There was nowhere to run and not a blocker in sight, so Heisman
Trophy-winning running back Ricky Williams lowered his head, bit
his lip and took his punishment. Outnumbered 10 to 1 in a room
whose walls seemed to be closing in, Williams absorbed a
tongue-lashing from Percy Miller, a man with a mouthful of gold,
diamonds and, on this February morning, harsh words for a
potential client. Miller, known to legions of hip-hop fans and
moviegoers as Master P, had been awakened a week earlier by a 4
a.m. call from Williams, who had expressed a desire to sign with
No Limit Sports, Master P's fledgling agency. The next day,
however, Williams split for Maui to play in the Hula Bowl and
left Master P hanging. Finally, they were together in a guest
room at the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego--along with an
entourage of Master P's associates, commonly known as No Limit
soldiers. Williams didn't dare talk back.
"It's time for you to step up and be a man!" Master P barked.
"People are gonna be player-haters and talk a bunch of s---, but
you gotta be hard. People like us are capable of breaking down
all the barriers, and we've gotta stick together. So stop
f------ around with us if you ain't serious, 'cause we ain't got
time to waste on you."
Williams was furious. You don't even know me or what I'm about,
he thought, or you wouldn't be saying this. He looked up at
Master P--a ghetto-raised rap icon whose songs feature images of
street violence and other urban ills--and swallowed hard. "I was
very intimidated," Williams, who was raised in a middle-class
suburb of San Diego, recalled four months later. "I had never
met a rapper before, and I knew his lyrics, so I didn't know
what to think. I had to swallow my nuts a little bit. It was
very awkward. You know how when you're a kid and you're getting
lectured by your mom, her face gets enormous? That's how it felt."
When the lecture ended, Williams went upstairs to his hotel room
to look over the proposed representation agreement with Master
P. It called for No Limit to receive a 3% fee, the maximum
allowed by the NFL Players Association. Williams thought he
would be ridiculed if he agreed to such terms, and when he
returned to the room downstairs, he told Master P that many
agents would jump at the chance to sign him for 1% or less.
"I'll give you 2 percent," Williams said, and Master P shook his
head. Williams reminded Master P that, as one of the top picks
in the upcoming NFL draft, he might command a contract worth $50
million, "and 2 percent of that is a million bucks." The room
fell silent. Then Master P, surprised by the 21-year-old's
resolve, caved. "Man, you're a crook," he told Williams. "You
think this is fair? It's robbery."
July 18, 1999
Minutes later Williams signed with No Limit, forming a
partnership that sent shock waves through the sports world.
Depending on who's talking, the hookup of gangsta rapper and
dreadlocked runner signaled either the spawning of an
entertainment empire for the new millennium or the end of the
world as we know it. The debate has intensified over the past
four months as the plot thickened: Williams's draft stock
slipped a bit, possibly because of NFL teams' concern over No
Limit's inexperience and the potential for a protracted contract
dispute; the New Orleans Saints traded an unprecedented eight
draft choices to acquire the fifth pick, which they used to
select Williams; and, on May 14, Williams signed an unorthodox,
incentive-laden contract that will pay him far less than his
market value if he doesn't put up huge numbers.
Many established agents point to this eight-year package as
proof that No Limit is in over its head. Jim Steiner, a
prominent agent based in St. Louis, called the contract "the
best thing they could've done for the rest of the agent
community. It will be challenging for No Limit to recruit
college players next year." Scoffed another established agent,
referring also to the brouhaha last year when No. 5 pick Curtis
Enis hired an agent with ties to the organization Champions for
Christ, "Last year we had the born-agains. This year it's the
gangsta rappers. What do you figure for next year--the landscape
architect agents? The circus barkers?"
Williams, No Limit's lone marquee client, responds by seizing
the moral high ground. "The Saints showed a lot of faith in me,"
he says, "and if I'd squeezed them for guaranteed money and
didn't pan out, I couldn't look myself in the mirror."
