Fame Jam

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

Wedges of half-eaten cheesecake form a circle in front of the people seated at the round table inside Madison Square Garden's Suite 200. As he walks in, David Falk quickly notices that George Steinbrenner, trademark white turtleneck and all, is standing next to the table. Falk puts his hand on the arm of the principal owner of the world champion New York Yankees.

"George, I'm David Falk. I just wanted to say hello," Falk says.

"Hi, David, are you in from Chicago?" asks Steinbrenner, a friend of cigar smoker Jerry Reinsdorf, principal owner of the world champion Chicago Bulls and the Chicago White Sox, with whom Falk does a lot of business.

"No, from D.C.," Falk replies.

"Oh, you're in Washington," Steinbrenner says. After a few more pleasantries, Falk gets a pat on the arm from Steinbrenner and is off into the room that provides sanctuary to celebrities and VIPs during halftime of the game between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, two teams in which Falk has significant interests.

"We represent three players in this game," Falk says.

The 46-year-old Falk is the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of FAME, or Falk Associates Management Enterprises. But in this room, David Falk, 6-foot-2 out of Syracuse followed by George Washington University Law, is better known as the agent to Knicks star Patrick Ewing, as well as Knicks rookie Walter McCarty. On the Rockets, FAME represents rookie Othella Harrington.

Soon after introducing himself to Steinbrenner, Falk is studying the crowd like a raptor. Not a Toronto Raptor, but one of the voracious deoxyribonucleosaurs in the movie Jurassic Park. This is not a bad thing to be in this room, where comedian Billy Crystal is holding court, Patrick McEnroe has people asking why he is no longer on the tennis court and Falk is getting something to eat because he won't be going to dinner until after the game being played on the court. Game? What game?

Falk is talking to Ken Ross, his friend and co-executive producer of the movie Space Jam, when a representative from the Nickelodeon network introduces herself and earnestly explains to Falk something about a new project that he might want to present to "Michael or Patrick." As in Jordan or Ewing. Falk is gracious. Hey, who knows? He tells the woman that he would be glad to look at the project and she should send it to him in Washington. Ms. Nickelodeon thanks Falk and is gone a matter of seconds before Andy from American Express virtually beams into her spot.

"David," Andy says, "remember me? I came down to Washington to talk to you about Michael?"

"Absolutely," Falk says, not missing a beat. "You need to make another trip down so that we can talk about Patrick."

"All right," Andy says. "Was everything OK with Michael?"

"Oh, yeah," Falk says, then pauses. He scans the room, then puts his arm around Andy and motions with his head for him to move to a quiet corner. Rob Urbach, FAME's vice president of marketing, walks over with them.

"Everybody's looking for action," Ken Ross says, chuckling and enjoying the show.

Representing so many players in one National Basketball Association game is not unusual for Falk and partners Curtis Polk, the 37-year-old president and chief operating officer of FAME as well as a lawyer and certified public accountant; and Michael Higgins, FAME's senior vice president, who turns 38 in May, who began his career as a Hollywood agent.

The three had worked together in the team sports division that Falk headed at Washington, D.C.'s ProServ, an agency that has traditionally focused on individual sports. They left in 1992 to form FAME so they could concentrate on representing athletes in team sports. Now, Falk, Polk and Higgins are the elite members of an increasingly important group in the sports world: the small cadre of financially sophisticated agents who possess marketing expertise. In a time of increasing competition for the entertainment dollar, they represent clients who have notoriously short careers and need to secure strong financial futures quickly. For the FAME partners, this all adds up to very long hours and between 150 and 200 days a year spent on the road. All three share a way to relax: they smoke premium cigars.

"I wouldn't say I'm a heavy smoker of cigars. I've probably smoked cigars on and off for about 10 years. Probably in the last three years I've gotten a good supply of up-brand cigars," says Falk, a man who, in his own field, is often instrumental in defining what the up-brands are. "It's like a good wine; you start to appreciate the better ones. I really started enjoying smoking cigars while playing cards. I'd say in the last year, I've probably smoked six a month. Normally, one or two a week. I love Cohibas and I love Hoyo de Monterreys. They're so smooth. You come to appreciate those things. Three or four years ago I wouldn't have known. I have a lot of Cohiba Robustos, and a friend gave me the longer Hoyo de Monterreys, the double corona."

