Several years ago, an NBA lottery pick decided to take a trip with some friends and asked his agent to rent a private jet. The agent made the necessary arrangements and booked a flight for the group. On the day of the trip, the jet was on the tarmac and ready for departure. That’s when the agent got a call from the pilot saying that the player didn’t show up for the flight. The agent apologized profusely and paid a cancellation fee. Shortly after, the player called the agent and explained that he was running behind, but he still wanted to fly out that day.
The agent, who had recently signed the client and wanted to keep him happy, talked to the pilot and managed to re-book the flight. Several hours later, the same jet was on the tarmac waiting to take off. Once again, the player didn’t show up. The agent had to pay another cancellation fee, and everyone involved was understandably upset. By now, the agent had paid $20,000 simply due to his client being irresponsible. The player asked for one last chance, promising that he would make it to the tarmac that evening. Somehow, the agent managed to get the pilot back on the tarmac a third time. The player was late, but he finally showed up and departed.
The agent thought the drama was behind him until he got a call later that night from the hotel where the player and his friends were staying. They drank all of the alcohol in the mini-bar and left the agent with the bill.
“It was crazy,” the agent told HoopsHype. “I felt like I was representing the basketball version of Courtney Love.”
This is an extreme example, but this is the life of an NBA agent. There are many frustrating and utterly ridiculous aspects of an agent’s job that most fans don’t know about. Ask most people what an NBA agent does and they’ll likely mention negotiating contracts, arranging endorsement deals and helping players throughout the draft process. Sure, agents do those things, but there’s much more to the job.
In order to get a behind-the-scenes look at the industry, HoopsHype talked to many NBA agents and agency staffers about their job and everything it entails. All of these individuals spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid any potential repercussions.
Many agents pay players
One of the worst kept secrets in the basketball world is that many agents pay players (or someone close to them). Every agent that HoopsHype interviewed acknowledged that this occurs.
“I’d say the vast majority of players who are in the draft conversation are taking money from agents, sometimes while they’re still in school,” one agent said. “I’d say somewhere between 75 percent and 90 percent of players get paid. Sometimes, it’s the player taking money. Sometimes, it’s a family member and, in those cases, it may be unbeknownst to the player. Certain agents have a reputation for paying players or their relatives while they’re still in school.”
“Of the 30 picks in the first round, I’ve always assumed that about 28 of them are taking money,” another agent added. “I always made that assumption and if I found that wasn’t true in a particular year, that was a pleasant surprise.”
When agents are pursuing players, one of the first things they try to do is identify who has the ability to influence the prospect’s decisions. Some agents try to develop a close bond with this individual and win them over without breaking any rules. Other agents will pay the person to steer the player their way.
“When you’re trying to land a client, you’re trying to gauge who is controlling the process for the player,” one agent said. “It’s very rare that the player is making the decisions themselves and controlling the process. Usually, it’s a relative or a coach or a family friend. You’re trying to figure out who you need to deal with and who the player will actually listen to. Sometimes, there will be a bunch of people claiming they have the player’s ear, so it’s my job to find who’s actually influencing the player.”
“There’s always a go-to person,” another agent said. “That can be good or bad; it just depends on who that person is. Sometimes that person will have the player’s best interests in mind and help them navigate the process. Other times, the person is soliciting offers and looking for a payday. For example, there’s one player in this year’s draft who’s projected to go in the lottery and his go-to guy has taken money from a half dozen agents. And he has taken a lot of money from each agent. The player doesn’t know; his guy is doing it all behind his back.”
Several years ago, a shooting guard who went in the first round took money from every agent that offered it, and then ultimately decided to be represented by a family friend whom he’d known for years. In other words, he never truly considered the other agents, he was just playing them for the cash. Each agent thought they were the only one making payments to this player and felt confident they would sign him. When he hired the family friend, all of the agents were furious, but there wasn’t much they could do.
Sometimes a player won’t directly take money, but they’ll ask an agency to hire one of their friends or family members. This way they can take care of someone close to them and the money doesn’t have to come out of the player’s paychecks. In these arrangements, the friend or relative will typically live with the player when they move to their new city after being drafted.
One agent pointed out that while many players accept money from agents, it’s not like the player is getting rich from this exchange. In most cases, the prospect isn’t receiving a life-changing amount of money from the agent – it’s just enough cash for the agent to edge out other interested representatives.
