I was asked to write an article on the process of becoming an 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, coming up with 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’ve known pretty much since I started working as an agent. Reading the article, it kind of clicked for me how I could approach this article in an intelligent way.
I grew up playing the game of basketball and had always been part of teams. Basketball became 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 about 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 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: I am Canadian and entry-level coaching jobs are non-existent here, so I was most likely going to have to work in the United States – a country to which I didn’t have a visa. My best 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 working in sports – has 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 anything but random and more an indication of putting yourself in a certain environment and being exposed to opportunities.
You have to take advantage of these opportunities when they present themselves, as I did at a major event to set myself up for a career as an agent…
In 2003, Kevin O’Neill was hired 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 did this and I was instructed to call Kevin about one month later and touch base. For me, this one phone call represented my one opportunity to pursue my dream job, my life’s path. The next 31 days, I kept thinking of how to handle the call and going over scenarios in my mind. Keep in mind, this is the summer after I have graduated from college and the people I went to school with have started their new career. I was so eager to do the exact same thing.
Finally, the day came when I was supposed to make the call to Kevin. I dialed the number and I was so nervous that I felt like I could throw up. Someone on the other end answered the phone and told me that Kevin isn’t available and asked me to leave a message. I left my name and number. Then they asked me a question that 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 minimal experience 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. Before I could figure out what was going on, I got the sense that he was pissed off.
I picked this up because he was cussing me out.
“What the fuck are you thinking?” he asked. “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 was stunned as I was given no directions. I stammered, saying a mixture of an apology and an explanation. Kevin cut me off with, “Well, I wouldn’t hire anyone who can’t listen, so thanks for calling but the position has been filled.”
The call was over.
I sat there and looked at the phone for a solid hour wondering what the hell just happened. Years later, I still don’t know what happened. At the time, I felt like 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. This 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. Now, some 13-14 years later, here I am. I am an agent and the more I think about it, being open to opportunities that came my way and being informed enough to take advantage of them have been defining aspects of my career.
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? How different would my life be today? 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 basketball person. I felt like I knew the game and I had always been around the sport. 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. This is 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 of the sport. In regards to the NBA, it’s so important to know the Collective Bargaining Agreement through and through and understand how I could use that knowledge to my client’s advantage. In regards to everything non-NBA, it meant understanding overseas markets and basically what players should and could be paid.
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 and 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 toward 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 general managers assess 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 knew 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.