These events occurred almost simultaneously in this winter of 1991: 1) Raghib (Rocket) Ismail of Notre Dame announced that he would forfeit his final year of collegiate eligibility to enter the NFL draft, and 2) several men in well-tailored suits hatched a plan to launch Rocket into orbit in a sports-marketing galaxy inhabited only by the likes of Magic, Michael and Bo.
Ismail's marketeers can see a day when America's young will be able to pull on Rocket hightops—careful not to snag the laces on the tiny metallic afterburners—and pop into convenience stores to pick up milk chocolate Rocket Bars. The candy could be right next to the microwaveable Rocket burritos, and only one aisle over from a soda cooler filled with Rocket Fuel, the sports drink in the bottle with the aerodynamic fins. Back home again, the kids could flick on the tube and watch Rocket the cartoon hero go head-to-head with Rocket J. Squirrel for the four- to 24-year-old viewing audience.
During the otherwise unremarkable January afternoon on which he announced his decision, Ismail was transformed from a mild-mannered college junior to a mild-mannered tycoon-in-the-making, from a spritely flanker and kick returner to the centerpiece of a budding conglomerate called Team Rocket. Hey, NASA, can't you find some promotional tie-in with this Rocket guy?
So heady are all the commercial possibilities that Ed Abram, for one, urges restraint. Abram is one half of Morcom Sports Enterprises, the agency that will negotiate Ismail's NFL contract with whichever team lands his rights. He is also a much smaller fraction of Team Rocket, a squad of negotiators, litigators, accountants and endorsement specialists whose power ties, laid end to end, would exceed the average length of Ismail's 15 career touchdowns at Notre Dame—62 yards.
"Mr. Ish-male does not want to oversaturate himself," says Abram, meaning, actually, that Ismail doesn't want to oversaturate us. "Mr. Ish-male docs not want to become another John Madden."
That's ISS-my-el, Ed, the first syllable rhyming with the drawn-out "hiss" that arose from Ismail's Notre Dame teammates during film sessions whenever he was seen touching the ball—"to imitate the sound of a lit fuse," says NFL-bound Irish linebacker Michael Stonebreaker.
The nice thing about Rocket's decision to turn pro early is that a sweet, virtuous young man will be financially secure for life. Of course, it also happens that the correct pronunciation of Raghib (that's RAHG-ib) Ismail—a cool name that deserves to be recited correctly—will probably remain a mystery, as it was throughout his three-year career at Notre Dame. Abram was one of four Team Rocket members who got together recently in the 30th-floor conference room of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, a San Francisco law firm, to consume a catered lunch and talk about their meal ticket. Jon Edwards, a 31-year-old corporate-litigation specialist and an associate at the firm, is the team's legal counsel. On this day, the handsome view usually commanded from the law firm's offices—of San Francisco Bay and Treasure Island, two miles away—was obscured by low clouds and intermittent rain. Inside, the mood was bright and unabashedly self-congratulatory.
"With us, a kid already has a negotiator, an athletic representative, an attorney, a financial planner," said Louis Duvernay, Abram's partner and the more reserved half of Morcom. "This way, it's not a situation where he has an agent who has to bring in these strangers on the spur of the moment."
"And it's cost-efficient," said Ralph Grant, a former IRS agent and now an accountant whose clients range from pop singer Pebbles to California Congressman Ronald Dellums. "We are specialists. We do what we do well. We have refined and perfected it over the years. It's not like some agent trying to understand it, then clumsily trying to do it."
"This is not something the other agents look with favor upon," said Abram of the team concept. "We're upsetting the cart. Changing things."