“Players taking money is prevalent, but I think the amount of money that gets paid out is exaggerated,” the agent said. “You’ll hear people saying, ‘Oh, that player got a bag of money to sign!’ They’ll make it sound like the guy got $1,000,000 or $2,000,000, but that’s ridiculous. It’s more likely that they only got a couple thousand dollars to sign. There are definitely agents who pay players, but I think the amounts are overblown. I don’t think guys are paying out to the extent that some people think.”
It’s worth noting that some agents will stay away from a player who’s accepting money left and right.
“If a player is taking money from multiple agents and making it clear they’re going to sign with the agent who can give them the biggest offer, that’s not really a guy I want to represent,” one agent said. “I like high-character guys, and that’s probably why I deal with less drama and issues than some other agents. Also, if a player hired you just because you offered the biggest check, they’re more likely to fire you at some point than the player who hired you because he believed in your long-term plan.”
The crazy stories
While it’s tough to top the story about having to re-book the same private jet three times, NBA agents have plenty of insane anecdotes. They are forced to wear many hats and perform a lot of duties that aren’t necessarily in their job description.
“I had a client who was at a strip club and a stripper got his phone and proceeded to post some pictures on social media and then locked him out of all his accounts,” one agent said. “I was literally on the phone with people from the various social-media platforms. Thank God they’re based on the West Coast so it was only 10 p.m. there, because it was 1 a.m. where we were on the East Coast. I had them deactivate the accounts and then go through the back-end to change the passwords.”
One agent had a client who wanted to try modeling. The player isn’t a household name, but the agent still managed to set up a photo-shoot and hire one of the top photographers in the country because he was a fan of the player’s team. The photographer also invited some celebrities to take part in the shoot alongside the player. It seemed as though everything had come together perfectly and the player was poised to make his modeling debut. On the day of the shoot, a driver in a Mercedes arrived to pick up the player. However, there was a problem: The player didn’t want to leave his house on this particular day because he was worried that he’d be served child-support papers. After an hour and a half, the player eventually emerged from his house and went to the photo-shoot. The photographer and celebrities were extremely irritated that they had to wait so long for this player to show up. Needless to say, the player’s modeling career didn’t take off.
“I had a player who was on a non-guaranteed deal and he had to be on his absolute best behavior in order to make the team,” another agent said. “The player and I met with the team’s general manager and front-office staff and they made it clear that they’d let him go if he slipped up at all. Well, after our meeting, the team had to board a flight. My client and I walked to the player parking lot so he could get his luggage out of the car that I rented for him. Well, he locked his keys in the car. Everybody was on the plane and they’re waiting for him. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ We couldn’t get into the car. Eventually, the team’s star came out and saw what was going on. He got a crowbar from the parking lot attendant and smashed the window. Then, he tried to reach through the broken window to grab the luggage. I told him, ‘Get your arm out of there! Don’t get hurt doing this! Let me grab it!’ My client got his stuff, ran to the plane and nobody knew what happened except the star player. My client made the team and he’s still in the NBA today.”
“One part of my job that may surprise people is that I always had to make sure that child support got paid,” a former agent said. “If the player didn’t pay child support, the court could issue an order and potentially jeopardize their passport. If that happened, they couldn’t travel to Toronto for a road game or sign with a team overseas.”
“One of my players signed a deal with a team in Turkey, flew to Istanbul and then called me freaking out when he got there because he didn’t have any money,” one agent said. “He literally didn’t even have the $11 he needed to enter the country. Day to day, I have no idea what kind of issue will present itself.”
Other agents told stories of bailing players out of jail, stopping players from making extravagant purchases and preventing fights between teammates.
Why do NBA players put themselves in these crazy situations? One agent believes it’s because a lot of players were stunted developmentally since their star status meant they were never held accountable or forced to deal with consequences for their actions.
“A phenom in basketball is different from a standout in other team sports because there’s no helmet on the kid and by the time he reaches junior year in high school and becomes an All-American, everybody knows who he is,” the agent said. “Everybody in that town knows him. Agents, college coaches, media and many other people in the basketball world know him. You and I went to college, matured, faced rejection at some point, and experienced failures and successes. You learn and you grow; it’s a healthy development. But these players – the five-star recruits who are known nationally – have a very unique development. From the time they’re 14 or 15 years old, they’re probably the most famous person in their community.
