By The Fans, For The Fans

It’s an overcast September day, and Edmond Plass is doing something that he never imagined: He’s volleying with tennis legend John McEnroe at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Tennis Center, where Plass is the head pro/facilities manager.

As if keeping up with McEnroe isn’t enough pressure, Plass has to do it under the direction of none other than Spike Lee and the watchful gaze of a creative team from SS+K in New York, including creative partner Marty Cooke, creative director/copywriter Marc Lucas and partner/creative director/art director Josh Kilmer-Purcell. “It’s nerve-wracking,” Plass admits with a laugh, during a break from filming one of six 30-second spots in the New York Knicks “Fans Know” campaign, scheduled to break this week.

If Plass is feeling the heat, so are the creatives from SS+K. After all, it will take some serious convincing to get skeptical New Yorkers excited about a team that has been on a losing streak the last few years. But the guys seem relaxed and confident. Cooke says, “It’s a better creative opportunity with them losing. If they were winning, what would we do?”

The strategy of the estimated $2 million campaign is to have some of the biggest Knicks fans—including two guys who have been season ticket holders for 50 years—reminisce about their favorite Knicks moments and players, then talk about the team’s bright future. The spots will feature average folk as well as famous fans: McEnroe, Jerry Ferrara, who plays Turtle on HBO’s Entourage; and Lee, who got in front of the camera in late September, having lunch with a cardboard cutout of Knicks coach Larry Brown at Junior’s, the Brooklyn eatery famed for its cheesecake. Also featured in the spots are images of players Stephon Marbury, Channing Frye, Nate Robinson, Jerome James and Jamal Crawford.

On this day, Plass is serving as a stand-in for Knicks forward Quentin Richardson, aka Q-Rich. Well, not for Q-Rich himself, but for a facsimile of the player. The spot opens with McEnroe playing tennis with an unseen opponent. As he plays, he talks about being a longtime Knicks fan and comments on how there is a new beginning for the team this year, with Larry Brown onboard as coach and the addition of players such as James and “my man, Q-Rich here.” Cut to McEnroe’s opponent on the court—a life-size cardboard cutout of Q-Rich holding a tennis racquet.

Cutouts of players appear in other spots and will also be plastered around Manhattan as part of a guerrilla marketing element, which includes print ads that will run in New York City newspapers. “Part of the Knicks gestalt is that they’re a street team, and they have a toughness and grit,” explains Bill Bergofin, vp of marketing at SS+K and a season ticket holder. “We wanted to bring the campaign to the street level, the cutouts being a wonderful device.” The cutouts are also a great way to introduce the new players to the fans, Bergofin notes. Even for die-hard followers, the Knicks are a different team this year, made up of rookies and unfamiliar faces.

Cooke fully expects the cutouts around the city to be stolen. “The more people embrace the campaign, that’s great—and embracing means stealing sometimes,” he cracks.

During today’s shoot, Q-Rich, who even in cutout form makes for an imposing figure at 6 feet 6 inches, draws stares from onlookers on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, the sight of McEnroe elicits shouts. “Come on, John! Get back out on the tour!” one fan shouts as McEnroe volleys with Plass, the cameras rolling. McEnroe booms back, “You tell ’em!”

The tennis legend known for his flare-ups is being nothing but a good sport today. The shoot goes smoothly, with McEnroe gamely reciting the lines that Lee—standing just out of camera range—feeds him. In stark contrast to the madman he becomes when seated courtside at Knicks home games, Lee is a low-key director. He barely speaks during the shoot, and aside from one quick huddle with the agency creatives, there isn’t any communication with them otherwise. Lee just gets in there and gets his job done with a small crew of about six or so from his Brooklyn-based production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. (Rob Farber of production services company Drive in New York handles the role of agency producer.)

While the spot is scripted, Lee tosses out ad-libs, and McEnroe comes up with a few of his own. “Come on, Q—over the net!” McEnroe urges at one point. “Larry’s not gonna put up with it, and I’m not gonna put up with it!”

Being the mega-fans they are, Lee and McEnroe trade banter about the team as the last shot is being set up. Neither is working on this campaign for the money. This is not a big-budget campaign, Cooke confirms. McEnroe is working for the SAG minimum. “They’re doing it because they love the Knicks,” Cooke says.