Tuesday, January 25, 2022 Jan 25, 2022
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In a world of unethical agents, can an old ex-coach sign NBA stars, keep the client’s best interests at heart (even when the client doesn’t), make money, and hold onto his self-respect? Bill Blakeley thinks so.
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So the Devil says to the sports agent, “I’ve got a deal for you. I can guarantee you ’II have the world’s best basketball players as clients for the rest of your life. But in return you must give me the souls of your wife and kids.” “Okay, it’s a deal,” the agent says, “but what’s the catch?” When the Devil last called on Dallas sports agent Bill Blakeley, he came, as usual, embodied in an arrogant college superstar, a sure first-round draft pick whose signature on a contract would bring needed income to Blakeley’s small firm. Blakeley and his son, Robin, who own Talent Sports International, had already heard stories about the player’s drinking problem and a sleazy entourage he kept, but in their business you can’t always hold out for little angels, so they set up a meeting at TSI’s Oak Lawn offices. “The kid comes in to talk with Dad,” Robin remembers, now more amused than shocked, ’’and the first thing he does is pull out a magazine photo of a $150,000 Mercedes and tell Dad, ’I want this Benz.’” Bill, a former coach for twenty-six years and grandfather of five, had been down this road many times before, so he nodded patiently and suggested to the young star that his coming wealth might be spent more wisely. A visit to Alcoholics Anonymous might not hurt either, the elder Blakeley added.

“I’ve gotta have this Benz,” said the Mercedes Kid. “I’ve gotta have this Benz.”

The fatherly sales pitch went nowhere. Bill pondered his options, excused himself, walked down the hall to Robin’s office, and exercised his paternal veto. “We’re not going after this guy, Robin. We don’t need the frustration.”

They had withstood stronger temptations-the Blakeleys say they’ve lost future NBA first-rounders because they wouldn’t pay under-the-table cash while the players were in college-but this time they wouldn’t have been violating anyone’s rules except their own. Certainly many of their competitors would have, without hesitation, simply arranged a loan for the Mercedes, signed the kid, taken their fee up front, then washed their hands if the car got repossessed.

No, the Blakeleys look fondly upon that small moment simply because they did not die a thousand deaths second-guessing themselves. They watched money walk out their door and lived to laugh about it.

“We’re not trying to say we’re holier than thou,” says Bill, “but we have learned some things in five years.”

In 1984, when Bill and Robin Blakeley formed TSI, along with a third partner who stays on the sidelines, they began on the premise that they could make a living pursuing the very best college basketball players in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma-states whose high schools and colleges have produced at least sixty-two current pro players. And, rather than compete against the country’s largest firms each year for the next Magic Johnson, the Blake-leys decided to focus on players from more obscure schools, or prospects whom the NBA scouts had not blessed with can’t-miss credentials.

TSI’s client list includes five players in the Continental Basketball Association (the NBAs unofficial minor league), three in Europe, and nine who started this season on NBA rosters-Spud Webb, Randy White, Mookie Blaylock, Brian Rowsom, Lorenzo Charles, Michael Cutright, Micheal Williams, Wil Perdue, and Michael Young.

Most of all the Blakeleys thought they could pursue their goal without prostituting themselves, cheating the players, breaking laws, or looking stupid. Funny thing, though. Everyone starts with that idea.

There are an estimated 3,000 active sports agents in the country- a proliferation that Dallas Mavericks general manager Norm Sonju calls “beyond incredible.” Perhaps a fourth of them are actually registered with any league and pursue players full time. The rest seem to work out of their briefcases. In the NBA, where one need only attend a seminar and pay a yearly fee to become certified, there are more than 200 registered agents.

Bill says he gets almost as many calls from fresh-out-of-law-school types who want to join him or buy him out as he does from his own clients. “I always hate to burst their bubble,” says Blakeley, who once taught high school algebra and has a master’s in education. “But if I hadn’t been a coach for twenty-six years I wouldn’t have gotten into the business. There’s a lot of babysitting and coddling of egos that can drive you mad.”

