COLUMBIA — Before every game, the scene repeats.
Missouri men’s basketball fans enter through doors situated around Mizzou Arena and begin the march to their seats. Some are destined for sections 106 and 107, where they will receive a warm welcome from the man who wears the turquoise-green shirt.
Baylor Bears (17-9, 6-6 Big 12)
at No. 20 Missouri Tigers (21-6, 7-5 Big 12)
WHEN: 8 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
RADIO: KCMQ/96.7 FM
"I'll greet, and shake hands," Ron Lueck said. "It's probably how I got this cold."
Lueck's decision to work as an usher at a Rolling Stones concert in September 1994 has since grown into a way to earn surplus income while attending the sporting events he loves. His duties include greeting and assisting fans. He performs them with a watchful eye and a strong handshake.
Lueck was playing sand volleyball when a friend told him MU was looking for workers to help with crowd control at an upcoming Rolling Stones concert.
“I waited a couple weeks and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,'” Lueck said. “I wasn’t going to be able to pay for the tickets anyway.”
In the days leading up to the concert, applicants had to attend a series of introductory meetings at Hearnes Center. During the second session, Lueck was handed a packet of paperwork that included a W-4 form.
“I’m reading this thing, looking at it," Lueck said. "I had to voice up. I said, ‘Are we getting paid for this?’ I didn’t even know. I just volunteered. There were guys looking at me like, ‘Shut up!’”
Getting paid for a job that he would have done for free was a pleasant surprise. Lueck enjoyed the experience, and decided to remain on staff after the concert.
“That parlayed into basketball,” he said.
Eventually, other sports crept into his workload. At different times during his 17 years on the event staff, he has worked not only men’s and women’s basketball games, but football, baseball and softball as well. He also works high school basketball and wrestling state tournaments.
For Lueck, concerts are fun, and he has worked more since the Rolling Stones came to town. But sports have a special appeal.
“I enjoy being around sports,” Lueck said. “I enjoy being around the kids that are competing in sports. I just enjoy the crap out of watching that stuff.”
The 59-year-old might be found in a cotton softball jersey or a warm ski coat when he's not wearing one of his two event staff shirts. He had to get a second after the first started to show signs of wear. If he is not watching or working a sporting event, he is often competing.
He played soccer, ran track and raced cars as a high school student in St. Louis before moving to Columbia in 1976.
His main profession is land surveying, but he manages to find time to play softball and volleyball, partly own a race car track in Moberly and also serve as the captain of the Columbia Ski Club.
Throw in his duties as an event staff worker — ranging from 20 to 39 hours per week depending on the time of year — and days off are hard to come by.
“It’s what I’m used to,” Lueck said. “I like the variety. I don’t really need a regular schedule.”
He keeps three copies of his calendar in different locations. One sits next to his sink, the perfect spot for a daily reminder. He reviews his obligations as he brushes his teeth. When the calendar shows a Missouri men’s basketball game, Lueck knows he and his coworkers will be at work long before the game's scheduled start.
According to an e-mail from Kathy Ungles, Mizzou Sports Park/Event Facility Coordinator, the event staff comprises about 120 workers who range from college students to retirees.
“We clock in and go to a little staff meeting,” Lueck said. “We’ve got game notes that we follow to see if there are special things for the night."
Lueck then checks his area for any trash or broken equipment before the flow of fans is allowed inside. An hour and a half before tip, the doors are unlocked.
“When the doors open, you are on your feet,” he said.
Ungles said the event staff is responsible for assisting fans as they enter the facilities, as well as addressing peoples' questions and concerns. Meanwhile, the workers must also be aware of safety and security issues.
Lueck said common problems are fans attempting to sneak in alcohol, or trying to sit in seats that don’t match their tickets. He watches for these, but also also scans the crowd for bigger issues.
“I’m looking up in the stands just watching, seeing if there’s something happening somewhere,” Lueck said.
Sometimes the "something" is a disagreement or a fight. Most often, this occurs during high school wrestling.
"It’s a different kind of fan," Lueck said. "Usually the toughest ones are Mom and Grandma.”
Sometimes the "something" is a frantic parent searching for a lost child.
“Kids aren’t usually panicking. They’re just walking around. It’s the parent that winds up being the panicked part,” Lueck said.
One time, the "something" was a medical emergency.
“I did have a grandfather die in a section that I was working for high school wrestling some years back, over at Hearnes,” Lueck said.
The man suffered a stroke close to the same time his grandson was set to wrestle. Lueck alerted medics, but efforts to save the man were not successful. Later, Lueck sought out the grandson to offer his condolences.
“I’m sure he didn’t really hear that part,” Lueck said.
Fights and emergencies are rare. At men’s basketball games, Lueck’s assigned sections usually hold a friendly crowd.
“I’d say in the area that I work there, 106, 107,105, I know probably a fourth of the people on a first-name basis,” Lueck said.
To prove it, he rattles off names from memory as quickly as one could read a list. Some he knows from his work as a surveyor. Others he knows from volleyball or softball. Some he met solely from his work with the event staff.
Gene Koepke's name comes up.
“He’s got the first seat there on the East end,” Lueck said.
Koepke has had season tickets at Mizzou Arena since the building, then called Paige Sports Arena, opened in 2004.
His wheelchair sits roughly two feet in front of the spot Lueck stands in the most. Over the years, the two have gotten to know one another. Koepke likes Lueck because he is a good usher, and a big basketball fan. If anyone is ever in his spot, he knows Lueck will make things right.
“He takes care of business, but he does it in a polite sort of way so you don’t really notice it,” Koepke said.
Lueck says his philosophy comes naturally. As in any business, he believes customers deserve to be treated well.
“They’re spending their disposable income to come into that stadium and enjoy something that MU is presenting," he said. "I try to make them feel a little special and just talk to them, greet personally and just welcome.”
After every game, the scene repeats.
Following the final whistle, Lueck will descend the concrete staircase to make sure lingering fans do not disrupt the postgame TV interviews that take place near the sideline. But first, he will say goodbye to the people filing out of the arena. He will shake hands with as many exit-bound fans as he can. The gesture emphasizes his message.
“I tell them, ‘Thank you for coming,” Lueck said. “And I mean it.”
It’s hard to doubt him. His sincerity feels as firm as the shake of his hand.