I was asked to write an article on the process of becoming and agent and what makes a good one. Over the last few years whenever HoopsHype has asked me to write a piece, I have normally been able to sit down and put something together quickly. This time, thinking about an appropriate answer to the question has taken me a solid three months.
A few days ago, I read an incredible article by Toronto Star writer Doug Smith, whom I know pretty much since I started working as an agent. Reading the article, it kind of clicked for me how I could possibly approach the question I was being asked in an intelligent way and frame it.
I grew up playing the game of basketball and had always been part of teams. Basketball became for me the vehicle that connected me to the world. It became the common ground for me to form relationships and have a purpose. Looking back, I can see I could always talk the game better than I could play it, but it was something that by and large created my identity and it became a tool I used to go to college and see the world.
Like a lot of Canadians of my generation, both of my parents came from other countries. My father is from Jamaica and my mother from England and neither of them went to college. I was the first person in our family to go to college. When I got there, I swiftly realized that if I was going to move forward in basketball it was not going to be in a playing capacity.
In my mind, my avenue was going to be coaching, so each summer I would go and work at the Five Star basketball camp, where I knew many really high-level coaches got their start and built their networks. For four years, I spent a large portion of my summers reffing camp games and working stations and just being immersed in a true basketball environment always with the belief that this would lead me to a career in coaching after college.
I had one small problem, though, in that I am Canadian and to pursue coaching at the beginning levels I was most likely going to have to do so working in the U.S., a country to which I didn’t have a visa, as entry-level jobs coaching-wise in Canada were non-existent. My main option at the time would have been working for the Toronto Raptors, so in a weird way my job dynamic was the top of the pyramid or nothing.
As I look back now, the thing I have learned is my career path and the career path of a lot of people like me working in sports have been defined by what at the time felt like total random acts of chance… but once these acts happen on a monthly basis you begin to realize that they are in fact anything but random and more an indication of putting yourself in a certain environment and being exposed to opportunities.
Back to this one major event that set me down for an agent career…
Kevin O’Neill gets the job as head coach of the Toronto Raptors and a few weeks later I am at Five Star working what will be my last summer. Camp director Howard Garfinkel calls me over one day and says, “A very good friend of mine and someone who worked for me just got hired as the head coach in Toronto, where you are from…” I immediately get excited and say, “Wow, that’s great and can you talk to him for me?” Garf looks at me in his Garf way and says, ‘Of course I can, why the fuck do you think I called you over here… To brag?”
Garf has a very unique way of speaking to people.
Garf does this and I am instructed to call Kevin about one month later and touch base. For me, this one phone call represents what I think is my life’s path and my one opportunity to pursue it. The next 31 days are consumed with my thinking of how to handle this call and going over scenarios in my mind. Keep in mind, this is the summer after I have graduated from college and everyone I went to school with have started new careers and is seemingly set down their paths.
I am so eager to do the exact same thing.
Finally, the day comes when I am supposed to make the call to Kevin and I dial the number and I am so nervous I feel like I could throw up, someone on the other end answers the phone and tells me that Kevin isn’t available and asked me to leave a message. I leave my name and number and the next question they asked me in a lot of ways set up the following 14 years of my life in a professional sense. The person asked me, “Can I tell Coach what this call is about?” I kind of froze and said, “I was told to call Kevin regarding a job.”
At the time, with my level of experience being minimal and being that I was Eminem in 8 Mile nervous talking to himself in the mirror, I was asked a question and I answered. I thought nothing of it. About an hour later, Kevin called me back and was already mid sentence when I answered the phone and before I can figure out what is going on I get the sense that he is pissed off.
I picked this up because he’s cussing me out. “What the fuck are you thinking? You were told one simple thing to do and you can’t even do that? Do you think I would hire a person who can’t even follow directions?”
I am stunned as I was given no directions, I am stammering for what to even say and it’s a mix of apologizing and trying to explain myself and Kevin cuts me off with, “Well, I wouldn’t hire anyone who can’t listen, so thanks for calling but the position has been filled.”
