EDITOR'S NOTE: As the NBA has gained in popularity, it has become a magnet for celebrities sitting courtside. Part four of Security in Sports explores the special problem these off-court stars pose for arena officials.

Undated (AP) _ By BETH HARRIS AP Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Jack Nicholson. Madonna. Woody Allen. Spike Lee. Jerry Seinfeld. Michael Jordan in the stands, not on the court. It's just another glittery night around the NBA.

If the games aren't exciting enough, look around. There's bound to be lots of Very Important People making the pro basketball scene in arenas from New York to Los Angeles.

You're not the only one checking out the stars, however. Security guards and cameras are watching you watch the celebs. And they're way ahead of anyone who might want an autograph or picture - or have something more sinister in mind.

With the NBA's popularity skyrocketing, technology has improved security techniques used to protect multimillion-dollar players, referees and fans themselves. If all else fails, there's always old-fashioned muscle.

Two decades ago, arena guards didn't worry about guns and knives being carried into games.

Times have changed dramatically. Professional sports is not immune from the violence and mayhem that goes on in everyday life. The stabbing of Monica Seles and the assault on Nancy Kerrigan made pro athletes and security chiefs everywhere take notice.

''We certainly live in a lot more violent time today than 20 years ago,'' said Claire L. Rothman, in her 20th year as general manager of the Forum in Inglewood. ''You were never afraid, when I first entered the arena business, that someone was going to walk in with a gun.''

Sometimes, the chaos is player-generated.

The NBA has its share of player fights that sometimes carry over to the fans. Last May, an on-court melee between the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks spilled into the stands, and fans tossed punches near startled NBA commissioner David Stern.

''We coach our staff every day before they go out to work. We talk about things like that,'' said John Fahy, vice president of event operations at New York's Madison Square Garden. ''We show that tape and they're aware that sometimes there can be an incident or something on the court that may spill into the stands.''

The NBA is as silent about its security as the Secret Service. A spokeswoman at league headquarters in New York declined comment on the topic, citing, of course, security concerns.

''We are, as a league, much more aware, much more strict, have many more guidelines and policies in effect than we did 10 years ago,'' said Carl Lahr, who oversees security as vice president of marketing for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Few sports allow fans to get as close to the players as the NBA. Football players are surrounded by a large field, while heavily padded hockey players skate behind a wall of glass and boarding. Baseball is played on the other side of walls and fences.

''There are no natural barriers on a basketball court,'' Fahy said.

Schools and airports use metal detectors to screen for weapons. Although they've been used at the Super Bowl, it's not a practical solution, Fahy said.

''You really can't operate that way in an arena, because you'd never get them in on time for the game,'' he said. ''People start coming in at 7:10 for a 7:30 game. It would take you two hours to get through the metal detectors.''

So how do NBA arenas watch out for the person who might be there to hurt someone or disrupt the game, given that it's impossible to check everyone?

''Our security is positioned where they just about get to eye everyone who comes in the building. You don't pat them down, but you look for certain characteristics that may indicate somebody may not just be coming to enjoy the game,'' Fahy said.

''They're nervous, they're going to be sweaty, you may see a bulge (from a weapon), the person will hesitate when they come in.''

Cameras are trained on the 21,500 basketball seats at Chicago's United Center, feeding pictures back to a central monitoring location.

Few VIPs wander freely among the common folk, usually out of fear of being too exposed in a crowd. Some, like Allen, remain in their seats the entire game or go to a restricted area at halftime. Even trips to the restroom can require security.

''They want to be able to have the appearance of no fear, they can go wherever they want,'' said Terry Savarice, senior vice president of operations at Chicago's new United Center. ''Yet with all the craziness that happens in the world, especially in the sports and entertainment world, we always try to be very careful and we've always got one eye on them somewhere.''

Most arenas seat VIPs on the court or a few rows up to make them easily accessible to security. That's why you'll never see Allen or Spike Lee in the far-flung reaches of the Garden.

Fans are not allowed in lower-level sections without a ticket, helping to deter autograph or picture seekers.

In 20 years at the Garden, Fahy has learned delicate public relations goes a long way in asking people to bug off.

''We never demand that someone get out of there and get back to their seat,'' he said.

