He Loved This Game
by Paul Gilbert
The New York Times, June 11, 2006
Rule No. 1: Spartacus calls his own plays.
''Don't direct me, kid,'' Kirk Douglas growled. ''I'm a Method actor.''
Back in the 1980's, I had one of the most exciting jobs in professional sports, producing the promotional television campaigns for the National Basketball Association. My responsibilities included going to numerous games, working closely with the players and scouring video highlights for great plays, bloopers and fan cutaways to be used in our commercials.
In 1986, we hit on the idea of asking the galaxy of celebrities who attended games to do on-camera endorsements with our slogan, ''N.B.A. Action It's Fan-tastic!'' My assignment was to go to games in New York and Los Angeles, scout for top-name personalities, recruit them on the spot, film impromptu performances and, later, edit them into the promos. All this for scenes lasting five seconds or less.
These people covered the entertainment spectrum -- actors, musicians, comedians, athletes, power couples -- the main criteria being that they had to be so famous that viewers would recognize them immediately without on-screen identification. For example, we filmed the hard-core hoops fan Spike Lee, but it was before he got game in the film industry, and he did not get the part.
As mentioned in Variety, appearances in these commercials soon gained a certain cachet in Hollywood and became a measure of a celebrity's star power.
My quasi show business experiences ranged from exhilarating to exasperating. Directing larger-than-life personalities in front of thousands of people (and like the players, having to produce under pressure) was a huge adrenaline rush.
The flip side included Debra Winger's frosty look when I suggested a different reading; Jay Leno's agent screaming at me over the phone about ruining his career; and my wondering if Mike Tyson was going to lose it when I told his wife at the time, the actress Robin Givens, to please project a little more.
Most celebrities were extremely gracious about taking orders from a young sports executive, including megastars like Michael Douglas (yes, we got them both, and Kirk was only kidding), Elton John and Oprah Winfrey.
Others were a challenge, like Bill Cosby, the biggest name in TV at the time. Rather than repeating the lines as requested, he insisted on doing them his way. Like a coach, I wanted to yell, ''Just run it like it's diagrammed!'' but his ad-libs turned out better than the script.
Through five years of filming, my strange encounters of a sports kind ranged from a bickering couple, John McEnroe and Tatum O'Neal; a B-list actor named O. J. Simpson; the original Laker Girl, Dyan Cannon; and a smorgasbord of comedians, from Don Rickles to Garry Shandling. We even snagged Nancy Reagan, the first lady at the time, who was appearing at an antidrug rally at a Pacers game in Indiana.
But not all of our attempts were slam-dunks. My biggest disappointments were the best-known N.B.A. devotees on their respective coasts.
Woody Allen turned me down at a Knicks game, even after I repeated one of his gags about getting celebrities to do endorsements. Unimpressed, he replied, ''Yes, but that was a joke.'' And the Big Kahuna himself, Jack Nicholson, responded to a request at a Lakers game with, ''Sorry, I don't do TV.''
Not so easily deterred, I answered, ''But the campaign won't be complete without you.''
''I know'' he replied, with a rather smug grin.
The 1980's transformed professional basketball as Larry, Magic and Michael brought new energy and charisma to the game. It also marked a seminal change in marketing and promotion, with the N.B.A. positioning itself as part of the mainstream entertainment world.
With the biggest stars in the business joining in, the league and its players began working on this new crossover move, and we were just scrambling to get it all on tape.
Looking back on an era when I helped put the fans in Fan-tastic, nobody summed up those wild and crazy times better than the ''Saturday Night Live'' alumnus Chevy Chase.
''N.B.A. action,'' he said. ''It's not bad.''
Paul Gilbert is a writer and a producer who can still go to his left