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The Business of
Sports/ Jason M. Levien '93 takes on a $33 million challenge.
By Tom Nugent
The showdown began at 11 o’clock on a steamy summer night in
2005, when Miami attorney and pro sports agent Jason M. Levien ’93
strolled into one of Miami Beach’s trendiest steakhouses.
At the high-altitude Prime 112 eatery in Miami’s glittering South Beach,
the patrons are happy to pay $14 for an order of French fries cut to
resemble “white truffles” and $20 for a delectable gourmet hot dog that
does everything but roll over and bark. Often described as the “hottest”
steak restaurant in the pastel-painted Art Deco environs of South
Beach’s Lincoln Road shopping district, the Prime 112 was the perfect
place to ask someone for 33 million bucks.
That was the amount of money—give or take a million or two—which the
34-year-old Levien had come here to collect from one of the most famous
figures in the world of American sports: Hall of Fame pro basketball
coach Pat Riley, president and reigning eminence grise of the National
Basketball Association’s high-flying Miami Heat.
Levien’s high-adrenaline game plan: Sit down with the second-winningest
coach in the history of the game and his general manager, the
wonderfully named Randy Pfund, and then demand the maximum possible
payment (under NBA salary rules) for his client—a cool $6 million a year
over the next five years.
In a scene that looked as if it might have been lifted directly from the
screenplay of Jerry Maguire, the 1996 Hollywood blockbuster about the
moral struggles of a high-octane sports agent on the make, the young
lawyer and Pomona political science major had come to this meeting with
a clear-cut directive from his client: Nail down the maximum payday, and
don’t let Riley jawbone you into settling for a lesser amount.
An intimidating assignment?
“I grew up in New York City as a fan of Pat Riley and the Los Angeles
Lakers during their ‘golden era’ in the 1980s,” recalls Levien. “As a
seventh- and eighth-grader, I admired Riley and read and watched just
about everything about him. And there I was, two decades later, getting
ready to ask for more than $30 million from the man who’d coached Magic
Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“It didn’t take me long to get down to business. Right before the
meeting, as I was mentally preparing for the negotiations, I told
myself: ‘OK, Riley was a great coach, a true legend of the game—but at
the end of the day, he’s just another human being. Go in there and do
For the endlessly upbeat Levien (pronounced LEV-ee-en), a former
hard-charging point guard for the Sagehens basketball team, the stakes
could not have been higher. And those stakes weren’t just about money.
Although he and his national law firm, Greenberg Traurig, would earn
millions of dollars over the next five years if he succeeded, Levien
also knew what this high-profile deal would mean for his reputation.
This was supposed to be a mega-deal, after all, and his client was one
of the NBA’s fastest-rising performers: Miami Heat power forward Udonis
Haslem, a jam-and-slam blue-chipper who’d come out of nowhere during the
past couple of seasons to help lead the Heat to within striking distance
of a fiercely coveted NBA championship.
Haslem was a “hot property”—a ferociously dedicated competitor who’d
played in all 82 games during the previous season while racking up
impressive scoring and rebounding percentages and becoming what the
sportswriters were calling “the cement” for a team that looked as if it
might take home the NBA title in 2006.
For the former editor of the Law Review (where Levien devoted his time
while earning his juris doctorate at the University of Michigan) who
later worked briefly as a staffer in the Bill Clinton White House, the
showdown at the Prime 112 would provide an acid test.
Could he win over the coaching legend and his general manager, or would
he fall short of the financial goal that he’d agreed upon with his star
player only a few days before?
“It was a critical moment, that’s for sure,” says Levien. “At first
glance, when I looked at the [contract] numbers, they seemed a bit hard
to believe. I mean, walking into a room and asking for that kind of
money—it’s not the kind of thing you do every day.
“But that was my assignment, and I was determined to get it done.”
Levien had represented a number of players in the NBA draft—a couple who
were drafted in the first round—and had already negotiated several
multi-million-dollar deals, including contracts for Turkish NBA star
Hedo Turkoglu and Toronto Raptors center Loren Woods.
“I went in there fully prepared to argue for my client. That’s all. My
job was to deliver for my client and get his value. You do that by
arguing for him, just like you would argue in a courtroom.
“These kinds of negotiations are usually very congenial, very cordial,
and they’re conducted with polite civility. But there does come a point
where you’ve got to be a bulldog. You’re not trying to win a popularity
contest, at that point.
“When I walked into the restaurant that night, I knew I’d be negotiating
under pressure. For one thing, I was determined to deliver the goods for
Udonis, who’s a great guy, a terrific athlete, and also a close personal
“Really, the stakes were very high for both of us that night.”
