Sports agent Aaron Goodwin looked to be a happy, successful man as he strolled through a bustling hallway at Haas Pavilion on the campus of the University of California following the Cal-Oregon basketball game in February. A friend spotted Goodwin and tried to introduce him to an AAU coach, but as Goodwin drew closer, the coach studied his face, frowned and fidgeted before turning away. "That's Aaron Goodwin," he said. "I'm not meeting him. He's crooked."
Goodwin wasn't surprised. He has heard the unsavory tales—that he's unethical and pays large sums of money to get players—and those rumors ("I laugh when I hear them," he says) have only increased in frequency and vitriol since he landed Cleveland Cavaliers 19-year-old rookie sensation LeBron James, the most coveted sports client since Tiger Woods. James is Goodwin's biggest catch but not his only marquee name. Goodwin and his twin brother, Eric, handle a small, star-studded list of NBA players, including Gary Payton, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Damon Stoudamire, and just recently signed Sacramento Kings stud Chris Webber and Atlanta high school phenom Dwight Howard, the 6'11" forward who just may be the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NBA draft. But when the 43-year-old Goodwin became the gatekeeper for LeBron Inc.—a multimillion-dollar enterprise that could ultimately generate billions spread among James, the Cavs, the NBA and the companies whose products he endorses—Goodwin became a lightning rod of envy and calumny ... and vaulted from No. 39 on SI's list of the Most Influential Minorities in Sports last year to No. 8 this year.
Goodwin is the Barry Bonds of agents, a bald, fiercely private black man producing big numbers as skeptics question how he's doing it. "People used to think I was a fluke," says Goodwin. "Now they look at me as a threat." Since signing James in May 2003, Goodwin and his brother have negotiated endorsement deals for him worth $135 million, including a seven-year, $100 million contract with Nike and multiyear deals with Coca-Cola and Cadbury Adams, for whom he endorses Bubblicious gum. Forbes magazine estimates that James will earn nearly $200 million from endorsements before he's 25.
It's not difficult to see why some people don't like Goodwin. He is loyal, dedicated and charismatic to his inner circle, yet he can be blunt, brash and standoffish to others—even those who were once on the inside. He split with former partner and fellow NBA agent Bill Duffy in 1994; their relationship has since deteriorated to such a degree that the two don't speak. (Duffy refused to comment for this story.) Cavaliers general manager Jim Paxson was aware of Goodwin's well-publicized run-ins with management (Seattle owner Howard Schultz and G.M. Wally Walker allegedly detest Goodwin but declined to talk about him publicly) before their negotiations last fall over James's contract. "Our relationship has been positive," says Paxson, who signed James to a four-year, $18.78 million deal. "But I'd be lying if I said some people didn't tell me to be careful."
June 28, 2004
When asked about his bad reputation, Goodwin rolls his eyes. "People can throw whatever stones they want," he says. "Other agents have portrayed me as an arrogant a------to general managers, marketing companies and NBA executives, but when those people meet me, they see that I understand the business. My competitors can't figure out how to deal with me, so they malign me. We have a word for that in the 'hood: Haterism."
The haters have found little to knock regarding Goodwin's handling of James. The Nike deal included a $10 million signing bonus and royalties. James is also the first athlete to start his career as a pitchman for two Coca-Cola brands (Sprite and Powerade). Just as impressive is the fact that James doesn't appear to be overexposed. Goodwin says James has passed on "at least 40 deals" and won't commit to anything unless it fits into the overall marketing strategy they've devised. "We want long-term commitments from companies because we're trying to create synergy," says Goodwin. "We want each company to understand the direction we want to go."
Goodwin says he has also turned down interview requests for James from Oprah, 60 Minutes and the Late Show with David Letterman, and that he has encouraged the companies for which James is doing commercials to stagger them so that the public won't tire of him. "When I signed with Aaron, I knew I could play basketball," James says, "but I didn't know about the other side of things. He's made me real comfortable."
Goodwin's supporters blame racism for his rogue rep. "It's interesting that he's considered a jerk while David Falk [a white agent who was known for his acerbic dealings on behalf of his clients, including Jordan] has a similar style, and he's considered shrewd," says Angelo Wright, an NFL agent and a former business partner of Goodwin's. "People say Aaron is abrasive, but if you do a good job for your clients, that's all that matters."
Four of Goodwin's current players have had contracts paying them at least $12 million a year (Payton, Abdur-Rahim, Stoudamire and Vin Baker). Another, 76ers center Todd MacCulloch, was an unheralded free agent in 2001 hoping to get $2 million a year. After MacCulloch had a solid series for the 76ers against the Lakers in the NBA Finals, Goodwin negotiated a six-year, $34 million deal with New Jersey that left even MacCulloch stunned.
