Sunday, February 22, 2009

David Falk: The Bald Truth

Based on our anecdotal perusals of Barnes & Noble and Borders, one of the more notable basketball books of the year can only be found in the business section, rather than in the sports section.

The book is The Bald Truth: Secrets of Success from the Locker Room to the Boardroom by David Falk (Wikipedia bio). During the 1990's, Falk - of course best known as Michael Jordan's agent - was widely considered to not only be the most powerful agent in basketball, but also the second-most-powerful man in basketball overall behind David Stern, with a deep client list which included a generation of stars such as Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Alonzo Mourning, James Worthy, Allen Iverson and John Stockton, plus college coaches John Thompson and Coach K, at one time or another.

Falk still represents a handful of NBA players, including Mike Bibby, Corey Maggette, Jeff Green and Elton Brand, with whom Falk jumped back into headlines last summer, following Brand's contentious breakup with the Clippers and Mike Dunleavy.

We included the Falk book in our preview of '08-09 basketball books last fall, but we were actually a bit reticent to do so. Based on the title and some of the advance information and marketing around The Bald Truth, we were concerned that the book would lean too much in the direction of the self-improvement genre, with a bit too much how-to business mumbo-jumbo for our taste.

So we were pleasantly surprised to discover that - based on the hefty excerpt of Chapter 1 on the Simon & Schuster site, as well as some flipping through in the bookstore - the book reads like a memoir of Falk's 30+-year career as an agent.

The Bald Truth covers all of Falk's most famous NBA deals, from the groundbreaking Air Jordan deal with Nike in '84, to Patrick Ewing's rookie contract with the Knicks in '85, to Danny Ferry's controversial move to shun the Clippers for Italy as the no. 2 pick in '89, to $100M contracts for Zo and (very controversially) Juwan Howard in the mid-'90s, all the way up to the Brand squabbles from last summer. There are indeed business lessons to be learned which are offered up at the end of each chapter, but that kind of stuff really seems to be kept to a minimum.

All in all, The Bald Truth looks like an interesting document of the basketball times, with behind-the-scenes tales from one of the game's most powerful figures, involving negotiations and deals for some of basketball's biggest stars, in an era when sports business and marketing were being revolutionized. Many may be put off because it's really just a bunch of stories about outrageous amounts of money being thrown around. We enjoyed the perspective and observations of an insider. Of course, there's *a lot* of David Falk self-aggrandizement over the course of the telling of tales; it's not at all surprising, just something the reader needs to keep in mind.

I don't know that we'd drop $27 on the hardcover, but The Bald Truth definitely offers a unique enough angle on basketball in the '80s and '90s that we'll be looking to pick up the paperback.

But you can make up your own mind. As we mentioned above, all of Chapter 1, a full 30 pages in the book about lessons Falk learned from John Thompson, is available at the Simon & Schuster site.

Here's a taste of the excerpt, as Falk describes the negotiations of Patrick Ewing's rookie contract with the Knicks in 1984, when he was asking for a 10-year, $30M contract (there was not yet a rookie wage scale in place), a year after Hakeem Olajuwon, by comparison, had gotten a 6-year, $7.2M contract as the no. 1 pick:
    I knew John [Thompson] respected me and what we were trying to do for Patrick, and I understood that the Knicks ownership could not withstand losing the asset value represented by the first lottery pick, a franchise center no less, and coming away with nothing. There was literally no chance the Knicks weren't going to sign Patrick. A tremendous amount of season tickets had been sold and Patrick's picture had been on the cover of the season ticket brochure. What were they going to do, call up all the fans that had already laid out money relying on "Saint Patrick" and tell them they couldn't afford to sign him? They had effectively paid for the contract with the increase in season ticket revenue.

    The summer passed and we remained in a stalemate, a state I've often faced. Though familiar, the situation can test the relationship between the player and agent. I worked for Patrick and he wanted to be updated on the progress of the negotiations. But I knew it was better for him to be unaware of the Knicks position. When the team has made an offer in the neighborhood of $1.2 million a year and I was asking for $3 million, we were more than a tad apart. In fact, we were so far apart that the distance between the two offers was nearly as large as the biggest contract in league history. There are at least two bad outcomes if the client comes to understand the distance between the two sides. One, the client can get extremely nervous that no deal will ever be made. In the player's mind there are only two reasons for such an impasse: either I didn't know what I was doing, or the team didn't believe in the player's value. Two, if the team finally does agree to $3 million and the player knows it really wanted to pay a third of that amount, he's naturally going to think the team was out to cheat him. In that case, the player might get what he wants but the entire relationship starts off on shaky ground.

