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Friday, October 06, 2023

Rich Paul, N.B.A. Power Broker, Growing Up and Finding Peace - The New York Times

An N.B.A. Power Broker, Growing Up and Finding Peace

"In a new memoir, Rich Paul, known to many for his long association with LeBron James, details his difficult upbringing and the valuable lessons it taught him.

Rich Paul, wearing a green shirt, standing beside a mirror.
Rich Paul’s memoir, “Lucky Me,” comes out on Tuesday.Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times

When Rich Paul considers his life now, he sometimes thinks how far it seems from his childhood, growing up Black in a particularly dangerous part of Cleveland.

For the past two decades, Mr. Paul, 42, has been a polarizing force in basketball. A power broker in a specialized world, he is slim, 5-foot-8 and sharply dressed, often appearing on the margins of photos snapped at marquee events.

Many saw him as LeBron James’s confidant, and later as his agent. But as he built a sports agency, Klutch Sports Group, that rivaled and irritated more established companies, he has worked to separate his identity from that of Mr. James’s.

Mr. Paul is now a courtside fixture at N.B.A. games. He collects art. He lives in Beverly Hills. And he is in a yearslong relationship with the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Adele. Mr. Paul has helped N.B.A. players shift power away from teams and to themselves, like when he maneuvered a 2019 trade that sent Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers to join Mr. James.

On Tuesday, Roc Lit 101, an imprint of Random House, will publish his memoir, “Lucky Me.” It is a bid by Mr. Paul to both own his past — growing up with a mother who battled addiction and acknowledging his own drug dealing — and celebrate the way his difficult upbringing, and in particular his father, prepared him for his future.

Recently, at a restaurant in a five-star hotel in Midtown Manhattan, with sculptures of tropical birds in the light fixtures, Mr. Paul mused about his hope that athletes would focus on the peace of mind that can come with real financial security, not the fleeting pleasure of social media attention and the temporary financial windfalls that come with it. The idea of finding peace set off another thought.

“I come from a place where every day is chaotic. Every. Day,” Mr. Paul said, his voice rising as he began tapping hard on the table to emphasize his words. “Sirens, all day long. You have to wear headphones. I should have been the inventor of Beats, as many sirens as I had to listen to, and yells and cussing outs and everything.”

After a moment, he returned to his original point.

“These kids, they just want clout,” Mr. Paul said. “I don’t understand it.”

Mr. Paul sitting in a chair in front of a black and white photograph of Muhammad Ali.
One of the main themes of the memoir is the influence Mr. Paul’s father had on him.Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times

It’s why, he said, he was so passionate about becoming an agent. He had heard so much about players being broke despite initially getting lucrative contracts.

“There’s no line down the street to get to knowledge,” Mr. Paul said. “It tells you a lot.”

In thinking about Mr. Paul’s memoir, Chris Jackson, the publisher and editor in chief of Roc Lit 101, said he was interested in Mr. Paul as part of a generation of Black men “whose formative experiences were during that period that was defined by crack cocaine and the post-civil rights cocktail of white flight, urban abandonment and families that really struggled to stay together.

“And how out of that kind of experience of survival, so much was created, and how the entire country was shifted by people who were kind of forged in that.”

The broad strokes of Mr. Paul’s back story have been recounted before, the way his mother had struggled with drug addiction and his father, who had another family, raised him in the family’s corner store. How a chance meeting with Mr. James at an airport in Akron, Ohio, turned into a partnership that changed the course of his life.

In the memoir, which was written with the journalist Jesse Washington and features a foreword by Mr. James, Mr. Paul goes further than ever before. He depicts in heartbreaking detail the ways his mother’s absences forced her children to act older than their ages, contrasting those stories with her energy and charisma when she was clean.

“It was therapeutic for me, but at the same time I wanted to make sure that people understood it wasn’t all bad,” Mr. Paul said.

He writes that his father taught him discipline and how to run a business. Not all of his father’s business dealings were strictly legal, but Mr. Paul said he always ran them with honor. His father’s advice is sprinkled throughout the memoir, as are the ways Mr. Paul learned to make money and earn respect. Dressing well was always a big part of that.

He writes of the devastation he felt at losing his father, whom he calls his “moral compass,” in 2000, which led to him selling cocaine for the first time. He shares his unease at selling hard drugs, which had shattered his mother, but said that he was swept up by a desire to compete and win.