Take Karl Malone. (Please, the Blakeleys might add.)

He is a six-foot-nine, 255-pound power forward for the Utah Jazz whose body looks like it was forged on an anvil. Without argument, he is among the half dozen NBA players who can literally dominate a basketball game. Nicknamed “the Mailman” in college because he always delivered (points, that is), he now makes about $1.5 million a year with the Utah Jazz. When he came out of Louisiana Tech in 1985, after his junior year, he signed with the Blakeleys. (TSI hit the jackpot that year, also signing Joe Dumars, now an All-Star with the Detroil Pistons out of McNeese State, and Spud Webb, a former Wilmer-Hutchins player now with the Atlanta Hawks.

When he was in the right mood. Malone could be funny and engaging and could charm the Blakeleys unlike any client they had. “I can’t express enough what a fantastic personality he has,” says Robin. “He could make you feel so good.”

That is, when he showed up.

With Malone’s approval. Talent Sports would schedule him for public appearances and promotional events-always reminding him three or four times-but they eventually curtailed them because the Mailman so frequently failed to deliver himself. Malone desperately wanted to be promoted like other NBA superstars, but when Robin scheduled a meeting with the Domino’s Pizza marketing staff-(“Now the Mailman delivers pizza!”)-the superstar never showed.

Malone was sued by a basketball camp operator in Wyoming who had widely publicized Malone’s promised appearance, only to be stood up at the last moment. “I remember telling him, ’Karl, you have to go. You gave your word,’” Robin says. “And Karl just said, ’I’m not going.”” (Malone settled out of court with the operator.)

But these flaws didn’t make him a less desirable catch. The Blakeleys were constantly fighting off hungry agents. After Malone’s rookie year it was announced at a press conference in Salt Lake City that he was signing with ProServ Inc., the country’s second largest sports agency and one of Robin’s former employers. That was news to the Blakeleys, who had just signed Malone to a four-year contract. After an angry exchange of letters, TSI managed to keep its star.

In the summer of 1986, Dallas agent Sherwood Blount, of SMU football scandal fame, made a run at Karl. A letter from Blount’s attorney, James T. Drakeley, to Robin Blakeley states that Malone actually had been under contract to Blount since May 23, 1986. Blount’s attorney accused the Blakeleys of telling Malone that Blount was under investigation by the FBI and IRS. The Blakeleys denied the charges and fired back that it was they who had been slandered by Blount. More nasty letters followed, lawsuits were threatened, and the Blakeleys kept Malone another year.

Further complicating things. Malone has twice been named in paternity suits in Louisiana. The first, by a woman who court documents indicate was thirteen a( the time she gave birth (Malone was twenty), was settled after a payment of $32,000 by Malone, who never admitted he was the father. A second suit, filed last July, alleges Malone fathered twins born in 1981 and seeks $624,000 in back child support.

When the Blakeleys weren’t using legal muscle to hold onto Malone, they were attending to a seemingly endless number of favors and errands to mollify the Mailman. When Malone forgot a relative’s birthday, Robin had a present sent out by Federal Express. When Malone needed sheets for his bed, Robin had a TSI employee go buy them.

“He’d say, ’I left my car at the airport. Can you go get it for me?’” Robin recalls with some embarrassment. “And we’d go get it. We did too much for Malone, but that’s what people have always done for him.”

One day Malone called Robin and asked if he had seen that week’s issue of Sports Illustrated.

“See that girl on the front, Debbie Thomas, that ice skater?” Robin recalls the star asking him. “Well, that’s the girl I want to marry. Get me a date with that girl.”

Almost as funny as Malone’s asking this with a straight face is Robin’s admitting he actually spent a week trying to find the skater’s phone number.

