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There's a lot more on the line for players in the NBA finals than just a ring and bragging rights.

Patrick Ewing is battling for marketers' respect and attention. Hakeem Olajuwon is sweating for bigger bucks and a better deal from his longtime shoe supplier, L.A. Gear. And John Starks is trying to stay healthy to shoot an Adidas America TV campaign, long delayed by injuries.

On the court, they went into last weekend's two games with their teams, the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, knotted at two wins apiece.

Every time a major sporting event hits the prime-time airwaves, there's talk of marketable stars being created in the limelight. Often it's overblown, but sports marketing experts and player agents say the hype is increasingly justified.

Now a $15 billion business, sports marketing last year surpassed railroads and steel to become the U.S.' 22nd-largest industry, and it's still growing.

The stakes are high for basketball's superstar centers, Mr. Ewing of the Knicks and Mr. Olajuwon of the Rockets. According to the Sports Marketing Letter, Mr. Ewing already takes in $5 million from local endorsements and Ewing Athletic, his footwear and apparel company that's hot overseas but almost unknown in the U.S.

Still, "there's a perception that Patrick hasn't done well," said Jeff Slack, director of marketing at Washington-based Falk Associates Management Enterprises, which handles Mr. Ewing. "He's had to overcome some hurdles-he's very private and doesn't promote himself like other athletes. But Dream Team in 1992 started to change things around-and now this."

Despite his superstar status, Mr. Olajuwon has also long been ignored by national marketers. The reasons: Houston's small market, his Nigerian accent, and a reputation for being difficult.

"But this season has been all about the coming of age of Hakeem Olajuwon, capped off by winning the league's MVP award this year," said Leonard Armato, who handles Shaquille O'Neal as well as Mr. Olajuwon.

An NBA championshiop could yield new footwear for Hakeem the Dream. Mr. Olajuwon's L.A. Gear pact expires this season, and the buzz is he will step into greener pastures at Converse, Nike or Reebok International if L.A. Gear doesn't give him a better deal.

The finals will also provide exposure for the Knicks' feisty guard John Starks. A good showing could mean an apparel deal with Hugo Boss Fashions or Turbo Sports, currently being negotiated by Integrated Sports.

Adidas will launch a fall TV campaign featuring Mr. Starks and created by Team One, El Segundo, Calif. The spots were to have been shot in November but were delayed because of a broken nose and other injuries Mr. Starks suffered this year.

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