Master P is a walking incongruity, a man whose music is laced with violent images and drug references yet who preaches tolerance and says he refrains from using drugs and even alcohol. He fought his way out of a New Orleans ghetto to found No Limit and turn it into America's top independent record label. He went on to establish a diversified business empire; Forbes magazine ranked him 10th on its 1998 list of highest-grossing entertainers, with earnings of $56.5 million. "I wanted a sports agency only when I saw the way athletes were being mishandled, the way agents only cared about them when they were playing," Master P says. "I know guys who played in the NBA or the NFL who are working in grocery stores or worse. We're looking to make a change in our community. And I'm only interested in clients who want to do the right thing."
On a warm evening in late May, Master P is making money and playing basketball—his two favorite activities. He and at least a dozen members of his No Limit crew have gathered at Soundcastle, a music studio several miles east of Hollywood, where he's producing a CD by a woman rapper named Mercedes. Before that bit of business, Master P spends a half hour hustling small bills from an R&B singer named Smokey in a shot-for-shot contest on a court with a crooked rim. When Smokey ups the ante before one attempt, Master P scoffs, "This is how I supported myself before I started rapping. In the projects they had a guy with a gun pointed at me saying, 'You'd better make it.' " Master P cans his next three shots. "The Hornets didn't cut me 'cause I can't play? he bellows. "They cut me 'cause I make rap music."
Given that rappers, as a rule, make boxers seem humble, Master P's boast seems to be made for effect. Hornets coach Paul Silas, who was an assistant with Charlotte at the time of Master P's tryout, says the 6'3" guard, who enjoyed some success as a high school player in New Orleans and at Merritt Junior College in Oakland, was overmatched against NBA competition. "If he worked on his game constantly for an entire year, he might have a chance," Silas says. "He really has to speed up his game even to get a shot off on this level."
In addition to his record label Master P owns numerous other businesses, including a film-production outfit, a clothing line and a real estate firm, but what he really wants is to be a player in the sports world. Until his agency landed Williams, however, its most prominent clients were a pair of former Kentucky basketball players: Cleveland Cavaliers guard Derek Anderson and Boston Celtics swingman Ron Mercer. Last winter Master P began pursuing Williams. He paid a late-night visit to the player's hotel room in Orlando, where Williams was attending the ESPN College Football Awards. A surprised Williams asked Master P for an autograph, but nothing else happened.
In January, Williams signed with Woolf Associates—the Boston firm that had negotiated part of his contract to play baseball during the summer in the Philadelphia Phillies' organization, which had drafted Williams in 1995—to represent him in the NFL, but he soon became disenchanted with the agency. "They had me driving around in a car with no insurance," Williams says, "and when I wanted to hook up with a marketing firm [ISI], they saw it as a threat. They didn't have my interests at heart. That experience pushed me away from the conventional way of doing things. It's a dirty business, but No Limit's not really in it yet, so I guess you could say they're innocent. I don't really think they'd know how to bull——me, to tell you the truth. They're the only ones that didn't." (Asked for a response, Woolf Associates president Gregg Clifton declined to address the car-insurance issue and denied Williams's charge regarding ISI. He said his agency's relationship with the player ended "because of philosophical differences.")
It wasn't until after signing with No Limit, Williams says, that he came to know the firm's "family atmosphere," which he discovered during a visit to Master P's house in Baton Rouge in February. Williams had already been introduced to the New York-based Hardy, who had been brought into the No Limit fold by Master P the previous October. "He's a guy who's been underrated all his life and just needed an establishment to let him show his skills," Master P says of Hardy, who months earlier had attempted to sell him a movie script. Hardy says he wrote the as-yet-unsold script Dice—about an ex-convict who tries to save his uncle's business by helping to bust a drug ring—during a 96-hour creative marathon.
Such grand proclamations aren't uncommon for Hardy, who once sent out a résumé cover letter in which he referred to himself as "the most interesting young man in the country." He earned a pair of master's degrees from Penn, one in international studies and one in business administration from the Wharton School of Finance; took first place in a national Spanish contest for non-native speakers in 1979; and spent 4½ months in '84 at the Beijing Foreign Language Institute, where he became fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
As a boxer Hardy won the 1983 Pennsylvania Golden Gloves heavyweight championship and, two summers later, hooked up with Muhammad Ali when the Champ toured China. Hardy, who later boxed professionally as the Fighting Stockbroker (record: 8-3-1) while working as a Bear Stearns retail account executive in Manhattan, served as Ali's interpreter and ended up sparring with him publicly. He says he and Ali have been close ever since.
"Leland is like Forrest Gump—I never underestimate where he might end up," says Seattle attorney Keven Davis, the chief adviser to tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, with whom Hardy has a less formal business relationship. "He might be dining with premiers or going around China with Ali, and you say to yourself, What's he doing there?—but he's there. He's the most confident person I've ever met. If it's the bottom of the ninth, two outs, and his team is down 15 runs and facing an 0-and-2 count with the bases empty, Leland will believe a rally's coming soon."
Hardy's wife of eight years, Rosetta Garries, a plastic surgeon who moonlights as a cut person for several boxers, chides him for being a pack rat, a hopeless optimist and maddeningly even-tempered. "I've never seen him get angry or even raise his voice," says Garries. "He's like one of these postal workers you hear about: calm all their lives, and then—boom!—they explode."