Half an hour or so before the Celtics begin their warm-ups, Melisa Valdez takes center court at the TD Garden and steps into a spotlight. A camera projects her image onto the arena’s jumbotrons and a crowd of nearly 20,000 rise to their feet.

Valdez, 38, is the Celtics in-arena host. It's her job to brief the crowd on the players, the entertainment lineup, and whether the Garden is hosting a special, themed night. If she’s feeling nervous, she’ll take a moment to pray, breathe deeply and meditate before stepping on the court.

That’s when she reminds herself of her mission, and of the passion she holds for her job.

One of Valdez’s goals is to infuse her culture into her role. Another is to provide inspiration for girls like her: an Afro Latina woman and a proud immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

Moving from the Dominican Republic

Valdez grew up in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital, immersed in the region’s rich culture. Two of her uncles were painters, she said, and she was surrounded by art.

She still draws inspiration from the family gatherings she attended as a child.

“It's just part of our culture when we have a celebration, to come and be in community, to let there be joy through music, through dance, to celebrate one another,” she said.

Valdez’s mom — a single parent to two kids — held multiple jobs to provide for the family. She chose to move with her children to the United States for better opportunities.

They settled in New Jersey when Valdez was 5 years old. That’s where she began to step out and seek opportunities to express her creativity.

Kids with a cassette player

At age 9 — when hosting was still a dream job, and the Celtics weren’t even a glimmer in her eye — Valdez would set up her boom box with a cassette player in the living room with her stepsister. The girls would hit “record” on the cassette player, then Valdez would interview her stepsister.

Valdez continued to cultivate her desire to entertain and be in the spotlight over the years: performing in school talent shows, choreographing in her living room with friends, and dancing along to music videos.

Her family couldn’t afford to send her to a formal dance school. Instead, Valdez says her mother taught her she could make her dreams come true by tapping the resources she did have — and by honing her craft.

“My mother would always tell me, ‘You have to work hard to reach your dreams, and never give up because anything is possible.’ I always lived by those words,” said Valdez.

“My mother would always tell me, ‘You have to work hard to reach your dreams, and never give up because anything is possible.’ I always lived by those words.”
Melisa Valdez

Onward to Massachusetts

After living in New Jersey and Florida, Valdez’s family moved to Milford, Massachusetts. She recalls constantly hustling by driving forty minutes to Boston for auditions and dance classes. At these events, she began building her community in a new city.

It was the mid-2000s, and she found work as a go-go dancer in Boston clubs. Valdez describes a variety of music and dancers decked out in ornate costumes, wigs and accessories dancing to unique choreography.

Valdez became friends with fellow dancer Francisca Borders. Both women recall packing themselves in a car to drive from Boston to New York for auditions in a single day as they chased their dreams.

“She's like the girl next door, she feels like everybody's friend. I think that that's why everybody just roots for her. Her pitch, voice, and tone just brings the energy,” said Borders.

During her time working in various Boston gigs, Valdez was building her skill set: how to hold the mic, how to use her voice in front of a large crowd, how to combine her family culture with hosting.

“Over the years, I found out what my calling was and what my community base was, and used the talents — things that I was good at — to build something here,” said Valdez.

Connecting with the Celtics

Brek One, the DJ for the Celtics, met Valdez through Boston’s nightlife scene. During the pandemic, the team was looking for ways to make games more lively. One recommended Valdez for the in-arena host position.

“She's been instrumental in welcoming people who are new to this era of Celtics basketball and NBA,” One said.

“She's been instrumental in welcoming people who are new to this era of Celtics basketball and NBA.”
Brek One, Celtics DJ

When she was discussing the position with the team, Valdez spoke of her roots in the Dominican Republic. She told them she wanted to be seen as a role model for girls who look like her.

One says the Boston Celtics are known for a focus on tradition. But a new era of basketball is emerging as fans become more engaged with the organization beyond the court.

An infusion of Dominican culture

After three years in this role, Valdez now regularly interviews a Celtics player after a winning home game.

Her first interview, last October, was memorable for two reasons: it was with Al Horford, another Dominican and star player on the team; and it was broadcast far beyond Boston’s borders. Her family — both in other parts of the U.S. and in the Dominican Republic — were able to see it and share how proud of her they were.

Since NBA games can be streamed in 214 countries, Valdez feels she can chip away at her goal of providing representation for a younger generation worldwide.

At a game in Boston earlier this month, Valdez spotted a young girl from Uruguay holding a sign. It read, “We have traveled + 6K miles to meet you: Melisa Valdez.”

Connecting with the girl brought her to tears, she said, because it shows how much representation matters.

“Boston has a large population of people of color and people from the Dominican Republic. Just me being there and proudly saying that I am from the Dominican Republic, I'm never afraid to say I'm a proud immigrant. Being an Afro Latina woman, I feel like I'm representing a lot of women from all over the world.”