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A Timeout for the N.B.A.’s Halftime Performers Is Costing Them Big

The pandemic has all but shut down the income streams for halftime performers, who typically make $1,500 to $5,000 a show. The emotional toll is high as well.

Steve Max usually spends his winters telling big crowds at basketball arenas to put their hands up and to touch their shoulders and to cover their eyes. Max is a professional Simon Says caller who travels the country entertaining fans at halftime.

Or at least that was his line of work until March, when the coronavirus pandemic emptied arenas and rendered his microphone silent. For the past nine months, Max has been at home in White Plains, N.Y., doing what he can to keep busy. In addition to updating his website, he has tried to adapt to these weird times with a nudge from his wife, Linda Harelick.

After reading about how an animal sanctuary was making goats available for cameos on corporate video calls, she offered a suggestion: If those goats can make money, so can you.

“So I turned my den into a Zoom studio,” Max, who was born Steve Harelick, said in a telephone interview. “I’ve got something on Thursday for Ernst & Young.”

A backstage view of Steve Max’s new marketplace now that the pandemic has quieted his Simon Says shows.
Steve Max

A niche industry for halftime entertainers like Max, 58, has disappeared during the pandemic. Though a few N.B.A. teams began the season with limited numbers of spectators — and some are allowing their dance teams to perform in the aisles — none are hiring halftime entertainers. Contortionists, acrobats, Frisbee-catching dogs — they are all biding their time, waiting for the show to go on.

Gary Borstelmann, who does a handstand atop a teetering tower of chairs in his act as the Amazing Sladek, has been supplementing his daily hourlong workouts — lots of handstands, lots of stretching — by hauling a couple of his chairs out to the front lawn a few times a week. He knows he needs to stay in shape.

“If you saw me practicing, you’d be like, ‘Oh, he’s only balancing on two chairs,’” he said. “But the intensity of six chairs is in my face.”

Simon Arestov and Lyric Wallenda Arestov, a husband and wife team that does a balancing routine on a circus prop called the rolla bolla, have had to explain some hard realities to their 3-year-old son, Alex, who often participates in their act’s grand finale.

“He sees our costumes because I’m repairing them and making sure everything is ready to go whenever we get the call,” Wallenda Arestov said. “And he’s like: ‘Mom, that’s my costume! When are we going to do a basketball show?’ And it breaks my heart, because he misses it, too.”

Beyond the financial impact — halftime entertainers typically make $1,500 to $5,000 a show — the effects of the pandemic have been felt within their community. David Maas, who had a popular act called Quick Change with his wife, Dania Kaseeva, died of Covid-19 in November.

“My heart goes out to all my friends who are in this business,” said Jon Terry, a booking agent for halftime performers who is based in Oklahoma. “These are creative people, and in many cases, it’s their sole income. Some of these guys were making six-figure incomes, and you drop that out and there’s no place for them to do anything else.”

And they all can recall in vivid detail the day that everything changed.

On March 11, Arestov and Wallenda Arestov, who are both 36, were at home in Sarasota, Fla., preparing to travel to New York so they could perform at the Big East Conference men’s basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden — one of about 30 halftime shows they do for the N.B.A. and the N.C.A.A. each year. But that night, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus before a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the phone call soon came from a conference official: The tournament was going to limit attendance. It was soon canceled altogether.

Courtesy Madison Square Garden

At the time, the couple had a long list of N.B.A. halftimes lined up for the rest of the season. They were also planning to bounce among festivals and circuses during the summer months in their 43-foot recreation vehicle, sometimes performing two or three times a day. On average, they do about 400 shows a year.

Since March, the couple has performed exactly four times. Their return after a six-month hiatus came in September at the Juniata County Fair in Port Royal, Pa. They both cried.

“I forgot what it was like to be in front of an audience,” Arestov said.

They have since performed at a circus in Indiana, at a private event for a hotel and at a Toys for Tots fund-raiser. They have mixed feelings about doing their act at all. They have wanted to do their part during the pandemic, they said, which has mostly meant staying home. Maas of Quick Change was distantly related to Lyric through marriage.

For a couple who typically spend about 300 days on the road a year, it has been an adjustment.

“I think we’ve watched everything on Netflix,” said Arestov, who estimated they had lost about 95 percent of their income for the year. “We’re trying to stay positive. We can see a light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccines, but we’ve been juggling our finances because there hasn’t been a lot of help from the government for our industry.”

Borstelmann had long thought he would retire at 65. At 62, he already considers himself — and take a deep breath, here — the country’s oldest daredevil acrobatic hand balancer. There is an element of physical risk that Borstelmann takes every time he does his handstand about 25 feet above center court.

“I’m the only one of the halftime performers who actually risks his life, you know?” he said. “If I fall, I’m probably not getting up.”

But the pandemic has altered his timeline — and in a surprising way.

“Now,” Borstelmann said, “I want to go until I’m 70. I’m not letting the pandemic retire me.”

After doing a halftime show at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix on March 7, Borstelmann packed up his Chrysler minivan and made the four-day cross-country drive to Greensboro, N.C., where he was scheduled to perform during the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament. About 15 minutes after he checked into his hotel on March 11, he got the news that conference officials were canceling the tournament. Borstelmann sat on his bed watching ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and tried to digest what it all meant.

“I lost my last 12 contracts,” Borstelmann said. “That hit me hard. My gosh. That’s probably the money that I’m able to save from a whole season after expenses and everything else.”

Basketball is Borstelmann’s bread and butter. He does about 40 halftimes a year, hopscotching across the country in his minivan. (He does not trust airline baggage handlers with his custom-built chairs.)

But for the past nine months, Borstelmann has been at home in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., with his 90-year-old mother, Grace, and his 33-year-old daughter, Kerri Grace, who returned to Florida after leaving her teaching job in Hong Kong.

“I’m a real family guy,” Borstelmann said, “so that’s been a silver lining.”

Sarah Beth Glicksteen for The New York Times

In his 40 years as an acrobat, Borstelmann says, he has never fallen. He did tear a hamstring in his left leg while doing a forward flip as he made his entrance at an Orlando Magic game in 2017, but he went ahead with his routine anyway — and finished out his season without missing any of his scheduled performances.

“I was in so much pain, bro,” he said.

He realizes that he cannot do this forever. He will know it is time to step away, he said, when he loses his nerve or his strength and he no longer feels safe. But the pandemic, in its own way, has offered a glimpse at life without the bright lights, and he cannot see himself packing up his chairs any time soon.

“For five minutes,” he said, “I’m at center court and I’m connecting with the crowd and I’m the Amazing Sladek. When I can’t do this anymore, I’m just Sladek, man.”

In that sense, Max said he felt fortunate. He can do his Simon Says act for another 20 years.

“I’m not flipping off tables or pulling any muscles,” he said. “For me, the only exercise is if I have a tight connection in Phoenix, and I have to run from Terminal A to Terminal D.”

As a teenager in New Jersey, Max learned to juggle and worked the local circuit doing magic shows. “I would balance stuff on my face — chairs and tables,” he said.

The appeal, he said, was bringing joy to people — making them smile, making them laugh. And video calls cannot fully replicate the experience of interacting with a live audience.

“I’ve been missing it desperately,” Max said. “I miss hanging out with the mascots. It’s not just a business arrangement with the teams. These people are my friends.”

Max has big plans for his post-pandemic return. He wants to break the world record for the largest group of people playing Simon Says at the same time.

“I think that’s the perfect time to do it,” he said, “when people are back together.”

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