Interview With The Agent: Bernie Lee
Bernie Lee is the President of Lee Basketball Services Ltd, a full-service basketball agency that specializes in representing basketball players overseas. Bernie is certified by the NBPA and bases his agency out of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In a world with tools like Skype, text messaging, and Google Wave (coming soon), distance between an agent and his clients is becoming less important by the day. Bernie was nice enough to answer all of my questions in great detail to provide everybody with a view of what it is really like to be a young agent hungry for success.
Darren Heitner: How did you start your company, Lee Basketball Services?
Bernie Lee: If its ok with you, I am going to answer this question more from the perspective of how I got started and how I started my business ties into that a great deal. I started working in the field of sports representation by working for an agent named Merle Scott. Merle, at the time I started working with him, was well known in the area in which I live, Toronto, as he had represented Vince Carter and had done things sports marketing wise that had never been done before in Canada. Merle was the ideal 1st person to work with as he was, and is, an extremely honest and supportive person who gave me free reign to do whatever I was capable of and complete support for the things I needed help with. I mainly worked with Merle on American players playing in Europe. I negotiated and maintained European clients and recruited new clientele. From that basis I continued to work my contacts and gain experience.
The sports agent business, as a lot of your readers will know, is a very difficult business to get started in as it is very much a sink or swim industry…meaning the majority of companies that would hire someone like myself based on my abilities and not so much what I was bringing in the door business wise or who I had coached or grew up with etc, are smaller companies that would provide me with support from a knowledge and contacts stand point but formally in terms of a financial stand point you earn what you are able to bring in, in terms of commissions.
This for me meant working extremely hard from the stand point of survival. I was right out of college and it was an industry that I felt strongly about, so I was willing and able to make a lot of sacrifices, but it was difficult in the beginning. I worked at that level for about 6 years, with Merle, and I would say my big break so to speak was getting a solid base of European clients that I could count on for solid commissions that gave me the security to go out and recruit more clients. Around the end of my time with Merle, he joined Bill Duffy and his company BDA Sports. Merle was able to join as it was the best move for him at the time, but there was not room for me, so I was left to service the clients we had at Merle ‘s company and use that company platform to recruit new clientele, etc. Also, with Merle working at such a large and respected company like BDA, it meant that if I came across high level opportunities, I could take those opportunities to Merle at BDA and they could be serviced. Through this relationship, I was able to meet and build a working relationship with Bill Duffy. One theme of my career I see looking back on it and how I got there (where ever it is I am at today) is I was extremely lucky being from Canada. I was exposed to great and amazing people who helped me to build and progress in my own career and with those opportunities given where I could I made the most of them. At this time I was working to maintain and build the European business I was working on and trying to find a way to give myself a stronger platform to progress in my own career.
I had a solid pool of European clients that was providing me a steady pool of commissions but I wasn’t making a great deal of money. I met what is now my wife and my personal life started to progress to the point where financially I needed allot more stability, mainly because I was getting married. As everyone knows, weddings can be very expensive and I was entering the summer portion of my business cycle and for a person and company who’s livelihood is based around European seasons and commissions, summers are the slowest part of the year. Personally, I was at a cross roads in that I knew being a sports agent was exactly what I wanted and needed to be, but my life was dictating a need for formality I didn’t presently own. Through my work with Merle, I had been introduced to Paul Godfrey, who at the time was the President of the Toronto Blue Jays. If I had to take a formal job I couldn’t think of a scenario outside of working for a professional sports team that would have been a better situation, so I called Paul and he got me a position working in their ticket sales department as an account executive, selling luxury boxes. As I mentioned, the opportunity to be hired by a sports representation firm in a normal formal sense doesn’t for the most part exist to a high degree. With that in mind, at the time knowing that every 2 weeks, I was going to get paid X amount of dollars was to me a huge relief, that relief lasted about 1 paycheck because I hated what I was doing.
I knew I wanted to be a sports agent, there was no way around it, and entering the realm of the corporate environment sucked the life out of me. It didn’t help that I worked for the single worst boss in the history of bosses. I worked for a woman, whose name I wont say, who was basically like Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock, but not smart. She would quote Jack Welsch constantly but do it incorrectly, she would give us book reports to do around self help books, she would constantly talk about building us as executives and training us but she herself didn’t know what she was doing; it was the worst situation ever. We were doing nothing other then selling Luxury Boxes for a baseball team that was bad, in a city where no one had interest in the sport; it was not a good situation. Thankfully for my agent career, it was so bad that about 1 week in, I knew that I couldn’t walk away from being an agent, so I did both jobs at the same time. I had my cell phone and I would literally go into stairwells in the Sky dome, now Rogers Centre, and close Euro deals along with my responsibilities with the Blue Jays. I did about 1 million dollars at about 100k increments in European contracts in the empty concourses of the Sky Dome that summer.