If this were Alcoholics Anonymous the Blake-leys might be termed enablers. Like many agents, they were so ecstatic over signing one of basketball’s greatest talents that they did virtually anything to keep him-and perhaps worse, they let Malone know it. They found themselves in a classic dilemma for any sports agent with a conscience-pamper your star and he never matures; force him to mature and he leaves for a more indulgent agent.

“We wondered all the time,” Robin says, “if we were part of the problem, or part of the solution.”

Robin admits he was usually the one who jumped through Malone’s hoops, not his father. “Dad was always very direct with Karl,” said Robin. “He’d tell him if he thought he was wasting money. But Karl hated to hear that.”

And so the end came one afternoon with a phone call, and yet another demand.

“I’ve got three questions for you,” Robin remembers Malone’s saying to him. “First, is there anybody in the NBA playing better than me?” To that. Robin replied there wasn’t.

“Number two,” Malone continued, “is there anyone better-looking in the NBA than me?” No. nobody, Robin told him, chuckling at the memory of watching Malone flex his massive biceps in front of their office mirrors,

’”Well, then, if that’s all true,” Malone asked, “why don’t I have a national McDonald’s endorsement deal like Michael Jordan?”

Robin reassured the star that everything possible was being done about endorsement deals, but he had to deliver one bit of reality to Malone: McDonaid’s wasn’t giving up Michael Jordan for the Mailman or the entire U.S. Postal Service.

At that point, Malone snapped, “That’s not good enough,” and hung up.

Malone left owing the Blakeleys their 4 percent fee for the year. They later settled out of court for about $180,000.

Through his Salt Lake City attorney, Malone refused all requests for interviews concerning this article and his relationship with the Blakeleys. He did. however, tell the Los Angeles Times that after being born and being drafted in the NBA-the two most important days of his life-the third most eventful was when “I got rid of my agent. I’ll never have an agent again.”

Malone reportedly negotiated his last contract with the Utah Jazz by himself. It pays him $18 million over ten years.

THERE ARE, IN FACT. MANY HONEST AND BENEFICIAL SPORTS agents, but it’s not hard to see why plenty of them aren’t.

From college baseball, basketball, and football programs each year come a few hundred young athletes, the majority of whom prove to be, at best, naive about the business of professional sports. Of course, it doesn’t help that some of them are functionally illiterate. It’s not uncommon to find rookie NBA players, many of them millionaires, who do not know how to write a personal check or even change an airline ticket. The Blakeleys caught on to this when one of their former clients had several of his checks returned to them. He had signed them without filling in the amount-a true blank check.

Imagine the delight of a fly-by-night agent who gets to explain the concept of, say, “power of attorney” to a monosyllabic seven-footer. “Don’t worry, son.” the pitch might go. “This way you won’t have to worry about writing all those confusing checks.” By the time the player catches on. if he ever does, a new season brings in another crop of innocents.

And there is no bar exam, no med school for aspiring agents. In Texas, one of the few states to regulate agents, agents-to-be must simply register with the secretary of state and pay a $1,000 fee. But with all of the easy money available, there is not much reason for an athlete to squeal on an agent who’s recruited him improperly.

The incentive for entering the business is obvious. In the NBA, 1989 contracts for first-round draft picks ranged from about $1.5 million to $10 million over two to five years. All agents receive a standard 4 percent fee for negotiating an NBA contract. Some agents get their cut up front: others, like the Blakeleys, get paid quarterly or as the player gets paid by his team. (And yes, it’s true: some NBA All-Stars stiff their agents entirely, secure in the knowledge that most won’t risk the bad press by suing the player.)

And then there are the numerous lucrative fringe benefits, like the endorsement deals for wearing certain basketball shoes. The Detroit Pistons’ Isiah Thomas, for example, will receive $300,000 this year for lacing up a pair of Pumas every game. Agents normally take a 10 to 20 percent cut from deals such as these, posters, TV commercials, and promotional appearances.