Drop by Levien’s 23rd-floor condominium in Miami Beach on a typical
Saturday afternoon, and the odds are high that you will spend your first
10 minutes admiring the view. Which is entirely understandable—since the
sports agent’s living room looks out over the turquoise-hued waters of
Biscayne Bay toward the gleaming high-rises of Miami and the gently
nodding palm trees of nearby residential Star Island, where some of
America’s best-heeled citizens enjoy the year-round tropical breeze and
the mellow sunshine of South Florida’s fabled lifestyle.
“Do you see that big white house on the edge of the island?” asks Levien,
during a mini-tour of his upscale digs. “That’s Shaquille O’Neal’s
house. It’s a landmark on Star Island, and Shaq is so popular that it’s
becoming a tourist attraction.”
For the mega-star O’Neal, a franchise player whose presence in the
lineup almost single-handedly guarantees that the Heat will sell out
every home game at the city’s nearby AmericanAirlines Arena, the
$20-million mansion makes very good business sense … since the
basketball great reportedly earns a cool $30 million each year.
For the earnest and idealistic Levien—who insists that “money wasn’t the
prime motivator” in his decision to become a sports agent, operating in
a business environment that includes such national icons as Pat Riley
and Shaquille O’Neal sometimes seems like the stuff of childhood
The son of a self-made attorney who spent more than 20 years practicing
his craft in gritty Spanish Harlem, Levien is quick to thank his father
for his own relentless drive to work hard and win. “I grew up in
Manhattan. We never really wanted for anything material,” he will tell
you with a wry chuckle. “But we certainly weren’t spoiled, as kids. We
were expected to work, and we were also expected to study hard and get
good grades and excel at our sports. My parents instilled a strong work
ethic in us, from Day One.
“Really, when I look back on some of my father’s early struggles to
build his career and support his family, after his own father spent part
of his career running a Shell gas station in Queens, I feel fortunate
that I could attend a high-powered academic school like Pomona.
“As a government major there, I soon found out that I was fascinated by
questions of public policy and with constitutional issues such as the
right to free speech. And I really think it was studying the liberal
arts as an undergraduate that inspired me to attend law school later.”
Remembering his years on campus, the fiercely competitive Levien says he
was deeply impressed by a course—The U.S. Congress, taught by Professor
David Menefee-Libey—in which the students borrowed the identities of key
U.S. senators and then fought “hard-hitting battles” to get pieces of
legislation passed on the Senate floor.
“When I remember that experience, I’m still amazed at how hard we
battled each other over that legislation,” says Levien. “I remember how
I was assigned to play the part of [the late New York Democratic]
Senator Pat Moynihan, and the legislation I introduced was designed to
increase the Social Security tax on affluent Americans. We fought
bitterly over that bill. But in the end, I got it passed. And when some
of my former classmates and I talk about it today, we still complain
about the tactics that were used and the ‘political manipulation’ that
But fighting to get his bill through “Congress” was only one of the
undergraduate thrills and spills that Levien would enjoy at Pomona. He
became “even more passionate about the game” of basketball than he’d
been in high school … to the point that he nearly decided to take a job
as an assistant college basketball coach after graduation, instead of
opting for the high-profile University of Michigan Law School, where
he’d been accepted on the basis of his outstanding academic record.
“For me, that was a real inner struggle,” says the agent. “I spent
several months trying to figure out whether I wanted to try coaching, or
whether I wanted to go ahead and study the law. In the end, I decided
that if I did go ahead and get the law degree, I could always go back to
basketball if I wanted to. I guess becoming a sports agent was my way of
After serving as a Harvard Law School Fellow and clerking for a federal
judge in Baltimore, Levien worked briefly as an administrative aide at
the White House and wound up writing the keynote speech for the 2000
Democratic Convention (delivered by Congressman Harold Ford), among
other political chores. Soon after that, he signed on with a blue-chip
firm in Washington, D.C., . . . and eventually found himself helping
several nationally prominent professional athletes work out contracts
and settle legal wrangles with their team owners. He spent five years in
that enterprise—and then decided in the summer of 2003 to move to Miami
and run his own legal practice as a sports agent.
Because he loved the action in both the courtroom and the basketball
court, Levien became a super-cerebral—and ethically enlightened—version
of Jerry Maguire. He was going to be a full-time sports agent. Within a
year or so, he had begun to build a client list that included such
promising athletes as former University of Florida star forward Matt
Walsh and Sacramento Kings Kevin Martin. (Levien surprised sports
watchers by getting the largely unheralded Martin—the only graduate of
Western Carolina University ever drafted by the NBA—a $5 million deal.)
He also represented several well-known pro football players, including
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Earnest Graham and former NFL wide
receiver Raghib “Rocket” Ismail.