“How do you develop normally when every coach plays you, every girl says yes when you ask them out, every person wants to be your friend, every decision is up to you, and every person tells you how wonderful you are while minimizing your weaknesses? And if something does go wrong, someone else is usually blamed – whether it’s the coach or the teammates or the agent or whomever. They’re deprived of any opportunity to fail, they aren’t held accountable and they don’t learn important life lessons.”
A lot of agents try to “poach” clients
When an agent steals a client from another agency, this is called poaching. It’s one of the biggest issues in the industry and it’s why agents are so protective of their clients. A player can fire their agent at any time. Sometimes, an agent will spend years working with a player and then the client will go to a different firm just as they’re about to hit free agency and sign a lucrative contract – meaning the new agent will get the deal’s commission and the original agent won’t receive a penny.
Some agents are so worried about poaching that they try to prevent their clients from attending certain events or refuse to let them train in certain places because they fear rival agents will be there and try to pounce.
“Keeping my players happy and fending off poachers is a huge part of my job; you have no idea how much time and effort goes into that,” one agent said. “I try to sign really good, loyal guys so that I don’t have to worry about that as much, but it’s definitely an issue for every agent. There’s an agency right now that just got a large investment and they’re just throwing a ton of money at players and seeing who they can steal. Poaching is a big problem and it happens all the time. I saw a runner try to poach one of my players at a game about a month ago. This runner is sort of known for being a scumbag, for lack of a better term, and he was talking to my guy. In those scenarios, you just have to hope your player is loyal and smart enough to realize this guy isn’t their best long-term option.”
One agent said the National Basketball Players Association has talked about potential measures they could put in place in an effort to stop poaching.
“When a player goes into a contract year, that’s usually when other agents start approaching them and saying, ‘I can get you more money,’ or, ‘I have a great relationship with your team’s front office,’ and stuff like that,” the agent said. “At one point, the players’ union said that they were going to look into a rule where if a player decides to fire their agent in a contract year, they would have to pay both agents – the new guy and the old guy. They discussed that. They also talked about possibly putting together a committee that would sit down with the player and ask, ‘Why are you firing your agent?’ If they don’t have a valid reason, they’d still let you fire the agent, but you’d have to pay your new agent and your old agent. If that system were in place, I guarantee that would stop a lot of the poaching. I’d love to see the players’ union address it. It sucks when you represent a guy for years and then he leaves right when he’s in a contract year because some agent is telling him what he wants to hear or promising unrealistic things.”
One veteran agent said that a representative usually makes little to no money from a prospect’s rookie contract. It’s the second contract that can be lucrative for the agent, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll still be representing the player when it comes time to ink that second deal.
“One thing that people don’t realize is that the draft is a financial drain for an agent,” he said. “A lot of people think if you have a first-round player, you’re going to make a lot of money. But what they don’t understand is that agents sometimes take zero-percent or one-percent commission on a first-rounder’s rookie deal. Factor in that the agent has to invest in that player’s pre-draft training, which can cost $40,000 if you send your player to a top training site like the IMG Academy. Now you’re $40,000 in the hole. Agents swallow a lot of expenses that aren’t reimbursable, so by the time that first contract comes around, you’ve really just signed the kid for posterity. Really, you signed the kid so you can say to the next recruiting class, ‘Look at the first-rounder I had last year.’ And then you’re hoping the player does well and you can make money off of his second contract. You’re betting on the second contract. And that is absolutely why agents worry about poaching. They may lose a player before they’ve really made any money representing them.”
There’s bad blood between agents
For the most part, agents don’t get along with each other. Poaching is certainly part of the problem. If someone stole millions of dollars in business away from you, you’d probably be pissed off and hold a grudge too.
However, there’s also tension between agents because they are constantly in competition for players and fighting for the same dollars.
“The animosity between agents is definitely real, unfortunately,” one agent said. “It’s kind of sad, to be honest. I wish it weren’t the case. I think there are enough players to go around for all of us agents and I think we all want to do what’s best for our players. But agents are really competitive. Because of that, you’ll have rival agents talk badly about you or lie about you. That’s not my style, but it’s rampant. Most agents don’t like each other because of that.”
Some agents will dedicate a portion of their pitch meeting with a player to criticize rival agencies and point out their failures.
“Some agents will trash other agencies when they’re meeting with players, but I stay away from that,” one agent said. “If you trash another agent, I feel like it says more about who you are than it says about the agent you’re trashing. I just focus on what we can offer the player, but there are definitely agents who will criticize the competition. Some will even try to scare the player by saying, ‘This agent can’t get you what you want, and going with him could ruin your career.’ Fear is a powerful thing, and some players will respond to that kind of pitch. I’ve never liked that approach though.”
