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Fame Jam

Making millions for NBA Stars: the high-powered world of super agents David Falk, Curtis Polk and Mike Higgins.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 5)

"If you spend a lot of your time worrying about the criticism and defending yourself, you're not going to be able to do what you're hired to do," Falk says. "I won't say I like the criticism. I don't think it's a compliment if someone says you have your own agenda, but I think at the end of the day, the people I worry most about are the people I work for, and I don't think too many of them think I have my own agenda. I don't think any of them feel it."

When Falk needs advice on handling bad press, he turns to his own clients--Jordan and Ewing. "You don't have to defend yourself," Jordan has said on more than one occasion, according to Falk. "Your record speaks for itself."

Michael Higgins recalls talking to an old friend who lit into him about the evils visited upon the sports world by agents: "He goes, 'God, you guys rape and pillage!' " Higgins' response was simple: "If Jim Carrey can get $20 million for The Cable Guy, Michael Jordan making $30 million a year is not a big deal."

"We're always the first villain," adds Polk, who points out that newspapers rarely dedicate daily coverage to movie salaries, but almost always have a sports page in which coverage of money matters is routine. "We didn't walk in with ski masks on and a gun in our hands and say, 'We gotta have this much money.' These guys have the power to say no."

Falk's position is closer to a life-affirming mantra: "Sports is entertainment. The age where people say sports is like entertainment is over. Sports is entertainment. It's billion-dollar entertainment."

Business wasn't always so good in the NBA. Go back fewer than 20 years and the league was moribund. "In the '80s the NBA was perceived as too drug-infested, too black, [with] failing franchises," recalls Armen Keteyian, a cigar smoking sports correspondent for ABC News and co-author with Martin F. Dardis and Harvey Araton of Money Players: Days and Nights Inside the New NBA (Pocket Books Hardcover, $23.95). "It was sort of looked upon as the weak stepsister of the NFL and just sort of didn't have any image. It was dying."

But since David Stern became commissioner in 1984, the 50-year-old NBA has seen unprecedented expansion and astronomical revenue growth. The income created by spinoffs is incalculable, but the NBA licensing alone produces at least $1 billion a year by most estimates. It is, to borrow a phrase from Dick Vitale, Awesome, Baby!

But with economic gain has come, according to Araton, the loss of a "certain sense of family."

"The league was essentially like a mom-and-pop run operation," recalls Araton, who writes a sports column for The New York Times. "It's just become so big and so successful that it's now more like a giant corporation. The main focus of the league is really to sell, sell and sell. It's kind of the Nike of sports leagues. You know, Nike is push-push, drive-drive, sell-sell. The NBA is kind of along the same track: Put a logo on it, throw a couple of celebrities in, play some rock music or rap music, and just kind of throw it out there and let it be consumed."

It's hard to argue with the prosperity that this financial and marketing juggernaut has wrought, but Araton maintains that the standards of success have been diminished. "Jordan is in a league by himself," Araton says. "The guys like [Golden State Warrior] Latrell Sprewell and [Washington Bullet] Chris Webber and [L.A. Laker] Shaquille O'Neal, they're all corporate-manufactured superstars and celebrities. They basically reap the benefits that the early guys set up for them. Most people agree that they really haven't done anything to earn it. I know that the guys like Jordan and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird feel, in effect, that [the young players] are fabricated stars."

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