While Falk doesn't smoke at home in front of his two daughters, he indulges himself on the road. He is careful, however, to pursue cigars as his own personal passion, and not merely because they have become trendy. "I'm almost fighting myself," he says, chuckling. Falk can afford as many of the best cigars that he wants, yet he says, "I don't want it to become a fad. I want to enjoy it. To me it's more like drinking a great wine. I don't drink it every day and I don't smoke a cigar every day. When I smoke them, I really enjoy them." He says smoking a cigar slowly helps him leave behind a bit of the "cutthroat world of celebrity representation."

Falk attributes the success of FAME to the diverse strengths of its partners. He considers that his major role is to bring experience, creativity and instincts to the partnership. "Curtis is my consigliere, if you will, and I think he's brilliant," Falk says. "I think he's strategic. I think he's analytical. And I think he's 100 percent committed to me and to this office. He advises, and I invariably follow his advice. I don't know that I always agree, but I invariably follow his advice.

"Then Michael comes in," he adds, referring to the graduate of the University of Southern California and Whittier Law School, who looks like an ex-football player. "Michael Higgins is probably much more of a people person than either of us." Higgins partied until 5:30 a.m. with a few of FAME's rookies during the All-Star break in Cleveland. To protect the innocent, the details cannot be reported. Falk praises Higgins' commitment and loyalty to the firm. "I'm a great believer that when you form a team, you should never be afraid to have people who have equal talents or even better talents than you do," says Falk.

No one doubts that, even though FAME is a partnership, it could easily be called "Team Falk." Basketball Digest has ranked Falk as the second-most powerful person in the NBA, subordinate only to league commissioner David Stern. Since 1991, The Sporting News has placed Falk in the top 32 on its list of the "100 Most Powerful People in Sports." And in 1995, Advertising Age named Falk one of the top 50 marketers in the United States. Falk enjoys the honors, but nevertheless believes that focusing on him sells FAME short.

"A player will gravitate to one person. It's not always to me. A lot of the younger players sort of gravitate to Mike. Like Bobby Hurley or Calbert Cheaney," Falk says, protesting that he gets too much of the credit. Then he lapses into coach language: "We present different looks. I think each of us could be successful in our own right, but to use the most overworked term of the decade, I think we have a synergy."

Synergy was very good for FAME last year. During a one-week period last summer, the company negotiated 13 salary contracts--for eight free agents and five rookies--that totaled $410 million. The players' union sets 4 percent as the maximum that agents can charge a player for negotiating a contract. At that rate, FAME's cut of the 13 contracts could be as much as $16.4 million (the partnership doesn't always charge the maximum fee).

Polk came up with the strategy and all the deals were handled from FAME's "war room." "We just set it up in our conference room and had a big chart, computers; we had all the numbers and we put up all the teams," Higgins recalls with delight. "We had six phones put in and everything. We had so many deals to negotiate. It's a discussion: 'All right, this is what's been put on the table. Are you talking to Houston?'" Each agent looked out for the interests of all the firm's clients, whether or not he had worked directly with a particular client, Higgins says. "I have a relationship with [president and general manager] Stu Jackson of the Vancouver Grizzlies who I talk to on a daily basis and who might have some [salary] cap room, and they might be interested in a Chris Gatling [now of the New Jersey Nets], and yet I don't work with Chris on a day-to-day basis. But I was talking to them about offering Chris a deal this summer, although we did a deal with Dallas."

Falk, Polk and Higgins were constantly on the phone while in simultaneous communication with each other--kind of a "three-headed monster," Higgins says.

The agents of FAME had to move fast. They did a deal for Michael Jordan first: 45 minutes, $30 million, one year. Nothin' but net. They made a pact for Bullets forward Juwan Howard to go to Miami for $101 million, then secured $105 million for Mourning with the same team. But the league later voided Howard's contract, ruling that Miami had violated the salary cap regulations. The decision left Howard without a contract and in serious jeopardy of taking a 50 percent pay cut because most of the teams by that time had considerably less room under the salary cap to match the $101 million agreement. Polk had to scramble to get a $105 million deal by which Howard would remain with the Bullets for seven years. Left out was Chapman, who had played for Miami the year before.

