LeBron James’s Agent Is Transforming the Business of Basketball


Paul is proud of his willingness to fight for his clients, but he takes pains to combat the impression that he is constantly doing battle with teams. “You’re not kicking in a door,” he told me of his job. “I think the perception of it is wrong.” He paused for a moment. “What I always focussed on was how to educate the athlete. It’s one thing to be a Black man in America, right? It’s a totally different thing to be a Black athlete.”

For Black athletes, Paul explained, the sudden wealth of an N.B.A. contract comes with a “Black tax”: “Their number of dependents is higher, their education in most cases is lower, their financial literacy is lower, their family infrastructure is lesser.” He began to speak in the voice of a young N.B.A recruit: “So now I become the breadwinner, which makes me the decision-maker. But I don’t really know how to make these decisions or why I am making these decisions. In addition, I have this bond through affection, I have this bond through disparity, I have this bond through guilt. I have this bond through absence. I am looking at the household, I am looking at every decision that has to be made, and I have to do this all with a focus on the money. I also have to look the part, which means I have to have the biggest car, I have to have the biggest house, I have to have the fanciest everything.”

Paul and others at Klutch said that they see their job not only as making money for players but also as teaching them how to spend it. When I asked Fara Leff, the chief operating officer, how the company defines player empowerment, she told me, “Putting them in a decision-making role and educating them—not just putting paper or deals in front of them, but really talking to them and educating them about being a basketball or a football player.”

Paul believes that he’s in a unique position to help Black athletes. But he also thinks that many of them are reluctant to sign up with a Black agent. “If you go back in the history of representation, again, there were very few Black agents,” he said. “There were very few families that had solid family infrastructure. So, you had Grandma really leading the charge, right? Well, who’s Grandma going to listen to? She’s going to listen to head coach. And head coach, in more cases than not, was probably not going to look like the player.”

During our conversations, Paul kept returning to how the Black community viewed his role. “We’re going from us feeling like, when you come in a room, if you see more Black people in the room, you’re in the wrong room. No, you’re in the right room. That mentality years ago, we have to change that,” he said.

Draymond Green, an all-star forward for the Golden State Warriors and a Klutch client, told me he agreed with Paul’s assessment: “There was always kind of this thought that, for African-American players, the best-fitting person to represent us wasn’t one of ours.”

At the same time, Paul said, “It’s very difficult for me to represent a white player.” I expressed surprise that this was the case.

“It just is. Look around. There’s very few,” he said. “I represent a player from Bosnia. But, again, he’s international. He looks at it different.”

“So white players who are American don’t want a Black agent?” I asked him.

“They’ll never say that,” Paul answered, cracking a rare smile. “But they don’t. I think there’s always going to be that cloud over America.”

In early May, Paul was in Cleveland for the N.F.L. draft. He showed me Glenville, the neighborhood where he grew up, on the east side of the city. When Paul was young, he said, there was a family in every house, and he and his brother knew the names of the people in each one. Now even the main streets of Glenville looked empty, and nearly every residential block had several abandoned houses. As we drove past a mural proclaiming “Our Lives Matter,” Paul pointed to a lot where he used to meet friends and play ball. It was now overgrown with weeds. His gleaming white Mercedes attracted attention, but it wasn’t clear if people were staring at the car or at him. Paul seemed to know many of those we passed, all of whom looked happy to see him.

Paul spent his early years with his mother and three siblings. His father, Rich, Sr., owned a corner store, R & J Confectionery. Paul described his father as serious and business-oriented, which is how everyone in Cleveland described Paul as a child. There wasn’t much to eat some nights, but his dad occasionally splurged on something his kids wanted. Two people close to Paul in Cleveland recalled that he wore a tiny tuxedo to his third-grade graduation.

“I definitely wanted to be an athlete” as a kid, Paul told me. He played basketball and football, but it was obvious that he wasn’t headed for a professional career. “Your heart is big, but I’m small in size,” he said, so he tried to think more like his dad, “as an entrepreneur and businessman.” Paul recalled that, at night, he stayed up late to watch the N.B.A. Western Conference games, and he studied every element of the players’ behavior, “everything from mannerisms to what they said at press conferences.” When he was twelve, he played in a local basketball league’s championship game, and he was named most valuable player. Because he had spent so much time studying N.B.A. broadcasts, he said, “I kind of knew how to handle myself in the interview, thanking my teammates and so on.”

Paul’s mother, Peaches, battled drug abuse for much of her life, and when Paul was ten he went to live with his grandmother and a great-uncle, in a house several blocks away. He said of his mother, “I was never really angry, but I was definitely protective, and I was definitely sad in a lot of ways. Because, as a kid, you see other kids and their experience with their parents, and you want the same.” (Peaches died, after getting clean, in 2016.)

When Paul was in ninth grade, his father sent him to Benedictine High School, which was Roman Catholic, and mostly white. Paul was excited that it offered what he called “a bigger stage” for basketball. “My dad was enthusiastic about it because he felt I would get a better education,” he said. “He didn’t really give a shit about basketball.”

Paul and James have been close friends since James was a teen-ager. “I always felt that he had a purpose,” James said.

In 1999, when Paul was in college, at the University of Akron, his father was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Paul transferred to Cleveland State to be closer to him. His father died a few months later, and Paul dropped out of school. “He was always telling me my education was important,” Paul said. “I always wanted to work. But I still probably would have finished school if my father was alive. I never wanted to let him down.”

We pulled up near an empty lot—the site of R & J Confectionery.

“This is my first time seeing it tore down,” Paul said. “I’m so used to seeing a building right here.” He told me that he plans to buy the lot. Paul’s brother, Meco, who still lives in Cleveland, got into the car and began reminiscing. “That boy ain’t switched up at all,” he said of his brother. “He was exactly how he is right now. There’s really no change, just he got a little bigger.”

As Paul drove, the brothers talked about the neighborhood and the tragedies that had taken place there. Paul kept pointing out telephone poles and trees that had been turned into shrines for victims of gun violence.

“You’ve been to my house in Beverly Hills,” he said to me. Now, showing me his old neighborhood, he asked, “Would you think there was a way out?”



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