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It’s spot on

Pucin is a Times staff writer.

The 30-second spot is called “Dunk.”

Its script has six lines of dialogue, the cast numbers seven. It stars Sparks forward Candace Parker -- she of NCAA title, Olympic gold medal, WNBA rookie of the year and MVP all-in-one-year fame. Thirty seconds, and with that, she joined what is mostly an athletic boys club whose members include ESPN “SportsCenter” anchors, athletes and a roly poly, furry, fruity collection of college mascots tapped to do wickedly funny “SportsCenter” promo spots.

Parker sees it as an honor.

When her agent, Mary Ford, called and said ESPN was interested, “I just about jumped through the phone,” Parker said. “I could hardly wait.”

There have been 325 spots since 1995 in what has been a wildly successful advertising series. Of that, only a handful have featured women athletes: Olympics gymnastics medalists Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug; college and pro basketball stars Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi; tennis pro Maria Sharapova; and Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt among them.

WNBA Commissioner Donna Orender said Parker’s chance to be in one of the spots is a big deal for a league struggling to earn attention in a cluttered sports world.

“Every sport is jockeying for sponsorship and position,” Orender said. “Candace is a great choice. It’s the combination of her athletic excellence, her composure, her beauty, her intelligence.”

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That Orender used the word “beauty” wasn’t accidental.

“I would say this: If a guy is good looking, that gets remarked upon,” Orender said. “But it’s not a secret the way she looks impacts women.”

The premise of Parker’s spot is that she is in the “SportsCenter” offices, an unassuming female who can dunk a basketball amid a bunch of male sports anchors who are all wannabe slammers.

Guys like Stuart Scott, Brian Kenny, Jay Harris, Scott Van Pelt and Neil Everett are wearing “strength shoes,” a clumsy contraption that has an extra platform near the toe. The shoe’s point is to develop calf strength. Its effect is to make the men clumsy oafs as Parker floats through the room.

The spot is introduced by anchor Hannah Storm saying: “As one of the first professional women basketball players to dunk, Candace Parker is a true inspiration. Not just for women around the office, but for men too.”

There is a shot of Van Pelt trying to walk in the cafeteria while balancing his tray and almost falling. There is another of Harris and Parker walking down a hallway. Harris trips and falls and Parker reaches down to help Harris to his feet.

“You OK?” Parker asks. Harris brushes Parker’s arms away and mumbles, “I’m good.”

Kenny said, “The thing about them is you have to trust in the filmmakers, that they’re going to make sense. We film them in bits and pieces and the first time you do one, you think, ‘Wow, what does this mean?’ And then at the end you see it and you realize, ‘That is a great script.’

“In this one with Candace, all I was told was, ‘Candace can dunk, you can’t.’ ”

The concept is always to portray the Bristol, Conn., offices as a playground full of athletes, mascots and “SportsCenter” anchors and reporters instead of a dull office building where grim-faced guys type away in their cubicles.

Kevin Proudfoot, an executive creative director for the Portland-based advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy that created the spots, said the idea for the series came about because he and many of the agency’s writers thought of “SportsCenter” offices as a fantasyland of sports stars having fun and creating havoc.

David Shane, director of the Parker spot, said the reason the ads are so popular is simple.

“It’s a combination of absurdity and dry humor,” he said. “It’s people doing these incredibly absurd things and acting like nothing is funny.”

Shane points to one in which LeBron James is kneeling in front of an office copier that has run out of ink. He is trying to change the cartridge.

“It’s a situation we all find ourselves in,” Shane said.

Anchor Scott walks past James, looks at him, shakes his head and says, “The Chosen One,” in an “I feel sorry for you” voice. James just keeps on trying to change the cartridge.

The athletes receive no money for doing the spots. But it didn’t matter to Parker, despite the long day. She was in a car at 5:30 a.m. for a two-hour drive to Bristol from New York where Parker had made appearances the night before.

Shooting the commercial took four hours in a packed day. Parker did interviews for ESPN International, for the ESPN morning show “First Take,” for an Internet production aimed at high school athletes called “On the Rise,” a sit-down interview for a feature on Summitt, her college coach at Tennessee -- all before the shoot even started.

The ads are filmed in bits and pieces.

For example, Parker did an elevator scene and then got a lunch break. The crew, without missing a beat, began filming another spot. Next up at the elevator was the New Jersey Devils mascot, who stood inside as anchor Harris got in. “Going up?” asked Harris. “No, going down,” said the Devil. Harris got out of the elevator. Later, the Devil would be joined by the Pittsburgh Penguins’ mascot at the thermostat, arguing over the temperature. Meanwhile, St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols was on deck to shoot his own spot.

Shane said his production company, O Positive, comes to ESPN once every two months and shoots three or four spots with a crew of about 30.

His personal favorite is one that still gets big play. It was shot in 2006 with the entire Manning family -- father Archie, mom Olivia and sons Cooper, Peyton (Indianapolis Colts quarterback) and Eli (New York Giants quarterback). The family is getting an office tour, but Peyton and Eli spend the entire 30 seconds hitting, kicking and nudging each other just like brothers do.

When the ads began running, Seth Ader, ESPN senior director of sports marketing, said it wasn’t easy to get even the anchors to willingly give up time to shoot the commercials.

“You know how it is,” Ader said. “Extra work, no money, what was in it for them?”

What worked was the immediate success of well-written spots that turned guys like Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann into stars.

“There was just an immediate buzz,” Ader said. “Because the spots were so well-written, and everyone involved was put into natural situations. I don’t know how else to say it except, the ads worked.”

Proudfoot said that early on Wieden + Kennedy picked up some of the expenses for the athletes who were asked to appear.

“But now most of the athletes are asking to be on. One of the keys to the success,” Proudfoot said, “is that the athletes like to make fun of themselves. We’ve had [author] Steve King ask to ghost write. The Manning brothers one we just did on the fly almost. It wrote itself.”

Parker said she was impressed at how her spot fit her personality.

“I’m kind of laid-back and that’s all I had to do,” she said. “Be me.”

The “SportsCenter” ads have never crossed a line into bad taste. Proudfoot said the writers understand what is funny and what is mean.

The issue came up last week involving a planned series of ads by another agency to tout ESPN’s college basketball coverage.

USA Today reported that the casting call from the New York agency, Anomaly, was looking for someone to play a Tennessee student as “a slutty girl who would hang out at the cowgirl hall of fame” or a Notre Dame student who is “an Asian kid who’s always fighting.”

ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys said in a statement: “Our marketing department just learned of this casting call and the campaign is not something we will pursue. The language and approach reflected in that document were not approved by us.”

Proudfoot said his agency isn’t looking for stereotypes. And not every athlete can accept being gently mocked.

Has anyone ever turned them down? At least one -- Bill Buckner, who had become reclusive after botching a certain grounder in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets.

“We wanted to shoot Buckner, alone in a utility closet covered in dust,” Shane, the producer, said. “An anchor would open the closet, push something away and there would be Buckner. The anchor would ask Buckner if he was OK and Buckner would say, ‘No, I’m good.’ The anchor would turn out the light and walk away. It would have been fantastic. But Bill wouldn’t do it.”

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diane.pucin@latimes.com


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