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NBA championship trophy going on tour
Updated: 2004-04-15 09:18

Borrowing an idea from the NHL, and getting a big boost from a corporate sponsor, the NBA on Wednesday launched a postseason tour for its championship trophy.

Former NBA basketball great Julius Irving holds the Larry O'Brien trophy while speaking to the media after a promotional kickoff of the Trophy Tour in a hanger at Southwest Airlines headquarters in Dallas, Wednesday, April 14, 2004. Borrowing an idea from the NHL, the NBA launched its Trophy Tour that will take the league's championship hardware around the country during the playoffs. [AP]
The two-month, coast-to-coast journey is part of a new campaign aimed at making the hardware more recognizable to the casual fan. A blitz of television ads will start this weekend.

The trophy is 2 feet tall, 14 1/2-pounds, made out of gold and depicts an actual-sized ball falling into a net. It's named for longtime commissioner Larry O'Brien.

"Everyone talks about the gold ring, the bling-bling, but this trophy is the essence of gold," said Hall of Famer Julius Erving, who lost three NBA Finals (news - web sites) before finally winning it in 1983. "It's not something you can write a check and put it on a shelf. It has to be earned."

The trophy will visit most playoff cities, and other sites, until becoming a fixture at the finals. Former players will escort the trophy to many playoff games as part of a "Legends Tour" the league has used for several years.

For all the NBA's popularity, its highest prize lacks the name recognition and iconic status of hockey's Stanley Cup or even the NFL's Lombardi Trophy. The league is hoping its "Destination Finals" campaign changes that.

Officials began pitching the idea during All-Star weekend, using a trophy-decorated Hummer to emphasize their plans. When Southwest Airlines executives got in, vice president of marketing partnerships Jonathan Press said it would be nice to have a plane decorated the same way.

"When do you want it?" they told him.

Finals One joined the fleet Wednesday at a ceremony featuring Erving, 11-time champion Bill Russell, four-time winner Robert Parish and five more former stars. Moses Malone and Artis Gilmore christened it with confetti-filled champagne bottles.

The 737-700 is adorned on both sides with the league's logo and the words "The Finals" in script, a red star dotting the 'i.' The trophy also is pictured on the nose and winglets, new 8-foot extensions that rise from the tips of both wings like automobile tailfins. The airline plans to add similar winglets to nearly 200 more planes.

Decals of either the trophy or the NBA logo are on every overhead storage bin inside Finals One. For the maiden voyage which took the former players from Southwest's headquarters to San Antonio for the Spurs-Nuggets game Wednesday night each seat had a copy of two basketball magazines and a blanket from one of the 16 playoff teams.

While the magazines and blankets may eventually find their way off the plane, the paint job is more permanent.

Finals One will hit all of the airline's markets, just like Southwest's nine other specially painted planes. The biggest difference with this one: A pair of tickets will be handed out on some flights going into playoff cities on a game day.

Several hundred enthusiastic Southwest employees attended the ceremony. The former players played to the crowd, getting big cheers for every pro-Mavericks comment.

Two predictable themes emerged from their playoff forecasts they think the West is best and they're expecting an exciting couple of months.

"I think it's going to be the most interesting playoffs in a long time," Russell said. "There are so many teams that can win the championship."

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