Orlando Magic

Orlando Magic arena host Cori Yarckin just wants you to smile

Cori Yarckin brings a lifetime of experience singing and performing to the Orlando Magic game operations team, working on making every night a special one for their fans.

The fuzzy mascots of abstract origins — one red, the other blue — hunch forward as Cori Yarckin goes through the steps one more time before the buzzer sounds. She has their rapt attention, even if there’s no way of knowing if they understand. “G-Wiz” and “Freddy Fever” tower, googly-eyed and expressionless, over the 4-foot-11 Yarckin. When the horn blares, she springs like a housecat on four-inch heels, her voice clear over the arena’s sound system. The listless crowd half-turns to Yarckin and her bumbling entourage, then returns to looking bored.

That is until she raises her voice, just as she has done for concertgoers and television audiences and celebrity judges, and asks the question guaranteed to raise the spirits of even the dourest attendee. “Who…wants…a…free…t-shirt?” she yells each word on pitch, the last syllable held with a smile as the cheers rain down.

Yarckin is at the Jr. NBA Global Championship in Orlando. The event, in just its second year, is open to the public but the playing field consists of teenagers from the U.S. and around the world that most basketball fans have never heard of. The sparse crowd largely consists of those friends and family fortunate enough to attend. “I always have energy,” says Yarckin when asked if the quiet audience is a challenge to work with. “But when you yell, ‘Make some noise!’ and it’s crickets out there, it’s disappointing. You always want to feel like you’re doing a good job.”

She presumably is, just as she has for the Orlando Magic since 2013. Still, it’s a recurring concern for Yarckin, that things go smoothly and that she’ll keep getting the call for opportunities like this. Her efforts might get lost in the endless cacophony of a live sporting event. But Yarckin has long heard those cheers as a singer or entertainer or something in between. They may rain down for her or that size x-large souvenir but it doesn’t matter as long as the job, any job, is a good one.

Photo by John Parra/WireImage for NARAS – Miami

She began writing music in high school and fronted a band. They were good, she insists, feeding off her boundless energy, playing shows that can still be found as grainy footage on YouTube. “And if you remember it, I was really big on MySpace,” she says through nervous laughter about the social media site that still exists, albeit very differently from when it was once the largest of its kind. She was one of the top unsigned artists on the site, one of everybody’s “Top Friends,” and even appeared on MTV’s Total Request Live, when the network’s programming included more music than shows about pregnant teens and Jersey shores.

She had all but retired from music when she decided to return home to Orlando and tried out for the Magic, the team she grew up following, as a dancer. She was older than the average woman trying out, but she had grown up dancing, too, and had friends at college that were Magic dancers. She auditioned, partly out of boredom and partly because she wanted to see if she could make it, all the while believing she never would. Somehow, she did.

She caught a break when the team wanted to use dancers as in-arena hosts, and so Yarckin joined a four-person rotation that worked in both capacities for the Magic. The next season, after auditioning as a dancer again, that rotation was down to two. Before trying out a third time, she realized she didn’t want to dance anymore, had seen it as just another stop on her nomadic résumé. “Plus, my body couldn’t take it,” says Yarckin, still as petite and thin as she was seven years ago. “I didn’t want to wear half tops anymore.” She asked around with some Magic staffers to see if the hosting position could be available separately from the dancing role. “It just so happened — maybe Magic-ally — that it did,” she says with a wink. “It’s been awesome.”

The work isn’t full-time, so Yarckin still hosts events around the city, concerts and festivals. Sometimes, she gets to sing a little, all eyes on her belting out rock-n-roll covers that best fit her vocal range. She has to book these gigs months in advance, not knowing if there’ll be a conflict with the NBA schedule that isn’t released until just weeks before the regular season begins. But the Magic have been understanding if she needs to take a game off here or there and Yarckin insists they can handle it without her. “But I’m not recommending it or anything,” she laughs.

