Playing For Keeps
In the fourteen years that Michael Jordan played in the NBA, no one other than a handful of players benefited more from the league's rising affluence and the shift in power from owners to players than David Falk. A relatively junior sports agent in the beginning of the era, Falk was by 1998 not merely the most affluent agent ever to represent basketball players but one of the two or three most influential men in the sport of basketball, a man whose power was said to rival that of David Stern himself. If the legal, economic, and technological changes that took place in the eighties and nineties had been good for players, they were arguably even better for agents. Since he first surfaced as an agent, he had split twice with partners: Early on, even before he was part of Jordan's team, he and Donald Dell split from Frank Craighill and Lee Fentress, and eventually he split off from Dell in what was considered a rather bitter professional divorce. In 1998 he sold his company to a larger firm, one that specialized in producing live entertainment in arenas around the country. The price was an estimated $100 million, and as part of the deal, Falk stayed on to run his part of the company. A press release announcing the sale noted that Falk's old company, FAME (Falk Associates Management Enterprises), "represented an unprecedented 6 first-round draft picks in the NBA, negotiated over $400 million in contracts for its free-agent clients, and negotiated four of the five largest contracts in team sports history."
No one doubted David Falk's ability and intelligence, but if there was one thing that bothered people who cared about the league and the game in the broadest sense, it was whether he had any sense of a larger good, a belief that the greater good and health of the game was still something of an issue. Some felt that there was a danger that the size of some players' contracts exploited the vulnerability of varying franchises and threatened the long-range stability of the league. Falk seemed to enjoy his power as much as his wealth, the ability not to return calls and to make other people, particularly owners, feel vulnerable to him. "Be wary of David, and be particularly careful when he starts telling you how much he respects you," an owner once noted. "That's when you're going to either lose your wallet or your franchise player--it's his way of telling you he's more powerful than you are."
In the summer of 1998, as the league and the players' union prepared for a major battle over contract rules and the owners prepared for a lockout of the players, a number of Falk clients, including Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, and Alonzo Mourning, had risen (hardly by chance) to positions of leadership in the union. That did not mean that it was simply Falk against the owners, for there were a number of other agents equally active on the players' side, but the issues, particularly the question of a soft or hard salary cap, seemed more about the contract freedoms enjoyed by the elite of the league than the earning power of most players. Certainly a number of people knowledgeable about the NBA saw the lockout as something of a struggle between Stern and Falk, and certainly when David Falk spoke to reporters that fall, he implied that Michael Jordan might be willing to come back for one more season--if David Stern did not block the way. As the lockout continued, it became increasingly clear that Falk was a critically important figure on the union side and that the issues seemed to affect his handful of elite clients more than they did most of the players. In an unusually scathing column the influential New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica wrote, "There may be worse phonies in sports than David Falk, but it is hard to come up with one today." Falk was, Lupica wrote, "a Rasputin coming off the bench" in these negotiations, the rare person who could make a writer root for a sports owner.
Excerpted from Playing for Keeps by David Halberstam. Copyright© 1999 by The Amateurs Limited; Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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