I worked through the entire baseball season, and it thankfully financed my life and wedding, but I truly hated every minute of it, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do; I needed a push, but I didn’t know it at the time. Then I got it October 4 2005. The baseball season was just about over and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the Blue Jays through the winter, my pay was a base salary and a large commission based upon selling these boxes. With no games there would be no boxes to sell and therefore no commissions and when your working a job strictly for a paycheck, reducing that paycheck really hurts your motivation. I was getting married on October 22nd 2005 and I had decided in my head I was going to address my work situation right after that. On October 4th 2005, as I did every day during my lunch break, I was at the gym running on a treadmill to slim down for my wedding. On the television I was watching it read “Rafer Alston traded to the Houston Rockets for Mike James.” Years previous, I had been introduced to Mike James by someone who wanted to play in Europe, and they had used Mike as a reference. Me and Mike had built a friendly relationship and kept in contact. When I saw this come across the ticker I got off the treadmill and emailed Mike right away saying I heard he got traded to Toronto and I had everything he needed to get settled for when he got here. I had been introduced over the years to everyone in the Toronto market from car dealers who gave away cars for appearances to real estate agents, basically everyone you could imagine that would make moving to a new city and/or a new country easy. Mike emailed me back right away and told me that he’d be in Toronto at 8 that night and that he wanted to go to dinner. This was at about 1pm. I remember walking back to my desk thinking only about having Mike in Toronto and the things that I felt energized to be able to do with him in the Toronto market…and things I wanted to do to help him and his family transition. It was weird because at the time, I truly was living a double life, sneaking off to roam around an empty baseball stadium to do work as a sports agent, but being paid by the Blue Jays to sell Luxury Boxes…it was odd. At around 230pm, I got called into my boss’s office and when I walked in, I could tell something was going on; it was my boss and 2 other HR people there. I was about to be fired. They were not firing me as much as laying me off, because with the off season coming, there was no need to carry a full staff, etc. Half way through their spiel, I cut them off, laughing and thanking them. Thinking back on it, I must have seemed insane as they were very somber, but truly they were doing me the greatest professional favor that had ever been done to me. I thanked them and left and within 3 minutes, and walking out of the Sky Dome, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and needed to do with my professional career…and that was be a sports agent. Now I only had to tell my fiancée 2 weeks before my wedding that I had been fired, but it was going to be ok because I knew what I was going to do with my life. I don’t know who I seemed crazier to, my fiancée or the people who fired me.
In the weeks to come, I got Mike and his wife settled into the Toronto area and just helped them to get comfortable. Mike then told me that prior to coming to Toronto, he was in the process of changing agents and the trade sped up the process…he just didn’t know who he was going to hire. I was able to use my existing relationship with Bill to put him in place with Mike and his family and I was the point person on the ground that season that handled the day to day activities with Mike. At that same time I established my own company, Lee Basketball Services LTD, and continued to service my European clients and Mike in a support capacity to Bill Duffy.
Darren Heitner: Thanks for the in-depth account of how you got started in the industry. Where did you go to school? What degrees did you get? Did you take any sports-related courses?
Bernie Lee: I went to Butte College in Chico, California and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. I went to Butte out of high school to play basketball and after one undistinguished year there, I transferred to Wilfrid Laurier to continue my undistinguished career in basketball, but more importantly advanced my education. I did a General BA at Laurier. I did not take any sports related courses, but I did play basketball and I spent each summer in the University working the basketball camp circuit. I remember watching the 2000 NCAA National Championship game that Michigan State won and thinking to myself that I wanted to be a part of something like that. I wanted to coach. I called Five Star basketball camp the next day and was hired to work that summer for 7 sessions in the canteen. My canteen career lasted 2 days, as one of the coaches didn’t show up to work camp and I was promoted. I coached every week thereafter that and was able to work with players from Lebron James to Chris Paul to Carmelo Anthony to Kris Humphries and on and on. Spending my summers working at Five Star as a counselor working with guys like David West and Will Solomon and David Bluthenthal and Ron Artest and Christian Lattener, gave me the 1st hand education in the summer of everything later in life I would need to know about the basis of being an agent. It taught me that the mentalities of the players were no different then anyone’s. They were just really good at playing a sport and to be an agent to them, the basis always had to be, as corny as this may sound, it had to be treating them as intelligent people and always being completely honest. Luckily, my coaching career never did take off, but one of my 1st European clients turned out to be a player by the name of Mike Chappell who played on the 2000 MSU National Championship team.
