As NBA lockout headlines go, this was nothing for David Falk.
The agent who represented Michael Jordan and many more of the game's biggest names, and was known as an advocate of the stars and adversary of commissioner David Stern during work stoppages, was in the news again.
"I think that I could make this deal in one day, with either party, I really do," Falk said last September of the collective bargaining negotiations, which were three months from a resolution.
His bold proclamation was nothing compared to the good-old days.
Falk, who sold his agency, FAME, to SFX in 1998 in a deal that would eventually be worth about $200 million, was as influential as they came in the 1980s and '90s. During the 1998 NBA lockout, he represented four members of the union's executive committee (including president Patrick Ewing) and was routinely accused of being an obstacle to a deal.
Falk, who currently represents eight NBA clients while also acting as a Syracuse professor and successful businessman, wasn't on the negotiating frontlines this time around. He offered his advice both publicly and privately, but stayed mostly above the fray during the acrimonious six months that led to an agreement.
When I tracked him down to see if he stood by his September prediction, Falk wound up reflecting on the lockout while taking aim at union executive director Billy Hunter and the agents who played such a pivotal role in it all. And yes, for the record, he stands by what he said.
Falk: First of all, to be clear, I wasn't in the group going against Billy [during the latest lockout]. There was a group of 20 to 25 guys who banded together, and I was not a part of that group, was not in any of their conference calls. But I do feel strongly about some of the issues.
SI.com: Such as?
Falk: I believe that one of the major problems that the union has had long before Billy got in there [in 1996] and sort of the legacy of Isiah [Thomas, who was NBPA president from 1988-94], is that the union is not very unionized and not very much together. There's some pressure between the middle-class guys who really dominate the management and the star players who really suffered with some of the rules that they passed. There's no sense of solidarity.
From the day Billy came in, I tried very hard to offer my advice and input. With my experience, obviously I know what he's dealing with as well as he does because I've been doing this for 38 years. And I think Billy -- I like Billy, I think he's a very nice guy -- is very, very reluctant to accept help sometimes because some agents have players in a certain position [of influence].
SI.com: So when you look at why you think a deal didn't get done sooner, what do you point to?
Falk: Both sides started with a very unrealistic starting point, and I think that reflects the distrust they had on the two sides, which I think is dangerous. But what you have to understand is the bottom line of this whole scenario is that they're partners. They're partners whether it's a 57-43 split [of basketball-related income] or it's 50-50. They have a system that has developed a mature business, that's not going to have explosive growth, and certainly not in America, and the only way to grow the business is to grow it along with the players, and they have to be on the same page. They have to grow the business or it's going to slow down to a standstill.
Everyone knew before you started that with the new TV contract, the salaries were going to go from [an average of] $5.5 million to $7 million, so why are we having players take losses up to 22 percent on $2.2 billion ... to get to the point where they got to? It's a very frustrating process for me.
SI.com: You grabbed some headlines when you said you thought you could get a deal done in a day. Do you still feel that way?
Falk: Absolutely. I think I have a different kind of relationship with people like Stern and [Spurs owner] Peter Holt. I'm not saying it to be sensational. I'm not saying it to brag. But for instance, if you had to win a game, do you think it'd make a difference whether you inserted Kobe Bryant or Kyle Korver?
SI.com: Of course.
Falk: So in the agent business, does everybody have the same level of talent? If you wanted to win a Pulitzer Prize, would you send in David Halberstam or send in Stephen A. Smith? And I like Stephen A. Smith. But people try to homogenize this thing and act like everybody's the same. I think that I have a different level of respect with David Stern and Adam Silver and Peter Holt than many people.
And I think I have more experience. Most of the stuff from the uniform player contract of today, I created -- the early termination option, the "love of the game" clause, buyouts. Half the stuff that's in there is stuff we created over the years, but now you have the thing is so buttoned down that there's zero creativity left in the thing at all. I'm a businessman. I don't look at myself as an agent anymore. I'm a businessman. I've sold a business for more than some of the NBA teams may be worth today. I have other businesses I own, and I consider myself a businessman like many of the guys who own the teams.
SI.com: How did you see Billy's part in it?
Falk: He doesn't think he needs support, which I find incredibly difficult to understand in a process that's inherently political. Stern -- who is a very smart, powerful guy, and the most able commissioner in the history of professional sports -- is surrounded by dozens of lawyers. No one says that having the lawyers around him weakens David Stern's position, but Billy feels that having support by powerful people somehow makes him look like he's weak.