Not surprisingly, the competition among agents for the elite athletes is often devious and vengeful. Last year New York sports agent Norby Walters was convicted in federal court of fraud and conspiracy to commit extortion in connection with the signing of forty-three college athletes, whose loyalty he tried to ensure by using Mafia muscle. Walters, who is white, openly said he recruited only black athletes-paying some of them more than $20,000 to sign-and curried favor by giving them record albums, flying them to the Grammy Awards, or, in one case, dropping thousands in cash on a hotel floor just for effect. Because of people like Walters, the word “agent” has gathered such bad connotations that the country’s largest firms, such as Advantage International, call their people “client representatives.”

One of the most difficult tasks the Blakeleys have is trying to convince impressionable athletes who have grown up poor that they should show some restraint when they are handed almost unfathomable fortunes. One of their clients signed a multimillion-dollar contract, yet has had serious credit problems because his relatives opened charge accounts in his name. After the player almost had his house foreclosed upon, TSI took over his finances and placed him on an allowance.

Robin remembers the day he was sitting in Spud Webb’s car trying to convince the Atlanta Hawks star that in his then-strained financial condition he didn’t need to be buying a new Mercedes. “Spud was furious.” Robin says. “He made me get out, and he just drove off and left me there in the parking lot. I took a cab home.”

The Blakeleys only tell that story because they know Webb’s ego is secure enough that he can laugh about it, too. Their relationship with Webb is one of TSI’s biggest success stories.

“Only two people in the world,” says Bill Blakeley, “believed Spud could ever play pro basketball. Spud and me.1” The PR man in Robin almost glows when he talks about the marketability of Spud, whose autobiography. Flying High, he helped initiate. “I was ecstatic when we got him on the Carson show,” he says. “I was thrilled when I walked into a grocery store and actually saw his picture on a granola bar. I get more thrills out of that than watching |them] score thirty points every night.”

[)H THE BLAKELEYS, BECOMING SPORTS agents seemed like the logical thing to do back in 1984. Bill had been a basketball coach in Texas for twenty-six years at virtually every level, from one semester at Blackwell High School (between Abilene and San Angelo) to a semi-pro team in Dallas to St. Mark’s School of Texas (1957-66, where he coached rockers Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller in football) to now-defunct Christian College of the Southwest in Mesquite (1966-70; his 1970 team was ranked the number one junior college team in the country) to the Dallas Chaparrals of the bizarre and wonderful American Basketball Association, three years in real estate, and finally to North Texas State University from 1975 to 1983.

The divinely weird ABA was perfectly suited to Bill, whose childhood dream was to be a Harlem Globetrotter. Robin remembers watching his dad get thrown out of a Chaparrals game at SMU’s Moody Coliseum. Bill made his way to the upper section of seats, where he wrote out instructions, wadded them up in Coke cups, and carefully tossed them down to the Chaparrals’ bench. The refs eventually caught on and fined him $500, but the reporters loved it. “I think my father always thought he was in the entertainment business,” Robin says.

Beginning in 1975 Blakeley gave basketball fans a reason to drive to Denton. On a “normal” night, the crane-like coach, standing six-foot-six with a Fu Manchu mustache, might be wearing a tuxedo, ostrich hide boots, and a green bow tie, or a pair of his hyper-festive bell bottoms. Blakeley would often prowl the sidelines, boil over at an official’s call, throw his sports coat to the ceiling, and then get thrown out of the game.

In his first three years at North Texas, Blakeley’s teams went 22-4. 21-6, and 22-6, and they were once ranked in the Top Twenty, but the Eagles never got invited to the NCAA tournament. For this and perhaps other sins, Blakeley describes the NCAA as “one notch below the Mafia.” After that heyday came five consecutive mediocre seasons, leading to Blakeley’s firing in 1983.

Blakeley says he had several college coaching offers outside Texas, but none seemed as good as staying in Dallas with Rosemary, his wife of thirty-four years, and going into the agent business with Robin. Blakeley allows himself an occasional “what if” when he sees a famous college coach on television, but he seems at peace with the relative anonymity of an agent’s life and satisfied beyond all fatherly dreams that he gets to work with Robin and his youngest son, Jeff, also a TSI staffer. The three have an enviable family and business relationship in which they openly seek each other’s advice but feel free to challenge each other’s judgment. And after work they can still go shoot baskets together.

