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In San Antonio seven-foot Spurs center David Robinson glowers from an assortment of billboards. The image that towers over Seattle's highways is that of fierce all-star forward Shawn Kemp. The Houston Rockets decorate their boards with a battery of NBA champions -- Hakeem Olajuwon, Vernon Maxwell, Otis Thorpe.
Here in Miami, the player who dominates the skyline is Greg Jackson. Jackson's bald head and muscular upper body are the star attraction in a trio of promo billboards sponsored by WBFS-TV (Channel 33) and WINZ-AM (940), the stations that broadcast Heat games. Jackson is the figure in the Heat uniform who bursts rocketlike through the word Smmmoookin'.
Given all the trades the franchise has made this season, it's probably worth supplying a little background on the team's newest and most visible star. Jackson is a South Florida native who starred as a point guard at Boca Raton High, and later logged time at Palm Beach Junior College before moving on to Florida State. At six feet and 185 pounds, he's a strong outside shooter and has excellent ball-handling skills. His nickname is "Bald Eagle."
One other thing about Jackson -- he doesn't actually play for the Heat. He works for Motorola, in the purchasing department.
"I buy materials," explains the 35-year-old Jackson. "Like for pagers and stuff."
So were we.
So we called Channel 33 to find out what the deal was. The deal, according to art director Stacey Panson, is this: "With all the trades they've made, our management and the Heat were worried about putting a specific player on the billboard. So we decided to go with a generic-type player. He's a very nice guy," Panson stresses. "He just doesn't happen to be a Heat player."
Brian Fein is the award-winning Broward illustrator who created the billboard -- and discovered Jackson. "He works out at the same gym as me," Fein says. "I paid him 50 bucks."
Jackson is thrilled with the arrangement. "I haven't actually seen the billboards because I live in Plantation, but Brian did give me some of the pocket-size TV schedules, and a lot of my friends have called to tell me they've seen my billboard." (Two billboards are located along I-95, one near the Griffin Road exit in Broward, a second at 79th Street. A third resides on Biscayne Boulevard, at the MacArthur Causeway exit just north of downtown. A fourth is in the heart of Downtown, off Second Avenue.)
For those who don't know Jackson, however, the billboard has caused confusion, according to an informal survey conducted by New Times this past week at the intersection facing the Biscayne Boulevard billboard. The question: Do you recognize the man on that billboard?
Respondent 3: "Glen Rice."
Respondent 4: "Miner."
Respondent 5: "Get away from my car."
Jackson himself, who still plays pickup ball, says he used to be called "Jordan" in college. "These days people say I remind them of Montel Williams. You know, the guy on the talk show."
The confusion is not likely to diminish come next season. According to Mark Pray, the Heat's director of public relations, the team will continue to discourage the use of players' images on promotional material. But Pray insists the reason has less to do with trades than with "the importance of emphasizing the team concept." The Heat's preseason billboard, which lined I-95 for weeks, featured another generic player. "Basically the board was based on a photo of [guard] Steve Smith, but the number was airbrushed out," Pray says. Smith was subsequently traded to the Atlanta Hawks.
The Heat, as it turns out, are at the forefront of a movement away from using actual players to promote. Orlando and Charlotte also refuse to use players on their billboards; spokesmen for both clubs cite the same reason as Pray -- team unity. But NBA officials are more forthright. "With trades becoming so prevalent, it's foolhardy to sell your product based on an attraction that may be gone tomorrow," says Peter Land, a staffer at NBA headquarters in New York.
The peril of staking a promotional campaign on real players in this era of transience was perfectly demonstrated by the Miami Herald earlier this year. In their annual special section about the Heat, they ran a full-page photo of three players: Steve Smith, forward Glen Rice, and center Rony Seikaly.
Smith, as mentioned, later moved on to the Hawks. And on the very morning the special section hit the streets, Seikaly was traded to the Golden State Warriors.