“There’s bad blood because some agents will just flat-out lie to players and mislead them,” another agent added. “They’ll make promises they know are unrealistic in terms of how much money they can get them in free agency, or they’ll lie about the pull or influence they have around the league. The agents know good and well that they can’t do the things they’re promising, but they’ll say it anyway just to land the player. That’s what creates bad blood.”
Some agents choose to have zero interaction with their peers.
“I never talk to other agents,” one agent said. “It’s not like I cuss people out or make enemies or anything, but I don’t interact with them. I don’t want to be your buddy. You’re the opponent. You’re the competition. I don’t interact with any agents at all. Period. Never. I’m really competitive and I’m not going to interact with the guys I’m trying to beat.”
Other agents take the opposite approach, befriending their peers.
“I’ve always felt like you can be competitive, while also being cordial and friendly,” one agent said. “There are guys at other agencies who I legitimately consider friends, even though they’re my direct competition. When they sign a client or when their guys are playing well, I’ll call or text to congratulate them. My best friend is actually at a rival agency, and I root for him whenever I’m not going up against him. Just speaking from personal experience, I don’t have a beef with anyone.”
Oftentimes, staffers from rival agencies get along. Just because two agents dislike each other doesn’t mean that the animosity trickles down to their staff.
“I’ve found that the support staff – the marketing people, PR people and other employees – from different agencies are actually pretty friendly with each other,” one staffer said. “I get why there’s bad blood between agents though. It’s a competitive marketplace and there are some agencies whose entire model is just to steal clients. For as many good agents as there are, there are probably twice as many bad agents. Some of these guys have huge egos and put themselves before their players.”
Summer is busiest, but agents work hard all year
Agents spend a lot of time in airplanes and hotels.
“I’m always either checking in on my current players or recruiting new ones,” one agent said. “I’m constantly on the road.”
One agent who tracks his traveling told HoopsHype that he was on the road for 208 days in 2016, which is 57 percent of the year. Another agent estimated that he travels approximately 200 days each year. Every agent interviewed said that they traveled at least 150 days per year. An agency’s support staffers go on fewer business trips, but they’re still on the road for about a third of the year.
Not that this is a surprise, but the agents said the offseason is when they’re swamped with work.
“Summer is crazy,” one agency staffer said. “There’s so much going on because you’re supporting your current clients who are in the playoffs while also trying to sign draft prospects, and then you have to get them ready for the NBA combine and team workouts. After the draft, free agency and summer league overlap. Then, there are the ESPY’s in mid-July. It doesn’t really slow down until the last couple weeks of August.”
“Summer is the busiest time of the year because you have the draft and free agency, but also because your players are idle,” one agent added. “During the season, there’s a routine and players are busy. During the summer, players have a lot of free time on their hands and a lot can go wrong. You really have to keep tabs on your players during the offseason.”
While summer may be their most hectic time of year, a few agents were quick to point out that their schedule is pretty packed year-round.
“There shouldn’t be downtime if you’re doing this job well,” one agent said. “It consumes your life, and even intrudes on things like your family time, unfortunately. You’re constantly working. And if you aren’t with a big agency like CAA, you have to work even harder to get clients. I try to go to as many college games as possible and get in front of as many players as possible and just outwork everybody else. That’s my approach. I want to be around all the time, so the players know me well when it’s time to hire an agent.”
Even when an agent isn’t at an event or negotiating a deal, they’re doing something for their clients.
“One day I’ll be vetting financial advisers, the next day I’m getting a player a passport, the next day I’m helping a player buy a car, the next day I’m shopping for an engagement ring with a player, the next day I’m trying to help a player lower his cell phone bill, the next day I’m organizing a player’s basketball camp and so on,” one agent said. “You’re trying to help them and make their life easier.”
“If you’re a person who needs structure and needs to know exactly what time your work day ends and what you’ll be doing every hour of the day, this is the wrong career for you,” another agent added. “You have to be flexible.”
misconceptions about the industry
Many of the agents who agreed to be interviewed for this story wanted to clarify some things about life as an agent.
“There are a lot of misconceptions,” one agent said. “Some people think every agent is soulless and greedy, but that’s not the case.”
“Not all of us break the rules,” another agent added. “A lot of people think all agents are ruthless and that we’re willing to do anything to get a client, even if it means breaking the rules, but that’s false. When one agent skirts the rules, we all get painted with the same brush and that’s unfortunate.”
