Making millions for NBA Stars: the high-powered world of super agents David Falk, Curtis Polk and Mike Higgins.
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97
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Shortly before lunch, the phone in Polk's office rings. Allen Iverson, the Philadelphia 76ers rookie guard, is on the line. Polk excuses himself and walks with the cordless phone to the door. "Allen, how you doin', buddy? Where are you, New York?" Polk says, his voice revealing his Brooklyn roots.
After hanging up with Iverson, Polk, Higgins and FAME's director of media services, Alyson Sadofsky, are in Polk's Lexus LX 450 on the way to lunch at Ozio, the downtown Washington cigar and martini bar where Polk and Falk have lockers and can find a safe place to light up.
"Only in the last two to three years have I started to smoke a little more socially," Polk says as he puts on his ever-cool Revo sunglasses while negotiating D.C.'s midday traffic. "You know, back then, '84, '85, if you tried to smoke anywhere--even when people weren't as hyper as they are now about cigarette smoking--they'd get on you for smoking cigars. Now in these buildings you can't smoke. I mean, I've heard stories about the 'smoking police' from a building coming into somebody's firm saying, 'Hey, we understand so-and-so's smoking a cigar in the building. This is a nonsmoking building.' Now there's a lot of restaurants and lounges where you can smoke cigars, so for the last two years I've gotten in the habit of smoking a couple a week.
"In the summer, I'll smoke two [double coronas] on the golf course and I'll try to play golf at least once a week," Polk adds. "I like smoking in the morning. A lot of times when I'm traveling, I'll wake up in the morning and if I'm not doing anything immediately, I'll just light up in my room and watch the news."
Polk shares Falk's taste for Cohibas and Hoyo double coronas, but says, "I'm a fast smoker. I just love to puff on it." He complains about how difficult it is to get his hands on large Cuban cigars, but confides that he has discovered a possible solution. "I've gotten friendly with a few people who work in embassies and they're really good people to know for cigars because they can bring them back in," he says, wondering whether it's a good idea to share this intelligence. "There's always somebody from an embassy who's bringing in a pouch."
"Growing up in Las Vegas," Higgins joins in, "everybody smoked cigars. I mean, I was probably a weekend warrior [smoker] in high school because my best friend's father was from Steubenville, Ohio, where all the gangsters came from," he says with a laugh.
"Steubenville, Ohio?" Polk asks, puzzled.
"Yeah, he was one of these guys that never didn't have a stogie in his mouth," Higgins says. "That was my first experience where you start trying cigars. I did a lot in college primarily because it was a weekend thing. I didn't know about Montecristos or Cohibas. You might have smoked a Macanudo or Partagas. There wasn't much of a variety, or at least I didn't know. Whatever you were handed or whatever you could get your hands on is what you smoked."
Higgins, who oversees FAME's basketball operations, says that he smokes more when he's on the road and will try to find good Cuban cigars when he's in Vancouver checking on Grizzlies client Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, or when he's in Toronto checking out the Raptors. "Nowadays, I'm in Vancouver a lot, Curtis goes to Toronto. You can go up there and get anything you want," Higgins says.
Polk, fresh off a visit to Canada, disagrees. "There's nothing in Toronto," he reports with some despair. "A price increase is going into effect, so people have just bought the shelves out."
Once inside Ozio, Polk proudly opens his locker and offers his companions their choice of several Cuban cigars. Higgins takes a Montecristo No. 3. Polk takes a Cohiba Robusto. Sadofsky accepts a small Dutch cigar, the third she will have ever smoked. Sitting down to lunch, Polk recommends the grilled chicken sandwich, then orders the pasta for himself. By the time lunch is served, he is already halfway through the cigar.
Halftime at the Garden, the Knicks are losing to the Rockets by three at the half and Falk is still upstairs in VIP land saying hello to people whose faces are familiar but whose names have evaporated. Relief comes when the second half starts and Falk returns with Ross to their courtside seats, about four down from Spike, eight down from Alec Baldwin, just around the corner from Woody and Soon-Yi, and a few rows in front of David Halberstam. The Knicks come back in an exciting, if sloppy, show to beat the Rockets by four. Minutes later, Falk is standing next to Ernie Grunfeld, the Knicks general manager (profiled in the Autumn 1996 Cigar Aficionado), in the tunnel leading to the locker rooms. Falk and Grunfeld are likely to be meeting a lot more after the season when Ewing's contract expires and he becomes a free agent. But there's time for that after the playoffs.
