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Volume 41. No. 2.
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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 your job!’”

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 friend.

“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 fantasy.

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 went on!”

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 doing that.”

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” regulations.

“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 very quickly.

“It was a pleasure dealing with him!”

Sagehen Profile
Jason M. Levien ’93

Nickname: J-Lev
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.
©Copyright 2004
by Pomona College
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