- The only female agent to represent NBA coaches and broadcasters, Debbie Spander has leaned on her tireless work ethic and basketball acumen to build a client base and outperform men in her industry. The Crossover spent two days with the woman who has become a titan in basketball circles.
Sunlight pours in through the Gordon Biersch Brewery’s gaping, warehouse-style windows. Just a mile north of the Thomas & Mack Center, the day’s Summer League slate stands 30 minutes from tipoff. Former NBA All-Star Antawn Jamison dips fried calamari into cocktail sauce. His agent, Debbie Spander, sits across the lunch table, her short, brown hair hanging just above her shoulders. In between bites of their appetizer, conversation leads Spander to explain the meaning of her Hebrew name, Deborah.
“The direct translation is ‘bee,’” Spander says. Further, the prophet Deborah appears in the book of Judges, and is the only female judge mentioned in the Bible. She is said to have prophesied a great battle, but Spander provides Jamison with a simpler summary: “Deborah was a tough chick.” Her client laughs, stretching a pearly smile. “Well, that makes sense, because you get s--- done,” Jamison replies. Among other responsibilities, Spander represents coaches and front office executives for Wasserman. Just like her namesake, she is the only female in that sect of the NBA industry, competing with the fabled likes of Lonnie Cooper, Warren LeGarie and Steve Kauffman.
When Jamison, who now works for the Lakers, mentions that fellow scout Kevin Grevey has departed L.A. to join Mitch Kupchak’s new front office with the Charlotte Hornets, Spander’s negotiating wit whirs to life. If the Lakers need Jamison to increase his scouting production this season, it will mean the end of his part-time television role with the team's broadcast network. And if Jamison needs to halt his burgeoning media career, that presents leverage Spander naturally sniffs amidst the brewery’s aromas.
Spander has been around professional sports since childhood. Her father, Art Spander, has covered all levels of competition dating back to 1963, becoming the San Francisco Examiner’s lead columnist in 1979. Spander tagged along to games and events with Dad as a toddler. They would chat sports at their Bay Area home, unfurling hot takes over the dinner table. Spander scratched her own writing itch at the Peninsula Times Tribune during her undergrad years at Stanford. She later interned for the Sacramento Bee during the summer after graduation and then wrote for the Contra Costa Times the following year before ultimately enrolling in law school, hoping to pivot into the business aspect of sports.
Before graduating UCLA School of Law in 1995, Spander joined a startup production company named BLT Productions, cofounded by three fellow Stanford graduates, which correctly predicted a key outcome of the 1993 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement. Spander’s company anticipated the league would approve group licensing rights for the first time. Presciently, BLT acquired a slew of lucrative NFL player group licensing rights for entertainment—the ability for six or more athletes to appear in an advertisement or promotion—negotiating with a young NFL executive named Roger Goodell.
By 1997, Spander held a key role on Fox Sports’ legal team, overseeing much of the networks’ early contract work. In 2004, she joined MTV Entertainment, working primarily with Spike and Comedy Central. With over a decade of experience negotiating deals for talent, rights agreements, marketing and sponsorship terms, Spander flipped to the other side of the table in 2011, launching her own company, A-Game Media, which represented the broadcasters she previously countered in arbitration. Arn Tellem called only a year later. Wasserman boasted just five clients when it spawned a broadcast and coaches representation division in 2011. Just five years later, Spander helped grow the division’s roster to more than 50 broadcasters and coaches.
Today, Spander’s personal client list features Bulls had coach Fred Hoiberg, Warriors assistant Jarron Collins, Pelicans assistant Darren Erman, Jamison and Nazr Mohammed, now scouting for the Thunder; college head coaches in Walter McCarty and Travis DeCuire; and broadcasters Brian Scalabrine, Brent Barry and Tony Delk. “She’s very intense,” Hoiberg says. “She’s somebody that’s gonna work until the situation is done. She’s just one of those people that loves her job, has great connections, great relationships and that’s a huge part of being successful in that business.”
When then-Warriors head coach Mark Jackson fired Erman and Scalabrine in 2014, Spander balanced their respective job searches while negotiating each client’s settlement agreements with Golden State. “It was a pretty depressing time for a few weeks,” Spander says. Scalabrine flew down to Los Angeles, weighing his options with his agent over the course of a lengthy meeting. During an 11-year playing career, the once mild-mannered Northwesterner created the cocky end-of-bench alter ego of ‘Scal,’ egging on the crowd with each late-minute basket. “Boston fans really embraced 'him,’” Scalabrine told Sports Illustrated in 2015. “I knew I wanted to [broadcast], so I started reaching out to Comcast even as a player. A persona had to be created.” NBC Sports Boston offered Scal full-time on-air work, negotiating a long-term deal with Spander so long as Scalabrine moved to Boston within a year.
Erman soon joined the Celtics’ staff as a director of scouting, Spander bartering contract terms such as outs for head coaching opportunities. Before the start of the subsequent 2015-16 season, Spander was negotiating with Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren, in hopes of Erman returning to the bench, when the Pelicans swooped in with an assistant coaching job. New Orleans recently picked up the fourth-year option on Erman’s deal. “I like Debbie,” Zarren says. “She’s smart and good at what she does.”
When Hoiberg leapt to the NBA in 2015 from Iowa State, his former Wasserman player representative, Warriors general manager Bob Myers, advised the rising coach obtain Spander’s services. Hoiberg’s new coaching agent ironed out the remaining wrinkles in his contract terms with Chicago, her gender notwithstanding. “It doesn’t matter,” Hoiberg says. “The biggest thing is going out and making sure you’re doing the necessary things to put your clients in the best position possible and she definitely does that.
“That’s who she is,” Hoiberg continues. “You sit down with her and it’s just very easy conversation. Whether it’s business or just going out to dinner and catching up on things, she’s a very easy person to talk to and get to know.”
Strolling the concourse alongside Spander at Summer League, she wears sandals instead of kicks, yet garners the attention of more league personnel than the average media member or certified player representative. She is perpetually smiling, cracking jokes and hugging contacts hello. In between stop-and-chats, she texts her ever-growing list of clients, planning her next meeting. Her device only sleeps from midnight until 6 a.m. “You need to be available seven days a week, 16, 17 hours a day,” Spander says. “My clients aren’t going to get traded in the middle of the night.”
A day before her lunch with Jamison, Spander connects with Mohammed on a stretch of concourse outside the UNLV’s Cox Pavilion. His 7-foot frame dwarfs her 5-foot stature, yet their conversation could convince any bystander they grew up together in the same neighborhood of Chicago. Spander is at Summer League primarily to check in with her clients, weighing their happiness in their current roles. Mohammed tells Spander he’s thrilled to be back with the Thunder after two stints in Oklahoma City as a player. Working under Sam Presti in this capacity has been a dream come true. His agent, though, reminds Mohammed that when he’s ready to pursue an upgrade, such as an assistant general manager post, to let her know. Spander recently helped McCarty, a fellow Kentucky Wildcat, depart the Celtics for his first head coaching job at Evansville, after all.
With Mohammed, McCarty and Delk, Spander represents a hoard of Big Blue Nation products. “You keep doing what you do,” Mohammed tells Spander, “and I’ll keep sending Kentucky guys your way.” They hug goodbye, with plans to regroup in Chicago during Spander’s August trips to check in with clients. Mohammed will soon depart Vegas to return to his Charlotte golf-course community. Spander later takes off to accompany her daughter on a tropical vacation, a few days where Mom is not a tireless agent, phoning titans of the NBA as if she’s always belonged.