When Dave Carrodine sat down nearly three years ago to develop a marketing plan for Sam Cassell, he didn't have the easiest of jobs. Cassell was not a lottery pick (he was the 24th player taken in the 1993 NBA draft, by the Houston Rockets). He lacked the name recognition of Chris Webber, the top pick that year. And he was attempting to break through in a market where future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon was entrenched.
"When I first started out with Sam, it would be hard to get people to take my calls, and when they did they said, 'No, thank you,' " said Carrodine, the vice president for marketing at Columbia-based Precept Sports. "They just weren't receptive to any ideas on using Sam in a marketing promotion program."
Carrodine doesn't have such problems anymore.
If you've watched any of the NBA playoffs, you've seen Cassell, the former Dunbar star, pushing a new Reebok basketball shoe with the rap lyrics "Sam I am . . . the Mr. Clutch, double deluxe, butter touch, 6-foot-3 and mad tough" in the background.
"Kids look up to Sam," said Joanne Borzakian, director of professional basketball at Reebok. "He has a scrappy game, and kids like to emulate it."
Pick up the national basketball magazine Slam and you'll see a smiling Cassell sporting the athletic gear of Big Ball Sports.
"He's got a magnetic personality," said Key Collins, in charge of public relations at Houston-based Big Ball. "Sam's great with kids, and he approaches things on a personal level."
And Sam as Santa? Make that "Samta," in a Subway ad in Houston with a smiling Cassell wearing a Santa hat and clutching a sandwich, while surrounded by kids.
"Sam is our only spokesperson for our market," said Ben Padilla, chairman of Subway's advertising in southeast Texas. "He has a sterling personality. He cuts across the color barriers -- Hispanic, black, Asian, white. We're extremely happy with him."
It's enough praise to bring a smile to Carrodine's face -- and responses to his phone calls.
"Now that he has the name recognition, people will at least take my calls and they want to talk about Sam," Carrodine said. "Still, it's tough to sell a 24th pick to corporate America. It's a lot easier to sell a guy who's been pre-hyped like a Chris Webber or a Juwan Howard.
"With Sam," he added. "it's always going to be a building process."
But Cassell's not doing too shabbily. Reebok decided to profile just two players in the rap-oriented ads, Cassell and Shawn Kemp. In fact, Cassell is the only NBA reserve featured prominently in national television ads by any major shoe company.
"It's amazing what Sam has accomplished being a sixth man," said former Maryland star Len Elmore, Cassell's agent and president of Precept. "Sam's got a couple of ingredients going for him: personality and his involvement in the community."
Came up big in N.Y.
Still, those are ingredients that won't get you a Yugo ad if you aren't associated with a winner. Cassell's play on the court has helped Houston become a winner.
His marketability can be traced back to "The Shot," a three-point basket he made late in Game 3 of the 1994 NBA Finals that led to a Rockets' win. It happened at Madison Square Garden, in the media capital of New York. Cassell's fearless play throughout the series helped the Rockets win the NBA title. The mechanics of the "Cassell selling plan" were put in motion.
Within a week, Cassell was posing with Mickey Mouse at Disney World. And choosing whether to rub shoulders with Jay Leno or David Letterman on late-night TV (Letterman won out because of audience demographics).
% A celebrity was born.
Plan gets jump-start
"Just by Houston being in the playoffs, we were able to do some things with Sam like holding clinics and helping get him ingrained in the community's heart," Carrodine said. "By his hitting that shot, by Houston winning the championship, instead of waiting a year, we moved everything we wanted to do up. We were able to leverage off that shot."
So instead of giving Cassell exposure through simple community relations programs, an invitation was extended for corpor- ations to board the wagon. Shoe companies began bidding for his services, with Reebok winning out over Avia and Fila when Cassell's Nike contract ran out after his first year.
"[Reebok] is always looking for exposure on the court, as well as off the court," Borzakian said. "So, absolutely, what Sam did during the playoffs had an impact."
And even with the added interest that came with Cassell winning an NBA ring, his representatives at Precept weren't quick to jump on just any marketing opportunity that materialized. As a case in point, Carrodine pulls from his desk two proposed ads: one of a shirtless, unsmiling Cassell, the other of Cassell with a shirt, smiling.
The shirtless ad was immediately dismissed.
"A lot of times you'll see ads on athletes -- particularly African-American athletes -- where they are portrayed as being mean," Carrodine said. "Companies will send me ads, and if Sam is not smiling, I don't want to see them. Because that's not Sam Cassell.
"With Sam, when you look at him on the court, he's smiling and having a good time," Carrodine added. "If you look at Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal, they're always smiling. I want corporate America to look at Sam and say, 'I can associate with this guy, I would love to have him associated with my products.' It's selling 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Baltimore a tough sell
Surprisingly, it's been tough to sell Cassell in the most obvious of areas -- Baltimore. Cassell does summer clinics in his home city ++ and has been involved in a program to encourage immunizations for youngsters. But the league's strict policy of maintaining territorial rights keeps Cassell out of regional advertising in this area.
"The NBA puts limits on what corporations can do with NBA markets. Baltimore is considered a Washington Bullets market,"
Carrodine said. "With the immunization program, I sent a request to use Sam in his Houston uniform and the league said no."
But there have been no such problems in the Houston area, where Carrodine says the popularity of Cassell is "just below that of Hakeem, and neck-and-neck with Clyde Drexler."
The objective with Cassell is not to just appear in advertisements, but to forge long-term relationships with company executives. That's why in November, the day before the start of the season, Cassell invited his sponsors to a party at an upscale Houston hotel where he posed for pictures with executives and presented each with gifts.
"That was a first for me," said Subway's Padilla, of the party for sponsors. "Everything I've done with Sam has been first-class in every way, shape or form. He has a real good business sense, and we've talked together about a lot of business things."
His prominent role on an NBA title team his first two years in the league has helped Cassell greatly. A third straight title for a Rockets team hurt by injuries this year appears unlikely, which would make the selling of Cassell a bit more challenging.
But there is at least a foundation that didn't exist three years ago.
"We have the name recognition now and, if he were starting, there's no telling where he'd be," Carrodine said. "We've been able to suck out what Sam is about on and off the court, and impress that on corporate America. We're on our way."
Former Dunbar star Sam Cassell has recieved a lot of exposure in his three-year NBA career. In addition to being a two time champion with Houston, Cassell has garnered almost $1 million in endorsements.
Big Ball Sports
Bill Heard Chevrolet (Houston)
Pub Date: 5/12/96