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In the NBA, a successful viral video is all about the stars playing along

March 3, 2016 at 8:00 AM

(Screengrabs; Washington Post Illustration)

It's media day 2013 for the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki isn't done hamming it up for the camera.

After creative director Jonathan Kornblith, who oversees the team's video content, tells the longtime franchise cornerstone that he's done shooting clips to air throughout the season, something catches Nowitzki's eye.

"What are these?" the former league MVP asks about three nearby costume heads: a snowman, reindeer and turkey.

Without much prompting, the lanky, 7-foot German tries on the turkey head and heads for the green screen. Nowitzki flaps his arms. He starts pecking with his neck. The camera rolls.

It's exactly the type of unscripted moment, as re-told by Kornblith, that has made the Mavericks one of the league's best at producing laugh-out-loud promotional material. In this age of viral videos, franchises around the NBA are increasingly using these clips to build brand awareness and break down the wall between players and fans. Whether it's the Miami Heat doing the "Martin" TV show intro or the Washington Wizards riffing on "Home Alone" for the holidays, these videos are commonplace at games and always have the potential to explode online.

"I think it's all about attempting to humanize the players," said Ira Winderman, who has covered the NBA for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale since the Heat entered the league in 1988. "The Mavericks have been among the best teams in the NBA at this. But it's because they have players willing to go along, Dirk in particular."

Nowitzki doesn't just go along. He goes deep into character.

In January, he strapped on a ridiculous Donald Trump wig and encouraged Mavs fans to "build a wall of noise." Another video that spoofed a popular Geico commercial, in which Nowitzki incessantly asks coworkers to "guess what day it is," has racked up more than two million views on YouTube.

"I've always made a fool out of myself," Nowitzki told The Post in January. "[The Mavs] obviously know I'm a guy that loves to have fun and makes fun of himself and other people, so they utilize that."

Despite the comedic success, Nowitzki's boss has another idea for his leading man.

"I'd love to put him on stage with The Rolling Stones doing 'Brown Sugar,' " Mavs owner Mark Cuban told The Post in an email, adding that the goal behind making the videos "is to create an amazing in-game experience. We want to keep people's energy up."

The Wizards, whose "Home Alone" video stars rookie swingman Kelly Oubre Jr. as forgotten son Kevin McCallister, have found similar success by players going with the flow.

According to the team's director of network production Jumoke Davis, it was Oubre's idea to spoof the Christmas movie. And when it was time to work in other players for cameos, getting teammates John Wall and Bradley Beal to replicate the film's famous cheek-slap-and-scream mirror scene was just the thing.

Davis said players are involved early in production, which makes them more open to participate. But, he admitted, sometimes "you gotta sell them on the concept."

Occasionally those concepts can veer into truly weird terrain. The New Orleans Pelicans have a series of videos starring King Cake Baby, a Carnival mascot who looks like he might be Chucky's younger brother. And a handful of San Antonio Spurs joined forces last year to form Spuran Spuran, their team's version of the English band Duran Duran.

The right timing is a way to get players to buy in. Many teams produce promotional material before the season begins when optimism among players is high. Winderman said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, for example, is a "go-along guy." And when LeBron James and the Heat were in the midst of winning back-to-back championships, the team made a Harlem Shake video that, at last count, had nearly 49 million views on YouTube.

But try getting a star player to do the same during a losing streak and the reception might be different.

"[The players] enjoy it when they're winning," Winderman said. "It's when you trudge out players after a loss or amid losing seasons is when it becomes an issue."

The Mavs don't obligate their players to participate in promotional videos but Cuban seems willing to bet that most players would jump at the chance.

"Every player makes their own decision," Cuban wrote in an email. "But the reality is that it's a badge of honor. They love them. Their families love them. Their fans love them. When you star in your own video, that's a big deal."

Being funny isn't easy, though. During a Wizards home game against the Cavaliers in January, a second-quarter video on the jumbotron mocked Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving's all-star candidacy. Irving responded with 19 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter to hand Washington a loss. Coincidence?

The video got a negative reaction from media and players (namely Cavs guard J.R. Smith, who said he and his teammates didn't appreciate the video) but the Wizards take a pragmatic view.

"We do hundreds of videos a year," said Zak Grim, the Wizards' manager of game entertainment. "Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't."

NBA fans will forgive the occasional dud. Because when the videos work, they really work.

Christian Font is an art director for The Washington Post Magazine, working on projects for print and Web. He has been at The Post since 2012. He previously worked in a variety of roles over 12 years at the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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