that the team’s been on?
Like any team, any group of people working together, when you don’t really know each other, and you haven’t had a chance to get together and gel…I think we saw a lot of that with our team over the last few weeks; there are a lot of new players, a lot of new guys who haven’t been able to get to know each other, and I think it showed a little bit in the first series (against the Indiana Pacers).
You mention the changes in the team a few weeks back. For someone in your position, how does that affect what you do?
From my perspective, we play basketball regardless of who’s on the team. My job is to ensure that we’re operational, the facilities are operational and we’re able to do what we do, regardless of who’s on the team, but there’s always residual effects. If the team’s not performing well, people tend to have worse service, the food doesn’t taste as good, the bathrooms aren’t clean enough…it affects overall morale. Our staff is not as engaged, and our goal is to provide an optimal experience for everyone, regardless of what’s happening on the floor. It has effects, and as a person who works and breathes it every day, it affects you personally, too. Coming into work, being down 0-2 tomorrow night is a little different, mindframe-wise, than coming in up 2-0.
What does a day look like for you right now, and how does it compare to a day during the regular season?
They’re relatively similar in a lot of ways. We’re doing a big renovation of our building that’s starting when the season is over — it’ll be over $200 million by the time we’re done — so we have a lot of work that goes on during the day, and then we have the games at night. But there’s extra hoopla as it relates to the playoffs, the fan experience and security and so forth, so there’s extra diligence that needs to happen. I have a really great team that does a great job every day, and it’s a lot of extra work on my team with the extra effort that goes into the playoffs. My job is to try to make sure that they’re in a good place, and that they have the resources they need.
What about the summer of 2016? That had to be something different.
The Monsters won the Calder Cup on June 11. It was an amazing game, and 20,000 people at an AHL hockey game, unprecedented. A week later, the Cavs were on the road, they take [the NBA title] in Game 7. We had 20,000 people in our building watching on the big screens, and then another 10,000 people outside the building, on our property, watching on big screens we’d set up, and then, as the game went on, the city filled in around us, and there must have been hundreds of thousands of people downtown, just an amazing thing to be part of in retrospect. In reality, there’s some pressure and concern about things going wrong. If we’d lost the game, what would happen with civil unrest and things like that? Again, I have a great team focusing on that, day to day, and I’m there to help and support. Ultimately, we went right into the parade three days later, with a million people in the city, which we had to spearhead and lead, and then a month after that, we had the Republican National Convention in our building, and Cleveland was the epicenter of the world as it relates to what was happening there. The changeover to the RNC started literally right after the Game 7 watch party. It actually started before that, to be honest, because there was so much work to be done that we had to let them do it. We did the watch party in a little bit of disarray. Cleveland knocked it out of the park in June and July of 2016. I don’t think you could ever imagine what that would be like. Then, with the Indians getting to the World Series, Game 1 of the World Series was the night we handed out our championship rings. It was an amazing six months.
At times like that, or on days like this, do you ever think about how you got from Stony Brook to where you are now?
Everything started because of Stony Brook. I’m not where I am today, personally or professionally, without Stony Brook, and I say that for a couple of reasons. One is the degrees and the education I got there, but ultimately, not only did I get to be an intern there, and work in the athletic department for 13 years, I met my wife there — she’s a Stony Brook grad, played basketball — and she’s a big part of why we are where we are today. She had her own career and her own thoughts as to where she was going to go. After 13 years at Stony Brook, I walked home one night and told her that I had a job opportunity to look at in San Antonio, and what did she think. She said, “If your dreams take us to Texas, then we’ve got to go to Texas.” She gave up a lot of her own dreams to put it all in to where I wanted to go professionally. We picked up a number of months later and moved to San Antonio, not knowing anybody, not having been to San Antonio before in our lives. Then, ultimately, through great relationships and development and networking, I got the opportunity to come to Cleveland.
And in Cleveland, you’ve also been very involved in Autism Awareness programs at Quicken Loans Arena. Tell us a little bit about that.
We were able to take a situation that was a negative and turn it around, and not only create a positive for us, but also create an impact throughout the country, and hopefully, around the world as we continue to move forward. We had a family come to a Monsters hockey game, and it was Autism Awareness Night. This family came with their son, who was non-verbal, and uses a communication device, and our security team didn’t know what it was, and didn’t handle the situation well. Amy Belles, the mother of the child, Tweeted to us that night that she had a bad experience at the Q, and we’re very active in monitoring our social media channels and responding to people who have inquiries or feedback for us. My team responded to her and got involved. She didn’t want us to just apologize; she wanted to know what we were going to do about it from an educational standpoint, how we were going to train our staff. My team also brought it to me because I also have a son who’s autistic, and they thought I would want to know that this happened. When they brought it to me, we talked about it, and I ultimately got on the phone with Amy Belles and talked through a few of her ideas, and then our team started to develop a plan to train our staff.
We used some local resources here in Cleveland to train our staff on special needs and autism, how to identify people with special needs and what to do. We got introduced to an organization called Kulture City and started working with them on a training program, and then ultimately building out a sensory room. When fans come to our events and need some sensory relief, they can go to our guest services booth and get a bag that has noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, a weighted blanket, things that are helpful for people with sensory issues to regulate and get themselves to a better place. They can also go to the sensory room, which has some bubble walls, soothing music, fidget toys and tactile games. It’s a place for people to go and take a break and try to get back to a point where they can go back to the event. We never did it with the intention of being the first arena to do it, but we were, and now there’s a movement across the NBA and other sports leagues to make sure that they develop a sensory program and sensory room at all of their venues. We continue to be proud of it, and continue to get asked about it.
You were at Stony Brook during the transition from NCAA Division III to Division I. What are some of the things that stand out to you the most about being here during that time?
The University had a dream, to go Division I, and they did it. A lot of us that were on the ground there every day should truly be grateful for the opportunity to do something like that. One of the things that I’m most proud of in my career is that I’m able to go in where it’s not always the best situation, but we make the best of it. When we came to Cleveland, I got here a month before LeBron left, and the world changed for this organization and this city. To go from that to rebuilding [the team], helping to be part of the rebuilding of a city, and ultimately winning a championship, that’s amazing, and it all started because in 1994, I walked into the athletic department at Stony Brook and said, “My fraternity wants to help promote at the games,” and I was offered an internship. Long story short, I spent the next 13 years there, going Division I, doing things that I had never experienced before. I got to do things that people who were neophytes in their careers like I was wouldn’t have done. I could be involved in the building of [Kenneth P. LaValle] Stadium, at the forefront of designing the renovation of [Island Federal Credit Union] Arena; a lot of that design work happened while I was there. I’m very proud, but I’m also very grateful for the opportunity to really build something from the ground up. We collectively had a dream, and it’s become a reality. To sit back now, and watch the success, and see what happens, it’s great pride and admiration. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little bit rewarding every time I hear Stony Brook’s name mentioned in any regard, knowing I played a role in it to some degree.
— Elliot Olshansky