"We had a certain position because of the power of an Alonzo Mourning and Miami's desire to sign Juwan Howard to really leverage Miami and to force them to do Rex's deal first," Falk says. "Out of respect for Pat Riley--I said it before the thing started and I'll say it again, I have great respect for Pat Riley; there's no doubt he's one of the great coaches in the game and maybe one of the great coaches ever and he's very competitive and I respect that because so am I--I didn't want to leverage Pat Riley or [Heat owner] Mickey Arison. I think when we took the pressure off and [Riley] had a different vision of how he wanted to construct the team, I'm not sure that we brought maximum leverage to bear on behalf of Rex Chapman, so I thought I'd let him down."

Miami made offers that Chapman and Falk considered too low and Chapman ultimately landed in Phoenix with a one-year contract, still a FAME client, but not nearly as rich as he and his agent had hoped. What happened to Chapman is not Falk's first disappointment and it surely won't be his last, though usually they don't involve clients already in the FAME family.

"I would say that my greatest disappointment probably was not being selected by Grant Hill to represent him. I'm a huge fan of Grant Hill and his family," Falk says of the third-year Detroit Pistons guard. Hill's father is former Dallas Cowboys running back Calvin Hill and his mother, Janet, is a high-powered Washington consultant. Hill has done quite well in the endorsement market, and his basketball talents are often compared with Jordan's at the same point in his career.

Falk says that it was his experience with Jordan--making mistakes and learning from them--that made him want to bring his knowledge to bear for Hill. "All of a sudden you have a young player who's very special and you don't have a chance to take all [your own] special, unique knowledge-- and it is unique-- and put it to work for him. It was a disappointment. I'm not angry about it."

Polk, a University of Maryland alumnus, describes a similar disappointment with U.M. forward Joe Smith: "I thought that Joe and I hit it off and could relate to each other very well. I had the advantage of being able to spend a lot of time with him because Maryland is just down the road here. I think that his college coach likes us and respects us and knows that we're good at what we do."

Polk says he feels that the agency sometimes loses players because others around them--family and friends--lead them into bad decisions based on their own agendas. "We tend to put a lot of heart into the effort to get the kids, and you feel that if they could really look at it on the merits, we should get [them as clients]."

A second-year player with the Golden State Warriors, Smith has yet to develop a large marketing portfolio. One wonders if Falk's and Polk's declarations of regret are not just telegraphed invitations to Detroit and Oakland: There's still room for you at FAME. Grant, babe! Joe, buddy! Guys, are you listening?

Sometimes simply having so many big fish as clients can dissuade new players from signing on, although Polk insists that FAME works equally hard for all its clients. FAME serves as agent to nearly 40 NBA players and another 15 in football, baseball and overseas basketball. Of these, of course, one stands out: Michael Jordan. Falk's representation of Jordan goes back more than a dozen years, even before he started his firm. He calls Jordan the most famous person in the world. Falk should know. By all accounts, much of Jordan's fame is due to the efforts of FAME.

"Most outside observers spend hours trying to analyze: 'Did Michael Jordan carry David Falk along for a nice ride for the past 12 years?' Other people wonder: 'Did Dr. Frankenstein Falk create Michael Jordan in a laboratory somewhere?' Michael and David haven't spent three minutes in 12 years worrying about it." Sitting in an overstuffed blue leather chair in his Washington office, Falk dismisses the question. "We just concluded that it's been great. For me, it's been a tremendous honor to have a chance to work with the greatest athlete in history, with someone I have great fondness for as a human being, for whom I have great respect as a man and whose loyalty to me personally I appreciate."

Working with FAME has helped make Michael Jordan a tremendously wealthy man, and there are clear indications that the partners of FAME are also doing quite well. Agents typically receive 20 percent of the revenue from endorsements and other off-the-court deals. By some estimates, Jordan has amassed close to $200 million from Nike, Gatorade, Coca-Cola, cologne and cartoons. Two of Jordan's recent non-basketball ventures were sheperded by FAME: "Michael Jordan," the fragrance made by the Beverly Hills designer Bijan, was cited as the best marketed product of 1996 by the American Marketing Association, and Jordan's first cinematic turn came last fall with Space Jam, an animated joint venture between FAME and Warner Brothers.