Darren Heitner: Besides working with the Blue Jays, did you ever work for anybody before starting your own company?
Bernie Lee: I worked directly for Merle Scott and with Bill Duffy in relation to Mike James. I was incredibly luckily to have encountered both men, as they have contributed greatly to my career.
Darren Heitner: Being based in Toronto, do you try to recruit players from Ontario?
Bernie Lee: I do and I don’t. I have represented 2 Canadian players in Juan Mendez and I currently represent a player named Mike Tuck, who is from Toronto but owns a European passport. Juan was a very high profile Canadian player coming out of college, as he set the NCAA scoring mark for Canadians…a mark he still holds. Juan should have been the 1st Canadian ever drafted by the Toronto Raptors, but alas Rob Babcock took the franchise changer, Uros Slokar instead. In Toronto, and Canada as a whole, we have a great group of naturally talented players, but there has for the most part always been something missing. The coaching at the high school level is just not where it needs to be for elite level players and the transition for these guys when they go to NCAA schools has proven difficult and none have developed during the course of my agent career to the level at which they are NBA or high level European pro players.
Darren Heitner: What exactly is your recruiting method?
Bernie Lee: It changes from year to year, but for the most part I rely on referrals. I have found that by providing a high level of service to my European pros, I will always get a lot of referrals. Also, I identify and recruit players in the NCAA that I feel I might have a connection to through their coaches, etc. For the most part, maintaining a smaller boutique style agency recruiting across the board in the NCAA for the draft is a difficult proposition because most of those players and their families want the smoke and mirrors show and don’t understand what the substance of a sports agent truly is. So for me, I sit back and deal more at a level of players who in some cases have under performed and that in turn lead them to being under represented, and they just need someone to begin building their career in a logical and linear fashion. I definitely am not re-inventing the wheel, but I do feel I have a unique approach to working with all of the guys I am able and blessed to work with.
Darren Heitner: Once you sign a player, what do you do to prepare him for the NBA Draft, NBDL Draft, or playing overseas?
Bernie Lee: I try and prepare all of my players simply to compete, because if my work with Mike James has taught me anything, it is that truly anything is possible. I didn’t represent Mike at the time, and those agents, along with Mike, deserve all of this credit, but Mike went from being a undrafted free agent playing in Austria for his 1st pro job for 30k to building what will be a very accomplished NBA career when he is done. Looking at Mike’s bio coming out of college before I encountered him, I never would have thought in my head this guy is going to play in the NBA for a number of years. Or at all. But seeing him in the flesh and what he has been able to do, has taught me to give every guy I feel strongly enough about to sign, all the support possible to do what Mike did, so to speak. To do that, they are going to have to compete every single day. I will never pigeon hole any client with any pre conceived bias, and career wise we will simply plan out the steps that need to be taken in their careers as dictated by the actions.
Darren Heitner: Is there anything about being a basketball player agent that is different than being an agent in other sports?
Bernie Lee: This would be hard for me to comment on, as truly I have only ever been a basketball agent, but 2 things I have come across are, 1. Dealing heavily in Europe. I have to become, on the ground, extremely comfortable and aware of a great deal of markets in numerous countries and time zones. I have to build personal relationships with coaches and GM’s, not just in the NBA, but around the world. I don’t think this is something that is experienced in other sports. 2. I think it would have to be the belief in the NBA that all the contracts are slated and it thus discounts the amount of work the agents do. I’ve seen 1st hand the entire process from negotiating contracts, to the draft, to getting a player traded, and I will put up the amount of work NBA agents do with any other agent in any sport. In the NBA, with trades being as prevalent as they are, just the client service aspect adds an element of work that no one sees. That’s not to say that there aren’t trades in other sports, but I would be interested to see the amount of trades in the NBA as compared to other sports outside of the trade deadline periods.
Darren Heitner: Do you have a specific strategy/plan of attack in contract negotiations?
