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What is your preference, Nike, Adidas or Reebok?

Chicago is Williams' kind of town
By Darren Rovell

NEW YORK -- Like Michael Jordan nearly two decades before him, Jay Williams could prove to be the savior the struggling Chicago Bulls so desperately need to turn around the franchise's fortunes. And like Jordan, circa 1984, Williams seems destined to become the darling of Madison Avenue, at least among this year's NBA draft class.

"With Chicago, his endorsement value went up 50 to 75 percent over the dollars he would receive playing in Houston or Golden State," said Bill Sanders, director of marketing for BDA Sports Management, which represents Williams.

Williams, the consensus college basketball player of the year last season who was selected second overall by the Bulls on Wednesday, already has a jump in the endorsement arena on the other 57 players whose names were called at Madison Square Garden. Williams has signed an exclusive autograph deal for NBA trading cards with Upper Deck, and will serve as a spokesperson for video game publisher Sega.

"This is a dream come true," Williams said after being drafted. "The next dream is to try and become all this other stuff in basketball at the next level, and try to get my team to win."

With his Jordanesque smile and up-beat attitude, Williams seems a perfect fit in Chicago, a city that hasn't had much to get excited about since you-know-who called it quits in 1999.

"Our money is on him that his personal qualities, skill and sportsmanship will make him a great role model for younger kids and an ideal corporate spokesman for trading cards," said Mary Mancera of Upper Deck.

With the Upper Deck deal, Williams will appear on at least three runs of trading card boxes in coming months, including Sa-ge and Press Pass, companies that produce autographed cards of players in their college jerseys.

With Sega, Williams will appear on the cover on Sega's "NCAA College Basketball 2K3," which debuts in the fall.

"We've been watching Jay Williams since his standout days with Duke," said Tom Nichols, vice president of sports marketing of Sega of America. "Early on we were drawn to his outstanding personal character off the court and his ability as a playmaker on the court."

The groundwork for Williams' endorsement deal was laid months ago by "Team 22," the informal name of the power brokers in Williams' newly formed company, Jay LLC. Key members of the group include Sanders, Williams' agent Bill Duffy and Williams' parents Althea and David, who serve as his personal and business managers, respectively.

One key piece in the puzzle was changing the way people referred to him. Instead of Jason, he would now be called Jay.

"We realized we had an issue with his name," Sanders said. "With the Nets' Jayson Williams and the Grizzlies' Jason Williams, our guy would show up for the first time on the 27th Web site in a search engine because there were so many stories about the other guys. So we decided since all his friends call him Jay anyway, that we'd just call him Jay, and the advertising market said they loved it."

The acceptance by Madison Avenue of the new name is no doubt helped by the fact that Jayson Williams was charged with murder in February.

"My friends are calling me 'The artist formerly known as Jason.' They're asking me about a sign or whatever," Williams said. "Listen, my name is Jason, but people call me Jay. That's all."

"Team 22" also commissioned a local sports marketing firm to design a logo for Williams, which could soon change from Duke blue to Bulls red and black.

Williams is arguably the most recognizable player in the 2002 draft class, given his extensive exposure with a high-profile program like Duke. His former college teammate, Shane Battier, was drafted sixth by the Memphis Grizzlies last year, but despite playing in a small market, he became the most marketable player from last year's draft class in part because of his familiarity from college. Battier signed national deals with Oakley and Casio, and local deals with Sprite and First Tennessee Bank.

Although Williams only stayed three years at Duke, he left with a degree in sociology. "Graduating was critical because it's the great differentiator in an era where kids are leaving after high school or leave college early," Sanders said.

The education he received by giving tons of media interviews during his career at Duke certainly helped with his fluid speech and on-camera awareness. On Tuesday, he donned a smile as he took part in a milk testimonial for "Got milk?" -- a campaign funded by America's Dairy Farmers and Milk Processors, sponsor of the NBA rookies program.

"Milk is the only thing that soothes my stomach, it relaxes me and calms me down," said a convincing Williams, who was paid for his words with hats and T-shirts. "So at least an hour before the game, every game, I have a glass of milk."

Williams also showed Madison Avenue moxie on draft night. At his first NBA news conference, minutes after his name was called, he took off his Bulls cap for photographers and TV cameras.

His competition in the endorsement world was weakened by the relative anonymity of six first-round draft picks who hail from foreign countries, save No. 1 overall pick Yao Ming who figures to land his share of deals from Chinese companies.

And then there's the seemingly ideal situation that awaits Williams in Chicago.

"There's a cannonball-sized hole in the Chicago market," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm. "As far as local endorsements go, no White Sox or Blackhawks or Bulls have any staying power. Kerry Wood hasn't done it and Mark Prior certainly hasn't yet. That leaves Brian Urlacher as the only good endorser in the market, so there's plenty of room for a guy like Jay."

Although it was expected that Williams would go to the Bulls, Sanders was pumping his fists at the certainty on Wednesday night. Sanders said he believes the big city will give Williams more leverage on a shoe deal, which will be determined over the next couple weeks. Nike, Reebok and Adidas are all in the race.

Playing his games in the Eastern Conference might help Williams, as well.

"The fact is that if you're playing out West, less people are going to see you," said Sanders, who envisions Williams pitching financial services, gadgets and cars. "You just don't get on as many SportsCenters."

Williams himself realizes how hungry Bulls fans are to welcome a winner again.

"For them to go through a couple down years like there have been, I've watched some of their games and they have great support," Williams said. "No matter what, (the fans) are always behind them."

And if Williams helps resurrect the Bulls, corporate America will make you forget he was once called Jason.
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