H'w'd tries to muscle in on playoff action

There’s something about being with athletes in front of a cheering crowd on national TV. Sure, a strategically secluded patio seat at the Ivy is nice, but lounging courtside at a Lakers playoff game or being spotted in the owner’s box at the World Series is undeniably, well, Ivy League.

But the relationship between celebs and teams is complex. There’s a fine art to scoring those primo seats. Once on the scene, the star has to follow the protocol of the sports world — which often operates under different rules than showbiz.

Take the NBA playoffs.

Those who aren’t Lakers season seat holders like Jack and Dyan, Leo and Dustin, Penny and Denzel — or can’t get their hands on the tickets purchased by studios, labels and reps — will need help getting courtside to join the glitterati.

Tim Harris, Lakers sales and marketing VP, oversees distribution of the scores of house seats the team sets aside for each game, but he’s the first to acknowledge that demand far outstrips supply.

Location is as much an issue as ticket availability.

Those willing to fork over the regular-season tariff of $1,900 per seat ($2,400 for the San Antonio series; $2,800 if the team reaches the finals) might find themselves on the highlight reel. Those who expect a freebie — and there aren’t many such passes to be had — shouldn’t worry about dressing up for the camera.

It’s not that the Lakers don’t aim to please.

“We want the celebrities to enjoy the game without being hassled,” Harris says.

To that end, the much-prized gold Chairman’s Room pass allows the bearer access to a private lounge (capacity, about 150) in the recesses of the Staples Center at halftime. The place is typically packed with power players.

“I’ve had people send me a resume of their credentials to show why they should get a pass,” Harris says.

Some requests are doomed from the start:

  • Calls from publicists trying to convince the team it’s in the Lakers’ best interest to put their client’s face up on the Jumbotron.

  • Halftime access to the players (kinda like talking up an actor between takes).

  • Really good parking. “One guy said they had tickets and everything, but they were bringing this incredible car, and they needed a place to leave it during the game,” says Harris.

Harris says the season tickets studios, labels and agencies cycle through to their clients provide “a competitive advantage,” particularly at playoff time.

But while four on the floor keeps the business of Hollywood running smoothly, it doesn’t guarantee the most knowledgeable fans get the best seats at the game.

“It’s nice if they know the sport they’re attending,” sniffs one veteran agent. “Of course, if it’s a nationally televised game, a seat at center court puts them with the ‘in’ group.”

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of celebs who know the game.

After the Lakers were bounced from last year’s playoffs by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, ABC caught up with Nicholson at half court and did its post-game interview with the long-time fan rather than with team members.

Momentarily surprised, the actor, gracious in defeat, came off like an NBA insider.

Season ticket holder Andy Garcia’s mood at the game has been described as “intense.” And you just know long-time Clippers subscriber Frankie Muniz isn’t in it for the playoff seats.

There are those, however, who make the least of their ESPN moment. For instance: J. Lo (caught filing her nails during last year’s Red Sox-Yankees playoffs) and Jane Fonda and Ted Turner (falling asleep at Braves playoff games in the early ’90s).

“Celebrities may not be part of the action,” acknowledges Charlie Rosenzweig, the NBA’s veep of entertainment and player management, “but they’re part of the story.”

The Knicks reserve 10-16 courtside seats a game for stars who’ve either promoted the team or helped raise money for its affiliated charities (after-school reading programs are a league favorite). Along with Spike Lee and Woody Allen, Ed Bradley and Tom Brokaw are among those with season’s seats. Sean Penn and Chazz Palminteri also frequent Knicks games.

In L.A., most agencies include the Dodgers on their shopping list but stop short of taking the plunge with the Angels, citing long workdays and the difficult drive to Anaheim.

The lure of a Big Event, though, can make freeway travel seem less daunting.

John Travolta made the scene alongside Michael Eisner as the Angels were winning the World Series. And last year’s Mighty Ducks’ run at the Stanley Cup brought out Doger’s fan Tom Hanks along with Meg Ryan to the Disney suite.

Some stars have trade agreements with a team for their tickets: Trey Parker and Matt Stone created a series of South Park interstitials for the Staples Center Jumbotron.

In Chicago, stars have to sing for their supper.

“People here have three questions about the day’s Cubs game: Who pitched, did Sammy hit a home run and who sang ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame,’ ” says Joe Rios, the team’s manager of entertainment.

Rios has his eye on “Ocean’s Twelve,” now filming in Chi-town, for its stars’ pipes. Past “guest conductors” include Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe, Cusack, Bonnie Hunt and Donald Trump.

Being tone deaf, like conductor-in-memoriam Harry Caray, is no crime, and the celeb gets the bottom of the seventh inning to chat up his or her latest project with TV announcers Steve Stone and Chip Caray.

Still, no sport has gotten more chummy with Hollywood celebs, or marketed its own talent with more success, than the NBA. In the mid-’80s, the league hitched its wagon to the stars, relying on promos featuring the likes of Billy Crystal and Spike Lee to extol the virtues of pro basketball.

The NBA is quick to credit the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry of the ’80s, along with cable TV, for its popularity, but Rosenzweig also allows that “we try to take care of the people who take care of us.”

This season, the list of celebrities clamoring to tape spots for the NBA has topped 100 — suspiciously including the entire casts of five TV shows and one film that have ties to ABC or Time Warner, the networks that paid the league $4.6 billion in 2002 for a six-year rights package to broadcast games.

And even though it doesn’t happen often, sometimes a team is willing to foot the bill to have a star show up for the game. Take this year’s first pitch on Opening Day at Wrigley Field, for instance.

“Bill Murray is one of our biggest supporters and he’s had such a great acting year, winning the Golden Globe and getting an Academy Award nomination,” says the Cubs’ Rios. “We told him we’d fly him out here and put him up in a hotel. It’s the first time we’ve offered anyone anything like that.”

Instead, Murray showed up on his own dime and warmed up by playing catch with the fans in the bleachers before heaving the ceremonial pitch over the backstop.

And in the bottom of the seventh, he followed “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with a heartfelt rendition of “My Kind of Town.”

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