Bernie Lee: All negotiations come down to 2 things. 1. Knowing the markets. If it’s Europe, it’s knowing the range of pay possible to that specific team/country/market, and exposing it. 2. (The most important one) Leverage, pure and simple. In a lot of case,s either you have leverage or your don’t. If you don’t, you have to work your butt off to come up with it or tilt it in the scale as much as you possibly can, and a lot of times that’s difficult.
In the NBA, there are a few examples of being able to affect leverage, and that’s in the way a given market embraces a player. Living in Toronto, I have seen the unique example of the Toronto Raptors. This leveragable factor has changed slightly since the arrival of Bryan Colangelo, but exists to an extent as Toronto is and will remain a small market team in the larger sense. My example 1st hand of this was Mike James. Mike was in a contract year the year he was in Toronto. The Raptors had a history of being strongly influenced when it came time for contracts, by the fanbase. Guys like Alvin Williams and Jerome Williams, Jerome a marginal NBA player at best, but Alvin worth every red cent and more, received huge contracts, as they where able to leverage the Canadian inferiority complex impeccably to increase their value. With Mike, I wanted to recreate the same model that season to give him leverage. Little did I know, though, that playing wise, Mike would have a record setting statistical year that only increased his leverage around the NBA. I was also able to learn the value of over exposure. Mike is great with the media and a truly entertaining player, but he fell into a trap of seeming like he was playing for a contract and in a heavily populated media market like Toronto, having him over exposed and over performing, set up a dynamic where every day it seemed like he was having to defend his performances and the element of him constantly having to defend himself made him come off in a non endearing way to the Toronto fan base. I could see it happening, but it became a “thing” so to speak that was bigger then any of us living it. Sometimes in sports, story lines and issues take on a life of their own and the people involved in a public sense fall into the expected roles that have been created for them in the media and I would definitely say this became the case for Mike in reference to Toronto. Luckily for Mike, he had played so well that he received interest from numerous teams, and the leverage then created the market on its own, and he was able to sign a great deal with Minnesota for 4 yrs $25mil.
Truly though, each negotiation comes down to leverage and the variable is the agent being reasonable and respectful when they have the leverage to allow everyone to feel like they won in a negotiation…to allow the same agent to have a chance the next time a negotiation comes along when they might not have the same leverage.
Darren Heitner: How do you provide support for your clients across the pond?
Bernie Lee: In the age of Skype and text msgs, it’s really not that difficult. I had clients last year that played in Ukraine, Israel, Australia, Turkey, China, Qatar, along with the NBA, and I spoke with each guy after every game. I think just staying in contact on a regular basis and being abreast of the issues going on, on a daily basis, helps my clients to feel supported
Darren Heitner: How do you serve your clients after their retirement?
Bernie Lee: That’s a great question. I think you might have to ask me once I have a client retire! With Mike, I have tried to put him and his family with a money person I believe in to secure his wealth, and then from there, I think I have an understanding of what it is as a person that he wants to do once he has done playing, being either in coaching or TV. I have had Mike do numerous TV appearances, so he will have a great reel once he’s done to go out and attempt to get a TV job, and coaching wise, I have encouraged him to coach in the summers at camps. But mostly, I’ve taken the time to know him on a personal level throughout his playing career, and with that basis as a friend, it will be natural that I continue to support him through his post career. This is more or less the same model with my European pros. I have encouraged them all to find a way to allow themselves to be financially secure, to go out and pursue what they want to. At the same time, I have encouraged all the guys I have in Europe to take the time they have on their hands to finish their degrees and begin to work on graduate degrees where possible.
Darren Heitner: You just had a player selected in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft (Patrick Beverley). Congratulations! What have you done for him since he’s been drafted? What kind of work do you have on his account in the near future?
Bernie Lee: Pat’s a unique situation. Pat was presented to me by a gentlemen who works for Bill Duffy, Kevin Bradbury. Pat unexpectedly was asked to leave the University of Arkansas at the end of the summer and it put him in a spot where it was going to be difficult to secure a high level job in Europe as it was late in the signing season, and from Kevin’s perspective, at that time with Bill being attacked for the OJ Mayo nonsense, it was difficult to take on a player like Pat that at the time had some negative press following him. The 1st story that came out about Pat made it seem like BDA had encouraged Pat to leave school, when nothing could be futher from the truth. Kevin asked me to take on Pat and I don’t feel like there was a great amount of expectations for Pat from an NBA standpoint, but he was and is a great kid who needed to be helped, and I had shown an ability in my career to help when asked.