Understand that in no way does Falk take Jordan for granted. Any NBA player can say goodbye to his agent by giving 15 days' notice. And, according to Falk, his "business marriage" with Jordan did not start out as a particularly close one.

"I think for the first four or five years he intentionally kept me at arm's length, watching, evaluating," Falk remembers. "I think things happened probably after the fourth year where I passed muster. I think that it's a measure of his intelligence that he wouldn't press a button and sign with somebody and say, 'OK, I trust you now because I've signed with you.' He wanted me to prove myself, and I think that's exactly the way it should be. You've got to stand the test of time." Now they are friends who compete to exchange, um, compliments.

"A lot of people don't like David, but he's the best at what he does," Jordan told USA Today last year. "What he does is get underneath your skin, whoever he's negotiating with, because he figures out what your objectives are, your angles. He understands the market; he understands the players. He's a brash, arrogant, egotistical, aggressive negotiator, which is good, because when you have someone represent you, you want him to do that. Marketing-wise, he's great. He's the one who came up with the concept of 'Air Jordan.' "

It is a measure of their closeness that Falk and Curtis Polk were among the few non-family members who gathered with Jordan after his father was murdered in North Carolina. It was soon after that the superstar had his stint in baseball's minor leagues. "Baseball is something Michael has always loved," Falk explains. "It was a challenge for him to play baseball and something that his father had encouraged him to do, actually after he won his first NBA championship. I thought it was terrific that someone who had accomplished everything that could possibly be accomplished in a career could take on a great new challenge to do something he truly loved."

The hiatus did little to diminish FAME's business or Jordan's stature as a celebrity. It might be argued that coming back to win a fourth NBA title may only have enhanced his appeal. If his salary as a player took a temporary dive, his endorsement income never skipped a beat.

Balls. FAME is really about balls. Lots of balls. Walking into the swank suite of offices in Washington's Chevy Chase Pavillion, one sees appliqués of footballs, baseballs and basketballs on the glass wall entrance. Real basketballs signed by FAME clients rest in glass cases shared with Wheaties boxes and huge basketball shoes endorsed by clients. Move back to Curtis Polk's office and there are jerseys from Patrick Ewing and Glen Rice in frames, alongside an animation cel from a Nike commercial. In Hollywood-hip, Curtis Polk is money, baby.

"Take Juwan Howard, for example," says Polk, who handled the second career contract of the Washington Bullets star, who turned out to be 1996's most sought-after and most embattled free agent. "The guy signs for $105 million and obviously he should be very set financially for the rest of his life based upon that. If you didn't do other aspects of work for him, you wouldn't have a lot to interact with him [about] over seven years.

"Where I think we really provide a lot of valuable services is in working with them after the contract and making sure that they don't go through their money, that they don't make bad investments, that they don't fall prey to people who are trying to take advantage of them, that we can insulate them from all the things that are going on around them."

This is the part of the business that fans and many reporters don't appreciate. Unlike a lot of agencies, FAME not only negotiates a player's contract, but also maintains a 25-person team of lawyers, financial planners, investment advisers, schedule makers, publicists and marketers. Financial planning and investment services are provided--for a minimum annual fee of $12,000--by a second company also named FAME, in this case "Financial Advisory Management Enterprises," which manages more than $130 million for about 18 clients.

It is a much-needed service in a world where players must concentrate almost solely on the game to succeed, but are confronted with a recruiting system that appeals to their sense of greed, while attracting parasites that show up as early as junior high school. As a result, many successful NBA candidates are ill-prepared to handle instant millionaire status and the microscopic attention and financial pitfalls that can come with it. As part of the service, Polk sits down with the players in a whirlwind accounting clinic and shows them on a spreadsheet where the money goes.

"Show him how much has to go to taxes. Forty-one percent, roughly, in federal taxes. State? Depends on where you live, but roughly 3 to 9 percent in state taxes. So it gets up to the high 40s, 50 percent. They pay us a few percent of the gross, union dues," Polk says. "Then I work with them on their expenses. Do they have a mortgage? Are they renting? Some of these guys have two places where they live, one in the city that they play in and another place, like their hometown where they grew up, [where they] live in the off-season. Maybe they're sending their parents some money every month. You know, they have certain expenses that are recurring every month, and we'll show them, after all is said and done, 'Here's what you have left.'"