More improbably, Master P and his associates have emerged as
champions of old-school virtue. "If you feel a need to get all
of your money up front, that's insecurity," Master P says. "At
No Limit, we're into proving to people that we're hard workers.
If Ricky's a real football player, he'll get his money. He told
the Saints, 'I want to work for it.' That's what you call
It would behoove sports fans to get used to Master P, whose
attempts to barge into the athletic realm have been as subtle as
a Shawn Kemp tomahawk jam. Last summer Master P, 29, launched an
unlikely drive to make it as a pro basketball player. He had a
brief stint with the CBA's Fort Wayne Fury and followed it up by
spending training camp with the Charlotte Hornets, who cut him
four days before the season began. He plans to play in pro-am
leagues this summer, with his sights on another NBA tryout
before next season. Master P has a national shoe deal with
Converse and is interested in owning an NBA team. Recently he
released a basketball-tribute CD featuring, among others,
platinum-selling No Limit artists Snoop Dogg, Silkk the Shocker
and Mr. Serv-On.
If nothing else, No Limit has made the world of sports
representation less boring. Leland Hardy, the agent who handled
the Williams negotiations, has an even wilder resume than Master
P. Hardy, 37, a former stockbroker and heavyweight boxer who
speaks five languages and says he has acted in more than a dozen
feature films, claims he insisted on hammering out the Williams
deal at a country club "to send a message to all the young kids
down with No Limit: We invited ourselves to this society's last
bastion of exclusion."
Master P is a walking incongruity, a man whose music is laced
with violent images and drug references yet who preaches
tolerance and says he refrains from using drugs and even
alcohol. He fought his way out of a New Orleans ghetto to found
No Limit and turn it into America's top independent record
label. He went on to establish a diversified business empire;
Forbes magazine ranked him 10th on its 1998 list of
highest-grossing entertainers, with earnings of $56.5 million.
"I wanted a sports agency only when I saw the way athletes were
being mishandled, the way agents only cared about them when they
were playing," Master P says. "I know guys who played in the NBA
or the NFL who are working in grocery stores or worse. We're
looking to make a change in our community. And I'm only
interested in clients who want to do the right thing."
On a warm evening in late May, Master P is making money and
playing basketball--his two favorite activities. He and at least
a dozen members of his No Limit crew have gathered at
Soundcastle, a music studio several miles east of Hollywood,
where he's producing a CD by a woman rapper named Mercedes.
Before that bit of business, Master P spends a half hour
hustling small bills from an R&B singer named Smokey in a
shot-for-shot contest on a court with a crooked rim. When Smokey
ups the ante before one attempt, Master P scoffs, "This is how I
supported myself before I started rapping. In the projects they
had a guy with a gun pointed at me saying, 'You'd better make
it.'" Master P cans his next three shots. "The Hornets didn't
cut me 'cause I can't play," he bellows. "They cut me 'cause I
make rap music."
Given that rappers, as a rule, make boxers seem humble, Master
P's boast seems to be made for effect. Hornets coach Paul Silas,
who was an assistant with Charlotte at the time of Master P's
tryout, says the 6'3" guard, who enjoyed some success as a high
school player in New Orleans and at Merritt Junior College in
Oakland, was overmatched against NBA competition. "If he worked
on his game constantly for an entire year, he might have a
chance," Silas says. "He really has to speed up his game even to
get a shot off on this level."
In addition to his record label Master P owns numerous other
businesses, including a film-production outfit, a clothing line
and a real estate firm, but what he really wants is to be a
player in the sports world. Until his agency landed Williams,
however, its most prominent clients were a pair of former
Kentucky basketball players: Cleveland Cavaliers guard Derek
Anderson and Boston Celtics swingman Ron Mercer. Last winter
Master P began pursuing Williams. He paid a late-night visit to
the player's hotel room in Orlando, where Williams was attending
the ESPN College Football Awards. A surprised Williams asked
Master P for an autograph, but nothing else happened.
