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Original Issue

Ready for Their Close-ups

THE TELEMARKETER was a ringer. In the front row of a phone bank that resembled a telethon—its mission: beg beleaguered Miami Heat fans to buy 2008--09 season tickets—Dwyane Wade slipped into an operator's seat and played professional pitchman.

He was South Florida chic in a flamingo-pink sweater, ready to help out in a Heat marketing stunt last week, when team officials asked players to charm the last disposable dollar from callers.

"You've got to get tickets in your price range," Wade advised a man on line 1. With TV news cameras rolling, he was on his game. He brought a disarming persona, a half-moon smile and a bottle of Gatorade G2 to the table.

"When I was walking into the room," Wade said later, "Udonis [forward Udonis Haslem] was like, Uh-huh, I see the cameras, you're going to bring that Gatorade. I know what you're doing."

D-Wade knows product placement. He will be seen in only 51 games this season because of knee and shoulder injuries, yet he remains a commercial Zelig, with four national ad campaigns. Off the court Wade is everywhere—he's in 3,800 videos on YouTube—following the see-and-be-seen playbook of his Hollywood talent agency.

William Morris isn't just for John Travoltas anymore. Picking up the scent of big money in sports, the movie-star packaging factory is stayin' alive with supernovas such as Wade, who signed with the agency last year. (One of the agency's first big gets: Pete Sampras in 2002.) Wade digs life as a red-carpet invitee, as a telegenic cheek in the air-kiss world. You may even see him dressed in his seersucker best at next month's Kentucky Derby.

"I laugh if people say [I've gone Hollywood]," Wade explains. "Then I say, 'Y'all come with me.' I haven't gone Hollywood in personality. I've gone Hollywood in lifestyle."

But doesn't he know that Rodeo Drive is jinxed? Jocks flock to the L.A. talent agency at their own risk, hoping to parlay their athletic skills into sexy entertainment gigs or, as Wade envisions, into an entrée into the "acting world."

The options are seductive, luring talent to William Morris and its fierce Hollywood rival, Creative Artists Agency. But while CAA has gone into the sports biz with traditional agents like former IMG symbol Tom Condon, who would never let a photo op interfere with the game, William Morris has shifted the emphasis: Players are entertainers first, athletes second. Maybe it's a coincidence, but one glossy sports client after another has hit the pop charts of visibility only to have the tripwire of overexposure leave the crossover phenom star-crossed.

Jinxed, I tell you!

• Serena Williams, Take 1. She still dominates when not injured or distracted by her clothing line, screen dalliances and artistic indulgences. (Nice title in Key Biscayne last weekend.) But in the hands of William Morris gremlins for the past four years, her tour appeal and ranking have fluctuated. Why? A cameo on ER means time on the set, away from the practice courts.

• Michelle Wie, Take 2. After William Morris wooed her in 2005, golf's Shirley Temple hit the road show of lucrative exhibitions. Soon her spring-loaded swing and wholesome charm burned out, with handlers and caddies heading for the exits. A wrist injury rendered the onetime It Girl nearly invisible.

• Yi Jianlian, Take 3. The Milwaukee Bucks' rookie from China, that boomtown of a billion consumers, was signed last year by William Morris as a 7-foot exclamation point on its global outreach strategy. Then, the double whammy felled Yi: pedestrian numbers (8.6 points and 5.2 boards per game), plus 16 games missed with injuries (shoulder, wrist and knee).

Not every athlete who has signed with William Morris is ill-fated. Kevin Garnett has been largely safe from harm since joining the firm, though the Boston Celtics are advised to add bubble wrap for curse protection in the playoffs. It is also important to note that Garnett is less vulnerable to a crash because he's more selective about his off-the-court enterprises. Perhaps he understands that ubiquity is exhausting (see Lindsay Lohan). Maybe he sees how uniqueness can be dulled by overexpansion (see Starbucks).

"Right now a lot of players think, I'm going to go out there and brand myself; I'm going to get a logo," Heat coach Pat Riley says. "Really, they're just spinning their wheels."

This is no Jordan marketing template. MJ's popularity was gained title by title. The game now is about more than being set for life. It's about ensuring a luxury lifestyle that means, as one NBA player puts it, "never going to baggage claim again."

Separation from the masses is a must. It's tinted windows and Gulfstream jets. It's Hollywood, baby.

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Jocks flock to the Hollywood talent shops, hoping to parlay their athletic skills into sexy entertainment gigs. But don't they know that Rodeo Drive is jinxed?