Polk often draws up a budget for players and urges them to save because they will not be playing ball all their lives. The average length of service in the NBA is about five years. Polk says it's hard to tell anyone not to spend money, especially when you're talking about millions and the young player--more than half of the players in last year's draft were underclassmen--thinks that amount of money is going to last forever.

"The average person that we represent, if they can have 30 to 35 percent that they're saving, they're doing well," Polk estimates. "A guy at $100 million, I would hope that it's closer to 40 percent. If they spent a million dollars a year living, that's a great lifestyle. If half went to taxes and fees and whatnot, and they spent 10 percent, 40 percent's left. A guy saves $40 million of $100 million and he bought tax-free bonds and he got 5 percent." (In the beginning, players are generally risk-averse investors. ) "So, he's got two million a year coming in forever, but his $40 million's not gonna grow unless he saves some of that two million that comes in. That's one way to show a guy a very low-risk way of taking your money and using it to support a comfortable lifestyle for the next 30 or 40 years."

Most people hear about agents only when a player signs a one-year, $30 million contract or leaves a city to play for another team for more money. When that happens, agents typically get the blame. Sportswriters such as Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post refer to them in such endearing terms as "Benedict Arnold," "bird of prey" and "imperious." Who needs that?

"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."

FAME is unquestionably in step with this "market-the-stars" philosophy, but its role is much more personal. Keteyian, who in 1991 co-wrote, with Alexander Wolff, Raw Recruits, which revealed the darker side of college recruiting, contends that FAME does business aggressively but honestly. "From everything I can see," says Keteyian, "David uses every bit of leverage he can to get his athletes the very best deal."

Fighting for its clients has sometimes meant very public battles between FAME and the league, including last year's much-publicized fight over the NBA's collective bargaining agreement. The uglier, very personal characterizations of the battle had Stern as the scourge of players' rights and Falk as the personification of the self-serving agent. While many players spoke out, the assumption was that Falk was putting words in the mouths of three of the more prominent dissidents, Jordan, Ewing and Mourning.

"That was certainly Falk versus Stern," says Keteyian, "but in both of their minds it's just business. It's all business and it's big, big, big, big, big, big, big business. Nothing personal."

In the end, the players ratified a revised collective bargaining agreement that lessened the restrictions placed on them. Basketball Digest wrote, "Although he didn't prevent the agreement from being ratified by the league's players, Falk played a significant role in leveraging the owners to secure a better deal for the players than was initially offered."

Falk disputes the size of his role, pointing out that everyone at these very high levels has advisers. "Patrick [Ewing] really was the leader, but all three [Ewing, Jordan and Mourning] were very active. Everybody basically accused them of being my mouthpiece and yet nobody would say that David Stern had a lawyer. He had an army of lawyers," Falk says. "I'm not a Svengali, I can't hypnotize them and make them follow a certain party line, but certainly I'm going to do my best to advise them of what's in their best interest, whether it's popular or unpopular publicly. That's my job."

Players notice how well FAME performs.

"If there's one thing of which NBA players are cognizant, it's money," Keteyian sums up. "When they see Juwan Howard get $105 million to stay in Washington or they see Alonzo Mourning sign a huge deal, they know who did the deal."

During a midseason game between the Washington Bullets and the visiting Milwaukee Bucks, Michael Higgins is mildlyanguished by Washington's Calber Cheaney's form at the foul line. "What kind of shot is that?!" Higgins exclaims. "Ugly!" he answers himself, as the ball bounces off the rim. "You know, the coaches fool around with their shooting and they forget their natural form."

After the game, Higgins is on the opposite side of the USAir Arena exchanging hugs and kisses with Cheaney's family, fiancée and friends. He is waiting for Cheaney to emerge from the locker room, which only the Bullets place off limits to agents. Higgins wants to talk to Cheaney about how he is doing under the new Bullets coach, Bernie Bickerstaff. It's a quiet discussion near the stands and Cheaney is saying that things are going pretty well.

"You know, sometimes players don't play well with some teams, and when they go to another team, they just fit in better," Higgins says. "The same applies to coaches and their new teams, and the sports agents as well."

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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