How does it feel to be inducted to the Martin Luther King Jr. International Board of Renaissance Leaders?
Bill Duffy: Wow, that has to be the highligh of your life. Being recognized by anything that has to do with MLK, whom I admire so I much and think was one of the four most humanitarian people ever, that’s simply amazing. Just having that recognition from that type of association is overwhelming.
Why do you think you have a better reputation than most NBA agents?
BD: Well, I think other agents would argue that because this is a very cutthroat and negative business. I respect all of the other agents that are successful because I understand the difficulties of this business. There’s such a negative nature to this thing. How distasteful is to see the how the recruiting goes sometimes… I think maybe other people try to help their reputations by criticizing others. My philosophy is to always try to talk about what we do and speak for ourselves because we can’t really speak for anybody else. I think that people that are significant and rational understand what we do. And what we do is look out for the interest of our players long-term. We try to make our clients see that you need a vision, that you should try to do things that position yourself for the future. When you are a pro athlete, you have the chance to meet a lot of people, to network with a lot of people… And those are things that we want them to see. I think that our responsibility is to educate our clients so that they are visionaries, so that they don’t live from check to check.
Since the business can be so nasty, have you ever considered quitting?
BD: No, because I almost feel that I would let a lot of people down. That’s the main reason. I wouldn’t want to walk away from my responsibilities. At the same time, I do get cynical sometimes and I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” … More often than not it’s because it can get really draining to deal with the people that surround some players. You try to instill this vision that you should do the right thing to change the fate of your family, to build a legacy that lasts, that it’s not all for the moment… But a lot of people, especially around the players, don’t see things like that. And I admit it sometimes can get very frustrating. There’s got to be a balance between enjoying the moment and positioning yourself for the future.
When was the last time that you thought that… “Why am I doing this?”
BD: (Laughs) Well, it was… It’s always those times when you see some people that just don’t get it. Sometimes you are disappointed because you think you have made an impression on somebody and you find out that it’s not really that way and they don’t show any kind of loyalty.
Do you think it matters to have a good reputation in this business? There are agents known to be pretty dirty that are also very successful.
BD: That’s because of the money aspect. With nasty agents, it’s all about the money. And I guess it’s OK as long as the players understand their agents don’t care about them and that they just care about the business and the money.
When trying to recruit players for your agency, what is fair game and what is crossing the line?
BD: If you start the relationship with the player doing something unethical or borderline unethical. But anyway, that’s going to define your relationship with him. You are blind if you think he’s not going to do to you what he did to other people. It’s like cheating. If one person cheated on somebody with you, how can you expect that he’s not going to cheat on you with others down the road?
When a player changes agents and hires you to represent him… How’s that work? Who makes the first contact?
BD: Agents usually become aware when a player is dissatisfied. And when that happens, you attack the client. But in our case, I’m not embarrassed to say players approach us very often. For example, Linas Kleiza of the Denver Nuggets. When he was going to cut ties with his agent, he approached us because we had recruited him in the past. He was the one to initiate the contact. In the past few years, it’s happened with other players like Mike James, Amir Johnson and Sasha Vujacic. It’s kind of flattering that players do that because it says a lot about the reputation you’ve built around the league.
BD: First of all, I have to say that we love Carmelo. We’ve always given him huge support in everything that he’s done in basketball and elsewhere. He’s been great to work with. And I fully respect what he’s doing. He wants independence and to structure his own vision on what he wants to do in business. Whatever he chooses, I fully support that. And I understand it.
Do you think there could be a trend that stars such as Carmelo Anthony will get agents like you to deal with the basketball side of business and hire other people to deal other things in the business that are not strictly basketball related?
BD: It should be that way! Players like Carmelo can build their own empire. It’s no different to other investors. With the kind of connections you can build in the position he is, you have the chance to develop multiple strategies. I applaud that if he wants to do it. Our role as basketball agents is to secure his career, that he gets his contracts… But you don’t need a basketball agent forever. At 35 your career is probably over, but your life is not. And you don’t need an agent for your life. So any alliances you can build with all types of different people when you are still playing, I think that’s going to pay off when you’re not playing.
How is a typical conversation with one of your players on the phone? When they call you, what do they want?
BD: We encourage our players to call even if it’s something minor, but it’s normally just checking in. Talking about what’s going good and bad. We have 20 people working in our office, so they are going to be taken care of and we’ll make sure the players and their families are doing well. Then there’s these times when there are rumors about trades or contract negotiations and some players get nervous. So your job then is to comfort them.
Are they nervous often? Would you say players are insecure people?
BD: They are justifiably insecure. People see them making millions and playing under the spotlight, but they live a life where there’s constant pressure. High pressure. Just by traveling with them, you get to see how draining it can get. All the flights, the tough schedules, having always to be ready and with your game face… It’s a challenge. Then you have all the media scrutiny and sometimes family issues that you cannot deal with because you’re away. It’s amazing how they manage to stay consistent through all that. I respect them a lot and I understand that they can often feel insecure.
Which of the guys you represent you’re the closest with? Steve Nash maybe?