Goodwin broke into the business in 1987 with the firm California Diversified Enterprises. Combining street smarts (he grew up in rugged East Oakland) and book smarts (he studied physiology at Cal), he landed a shoe contract with Converse for his first client, Henry Turner, an obscure, undrafted rookie with the Sacramento Kings. Goodwin landed his first big-name client, Gary Payton, after attending Payton's games when the point guard was in junior high in Oakland and staying on him through high school and college. He met another young local talent, Jason Kidd, when Kidd was a high school sophomore and remained close with him through college. Both players hired him when they entered the NBA.
Goodwin's relationships with very young players has attracted plenty of scrutiny. Yet he describes his ability to connect with young players as one of his strengths. "Aaron acts like a big brother," says Payton. "He deals with you personally instead of brushing you off to somebody else. If you have a problem, he comes and works the situation out."
That is often when things get fractious. Goodwin repeatedly blasted the Dallas Mavericks when Kidd was frustrated with the offense and feuding with teammate Jimmy Jackson in 1996, saying, "If some changes aren't made and issues addressed, it may be time for [Jason] to move on. He's not having fun, and it shows in his game. Come on, he's not missing layups because all of a sudden he's a stiff. It's because his heart just isn't in it." Two weeks after Goodwin spoke out, Kidd was traded to the Suns. When the Vancouver Grizzlies were contemplating an ownership change in 2000, Goodwin publicly threatened that Abdur-Rahim, the team's star player, would demand a trade if general manager Stu Jackson were fired. Sure enough, after Jackson resigned to avoid being canned, Abdur-Rahim was traded to Atlanta. Goodwin's defining power play came last year in Seattle. Payton had played his entire career with the Sonics, but his relationship with the team soured when Payton claimed Sonics owner Schultz reneged on a promise to offer him a contract extension. (Schultz said he wanted Payton to retire as a Sonic but did not promise the player an extension.) In stepped Goodwin, who publicly—and repeatedly—sniped at Schultz and CEO Wally Walker until Payton was traded to the Bucks in February 2003.
Goodwin approaches a confrontation with management like it's a no-holds-barred cage match. "My ex-partner [Duffy] always told me that I should network and schmooze more, get in tight with G.M.'s," says Goodwin. "For what? If I'm battling with a G.M., I don't want him saying, 'Aaron, let this one go—we'll go have a beer, and I'll take care of the next client of yours who comes my way.' If I heard that, I'd say, 'No,' and I'd be thinking, When my next client comes around, I'm going to go at him the same way!"
Even clients who have fired Goodwin praise him. In 2000 Kidd and Boston Celtics swingman Paul Pierce both dropped Goodwin and hired attorney Jeff Schwartz. Kidd says he wanted to pay Schwartz an hourly rate to handle his deals instead of Goodwin's standard fee of 4%. Pierce, a Los Angeles native, felt the L.A.-based Schwartz could be "more hands-on." Pierce says, "It wasn't a bad breakup. I still talk to Aaron. He's a real good guy and a really good agent." Hornets guard Courtney Alexander, who left Goodwin in 2002, recently asked him to represent him again.
James says Goodwin's persistence and his personal relationships with clients were the two primary factors that led him to choose Goodwin from among a horde of suitors. Goodwin made biweekly trips to Akron and other cities to watch James play for St. Vincent-St. Mary High. He even abandoned a family church event in Palm Springs, Calif., in January—catching a red-eye to Cleveland—because James had asked if he'd be attending a critical game. "I give Aaron a lot of credit for the time he put in," Paxson says. "Whenever I went to LeBron's games, Aaron was there."
Although some people are put off by Goodwin's forthright nature, James was drawn to it. "Aaron was always real straightforward, and I saw I could be friends with him," says James. "That's what I didn't see in the other agents. Besides doing business together, I could have a good relationship with him." Goodwin has cemented that bond by spending countless hours with the young star, sometimes simply hanging out with James and his pals. Goodwin has eased James's transition into the NBA, satisfied his other clients and has shown that he's more than a one-trick agent by landing Webber and Howard. As one NBA executive says, "I don't know how much wrong Aaron Goodwin has done. But he's obviously doing something right."
After a Cavs win over Chicago in March, Goodwin waited for James outside the Cleveland locker room. When James finally appeared, he gathered his friends and family and then asked if Goodwin was coming with them.
"What's going on tonight?" Goodwin asked.
"Same as usual," James said. "We're just trying to take over the world."