I've never met a person in a high position, whether it's a CEO or the president of the United States or a king, who doesn't have dozens of advisors that he relies on. He makes the final decision, but you surround yourself with a presidential cabinet. You have as many smart people as you can, hopefully people smarter than you, to help make sure that you do a good job. Billy has never embraced that concept. I think he somehow feels like putting smart people around you makes you look weak to the players.
SI.com: How do you think that affected negotiations?
Falk: To be honest, if you weren't fighting a two-front war, and you were fighting a one-front war between the owners and the players ... the owners know that the players and the agents are so divided. What do you think that does to the negotiating process? You think it's a secret to the owners that [agent] Arn [Tellem] and his group aren't on the same page with Billy? It's not a secret. Every day it's on the blogs for six months running. Every day. Now how can you negotiate effectively if you're Billy when the people that represent your constituency -- players -- you're having open warfare with them? You're fighting both sides at the same time.
SI.com: You talk about Billy being so independent and not working better with agents, but his response would likely be that agents are always trying to stab him in the back. How do you see that?
Falk: [The agent world] is corrupt for one reason: Because prior to '94, if I meet a guy and tell him that after nine years in the league [my client] Juwan Howard, as the fifth pick, made 70 percent more money than Jason Kidd and Grant Hill as the second or third pick, that's how I competed. I didn't compete by offering guys money and then you come in with a [rookie] wage scale.
Everybody is saying that because the rules don't allow you to differentiate yourself on the contract, how do you differentiate yourself if everything is the same? What's the only variable if you're recruiting a guy and you can't say you can get him more money? How do you separate yourself? People separate themselves by what they offer the guy.
There are issues that need to be addressed that I think hurt the players, hurt the teams. There are companies that represent teams and players, companies that represent coaches and players, GMs and players, even though there are rules against that. But the union doesn't have the wherewithal to police that stuff any more than the NCAA has the wherewithal to police the cheating.
SI.com: In terms of agents feeling pressured to pay players or their relatives, friends, whatever, in order to get them, how widespread do you feel it is these days?
Falk: I really don't know, but I talked to a young guy -- a pretty interesting guy -- about five years ago about getting into business together. He's a pretty sharp guy. And I asked him the question you just asked me: "What percentage of people do you think cheat?" He said, "Are you kidding me? There's probably one guy in the country who doesn't cheat." I said, "Who is that?" He said, "It's you."
Now, I don't believe that. But I think [the problem is] preponderate. I'm not mad about it. I'm not here to be like a muckraker or to turn people in. It doesn't matter to me. It only matters because if you wonder why players switch agents so much, it's because they make decisions for bad reasons. And I think it's unfortunate.
You have all these rules, and no one is enforcing them. It's silly. You have rules where I can't represent Michael Jordan when he became president of the Wizards, and almost every agent there has a whole division of their company where they represent coaches. I said to the union, "How do you allow that to happen?" And they say to me, "Well, we can't regulate corporations." I said, "Really, you couldn't pass a rule that says, 'In order to be registered as an agent representing players you can't work for a company that represents coaches?' " And they're like, "Oh, we never thought about it." If there's a will, there's a way.
SI.com: In terms of agents separating themselves, I'd think that you of all people would see branding as playing a big part. Can't you separate yourself by landing marketing deals, etc.?
Falk: First of all, I think there's only one player in NBA history that has really been branded, and that's Michael Jordan. His brand has lasted from 1984 to 2012, is going strong, is over $1 billion. He's internationally recognized, is the second-most-recognizable person in China, and he truly has a brand that was cultivated.
But when he started, the intent wasn't to manage him to create a brand. It was to manage him to become a great player and the brand grew out of being a great player. I think today's generation of players are trying to skip that step. They're trying to create brands, but you can't create a brand. I think the brand is something that derives from your recognizability, your favorability, your performance, success, personality. It's a blend of different factors.
Michael Jordan developed a brand because it was something that developed naturally. It wasn't something that was manufactured, and I think today too many people are trying too hard -- in a faddish kind of a way -- and the fad things never last. In Michael's generation, there were people like Jim McMahon and Brian Bosworth -- they were fads. They were hot for a couple of years, but [Jordan's] brand lasted because it was built on a very strong foundation.