In January, Williams signed with Woolf Associates--the Boston
firm that had negotiated part of his contract to play baseball
during the summer in the Philadelphia Phillies' organization,
which had drafted Williams in 1995--to represent him in the NFL,
but he soon became disenchanted with the agency. "They had me
driving around in a car with no insurance," Williams says, "and
when I wanted to hook up with a marketing firm [ISI], they saw
it as a threat. They didn't have my interests at heart. That
experience pushed me away from the conventional way of doing
things. It's a dirty business, but No Limit's not really in it
yet, so I guess you could say they're innocent. I don't really
think they'd know how to bull---- me, to tell you the truth.
They're the only ones that didn't." (Asked for a response, Woolf
Associates president Gregg Clifton declined to address the
car-insurance issue and denied Williams's charge regarding ISI.
He said his agency's relationship with the player ended "because
of philosophical differences.")
It wasn't until after signing with No Limit, Williams says, that
he came to know the firm's "family atmosphere," which he
discovered during a visit to Master P's house in Baton Rouge in
February. Williams had already been introduced to the New
York-based Hardy, who had been brought into the No Limit fold by
Master P the previous October. "He's a guy who's been underrated
all his life and just needed an establishment to let him show
his skills," Master P says of Hardy, who months earlier had
attempted to sell him a movie script. Hardy says he wrote the
as-yet-unsold script Dice--about an ex-convict who tries to save
his uncle's business by helping to bust a drug ring--during a
96-hour creative marathon.
Such grand proclamations aren't uncommon for Hardy, who once
sent out a resume cover letter in which he referred to himself
as "the most interesting young man in the country." He earned a
pair of master's degrees from Penn, one in international studies
and one in business administration from the Wharton School of
Finance; took first place in a national Spanish contest for
non-native speakers in 1979; and spent 4 1/2 months in '84 at
the Beijing Foreign Language Institute, where he became fluent
in Mandarin Chinese.
As a boxer Hardy won the 1983 Pennsylvania Golden Gloves
heavyweight championship and, two summers later, hooked up with
Muhammad Ali when the Champ toured China. Hardy, who later boxed
professionally as the Fighting Stockbroker (record: 8-3-1) while
working as a Bear Stearns retail account executive in Manhattan,
served as Ali's interpreter and ended up sparring with him
publicly. He says he and Ali have been close ever since.
"Leland is like Forrest Gump--I never underestimate where he
might end up," says Seattle attorney Keven Davis, the chief
adviser to tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, with whom
Hardy has a less formal business relationship. "He might be
dining with premiers or going around China with Ali, and you say
to yourself, What's he doing there?--but he's there. He's the
most confident person I've ever met. If it's the bottom of the
ninth, two outs, and his team is down 15 runs and facing an
0-and-2 count with the bases empty, Leland will believe a
rally's coming soon."
Hardy's wife of eight years, Rosetta Garries, a plastic surgeon
who moonlights as a cut person for several boxers, chides him
for being a pack rat, a hopeless optimist and maddeningly
even-tempered. "I've never seen him get angry or even raise his
voice," says Garries. "He's like one of these postal workers you
hear about: calm all their lives, and then--boom!--they explode."
Hardy has his share of less affectionate detractors. He says he
first became acquainted with Richard Williams, Venus and
Serena's father and manager, a decade ago and became a "business
adviser" to the Williamses. But a source close to the family
says that other than helping to set up Serena's endorsement deal
with Puma, Hardy was "just a guy who hung around--carrying bags,
being a bodyguard, whatever."
Says Hardy, "I remain a factotum--a jack-of-all-trades. I'd show
up at Venus's matches wearing a business suit and a bow tie, and
a lot of people thought I was a Farrakhanist bodyguard. And if
anyone had messed with Venus, I'd have gladly taken them on.