Dallas Mavericks general manager Norm Sonju says contract negotiations with Blakeley, while perhaps not simple, are always clear and to the point because “Bill honestly knows the value of a basketball player. He understands talent.”

Using that understanding, Bill had Mavericks fans pacing the floor this past summer as he negotiated for the team’s first-round draft choice, Randy White, who was also being wooed by a Greek team. Perhaps from another agent it might have seemed a fairly predictable bluff, but since TSI already had three players on European team rosters and the Greek owner was vigorously blowing in White’s ear, the Mavericks paid attention.

“Oh, I took the Greek offer very seriously,” Sonju says. “Bill is blatantly honest. There is no hidden agenda.”

After rejecting Mavericks offers that were heavy in incentives clauses-part of White’s salary would be based on minutes played, for example-Blakeley approved a five-year, guaranteed, $4,025 million contract. Afterward, Sonju pointed out that Blakeley would have made more money on his commission if he had let White go to Greece. “Instead of 10 percent of the gross [more than $100,000] that Greece offered,” Sonju recalled, “Bill got 4 percent [the NBA standard] from the player. He put his economic gain secondary to what was good for his client. That’s pretty impressive.”

The Blakeleys are hoping that White, who played at the same school as Karl Malone and even resembles him, can avoid some of the Mailman’s mistakes. It is safe to say they watch after him carefully. They make sure he shows up for promotional appearances; they tell him to get a haircut three days before his Mavericks publicity photo; they’re guiding him into conservative investments. Bill has even advised White to get a prenuptial agreement should he consider marriage.

“He preaches to me all the time about saving money,” White says. “Every time I see Robin or Bill I know that’s something I’ll hear from them constantly because they want to make sure I’m conscious of having money when I’m through playing. Karl hated that, but I appreciate it.”

SOMETIMES IT’S HARD TO SEE A RESEMblance between Robin and Bill Blakeley, but perhaps because of that they complement each other perfectly.

Bill wears more gold (watch, bracelet, two rings, neck chains) than his Church of Christ pewmates probably like, drives only Cadillacs, and occasionally chews (never smokes) a cigar. Robin, a close double for TV’s “Wiseguy,” likes Armani suits, crisp collars, tight knots, and is, much to the dismay of some women in his building, married.

Bill tells juicy tales out of school about lecherous basketball coaches and corrupt college athletic programs, and then warns “you can’t use that!” when a reporter asks for more details. He can good ol’ boy all day long if needed, but he is not someone to be screwed with in business deals and he remembers old broken promises like bile in his morning coffee. Several NBA general managers, each of whom complimented Blakeley, described his negotiating style in one word-direct.

Robin, who’s thirty-three and teaches a Church of Christ Sunday school class, is the smooth talker, the diplomat, but he seems almost too earnest and accommodating to be for real-too much, perhaps, for his own good. In some of the letters Robin sent to Karl Malone in the final days-letters he freely volunteers-he all but pleads for Malone to stay when every instinct might have told other businessmen to kiss the problem goodbye. “I think I’ve swallowed a lot of frustration over the years,” Robin says. “I’ve been taken advantage of before in this business. I’ve not been very confrontational. Now I realize I have to do a little of that. I’ve definitely become more callous.”

Robin’s expertise in marketing comes largely from his three years (1978 to 1981) with the Association of Tennis Professionals, and later with the sports agency ProServ, as tour director for the Volvo Tennis Grand Prix. He returned to Dallas in 1983, worked a year with another sports marketing firm, then formed Talent Sports International a year later. He and his father learned quickly that in the pursuit of superstars, close doesn’t count.