"A guy just gave me a Romeo y Julieta Churchill," Grunfeld says enthusiastically about the Cuban cigar. "It was great. You ever have one?"
"I like the Hoyo de Monterreys," Falk counters. Then he proudly pulls out a Dominican Fuente Fuente Opus X double corona. "I just got this tonight."
Grunfeld takes it out of Falk's hand and examines it admiringly. "What is this? Ooh, I never had one of these," he says. Falk is waiting to take Patrick Ewing and Othella Harrington to dinner. Now on opposing pro teams, they each played for Georgetown University, in different eras, under John Thompson, the only coach who is a FAME client. Critics claim that Thompson is FAME's pipeline to Hoyas players. It's now 11:10 p.m. Falk will not get to sleep before two.
"Having an agent is not so important in negotiating a contract, but it's tremendously important for the second contract," says Grunfeld, alluding to the league's wage scale that caps how much a rookie can make according to when he was picked in the draft. "Having the right agent," Grunfeld adds, motioning towards Falk, "is key in positioning a player and marketing him. Agents can really help players handle their business, but not all agents do that. A guy like David also helps the players take care of their money."
Harrington comes out of the locker room and starts walking with Falk and Ewing to the garage reserved for players and VIPs. The Rockets rookie agrees with Grunfeld about the value of getting a good agent.
"It's extremely important to get the right representation," Harrington says. "You know that if they're handling the business, you can concentrate on playing ball. It keeps your mind at ease." Harrington, the first pick in last year's second round, has convinced the experts with his play that he should have gone in the first round. Though he makes $220,000 under the terms of the rookie wage scale's minimum one-year contract, he is also included in a group endorsement deal with Signature Rookies and Classic trading cards worth about $30,000. He also has an unusual two-year "guaranteed-dollar" deal with Nike.
FAME's attention to Kerry Kittle's business interests is what has allowed him to emerge as "the best player" from the 1996 draft, according to his New Jersey Nets teammate Jayson Williams. "Some kids come in, they're worried about their sneakers, their commercials, their money," Williams, who does not use FAME, told Phil Jasner of the Philadelphia Daily News in January. "This kid [Kittles] loves to play, doesn't care anything about the business aspects, just loves to play ball. Of course, if you have David Falk representing you, why should you worry about business?"
Falk has many battle scars. He's been sued several times and so many bad things have been said about him, one would understand if he just cashed in his chips. But if anyone doubts that David Falk is a competitor of the first order, they don't understand his motivation for doing what he can to help his clients: "I think the American dream is to make as much money as you can and have a choice of what you want to do that makes you happy." Despite an overwhelming number of business possibilities, Falk isn't planning to expand the firm. Instead, he wants to spend more time with his family and his charity work--among other projects, producing a regional telethon for leukemia research and raising money for the United Negro College Fund.
As far as FAME's future is concerned, Falk and his colleagues plan to focus on generating post-NBA "opportunities" for the likes of superstars Jordan and Ewing. Falk has other goals: he wants his partners to get more of the credit for FAME's success; he may write a book about business; he would like FAME to be involved in making more movies. Most of all, Falk doesn't want to miss out on the rapidly expanding world of new media; he says FAME is uniquely positioned to capitalize on those opportunities.
"We would like to be, over the next 10 years, one of the groups that's instrumental in forging the marriage between sports as a sports form and entertainment as an entertainment form, to meld the two. I think Space Jam represents an effort in that direction. Our joint venture with Warner Brothers and the six players represents an effort in that direction," Falk says of the movie that had grossed more than $200 million worldwide through February, a figure that is still climbing (the numbers don't include video rentals and sales or merchandising). "We're investigating a number of opportunities right now. We're talking to some entertainment groups that want to be more in a sports environment," Falk adds. "I don't think we started it, but we want to be at the forefront of it."
In the category of opportunities, one potentially record-setting piece of FAME business is coming up this summer: Michael Jordan will be a free agent at the end of the season. Rest assured the Cohiba Robustos and Hoyo de Monterrey double coronas are ready for the celebration.
Alejandro Benes is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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