One agent pointed out that most people think agents can’t talk to players when they’re still in college, but there’s no NCAA rule prohibiting them from interacting. A lot of coaches tell their players to avoid agents, which is likely where that misconception stems from. If an agent and college player do interact, the agent isn’t allowed to provide services to the player, secure a future commitment from the prospect or give the player anything of value. But just having a conversation is perfectly fine.
Also, many people assume that an agent must have a law degree, but that’s not true. Sure, some agents are lawyers, but it’s not a requirement.
“In college, I remember thinking that you had to be a lawyer to be an agent and that it was so hard to become one,” one agency staffer said. “But I’ve learned that you definitely don’t have to be a lawyer. Look at Worldwide Wes; he went to college for one year. He doesn’t have a college degree – much less a law degree – but he’s successful because he’s street smart, savvy and he knows how to talk to players. Relationships are paramount.”
Several agents stated that a lot of the common misconceptions can be traced to how the industry is portrayed in movies and television shows.
“Those movies and shows would have you believe that all we do is go to games and then party with our clients, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” one agent said with a laugh. “The show Ballers, for example, can sometimes give me a headache.”
“People romanticize the job and think it’s all excitement,” one agency staffer said. “And don’t get me wrong, it is exciting at times. But it can also be very tedious and exhausting. There are times when you’re in four cities in five days and you’re going on barely any sleep.”
“Many people assume that being an agent is this glamorous, sexy job,” another agent said. “What they don’t see is all of the stress and shit that we deal with behind the scenes.”
Like, say, booking the same private jet three times in one day.
Dealing with players’ family members can be HARD
Virtually every agent we spoke to said that managing their clients’ family members is one of the most frustrating parts of their job.
“Sometimes, the parents are more difficult to deal with than the kids,” one agent said. “And sometimes the parents are still involved when the player isn’t even a kid anymore. I’ve seen 25-year-olds and 26-year-olds whose parents are still really involved and I’m thinking, ‘It’s time for this kid to grow up!’ And then there are some parents who constantly cause problems for their kid rather than help them, which is so frustrating.”
“This year, I pursued a player who I really like and I was warned about his dad by the college coaches and by another person outside of the program,” another agent said. “And, by the way, I’m not talking about Lonzo Ball and LaVar Ball. Anyway, I really liked the kid as a player and I figured I could manage the dad. Well, I was flat-out wrong. The dad had all of these insane thoughts about his son. I like the kid, but he is a borderline NBA player at best. The fact that his dad is nuts and causes problems could legitimately keep this kid out of the NBA. The college coaches had so many problems with the dad that NBA teams who are calling to ask about the kid are getting bad feedback about the dad. Someone like Lonzo Ball is going to be fine because he’s so talented. Teams will put up with LaVar because Lonzo could be a star. But, if you’re a fringe NBA player like this kid and his dad is causing a bunch of problems? That’s not good. That can be the difference between playing in the NBA and playing overseas.”
Many family members want to help manage their son’s career, but this can be frustrating for an agent. Usually, the relatives aren’t familiar with the Collective Bargaining Agreement or how the business works, so their suggestions aren’t realistic or even possible.
“The hardest part of my job is dealing with the families,” one agency staffer said. “You have some family members who have way too much time on their hands and they have strong opinions. But, quite frankly, they don’t have any type of qualifications aside from being related to an NBA player.”
“Sometimes family members and friends are in the player’s ear saying things like, ‘You should have a bigger contract! You should have better endorsement deals! You should have your own signature shoe!'” one agent said. “As the agent, I try to manage expectations and set realistic goals. Misinformed family members can make that tougher.”
Players often want to take care of their family and friends financially. However, sometimes the people close to the player will cross the line and start taking advantage of him.
“Sometimes you have to keep relatives and friends at bay because they just want money,” one agent said. “Most people view their family members as the people they trust most. But in some cases with professional athletes, the family members are the people who are the most toxic to the player and who ultimately pose the biggest threat to the player’s career and financial future.”
An NBA player faces a multitude of threats to their career and financial security, and their agent does their best to protect them. That means helping them make important decisions, removing negative influences from their life and setting them up with a long-term plan for success.
And sometimes that means scrubbing a player’s Twitter and Instagram accounts of inappropriate pictures posted by a stripper who hacked into their phone. All in a day’s work for an agent.