    This is where the integrity and trust of John Thompson became invaluable. I asked John for his permission, as the parental patriarch, to defer informing Patrick of the details of his own negotiations until we were at least "in the ballpark." I was afraid of the potential ill will implicit in the chasm between our demand for a deal unprecedented in size and scope and the Knicks' desire to "slot" him relative to Olajuwon. For all of John's reputation as a tough guy, he is extremely smart. John understood the wisdom in keeping quiet on the particulars. Without John, I doubt I would have been able to withhold status reports to Patrick, not because he was so demanding but because he was so damn nice.

    I remember the first time Patrick called me at home, soon after I had signed him. He left a message on my answering machine that went something like this: "Good evening Mr. Falk. This is Patrick. I really hate to bother you at home. But I wondered if it was possible for you to give me a buzz back. I just wanted to ask you a question."

    I looked at my wife and said, "Was that a joke? Could that possibly have been Patrick Ewing leaving that message? Could the guy in a hundred years possibly be that polite and that considerate to think he's imposing on my time when he just let me represent the best player in the country?"

    As I came to find out, that was Patrick. To this day he is respectful, thoughtful, considerate, charming, and warm. His personality was at odds with the intensity and power he displayed on the court. It always drove me crazy hearing how fans or writers would refer so negatively to Patrick, and how badly they misunderstood him as a human being. He was more like a big teddy bear, which was exactly how my children and family felt about him.

    True to his kindness, Patrick never pressed me for information on the negotiations. It was John, who finally knew it was time to lay out the cards for Patrick. I told John that we had made some progress and that I was more comfortable briefing Patrick on both parties' position.
Love the Ewing anecdotes there. Falk eventually got Ewing his deal (though he blames his ex-boss/partner Donald Dell for caving on a few issues at the end). But a tale like this sure makes you wonder just how much Elton Brand actually knew about what was happening last summer as things were transpiring, doesn't it?

For more on Falk, we'd say a definitive profile is a NY Times Magazine cover story called "The Big Man Can Deal" from Nov. 17, 1996, when Falk was pretty much at the height of his powers.

Meanwhile, The New Yorker ran a profile of Michael Jordan written by Henry Louis Gates in June, 1998 (available to New Yorker subscribers via the digital reader), which included these notes on Falk's relationship with the key client of his career:
    David Falk, now forty-seven, is tall and bald (albeit not so tall and bald as his most celebrated client), and, with his Zegna suits and StarTac phone, he has become a fixture at the N.B.A.'s draft night, where he gets to exercise his skills at coaxing, cosseting, and cudgeling in rapid succession....

    "Protect your assets" is one of Falk's guiding rules, "assets" being the operative word. For what is perhaps the central relationship in Jordan's career has never been a bond of sentiment. To their credit, the two do not pretend otherwise. Jordan speaks of Falk in terms that are businesslike but not brusque - as someone who can be a son of a bitch ("an a------" is Jordan's precise designation) but his son of a bitch....

    It was in Jordan's rookie year that Falk took his client shoe-shopping. "Instead of asking for offers I asked all the shoe companies to make a presentation to us and explain what they would do to market Michael," Falk recounts. An ailing sneaker company called Nike turned out to be the keenest suitor. "But they still refused to call it the Michael Jordan line," Falk says. "That's when I came up with calling the shoe Air Jordan, as a compromise between Michael Jordan and Nike." The result was then the largest basketball endorsement deal ever - worth about $2.5 million over five years, plus royalties. Falk insisted that the company spend at least a million dollars on promotion, and so guarantee his client that measure of commercial exposure. Nike insisted on an out clause if sales didn;t take off. In fact, Air Jordan revenues reached a hundred and thirty million dollars by the end of the first year, and Nike happily spent several million dollars to promote the line. It was the most successful sneaker launch in history.
Also, Jack McCallum profiled Falk in Sports Illustrated in 1992, in a story called "The Power and the Glory: In representing Michael Jordan and other deities, David Falk has become the scourge of the NBA."

Love him or hate him, David Falk has certainly been one of the most influential figures in basketball over the last generation. On balance, we're happy to have The Bald Truth as his document of the times.


At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good stuff... thanks!

One thing I would have liked to know from your post is if anyone has replaced Falk as THE biggest agent in the NBA, or if the agent landscape has changed altogether.

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