Hey, Richard has had me out at practice for eight hours picking
Still, even Hardy's critics praise his imaginative approach to
the Puma deal, a high-risk venture with a huge upside if Serena
cracked the Top 10, which she did. "He's a very creative guy,"
Richard Williams says. "He has worked like a dog. He's honest,
and he donates a lot of time to underprivileged kids. He earned
After attempting to hook up with rap giants Sean (Puffy) Combs
and L.L. Cool J, Hardy finally got his chance with No Limit.
"I've always wanted to be in a hip-hop empire and retain my nerd
status," he says, "to be the only guy wearing a suit while
everyone else is wearing Fubu."
It's debatable whether Hardy is the most interesting young man
in America, but he certainly is among the most reachable. He
carries his mobile phone everywhere. He stunned Ricky Williams
by taking calls during meetings with NFL coaches and team
presidents and even while sitting on the podium during the May
14 press conference announcing Williams's signing with the
Saints. "You never know when that all-important call could
come," says Hardy, laughing. "I'm trying to create my own cell
phone etiquette for the '90s."
How's this for manners: Garries says Hardy answers his phone
during romantic dinners. What if they're in bed kissing? "He'll
get the phone," she says, sighing. Surely that's as far as it
goes? "At the most tender of moments," Garries says, "yep, he'll
get the phone."
Yet Hardy chose not to talk about a story in Street & Smith's
Sports Business Journal late last month reporting that he faced
an indefinite suspension by the NFL Players Association because
he had failed the union's take-home, open-book test on the
collective bargaining agreement, which is required for agent
certification. A source familiar with Hardy's situation says he
will appeal the test results to the NFLPA's executive committee,
citing the numerous written explanations he submitted with his
answers to multiple-choice questions. The source also noted that
Hardy was the only agent named in the story, which said a number
of agents had failed the test.
Even if Hardy clears his name, many of his competitors believe
that the Williams contract is proof enough of his inadequacy.
The debate began immediately after the announcement of the
eight-year contract, which is worth anywhere from $11.1 million
to $68.4 million. Hardy characterized Williams's deal as
potentially the richest ever signed by a rookie, hailed the
$8.84 million signing bonus and chided those who had assumed
that the player's signing with No Limit would lead to a
prolonged and acrimonious dispute with the Saints. Meanwhile,
New Orleans officials privately glowed over the outcome, as did
front-office executives of teams with draft positions in the
immediate vicinity. Several of them placed congratulatory calls
to the Saints.
Rival agents ripped the deal, especially given Williams's
extraordinary leverage. Because New Orleans had given up so much
to draft Williams, the NCAA's Division I alltime rushing leader,
a drawn-out contract dispute would have been a public-relations
nightmare for the club. Saints owner Tom Benson told his chief
negotiator, salary-cap consultant Terry O'Neil, that he wanted
Williams signed promptly. Happily for Benson, Williams too
wanted to be signed quickly, so he could begin the Saints'
off-season workout program on time, on May 16, and Hardy pushed
to complete a deal before then. "When you have a team by the
balls--and no agent I can think of has been in that situation
for years--for you to get a deal like [Williams's] makes a
mockery of this business," says one NBA agent.
Among other things, Hardy was criticized for agreeing to such a
long-term deal: Given the short playing lives of most NFL
running backs (an average of 3 1/2 years), this could be
Williams's only contract. When negotiations began, in
Philadelphia, Miss.--spilling into daily rounds at the Dancing
Rabbit Golf Club, where Saints coach Mike Ditka is a
member--O'Neil said the team wouldn't agree to a contract with
voidable years, which would have allowed Williams to get out of
the deal several seasons early by achieving easy-to-reach
statistical plateaus. Hardy quickly acceded. Then, playing on
Hardy's old-school values, O'Neil persuaded him that an
arrangement jacking up Williams's salary if he satisfied
relatively soft requirements, such as the Arizona Cardinals gave
No. 3 pick Andre Wadsworth last year, "would be disrespectful to
Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Jim Brown and the other great
backs in NFL history."
