by Irv Soonachan
When Warriors center Andris Biedrins was a rising star in Europe, a parade of NBA agents came through Latvia to see him. Each of them talked of their deep connections to NBA front offices and what those connections could do for him.
One agent, a quiet, understated, and purportedly religious former college player named Bill Duffy, walked in with an NBA GM. Duffy was on a European tour with Warriors exec Chris Mullin, who eventually made Biedrins a first round draft pick. It’s the kind of louder-than-words gesture that typifies Duffy’s m.o. — an m.o. that has led his BDA Sports Management to become the third-largest player representation agency in the NBA according to HoopsHype.com, with more than $175 million in NBA contracts for the ’10-11 season.
“I had a lot of agents coming to see me, but he was above them in my eyes,” says Biedrins, who remains a Duffy client. “He’s always there for me, not just on the basketball side but on the family side too.”
Duffy started his college career at the University of Minnesota with future NBA players including Kevin McHale, Mychal Thompson and Trent Tucker, and transferred to the University of Santa Clara where his roommates included Kurt Rambis and future NFL star Ronnie Lott. It was Lott who introduced Duffy to Leonard Armato, the agent who gave Duffy his start.
Duffy’s influence multiplied with his signing of Yao Ming and the subsequent opening of the Chinese market — BDA clients including Steve Nash, Baron Davis and Hasheem Thabeet now have lucrative marketing deals there. His client list also includes Brandon Jennings, Rajon Rondo, Greg Oden and more than 115 other NBA and European players, who are supported by a 22-person staff.
He met with SLAM at his comfortable but no-frills headquarters inside a small, unmarked office building in Walnut Creek, Calif.
SLAM: What is your philosophy of being an agent?
Bill Duffy: My philosophy is being a life coach. Being a developer of men. To nurture, keep families together… I mean, this has evolved, I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I just find myself in a role more of guiding their lives. The business is one side, but just being there for them; helping them not make mistakes and slip up: That’s what I find my role to be.
SLAM: Are you concerned that any of your agents will leave to start their own firms, as you did, or for you is that just a normal part of the business?
BD: From my experience working for other people I know how to make it enticing for them to stay. I like stability and I like to get locked into long-term relationships. But we’ve had a couple people leave for better opportunities, and I would never hold anyone back.
SLAM: How does your faith inform what you do?
BD: For the most part, our society is pretty irreligious. The things I’m exposed to are not completely consistent with my moral codes. But I’m also a pragmatist. We live in a world where there are always challenges to stay on the straight and narrow. In business it’s that way, in relationships it’s that way, in a marriage it’s that way. I just don’t involve myself in that aspect. There are a lot of people that I’m around — not necessarily who I work with — that I don’t necessarily approve of how they live their lives. But I can’t exclude interacting with them. I can only be responsible for how I live my life, how I conduct my marriage, how I conduct my moral code. I think I have a good influence and I think it reinforces to people what I stand for and I think that’s appealing to them.
SLAM: How do you build relationships with so many clients?
BD: Just this morning we had our monthly call with our entire staff – it’s about a two-hour call – to enhance communications about what’s going on. The agents have a call every Monday. Marketing has calls weekly. There is a lot of information flowing internally.
SLAM: You have some clients – including Steve Nash and Brandon Jennings – who have been very successfully marketed. Can you talk a little about your agency’s role in that?
BD: We have a gentleman, Jon Schulman, who is dedicated to new media. We’re on the forefront of that; no question he’s very innovative. We have felt for a long time that the world is changing, the consumer dynamic is changing and the fan interaction is changing, and we wanted to be on the forefront of that. A lot of agents don’t think about that, they only think about the contracts, but we’re always thinking about the brand development of the player. It’s really just a segue for them to get into things outside of their sport. We try to put those ideas and concepts in front of them early so that as they cultivate their development there are options beyond basketball.
SLAM: When did you look at Nash and say, We’re going to put him in places that basketball players have never been?
BD: I give him a lot of credit because he’s a visionary on his own. He’s doing a lot of stuff independently of us, with us supporting things. In some cases he’s led and in some cases we’ve led — it’s working in concert. I think when we started to open up the bridge to China because of our representation of Yao Ming, the players who participated in that started to see the global appeal that they have. And it’s resulted in business opportunities in China for some of our clients.
SLAM: How did you get connected with Brandon Jennings?
BD: I watched him closely when he was younger. His mom went to one of my high school’s rivals, so there were a lot of mutual friends going back 30 years ago. There was kind of a reconnection through our backgrounds and our families. He also went to the same high school as (fellow BDA client) Tayshaun Prince.
SLAM: Was it you that encouraged him to play in Europe?
BD: That was his call. He wanted to challenge the system at the time. He made the decision to go to Europe. It took a lot of courage. It was a manly move.
SLAM: And you helped him find a club?
BD: There were others involved. Sonny Vaccaro was involved at that point. But we got very involved as the process unfolded.
SLAM: Do you think it’s going to become a trend that more players that age will go to Europe rather than attend college?
BD: I don’t, because it’s such a unique challenge and very few individuals could take that on. Brandon is certainly one. There aren’t many Brandon Jennings walking around.
SLAM: Given the possibility of a lockout, do you think that NBA prospects currently in college will stay in school an extra year or go overseas instead of entering the Draft?
BD: If you’re a top-10 [draft pick] I think you’ll come out because there will be a season and ultimately you’ll be in the league. The risks of not coming out are too great if you’re in that high of a draft position. Beyond the top 10 picks, I think you’ll see a lot of college coaches convincing players that they may as well come back. “You know you’re going to play, you’ll get better and enhance your draft position.”