One gets the sense that Yarckin likes to keep her options open, anxious about the day when she won’t have any to choose from. Much like the athletes that work for the same team she does, there’s a shelf-life to being an entertainer. She hates to talk about her age, says she won’t ever tell it as she describes a career that has accomplished much, if not long-lasting success.

Yarckin looks down sheepishly as she talks about those videos that can be found on YouTube. It’s hard to pin down if the embarrassment is real or contrived, and downplays their quality because technology was so limited back then. But there she is, color-streaked hair flowing over a bedazzled denim jacket, the lights shining on her as she beams onstage. She’s good, or at least that’s how it appears to me. But at least in this regard, she might not have been good enough.

There are pangs of missed opportunity that fuel her underlying doubt. Yarckin talks about her time on MySpace and wonders if things would have been different today when social media influencers are legion. “I was kind of one of the firsts, y’know?”

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

After her singing career stalled, she dabbled for a cable network, a bundle of energy in front of the camera at red-carpet events, press junkets, and movie premiers. She had moved to Los Angeles to be a singer but found herself doing a job she didn’t like. She mentions a saying, one about doing something for 10 years just to master it but she didn’t want to devote a decade to something she clearly didn’t enjoy. “LA was cool but it’s a hard place to live. I just woke up one day and said, ‘I’m done.’” She decided to move to Orlando — “Not exactly the ‘Land of Opportunity’” for an entertainer — almost eight years ago.

Before she came back home, perhaps to stay, she got an opportunity to be on a televised singing competition. She looks down again as she mentions the show’s name, expecting me to recall it with perfect clarity, and acts with feigned disappointment when I do not. She was mentored by Gloria Estefan, Yarckin says proudly, and explains that she had never considered trying out for competitions because she thought she wasn’t good enough. The experience was terrifying, of having to sing “in front of millions of people,” but she brings up another piece of paraphrased advice, of facing your fears head-on because when you come out the other side you can look back and say you survived. “And, yeah, I didn’t win, but that’s okay because I sang in key, I didn’t forget the words, I didn’t fall down. And I think I looked pretty good!” she says with a laugh, “That was a good way to end my music career. I feel good about myself,” she says almost believably.

She talks about current television shows about songwriting and about how great it would be for other performers to sing her songs, all those words she’s been writing off-and-on for nearly two decades. And there’s her work for the Magic, which she absolutely loves doing. She gets to offer creative input on the in-arena competitions — “activations” she clarifies — and is part of a great team, that includes the Stuff, the Dragon, the “best mascot in the world.” Sometimes she even gets noticed as she walks through the Amway Center. She has opportunities in the sports world, she notes, like the Jr. NBA and the All-Star game, which she has worked for the past two years.

Almost on cue, a NBA executive, the man responsible for hiring Yarckin for league tournaments and events, struts by the interview. He notices the recorder in my hand and says firmly, “Cori’s the best! She’s my go-to!” as she lowers her eyes and laughs. They talk shop, lament the small crowd, and take turns sounding confident that things will get better. “But things are going so much more smoothly this year,” says Yarckin before adding, slowly, “Don’t you think?”

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

In August, she talks optimistically about the upcoming season. She thinks of herself as a part of the team, refers to the Magic as “we.” They both made the playoffs last year, for the first time since she joined the team. Yarckin is looking forward to building off that momentum. She loved that energy, that feeling of a city on the verge of something exciting and bigger. The coolest job in the world, she says, would be that much cooler if we were always winning. It’s why her dream job, she says, is to be Kelly Ripa.

She likes Ripa because she’s fun and quirky. She doesn’t take herself too seriously, says Yarckin, and it’s hard to tell if she’s talking about herself or the diminutive talk show host that serves as her inspiration. But Yarckin does take her job seriously, believes truly that the team makes memories for people. “I have the power to pull out a person and bring them to the court and make it extra special for them,” she says. Every game could be a child’s birthday, or someone’s first basketball game, or a couple’s first date.

“We call them legendary moments.  That’s our goal. We always want you to leave with a smile on your face,” she says through a gleaming one of her own. “Or at least a free t-shirt.”

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