So I took Pat on. I had my hesitations at 1st as Pat had a huge media following and a lot of people followed what was going on, and from my stand point, I didn’t see a great deal of upside for myself. If I did what I was supposed to do, Pat would have a great year and move on in profile to either the NBA or a higher level in Europe and Kevin obviously would want him back, but if I failed and Pat became a cautionary tale then it would be: Pat got misguided by a small time agent who didn’t know what he was doing. The thing that bothered me the most about the exposure scenario was that I wasn’t able to make the decision for myself to be exposed, it was heaped on me from the standpoint that someone felt like they were doing me a favor by getting my name out there when in Pat’s case, it would have been best for me to keep my head down, name clean, and just do my work. I remember having an article emailed to me one day written by a guy at the Sporting News quoting me, and to this day I have never ever spoken to the Sporting News, but that’s a story for another day.
With Pat, I was able to place him with a team in Ukraine that had a coach I believe in strongly (Bob Donewald). Pat, to his credit, did everything asked of him and more: EVERYTHING. He progressed in a 12 month period more than any person I have ever seen with my own eyes. Upon seeing this progression and what came with it, Bob Donewald made the suggestion that Pat go to Eurocamp, and it made alot of sense to me. I remember at the time, and it almost seems laughable now, I had to talk people into allowing Pat to go to Eurocamp and competing. With Pat, his best and biggest attribute as a player is his motor and competitiveness, and as an agent I have always believed that you have to let players play.
As guys go through the draft process, the egos of the agents a lot of times come into play, as everyone wants to feel as if they are influencing the draft, but in the end its all bullshit, because you might indeed influence where a given kid goes and feel powerful, but if you start a kid’s career by not teaching him what it is to compete then whats the point? Once it gets out of a GM’s hands and into a coach’s, a coach doesn’t care about politics. He cares whether or not a kid can play and will compete, and if they can’t, guess what? That kid won’t play. If a kid comes into the NBA with the belief that agents control everything and at some point you don’t actually have to work, then that kid wont work, and 3 years later that same kid will be out of the NBA. Being that the industry standard now is that you don’t charge for the 1st contract, how does an agent get paid? Answer: he doesn’t, in fact you lose money when you factor in the pre draft training costs, etc. So from my standpoint, from a business model and just a common sense model, I will always teach my clients to compete and in that thought, having Pat play in Eurocamp was the best thing that happened to him. He went out and earned a job. Pat was drafted by Miami, which was his 1st work out, and they fell in love with him, but what cemented them taking him was what they saw in Treviso. They saw a kid fly back over to Europe and work for a job, and he earned it.
From my standpoint, everything I thought a year ago would happen with Pat happened. Obviously with Pat’s increased profile, Kevin wanted Patrick back and didn’t really want my input. So I took Pat as far as I could, through Treviso, and I had to step away. The thing that I want to make clear now is that it appears that I fell into the trap of a smaller agent, had a guy, and when he over performed and moved beyond what people would think was that person’s capabilities, the player went onto a large agent. In my case, that wasn’t true. I over performed my job with Pat, Pat over performed his job, and he went back to Kevin. Looking back on it, I guess I could feel somewhat angry or slighted etc, but I took everything from the situation I needed to take, I have the experience of putting together a European model for a US draft eligible player and then taking that player through a European season and the pre draft process, and teaching that player the tools it takes to survive in the NBA, and that’s the ability to be humble and compete. As a agent young in my career, the thing I have had to recognize is once I have moved beyond the immediate survival aspect of doing this job, aka needing to make money, the things I can take from my experiences can benefit me in a lot of ways. I might not make the money off of the Patrick Beverley situation that I could have or should have, but the experience I take has moved me onto the next step in my career and the next platform, and I am being asked to do things of a very high level by very established people that I have a working knowledge and experience basis for. So as a long winded answer in refence to Pat, at this point, I have done all I can do with Pat and its up to him to move forward to make his opportunity work. I truly believe based on the things that Pat has been taught by myself, and most importantly by Bob Donewald, that Pat will be one of the most complete rookies in his draft class 2 years from now.
Thanks for your time and interest in me, and I hope the answers I have provided enlighten your readers from my perspective what it is to be an agent. All the best to everyone.
Darren Heitner: And thank you, Bernie, for providing all of us with a view into the life of a real-life basketball agent. You have been very kind to provide us with your personal experiences that can serve as a lesson for everyone who is trying to break into this industry.