Everyone has been trying so hard for the last 20 years to find the next Michael Jordan. There will never be another Michael Jordan, and brands come along only occasionally. I think Tiger Woods is a brand. I think Muhammad Ali was a brand. Pele was a brand.
SI.com: Do you see LeBron James as a brand?
Falk: No. First of all, he hasn't won a championship. Second of all, I'm a big LeBron fan and like LeBron personally, but I think he's trying too hard to be a brand, like we saw with The Decision. If I represented LeBron and he told me that he wanted to do a show called The Decision, I'd say, "Great, after you win your first ring, let's do a documentary detailing why you decided to pick Miami. The reason you picked them is because you wanted to win a championship, but until that time The Decision has made you extremely unpopular."
The problem is -- and I like [LeBron's manager] Maverick Carter, as well -- very few players have capable management. I think most of the players are managing their agents, because the agents don't have the confidence or the courage to tell the players what they really think they want to hear. They tell them what they want to hear because they're afraid of getting fired.
SI.com: What about Dwight Howard? Considering his interest in New Jersey seems to be tied to his visions for his brand, how do you see a guy like that?
Falk: In 2012, I find that to be incredible that someone would think that. We live in a digital age, and I think people like Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant -- Kevin Durant is incredibly marketable in Oklahoma. He doesn't have to be in New York or L.A. I think he could be the best player in the league in two years, at the most. And if someone said to you, "If you represented him, would you move him to New York?" I'd say, "No, for what? I think he has a certain homespun credibility being in Oklahoma. It's like Brett Favre being in Green Bay." And I think these guys are being told by these agents who aren't very sophisticated in marketing that you have to be in New York or L.A. to be marketable. Maybe they've never heard of the Internet.
SI.com: You weren't the only getting some attention and scrutiny during the lockout, though. Jordan, as the Bobcats' owner, took a lot of heat for the perceived hypocrisy of his being among the most aggressive owners after having fought for the players back in his day. What did you make of that?
Falk: You know, let's take Kobe Bryant coming out of school. He wore Adidas. Then he got out of Adidas and wore Nike. Now, if you ask him when he started wearing Nike what he thought was a better shoe, Nike or Adidas, and he said, "Nike," does that make him a hypocrite because he used to be with Adidas?
Falk: Why not?
SI.com: Because it's a business deal.
Falk: So if a person bought a business for $250 million, where would you expect him to put his energy? Would it be in the business that you paid $250 million for, or the business he was in before? When he was a player, he pushed for the players. And when he was an owner, he pushed for the owners. That's his job. If he did anything else, it would be the height of stupidity for him to be pushing a deal that's better for players when he invested a significant amount of his money to own the team.
For me, when players of the intelligence of Nick Young make comments like that, if I were in [Jordan's] position, I'd laugh. I mean, where would you expect his loyalties to lie? When I invest money in companies, I expect the company to make decisions that are going to enhance the value of my investment. If they didn't, I would sue them. So I think that Michael, when he buys a team, owes it to himself, his partners, to the citizens of Charlotte, to do the best job he can managing the team. As an intelligent person who was extremely involved in the lockout in '98 at an extremely high level, I think he understands the issues very well. But I don't think Michael feels any differently than I do, and I don't think he necessarily believes that guys who are worth $2 million, $3 million should be making $6 million, $7 million.
If you had $160 million to invest on two funds, and one was called the LeBron James fund and one was called the Jerome James fund, how much money would you put in the Jerome James fund and how much would you put in the LeBron James fund? Under the rules, the league was forcing Cleveland to invest $40 million in the Jerome James fund or some other fund like Jerome James. That's the height of stupidity.
So if Michael Jordan comes out and says he doesn't agree with that, does that make him a hypocrite or does it make him a smart guy? It just makes it clear the people who criticized him don't have the faintest clue how business works in professional sports.
SI.com: What's your bottom line in terms of where the last lockout went wrong?
Falk: At the end of the day, the union is the collective bargaining agent for the players and the agents are the individual bargaining agents for the players. The rules that the union makes dictate how successful the individual agents can be in their individual negotiations. They have a total, 100 percent commonality of interest.
Now, why aren't they on the same team? Why are they on different teams? Because the union has put them on different teams prior to Billy getting the job, and Billy hasn't brought them back and I don't think Billy really even wants to bring them back. There's a very strong antipathy between Billy and the agents. It's got nothing to do with me. It's between Billy and the agents.