IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The stars come out at night

WashPost: NBA playoffs attract the bold and the beautiful
Jack Nicholson is a big Lakers fans, but many stars go to NBA games simply for the exposure.Kevork Djansezian / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Shortly before the start of Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night, the giant arena scoreboard began showing the faces of prominent personalities seated among the more than 20,000 fans packed into the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Oakland Raiders lineman Warren Sapp, and Detroit Lions head coach Steve Mariucci and quarterback Joey Harrington got scoreboard face time, along with Detroit rhythm and blues singer Anita Baker, who is trying to re-ignite her career. Each time a new face went up on the screen, the crowd roared its approval.

Then the cameras found longtime Pistons fan Kid Rock. The noise level rose like a storm for the local boy made good, who minutes earlier had stood at center court and performed a stirring a cappella rendition of "America the Beautiful" for the Pistons crowd and a national television audience.

Kid Rock has attended Pistons games long before this year's championship run, which has Detroit holding a three-games-to-one lead against the Los Angeles Lakers heading into Game 5 Tuesday night. Few could argue that he is anything other than a true NBA fan.

But not all the celebrity faces that fans see at courtside are there to root for the home team. Many are on business, especially when the games are in Los Angeles, where Hollywood and network television stars -- and the people whose job it is to promote them -- find the NBA Finals stage irresistible.

Action-film star Jackie Chan, famous for his back flips, sidekicks and a host of other daring martial-arts moves, respects the high-flying athleticism of the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. But sitting courtside alongside British actor Steve Coogan at Staples Center last week, Chan acknowledged he wasn't there for the love of basketball.

"I come to Hollywood only for promotion and to make a film," Chan said. "Myself, I never would come [to the games]. Today, because [studio executives] said come, I come. I get here and I say 'Wow.' "

Chan and Coogan were publicizing their upcoming film, a remake of "Around the World In 80 Days." The actors got their plug in when ABC broadcast them sitting courtside together and mentioned the movie. Disney, the studio that produced Chan's film, also owns ABC.

Hollywood has touted TV shows and films at major sports events for decades. At the Super Bowl or World Series, the network broadcasting the games is certain to plant a few of its stars in the stands -- as close to the cameras as possible -- to promote their shows or movies.

The NFL draws more than twice the television viewers of the nation's second-highest rated sport, NASCAR, and three times more than the NBA. But during the last decade the NBA's image, atmosphere and audience have made it the preferred sport for many publicity-seeking entertainers, according to entertainment industry analysts.

NBA games are played in indoor arenas, making it easy for an entertainer to be spotted by the crowd and television cameras. The league draws a young, male audience -- big spenders on movie tickets, magazines and music.

The NBA's "cool factor" is also higher than most of the other sports, according to Ted Casablanca, who reports on celebrity doings for E! Entertainment television. "You're sure as hell not going to see Paris Hilton at a golf tournament," Casablanca said. But the hotel heiress and party girl did attend the NBA All-Star Game last February.

The NBA's chummy relationship with Hollywood and the recording industry is blossoming at a time when the NFL is still licking the wounds it suffered when singer Janet Jackson's breast was exposed during the MTV-produced Super Bowl halftime show on Feb. 1. Major League Baseball was criticized by fans after it decided to allow Sony Pictures to post advertisements for its upcoming film "Spider Man 2" on bases, pitchers' mounds and on-deck circles. Within days, the league bowed out of the deal.

To be sure, scores of entertainers attend NBA games because they are fans. Penny Marshall, Dustin Hoffman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Denzel Washington, Dyan Cannon, Sylvester Stallone, Meg Ryan and, of course, Jack Nicholson regularly attend Lakers games. Film director Spike Lee, news anchor Tom Brokaw and rapper Jay-Z are fixtures at Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Knicks. Singer Jimmy Buffett loves the Miami Heat and was even ejected for cursing the referees during a 2001 game with the Knicks.

Detroit has its supporters, too. Actress Renee Zellweger attended Game 3 of the finals in Auburn Hills, accompanied by Jack White of the Detroit band White Stripes. Also sitting behind the Lakers' bench that night was rap star Eminem and D12 rapper Proof.

Some celebrities deny that there are those within their ranks who would attend an NBA game to further their careers.

"We're all just happy to have a winning team in town," said actress and professed Lakers backer Christina Applegate, who starred in the 1990s TV show "Married . . . With Children." "I spit on anyone who comes to Lakers games to be seen."

Watching the Lakers run through their warm-up drills before Game 1 last week, Applegate marveled: "Look at them. They are all so darn cool. They all have got their tattoos and their earrings and, you know, they're fabulous."

Nonetheless, publicists have been known to call the Lakers' front office to convince the team to make sure their client's visage goes up on the video scoreboard and on television, according to Lakers spokesman John Black.

Relatively few stars own season tickets. A great many receive tickets from studios, TV networks, management companies, entertainment lawyers and agents, Black said.

Before Game 1 at Staples Center, Stallone gleefully showed off a present given to him by O'Neal. It was a ring, and among the myriad diamonds were inscribed the words "Lakers" and "World Champions." It is one of three NBA championship rings O'Neal has earned as a member of the Lakers.

"Shaquille and I have a very private deal," the actor explained. "I owe him a favor."

Stallone was among the sizeable contingent of Hollywood stars on hand, which included Ryan, Hoffman, Matthew Perry and Vivica A. Fox.

"There's no question that [NBA games are] a place to be seen," Stallone said. "You're in an atmosphere where it's entertaining but also it's a way to be seen, too, at the same time without having to do interviews if you don't want to."