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Three years later, in 1950, Fleisher entered Harvard Law School, where he quickly acquired a reputation as an organizer. He put together an intramural basketball team that included Derek Bok, current president of Harvard; Quentin Kopp, now a successful attorney and, in 1979, an unsuccessful San Francisco mayoral candidate; and H. Lee Sarokin, a federal district court judge in Newark. The law school all-stars once played on the undercard of a Celtics game. As a student Fleisher was solid but undisciplined. "Larry was a crammer," remembers Sarokin. "And cramming in law school is a lot different from cramming in college."
Fleisher's first client was Bill Bradley, who in 1967, two years out of Princeton and fresh from a Rhodes scholarship, retained him to negotiate his contract with the New York Knicks. Fleisher was then doubling as vice-president of Restaurant Associates, a management firm that runs such New York restaurants as The Four Seasons, Charley O's and Mamma Leone's.
The Bradley pact was by far the largest NBA player contract signed to that point, estimated at $750,000 over four years, and it started the trend toward astronomical player salaries. For Fleisher it led to contacts with other Knicks and, eventually, connections with college stars about to turn pro. Fleisher represents, or has represented, David Thompson, Bob Lanier, Paul Silas and Jim Paxson. He has remained close to most of his players, and it's said that he and writer John McPhee are among the most intimate advisers to Bradley, now a U.S. Senator from New Jersey. Fleisher has invested with several of his clients in a hotel on the Ivory Coast, and Havlicek has gone in with him on three Wendy's restaurants.
Like a Wendy's double, Fleisher is thickly put together and comes off as a square. But his midsection is solid from a regular regimen of squash, and his mind is a lode of labor law, accounting and basketball knowledge. "He's a very able negotiator," says Portland Trail Blazers owner Larry Weinberg, a member of the labor relations committee that helped work out the latest settlement. "In fact, one reason the league has gotten into difficulties is that Larry did too good a job of negotiating over the years."
Weinberg does not intend this as a compliment. "You have to leave enough on the other guy's table to keep him in business," he says.
Fleisher can be just as opinionated about the men who own the NBA franchises, many of whom are self-styled liberals. "Your only real costs are your players," he says. "There's something sick with a system in which someone can say 'I own Moses Malone.' Even if he paid $13.2 million for his services, he doesn't own him. What seems at first to be just semantics eventually pervades people's thinking."
But for their part, many owners feel that, as player agent and union head, Fleisher has conflicting interests. It's a charge that has dogged him for 15 years. One concern is that requests for player appearances and endorsements that routinely come into the Players Association office could be funneled to Fleisher's clients. More significant, it's been questioned whether a lawyer can represent the so-called superstars at the same time he's presumably bargaining for the interests of less talented players. Says Fred Slaughter, an agent, "Look at the players he represents. They're all at the top. He tends to negotiate collective bargaining settlements that are top-heavy elitist, if you will."
Sometimes Fleisher does find himself in paradoxical positions. Soon after negotiating boxcar figures with the Knicks for the services of free agent Marvin Webster in 1978, he criticized the huge compensation award the Seattle Super-Sonics received in return because he feared its size would inhibit teams from bidding for free agents. Said Boston Celtics president Red Auerbach, "Fleisher first extols the virtues of Webster, and Webster gets a fantastic contract, and then, as head of the Players Association, he turns around and says, 'Hey, he's not that good.' "
"The whole world knows about my situation, and I only represent players" Fleisher says. "There are people who represent both sides, labor and management, and I'd never do that. I know more than other agents know, which helps me do a better job." During informal sessions, initiated by Fleisher, the New York State Bar Association's ethics committee cleared him of any conflict of interest.