They came close, they say (who ever knows in this business?), to signing Houston Rockets center Akeem Olajuwon when he left the University of Houston after his junior year in 1984. but the Nigerian star was plucked by a rival agent. They came even closer to Olajuwon’s teammate, Michael Young, who was drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics but signed with Boston super-agent Bob Woolf.

Young, who never stuck with the Celtics and bounced around Europe and the CBA for five years, finally made it back to the NBA this season with the Los Angeles Clippers. This time around he signed with the Blakeleys.

“I now know I made a terrible mistake in not signing with them originally.” Young says. “What makes Bill Blakeley special is that he won’t lie to you, even if it’s bad. He’s gonna tell you straight up, and that’s the best thing a kid can have in an agent.”

Sadly, telling it straight up has distinct disadvantages in the sports agent business. Simple, basic lying is a time-honored tradition among many players and agents. The deception starts as early as the player’s junior or senior year of college, if not earlier, when the sleaziest agents leech on to the best players in the country, slipping them money, jewelry, stereos, sometimes even cars, in exchange for a signature on a contract.

Some players began selling their signatures to anyone in wingtips, sometimes actually signing contracts with three or four agents in return for easy cash. (Several reputable agents who have competed head-to-head against the Blakeleys-and presumably wouldn’t mind accusing them of improprieties-said they knew of no allegations of misconduct against them or the TSI staff.)

Some agents pump their quarry with tales about how they’ll go high in the first round of the NBA draft, how they’ll get guaranteed five-million-dollar deals and be on every milk carton in America. Jeff Blakeley, the youngest son, says his dad has lost some players because he wasn’t willing to engage in such sleight of mouth. “Dad will just tell ’em, ’Sorry, but you’re going in the fourth round at best. You can’t make the NBA, but maybe I can get you in Europe.’ They absolutely hate to hear that.”

Contrary to the largely negative image of sports agents, Bill Blakeley doesn’t spend every day dining on duck with groveling NBA owners, niggling over a million here, a million there. Whole afternoons often pass without Blakeley’s having to buy a Porsche for a needy scholar-athlete or consult with guys named Guido from Vegas. There are plenty of days when Blakeley just sits contentedly in his sixth-floor Centrum office talking hoops on the phone.

“Luther, just keep up the good work. I’m proud of you,” Blakeley tells a former Dallas high school player now languishing in the Continental Basketball Association.

“You’ll be back in the big leagues next year, Luther…You gotta keep your head right, though… Don’t let that bother you, coming off the bench. As long as you’re getting those quality minutes, that’s all that matters.”

Classic coachtalk. He could do it standing on his head with his eyes closed. The phone rings again.

“Choo, what’s going on?” Blakeley sings to another CBA player, knowing instinctively the purpose of the call. “I’m still running my traps, Choo. I’ve got your name out there. You’ve got plenty of good years left. Choo.”

A great day for phone work. While you were out, Bill: client Mookie Blaylock (New Jersey Nets), a Greek team owner, a player’s wife, a lawyer who wants to be an agent, two players in Europe, an NBA general manager fishing for talent, and even an old coaching buddy, Oklahoma’s Billy Tubbs.

“I ought to tell the Tubber to call the Mavericks about John MacLeod’s job,” Blakeley says, referring to the Mavs’ former coach who was fired last November. “The Tubber wouldn’t take any crap off those guys.”

Blakeley should have phone ear by now, but he can do this all day. He’ll even talk with the guys who are third cousins to Wilt Chamberlain and used to reverse jam two-handed, but then hurt their knee, and then…

“I literally have guys call me who maybe didn’t even play in high school” Blakeley says. “They’ve been working out on their own and now they’re ready for the big time. They’ll call and say. ’Is this Bill Blakeley? I’m ready for you to represent me.’ I have to tell ’em I’m not Oral Roberts. I’m not into miracles.”

He stares into his hands. “It’s humorous and it’s sad. I try to tell them, ’change your goals. Channel your dreams elsewhere.’ But it’s a way of surviving for a lot of these kids. I understand their love of the game. I’m addicted, too.”