After two years on the scene in Miami, Levien had carved out a
substantial reputation for himself as a fast-rising agent who owned both
the intellectual firepower and the personal charisma to land a stable of
clients and then represent them effectively with league owners. He’d
also gained increasing local stature as a featured commentator on Sports
Zone, a weekly sports show on the CBS TV station in Miami.
So far, so good. The stage was set and Levien was about to find out if
he could “deliver the goods” for a top-of-the-line client like Haslem.
At precisely midnight on the first of July—the official start under NBA
rules for salary-negotiations between team owners and player “free
agents,” Levien got down to dollars and cents with Riley and Pfund.
Moving quickly—once the “polite chitchat” over the steaks and $14 fries
had ended, Levien made a key point: His “hot” client was much in demand
and could undoubtedly command more from other teams than the maximum $33
million that the Heat was allowed to pay him under current “salary cap”
“The problem I faced that night was that I was asking them for every
single dollar they were allowed to pay,” Levien remembers. “How was I
going to compromise, if they insisted on that? But I finally managed to
level the playing field—by pointing out that several other teams were
surely willing to pay $10 million or even $12 million more than that for
a blue-chip player like Udonis.”
Riley and his aide listened hard—but they didn’t make a move.
Poker-faced, they agreed that Haslem was undoubtedly a key to the Miami
Heat’s chances for an NBA championship in 2006. But they weren’t ready
to commit $33 million to him—not yet.
After three and a half hours of dickering, the negotiations broke off
for a few days. One week later, with the terms still up in the air,
Levien realized that he had to make a move. “Sooner or later,
negotiating a big contract like that one comes down to a single
concept,” he recalls. “And that concept is: You have to make the other
side afraid that they’re going to lose this key player.”
And that’s exactly what happened. A few days later, when the Miami
Herald—circulation 700,000—uncovered and ran a major story on the front
of its sports section: CLEVELAND CAVALIERS TO MAKE A RUN AT HASLEM?
As the July 9 sports story—for which Levien provided only a crisp “no
comment”—went on to report: Sources indicate the Cavaliers are
interested in setting up a meeting with Haslem to convince the
third-year forward he can be part of the team’s future … and they could
be prepared to offer him more than the five-year, $33 million deal the
Heat can offer.
Within five days of the story (which also ran on several national news
wires), Pat Riley & Co. had acceded to the $33 million demand, and the
deal was done.
Said a delighted Haslem, who—believe it or not—had actually been
visiting Disney World with his six-year-old son Kedonis during the last
few days of negotiations: “The process was stressful at times, but I had
complete confidence in Jason from beginning to end. He’s not just my
agent—he’s also a real friend. I’d trust my life with him, so I had no
problem trusting him to get the contract right.”
Like Haslem, the father of Heat forward Matt Walsh says he wasn’t
surprised last summer when Levien surprised everyone by nailing down a
$1 million contract for his son, who had not been expected to make the
team. “The thing about Jason Levien is that he’s got the Harvard
smarts,” says Mike Walsh, but he’s also got the charm, the personal
charisma required to complete these high-powered deals.
“He’s going to be a major sports agent in this country, and sooner
rather than later.”
And Pat Riley?
Although he was forced to pay every single dollar that NBA rules
allowed, in order to hang onto the crucially important Haslem, the
legendary Riley was quick to concede that Levien has what it takes to be
a knockout sports agent.
“We met with Jason at 12:01 a.m., when free agency officially started,”
growled the coaching legend, describing the deal. “Jason came into that
meeting very highly prepared. And even though he has a very cordial
demeanor, he’s able to cut through the minutiae and get the deal done
“It was a pleasure dealing with him!”
Favorite book: My Losing Season by Pat Conroy
Favorite movie: Hotel Rwanda
Favorite food: Lobster
Favorite Pomona class: South African Politics Seminar
Best Pomona memory: Election night watch party in Walker Hall Lounge
when Bill Clinton was first elected president in 1992.
Person you most admire: My father
How many hours a week do you watch sports? 15-20
How many professional games do you attend a month? 7
Most memorable moment in sports: When Magic Johnson announced in 1991
that he was HIV positive and would be retiring as a professional and
watching North Carolina State shock the University of Houston to win the
1983 NCAA college basketball championship with my dad.
How many times have you watched Jerry Maguire? At least 10
Do you own the copy of the film? Yes. I gave a copy of the DVD to Udonis
Haslem and told him in the card that he “was my Rod Tidwell.”
Is there anything true about the movie? Yes. Athletes who play with
passion and love of the game get rewarded financially; agents have a big
role to play in keeping an athlete focused and informed; the close
meaningful and fulfilling relationship I have with my clients; and the
tough, competitive nature of the player-representation business.
Have you ever said, “Show me the money?” No
Has anyone ever said it to you? Yes, but only in jest.