Instead, Hardy sought a deal that would reward Williams for high
levels of productivity (chart, page 88). Williams can earn as
much as $500,000 in incentives per season, but his base salary
will remain at minimum levels ($175,000 to $475,000) unless he
activates one of two escalator clauses, the more lucrative of
which requires him to match three of four statistical standards
established by the Denver Broncos' Terrell Davis over his first
four seasons. Besides Davis, the only runner in NFL history to
have reached even two of these plateaus is Hall of Famer Eric
Dickerson. "I was flabbergasted when I saw the numbers," says
IMG's Tom Condon, agent for this year's No. 1 selection, Tim
Couch. "You could be Barry Sanders and not achieve some of these
Williams, however, has a different perspective. "The Saints
stepped up and showed a lot of faith in me," he says. "If I
stayed out of camp to milk them and had a bad year, I couldn't
live with myself. The way I was brought up, you don't screw
people over for money. That's bad karma." He adds that the lack
of voidable years doesn't bother him: "I'm old-fashioned. I
don't want to bounce from team to team and go to the highest
bidder." He clearly feels comfortable betting on his skills.
"Either I go out there and play the way I should and do the
things I was brought in here to do, or I don't, and it's my
bad," he says. "I don't think athletes are greedy; I think
agents are, and they play on athletes' insecurities. Trust me:
Leland Hardy is the best agent in the country, and if he's not,
he'll work so hard that he will be."
When Hardy shows up at Soundcastle the day after Master P's
sharpshooting exhibition, he encounters a typically weary crew.
No Limit releases records the way Danielle Steele churns out
romance novels, and Master P and the gang stayed up laying down
tracks for Mercedes's album until 5 a.m. Never mind that they
had an 8 a.m. business meeting. "We get by on power naps," says
No Limit vice president Anthony (Boz) Boswell, a close friend of
Master P's since childhood. "Ain't no sense of sleeping if you
ain't got enough money in your pocket."
As Hardy watches Silkk the Shocker (Master P's younger brother
Vyshonne) and Mr. Serv-On do battle in a medium-stakes game of
spades, he speaks boldly, in between cell phone interruptions,
about No Limit's future. "We plan to make a major foray into
golf, and I'm talking with Emmanuel Steward about setting up the
most formidable enterprise in boxing history," he says. "I hope
to meet soon with Allen Iverson, and I've been approached by an
NHL free agent. I'm talking to a 14-year-old figure skater with
gold medal potential, we're moving into pro wrestling, and we'd
like to help reinvigorate track and field in the U.S. And this
year we're working on something called BICEPS--a joint venture
between No Limit and the Wharton School that will provide the
first continuing education program in business finance for
active professional athletes."
Hardy stops talking to tend to a more pressing business matter:
Master P has challenged him to a game of pool, with $1,000 on
the line. Though this is chump change for the No Limit CEO,
there are larger ramifications. Master P, who is known to his
employees as the Colonel, isn't accustomed to being upstaged,
and his aura is intimidating. Hardy, wearing a custom-made
purple pinstripe suit, looks like the ultimate mark, and he
falls behind early. "Man, somebody take that stick away from
Leland before he pokes somebody's eyes out," Master P says, "and
get him a better pair of glasses."
Just as things look hopeless for Hardy, he rallies. As he drains
shot after shot, the air is slowly sucked out of the room, until
the No Limit nerd is only two shots from trumping the Big Kahuna.
"The opera ain't over till the fat lady sings," Master P says.
"You better give her a record deal," Hardy fires back, kissing
the 4 ball into the corner pocket. He calmly walks the length of
the table and banks in the 8 ball, and Master P throws up his
hands. "Leland Hardy," he says, shaking his head, "you're gonna
shock the world."
"I was very intimidated," Williams says of his first business
meeting with Master P. "I had to swallow my nuts a little bit."
"At the most tender of moments in bed," Hardy's wife says with a
sigh, "yep, Leland will answer the phone."
Master P has become a champion of old-school virtue. "We're hard
workers," he says.