Instead, he gives a little speech like this: ''In the best interest of people sitting around here and those watching the game, we appreciate if you return to your seat.''

''They usually walk away,'' Fahy said. ''The worst is kids. They'll go down different aisles, walk different ways and be a little more persistent.''

Depending on the VIP, some are glad to accommodate fans. Dyan Cannon happily poses for pictures and signs pictures from her baseline seat near the Lakers' bench.

''Other celebrities don't even like to start,'' Rothman recalled. ''Cary Grant (Cannon's ex-husband) would never sign an autograph, because once he signed one, it could be a thousand.''

Some celebrities fade into the background, either by dressing down or because they're not widely recognized. Actor Denzel Washington won an Oscar, but few notice him at a Lakers game.

''I've had times when Bette Midler is here, she walks through the middle of a crowd,'' Rothman said. ''Nobody knows who she is, because she looks like Mrs. Any Woman when she's not in her makeup.''

Billy Crystal sits near midcourt at Los Angeles Clippers games, often with a baseball cap pulled low on his head.

''I guess it's his persona, but he fades right into the woodwork,'' Lahr said. ''Most times you have to point him out to people.''

Even Madonna has fooled the crowds at the Garden.

''She comes sometimes incognito,'' Fahy said.

At other times, there's no one better than the Material Girl for creating a stir. Last April, Madonna sat courtside at the Los Angeles Sports Arena watching buddy Dennis Rodman of the San Antonio Spurs play the Clippers.

At the final buzzer, a rope went up around the court as guards hustled Madonna and two gal pals across the floor, past screaming fans and into a restricted hallway. She proceeded into the Spurs locker room to chat with Rodman, while extra guards kept away outsiders.

Everybody knows when Jordan is in the building. He has attended a hockey game at the United Center, and showed up at Bulls games after retiring to play baseball.

''People in Chicago respect Michael if he's not going to sign autographs or doesn't want to be bothered,'' Savarice said. ''If someone's going to be a jerk and keep hounding him for something, before Michael has a chance to say anything, he's going to have about 10 people sitting around him who are going to defend him.''

It's not unusual for VIPs to bring an extra bodyguard or two. A beefy escort usually accompanies Madonna, and Arsenio Hall's driver often doubles as his protection.

''By no stretch of the imagination are we responsible for babysitting people that are coming to watch a game,'' Savarice said. ''They're a little bit at their own risk, I guess.''

That risk keeps few celebrities away. Being seen at the Forum was practically mandatory during the 1980s, when Magic Johnson and Pat Riley were conducting ''Showtime'' as the Lakers won five NBA championships.

These days, Nicholson and Cannon remain devoted season ticket holders despite fewer victories. Nicholson's dark glasses are more cool than discreet, and he moves freely around the Forum.

''We assign somebody to him when it's halftime,'' Rothman said.

Johnson gave up his courtside seat this season, preferring to sit a few rows up now that he owns a minority interest in the Lakers. Fans aren't shy about badgering Johnson, so a guard is stationed in a chair behind him.

''Living here, you tend to see a great many celebrities,'' Rothman said. ''On the other hand, people feel that basketball and hockey players, they're very close to them, they feel that they're part of them.''

Nobody gets too close to Nicholson, however. His courtside seat is sandwiched between the visitors' bench and the scorers' table. The surrounding seats are corporate-owned, ensuring sophisticated seatmates.

''They're usually not someone who came in from Ames, Iowa, that bought two seats over the window,'' Rothman said.

Security in the league's smaller markets is handled much like it is in the big cities, although the numbers may be lower because there are fewer VIPs in attendance.

None of the arena managers interviewed could cite a life-threatening incident involving players or fans that has occurred on their watch.

''In most cases, it would have been a fan who was intoxicated and just got a little out of control,'' Lahr said.

''Security people love working an NBA game. It's calm, it's quiet. Maybe because there's constant action that the fans do not explore other alternate forms of behavior. That's why some of the other sports maybe have more problems,'' he said.

But all agreed that more dangerous times have required changes.

''I think the security's changed throughout professional sports, not just to accommodate the celebrity status, but just because of what happens,'' Chicago's Savarice said.

''There's so much more focus on athletes as stars, there's a lot more money in the game. All that has led to a whole new way of how security is run for athletes in any public assembly building.''