BD: I wouldn’t say anyone. We’re there for everybody. You work for all of them and respect all of them. Some players are more engaging that others. You can speak about politics and other things with them… But you treat all of them the same.
That’s kind of a political answer you just gave me… You don’t have any player that you like more than others?
BD: (Laughs) You can have no preference, but I’m glad to say that I have a great relationship with some of our retired players. Terrell Brandon, for example. He’s a few years removed from playing in the NBA and still his mother called me the other day to take part in an event with Terrell and to tell me how grateful they both were. And that meant a lot to me. Another example of a great relationship is Anthony Carter. When he got married in Hawaii, I was one of just four people invited to the wedding. It makes me proud that he thinks I’ve had enough of an impact on his life that he wanted me to be at his wedding.
Tell me a little bit about what happened with Anthony Carter a few years back (BDA Sports did not pick up the $4.1 player option he had with the Miami Heat). Was that your worst experience as an agent?
BD: Yeah. It was something that shouldn’t have happened, but it did for a simple reason… The person who was in charge of doing that had a serious health issue, a life-threatening issue at the time when the contract option had to be picked up. That’s why the oversight occurred. After that happened, I basically took control of the situation and I can say Anthony Carter didn’t lose a dime. He got all the money. Now he’s starting for a contending team. A lot of people, competitors, recognized our move. Others, I know, have used the mistake to criticize us, but that’s all it was. It was a life-threatening situation that didn’t allow one of our guys to do his work. There was no negligence.
Anthony remains a client and is like a family member to me. I remember when he left college that he blew up his shoulder in the pre-draft camp and a lot of agents that were trying to get him backed away, because the common thinking is that when you get injured during the draft process you are not going to get drafted. But we kept recruiting him. And I think that showed to him that we have a sense of loyalty. I was loyal to him then and he was loyal to me when this thing occurred. I was tested and he was tested. And we stood for each other. That’s how life works. There’s going to be adversities in life and how you deal with them is what’s going to define you.
You were drafted by the Nuggets a lot of years ago. Did you ever think you had a shot at playing with them or any other team in the NBA?
BD: I was drafted in 1982 and that year the Nuggets selected another three guards. I went to summer camp hoping that I would be released soon and might get a chance with other team. But I lasted longer than expected and didn’t get that chance. I was prudent enough to see that playing pro basketball was not something that I should pursue, pursue, pursue… And anyway, I was more business oriented already at that point. I’m happy with my past and the decisions I made. Today there are 30 teams with 15 roster spots each. Had that been the situation back then, I would probably have had a career in the NBA. But no regrets. I have been more successful doing this than I would’ve ever been playing basketball.
You donated money to the Barack Obama campaign. Why was that?
BD: Obama represents a world of change and especially change in the way our country is perceived around the planet. Right now, our leadership is detached from the rest world. Having traveled around the world due to my business, I learned that diplomacy and communicaction are really the key. I think Obama can change the tone of how our country deals with the world. Just because he could be the representative of our country being a multiracial person, I think the perception they have about us will change. I also like that he has a more peaceful and humanitarian approach to foreign policy, whereas others have business-oriented agendas. Also, he is a person that has no chronies around him that he needs to appease.
And besides all that, him being president would mean a lot to me because, as African American, I care a lot about how we are portrayed – especially in the media. By having a person of color as president, a lot of perceptions will change, stereotypes could come to an end and racial divides (because you know the main one is black vs. whites) could be eased.
Are you pitching him to your players?
BD: Yes. You know Greg Oden spoke with him recently. We all understand the significance of that. I tell them that if you support him, it will be important. Greg will not say, “Go and vote for Obama.” But he will say, “Go and vote.” And he has let it be known that he supports Obama’s cause. At the end of the day, Greg’s vote is just one vote. But his voice, what he says, can be very powerful. We always want to make it clear on them, on our players, how influential they can be and that it’s a good thing that they are active and involved in these things.
Then you have Steve Nash, who is one of our most vocal players. He took a lot of heat when he spoke about the war in Iraq, especially being Canadian. And by the way, I think Canada is an admirable country. But I told him he should not apologize for speaking out about the war because even though he isn’t American he was paying more taxes here than any of the people that were critizicing him (laughs).
Maybe I’m putting you on the spot with this… You’re an advocate of democracy and human rights. At the same time, Yao Ming is one of your clients. And he’s basically the face of the Olympic Games for China. So what are yout thoughts on the boycott threats to the Beijing Games after seeing what China is doing in Tibet?
BD: First thing, athletes suffer boycotts more than anybody else. I know about the gravity of what’s going on, but boycotting wouldn’t be the solution. In these situations, you sit and discuss and talk about your beliefs and try to make an impression on the other side. China is a major global presence, but you can’t change one country’s culture from one day to the other. The focus has to be on engagement and communication and not pushing things on people. There should be a dialogue. The violation of human rights is a serious thing that has to be talked about. But we can’t be as aggressive as we’ve been with other countries. There are diplomatic and economic measures than can be taken, but above all there should always be dialogue and diplomacy.