And he hangs up.
I sat there and looked at the phone for a solid hour wondering what in the hell just happened. After a long period of time, I still couldn’t tell you what happened, but I did feel at the time that everything I had worked for in basketball had effectively disappeared. I had put four years into working for this and the one path I had to pursue my dreams disappeared in a phone call where I said four words and got hung up on. At the time, it was a very deflating event for me.
I literally had no idea what my next step was going to be. I knew that I wanted to stay involved in the game, but at the same time I felt that maybe the universe was giving me a sign I should listen to, that I needed to figure out how I was going to support myself. Right around this same time, I had been introduced to an agent through one of his clients and we had struck up a decent relationship. He offered me the opportunity to come and work with him as an intern.
I took some time to think about it and came to the decision that this was going to be my way to stay involved in the game in a different way and give me some kind of direction. Logistically, the opportunity fit my life and I decided to give it a shot and some 13-14 years later… Here I am. I am an agent and the more I think about it, that has been a defining aspect of my career, being open to opportunities that may come my way and being informed enough to take advantage of them.
I used to often think back on how my life would be different if that call had gone differently, what if I had gotten that opportunity… What path would that have set me down. I stopped thinking about that on a daily basis many years ago when I got to a point as an agent where I knew I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
When I think about my career path as an agent, I realize that I came into this business as a person who saw myself as a basketball person. I felt like I knew the game and had always been around the game and it was familiar. As my time as an agent has gone on, I have come to see that my job really has two sides to it.
One is the basketball side, it is the aspect of being able to relate to my clients and the different situations they face as players. It is being able to have functional conversations about the game and their situations. The other is becoming as well-versed as possible on the business aspects. In relation to the NBA, knowing the CBA through and through and being able to understand how I could use that knowledge to my client’s advantage. In relation to everything non-NBA, it meant understanding markets, understanding basically what people should and could be paid, etcetera.
About two weeks ago, a person that I hold in the highest regard due to his intelligence and success told me that I wasn’t really a basketball guy, that I was more of a numbers and CBA guy who knew the cap and knew the business of basketball better than the game of basketball itself.
I listened for a second and almost had to laugh to myself because my introduction to all of this was strictly basketball. I became a person who started working in basketball because the game was all I had known in life, but over time as my career has evolved I have evolved as well.
When I started working in this business, I felt what made a good agent was being able to talk about the game and express informed opinions about it and my clients to the people I was trying to market them to. As time has gone on, I have seen that when an agent starts spouting off opinions or trying to display his inner Jerry West, it isn’t always as warmly received as the 23-year-old me would have thought. I have learned the more I can make my conversations about substance the more successful I will be – the substance being the intricacies of the NBA’s CBA.
As an agent, I live and die by the numbers to a large extent. As basketball on the whole has moved towards a more analytic approach, the approach in terms of the business has become just as refined. There is no excuse for being unprepared or suggesting something that just isn’t possible. I have learned over the years that how an agent builds his reputation is largely reliant on how GMs asses his ability to be informed and what you as a person are like to work with. How do you communicate? Do you do what you say? Do you understand the social graces of the league on the whole? (This is a very emotional business).
I learned all those things over time. Nothing in sports beats experience, which brings me back to Doug Smith’s article.
On the other side of the agent coin is the management of the clients themselves and the different situations they encounter and how to best guide them through their careers so they can have the highest level of enjoyment and success. Experience gives an agent the advantage of knowing how to navigate situations both positive and negative and ultimately gives you an indication of the outcomes of certain situations.
My No. 1 goal has become to figure out a way to enhance the lives of my clients. Happy people are productive people, productive people are responsible people. How I go about doing this changes on a case-by-case basis.
I am often asked about how to become an agent and I never quite know how to answer the question, but having just written this I am now going to tell people to call Kevin O’Neill’s secretary and leave a message telling him that you were told to call for a job and when he returns the call, just go from there…
Bernie Lee is an NBA agent. His website is www.leebasket.com.