Inside the NBA
Few know more about players than personal "fixer"
Posted: Monday March 5, 2007 1:25PM; Updated: Monday March 5, 2007 1:33PM
John is, by trade, a secretary, a friend, a manager, a wingman, a middle man. John knows people who know things. Actually, his name is not John, but I cannot tell you his real name. I know several people who work in a similar field as John, but I can't share their names, either. John is that doorman with long braids and a faux-European attitude, deciding exactly who does and does not get behind the velvet rope. Maybe the easiest way to describe what John does is to say that John gets things done for people who hire him. Specifically, for NBA players who hire him. Need a car? A house? Someone to take care of your stuff? Tickets for your wife and girlfriend? John's job is to be their fixer.
I've known John for about five years, but we had never met in person until the Saturday of NBA All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas -- until that point, we'd corresponded completely though e-mail. If he'd turned out to be a figment of my imagination or a 6-foot rabbit, I wouldn't have been completely surprised. But as Phil Collins taught us, this is the world we live in and these are the hands we're given. And in this world, technology can connect the unlikeliest of people, people who probably would never meet if it weren't for the anonymity of e-mail. John and I met this way. Once I noticed that the things John was writing me about checked out, I knew John was someone worth listening to.
People like John can be the NBA's worst nightmare. They know everyone, they hear everything, and they have very little institutional loyalty. In many ways, people like John are fixers for me, too; they make my job easier. John is another set of eyes and ears for me. He hears rumors and trade scenarios that I would never hear. And because of the way all of this works, as long as I don't tell anyone who John actually is, he will continue to pass information along to me.
This is how I, and you, can hear about the secret NBA. We can hear about how John saw a former NBA player throwing $1,000 worth of $1 bills around a club. "Stacks and stacks of $1 bills," John recalls. "They'd split and fly apart in the air. And he threw one stack of $1's that didn't split apart and just drilled some poor woman in the head."
He's seen an NBA player buy 100 shots of tequila at a club. He saw two NBA players bet a significant chunk of change on an NFL game, then have trouble getting the loser of the bet -- a millionaire several times over -- to pony up.
Who John is may not be as interesting to you as what John is and how he got there. John was a basketball player his entire life, even playing college ball. He spent his summers on the basketball camp circuit, making connections here and there. He thought about going into coaching after college, but saw the crowded road was ahead of him. Next thing he knew he found himself helping some friends looking for basketball work. Then he met someone who knew someone who knew someone, and before long he was working for an NBA player. That blossomed into a few relationships, and before long he had a few other NBA players as clients.
"You've seen it, Lang, being around NBA players," John told me this weekend. "NBA players can be so guarded, except within the NBA circle. If a player I'm working for introduces me to another player, it's almost like I have an endorsement from the player. The player's circle of trust is pretty small. Almost every player has a guy living with them wherever they are, and those are the people I keep in contact with."
So this ad-hoc network exists, a layer of people who get things for guys who have everything. These people keep in touch with each other, passing on tips and phone numbers. They can tell you which NBA player is most likely to go bankrupt when his playing days end, which teams have GMs who understand the value of team chemistry, which teams have GMs who spend time looking for dirt on their players.
He is not, John stresses, what is known to many in NBA circles as a "runner," a guy who works for one agent trying to poach clients away from other agents. "The biggest stigma is probably that 'runner' label," John says. "I'm not going to say I'm any better than that stigma. I do what I do because I enjoy working for guys in a client/service relationship. I'm not fascinated with messing up the structure of the NBA. I don't hang out at high school gyms and offer kids shoes or that sort of mess. But it is really a gray area."
Charcoal, presumably, though most situations have clear delineations that come back to class and cash. If one of his guys gets traded, for instance, John's the one alone late at night packing up boxes at the guy's house. While he says he makes a comfortable living, when John's out for dinner with the people he works with, he'll never have the nicest car, the biggest jewelry, the most bank.
"Well, there aren't many things I don't have the capabilities of doing," explains John of the financial constraints and discrepancies. "The thing is, my player's watch might be worth $3,000 and mine might be worth $300, but they both tell time."
Eventually the time will come to move ahead, and John has an exit plan in place. Right now he's still young enough to hustle and put in the work. So for a while he'll remain the guy taking and receiving all the calls and e-mails. And he'll remain the guy I call when I need access to the NBA players he works with, as well as the guy I trade gossip and rumors with. John's replica jersey will never be on sale at the NBA Store, and yet without him and those who do similar jobs, the NBA would not work. You will probably never read about John again, and you will most likely never know his name.
Which, come to think of it, is probably exactly how he wants it.
Lang Whitaker is the executive editor of SLAM magazine and writes daily at SLAMonline.com.