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SALARY ASIDE, the closest analogue to a pro athlete is not a white-collar executive. It's a lottery winner—who's often in his early twenties. "With athletes, there's an extraordinary metamorphosis of financial challenge," says agent Leigh Steinberg, who has represented the NFL's No. 1 pick a record eight times. "Coming off college scholarships, they probably haven't even learned the basics of budgeting or keeping receipts." Which then triggers two fatal mistakes: hiring the wrong people as advisers, and trusting them far too much.
"That's the killer," Magic Johnson says. Johnson started out by admitting he knew nothing about business and seeking counsel from the power brokers who sat courtside at the old L.A. Forum, men such as Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz and Sony Pictures CEO Peter Guber. Now, Johnson says, he gets calls from star players "every day"—Alex Rodriguez, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Plaxico Burress—and cuts them short if they propose relying on friends and family. "It won't even be a conversation," says Johnson. "They hire these people not because of expertise but because they're friends. Well, they'll fail."
Says Hunter, "They'll say, 'I got this guy, a cousin who's an accountant.' But he's usually an accountant in the 'hood. You hire him, you're doing him a favor."
Strickland realized that all too late. In 2001, when a "friend of a close friend" of the nine-year NBA vet proposed a real-estate deal in Georgia, Strickland turned to his business manager: his dad, Matthew, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. The paperwork on the plot of land, which was on sale for $1.8 million but supposedly had been appraised at as much as $3 million, appeared legitimate, and Strickland bought it. "I trusted my father to help look it over for me because I was hooping and didn't have time," Erick says. "He checked it out. But he didn't go that extra length."
The land wasn't worth anything close to what Strickland was told. "I had to take that hit," he says. "I wish my dad hadn't been put in that position. He just didn't have the knowledge." As for his close friend? Strickland says the man secretly got a cut of the deal, and the conflict caused a permanent "falling out" between them.
Relatives are not the only ones foolishly trusted with athletes' money. One up-and-coming guard in the NBA allows his entire fortune to be managed by his former AAU coach, who has the player's power of attorney. In a meeting with Butowsky in December, the guard's dad admitted that he has no idea who the son's accountant is and said he wanted a financial "intervention."
The NBA player's ignorance of his own affairs is not unique. According to Bob Young, the managing director of Apex Wealth Management in Doylestown, Pa., "You'll say to a player, 'How are you doing?' A lot of the time they'll respond, 'I have no idea.' All the bills are paid by someone else, and none of the statements go to [the athlete]."
In fact, according to the NFL Players Association, at least 78 players lost a total of more than $42 million between 1999 and 2002 because they trusted money to financial advisers with questionable backgrounds. In this rogues' gallery Robert Allen Stanford looks almost presidential—and shows that even when athletes trust financiers of high repute, things can go disastrously wrong. The dubious advisers included Luigi DiFonzo—a former felon who claimed he was an Italian count and defrauded players such as Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson before committing suicide in August 2000—and disgraced agent William (Tank) Black, who built a pyramid scheme that took a total of about $15 million from at least a dozen players, including Patriots running back Fred Taylor.
Just last May, Atlanta hedge fund manager Kirk Wright was convicted on 47 counts of fraud and money laundering in a scheme involving more than $150 million. His client list included at least eight NFL players; former safeties Blaine Bishop (who lost $4 million, according to court documents) and Steve Atwater (who lost $2.7 million) had recruited former Broncos stars Terrell Davis and Rod Smith to Wright's firm, unwittingly making them victims too. Soon after his conviction Wright committed suicide in prison.
In October, Atwater himself received an investment pitch from a fellow athlete. Former quarterback Jeff Blake sent 102 other retired players an e-mail on behalf of Triton Financial, an investment firm in Austin, whose "athlete services" department Blake directs along with three other ex-QBs: Chris Weinke and the brothers Detmer, Ty and Koy. In the e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by SI, Blake claimed without caveat that "Triton is averaging 32% annualized return on its investments within the past five years."