SLAM: I think most basketball writers are curious about his true role in it all.
DF: He’s an amazing networker. I give him all the credit. It’s his talent. If you have talent, you have to find a niche. I think Wes has a very engaging personality. He’s got a great ability to interface with people who are very wealthy and corporate, as well as players who are young and from the inner city. That’s a talent.
SLAM: There are very few people who can mix those two worlds.
DF: Absolutely. In a funny way, that’s how I’ve always viewed my role. My role was to try to marry the Hank Paulson’s and the head’s of Sara Lee and McDonald’s with my players. To introduce them, educate, get endorsements, jobs, post-career opportunities. My job is to be the bridge. Wes has told me many times personally that I was a role model, that I taught him what he knew. I told him I was flattered by that because he’s been very successful. People don’t expect that someone of Wes’ background can be successful. I think in our generation today, look at some of the guys in hip hop like Jay-Z and Sean Combs. There is a whole generation of people who didn’t go to college or Harvard business school but they have a great pulse on style and fashion and what is popular. Wes, although he is a little older than that, is of that ilk. He doesn’t have traditional schooling but he’s got certain talents.
SLAM: In the past you’ve said that guys like Kobe and LeBron should be making bigger salaries while average NBA players should be paid less. Can you talk about that?
DF: Say you’re LeBron James. You walk into the Cleveland General Manager’s office and say that after a lot of soul searching, I have decided to stay in Cleveland. How much can you pay me? The GM says, ‘I can pay you $120 million.’ LeBron says, ‘Gosh I would love to make $180 million.’ ‘Well, LeBron I’d like to pay you $280 million but because of the limitations of the max, we can only pay you $120 million.’ LeBron says, ‘Well, I really like it here, I’ll take the $120 million.’ LeBron walks out. Thirty seconds later Jerome James walks in. ‘I’ve averaged 2 points and 1 rebound the last five years. I’ve averaged about 30 games a year. I know you guys need a center because Z has some hip problems. How much can you pay me?’ ‘We can pay you the midlevel exemption. Five years for $40 million.’ So now you’ve signed LeBron James and Jerome James for $160 million. If Cleveland had their druthers, they would spend $158 million on LeBron and $2 million on Jerome. The fact that the League allows players like LeBron to subsidize players like Jerome is one of the great flaws of the collective bargaining agreement. The players have somehow been forced to revenue share. It’s sort of like the Robin Hood school of compensation — you’re robbing from the rich to pay the poor. And the problem is the fans don’t come to see the Jerome James’ of the world. They come to see LeBron. It’s like going to a movie and telling Will Smith, who we just met outside, you can’t make $30 million on this movie, you can make $18 million so Ashanti Cook (former Georgetown guard is an aspiring actor and was working on the commercial as an extra), who is a fledgling actor making $300 per day for doing this, could make $500,000. I think it’s the height of absurdity. Likewise, Chris Bosh is a very talented player, but I think it’s absolutely outrageous that Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade make the same salary.
SLAM: Donnie Nelson told me that most NBA players plateau after their fourth season. That it takes a special player to continue to work extremely hard every year after that.
DF: There’s a lot of truth to what Donnie said. In my experience in 36 years in the NBA, one of the things that makes a superstar and you can go all the way back to James Worthy, Kareem, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Karl Malone—you can go through a whole litany of those kinds of players. They’re chemically programmed to be ultra competitive. It’s the nature of their DNA. I think you could have paid Michael or Patrick $1 per year or $100 million per year and they would tear your heart out because that is what they’re programmed to do. That’s what makes them great. They’re not satisfied with being good or very good. They want to be the best. They come back every year with new moves and are more physically conditioned. I think NBA owners make a great mistake when they give long-term security to the second-tier players. Too many of whom don’t have that DNA and they get complacent.
SLAM: With the new CBA being negotiated, does the NBA Players Union keep agents like yourself up to speed on the happenings or do they deal directly with the players?
DF: In the old days I was extremely involved. I have been trying to schedule a meeting with Billy Hunter for the past two years and he hasn’t had the time to schedule a meeting with me. I stay in touch with Ron Klempner. If you think about it, and I’ve been saying this for 15 years—the union is the collective bargaining agent for the players and the agents are the individual agents for the players. They have a total commonality of interest. The agents want the union to negotiate a great deal that gives them rules that allows them to negotiate great contracts. The players want both parties to be on the same page. Again, I think this is one of Isiah’s (Thomas) legacies because Isiah had such an anti-agent mentality. He really separated the agents from the union during his presidency. At one meeting, one of my clients said Isiah walked in and said “You really have got to watch your agents. They are a bunch of bad guys. Now there are some good guys.” The example he gave was Lenny Elmore, who had been a marginal agent in the business, not very successful, much better as a broadcaster, much better as a lawyer but didn’t fair well as an agent. It was his backhanded way of slamming the establishment. To me, it was sour grapes because Isiah picked the wrong agent and never made a lot of money in his career. In the recruiting of Evan, he told Evan and his coach that I stole Michael Jordan’s money. Now, Michael Jordan’s a pretty smart guy. Do you think he would be my friend 26 years down the road? First of all, I didn’t even manage Michael’s money. Then he came out and said he saved Michael Jordan millions when he was President because he lowered agent fees to 4 percent. I told people publicly that we never even charged players 4 percent before the union set the fee at 4 percent. But once they made a max and we thought we were a max player, we charged the max. We had actually charged less than 4 percent before the union set the fees. Guys were charging 10. So, one of the things I’ve never thanked Isiah for is helping me raise my fees. [Laughs]