During lunch in Manhattan, Mr. Paul said he hadn’t felt comfortable publicly sharing stories about selling drugs before, though he knew drugs weren’t exclusive to his community.

“I’ve talked about it with clients, just in conversation, and they resonate with it because when you grew up how we grew up it’s in your family,” he said. 

Two days later, on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn, a car picked Mr. Paul up outside a townhouse to take him from one podcast taping to another. (Near the end of the first show, Mr. Paul had been asked to name his favorite Adele song, but, having some editorial control, he requested a different question.)

“I try to keep it as private as I possibly can,” Mr. Paul said of his relationship with Adele.Lauren Bacho/NBAE, via Getty Images

During the drive, Mr. Paul made phone calls. He pitched a client to a shoe company, and then called a friend to plan where they would watch the Cleveland Browns game later that day.

Suddenly his eyes widened in happiness as he looked at his phone.

“A couple got married in my shoes!” he said. Mr. Paul, who has a shoe collaboration with New Balance, showed a photo to a Klutch employee acting as his chief of staff.

He FaceTimed with Adele to see how her morning had gone. Then he chose a different watch and different Klutch Athletics sweatshirt, the clothing brand he has created with New Balance, for the next taping.

Asked if he has a stylist, Mr. Paul proudly said no.

“I used to style LeBron his rookie year,” he said, adding: “I could be anything. I could be a stylist, music executive, coach.”

Mr. James was a teenager when he met Mr. Paul, who had a jersey resale business sometimes run out of the trunk of his car. Soon, Mr. James was paying him $48,000 a year, confident Mr. Paul was worth the investment. Mr. Paul watched Mr. James’s career unfold. Then, when Mr. James hired Creative Artists Agency, one of the most powerful agencies in sports and entertainment, Mr. Paul began working for the agency. He helped recruit clients, saying he knew most agents “couldn’t do it.” 

Mr. Paul was dismissed by some who believed his success came solely because of his friendship with LeBron James.Jim Poorten/NBAE, via Getty Images

He met business moguls, from Warren Buffett to Jay-Z, and asked plenty of questions. His friendly boldness attracted people.

“Flawlessly confident,” said Rich Kleiman, the longtime manager for the N.B.A. star Kevin Durant, and a founder of Mr. Durant’s media company, Boardroom. Mr. Kleiman was working with Jay-Z when he met Mr. Paul, and saw in him hints of Jay-Z’s self assurance. “There’s a way to be confident where you can make anyone believe you.”

When Mr. Paul started Klutch Sports in 2012, nine years after Mr. James’s N.B.A. career began, Mr. James and three other players immediately became clients.

Chatter quickly followed — in the news media, primarily anonymous — from other agents questioning Mr. Paul’s qualifications. He had never received a college degree and they viewed him as a lucky member of a star athlete’s entourage.

Maverick Carter understands. He grew up in Akron with Mr. James, has handled his business affairs for years and is the chief executive of The SpringHill Company, an entertainment and production company he founded with Mr. James. For a while, he said, it could seem like his “first name was ‘LeBron’s’ and my last name was ‘friend.’” 

“It’s straight-up disrespectful when they say, ‘Rich Paul is only successful because he’s doing this with LeBron,’” Mr. James wrote in the foreword to Mr. Paul’s memoir. “That’s like saying I don’t demand the same excellence from my partners that I demand of myself, or that Rich’s other clients don’t think for themselves.”

Mr. Paul doesn’t argue that he didn’t benefit from his friendship with Mr. James. He just thinks that if he hadn’t been a young Black man getting career help from a powerful friend, and an athlete at that, his story would have been framed differently.

Still, Mr. James is entering his 21st N.B.A. season, which means life after LeBron James is in the not-too-distant future for Klutch Sports Group.

The agency now has 198 clients between the N.B.A., W.N.B.A., N.F.L. and athletes looking for deals related to their name, image and likeness. Klutch has partnered with United Talent Agency, and Mr. Paul is the co-head of UTA’s sports division.

The agency still attracts defectors from other agencies, but it experiences ebbs and flows. Three prominent players’ relationships with Klutch ended this year — Ben Simmons of the Brooklyn Nets, Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves and OG Anunoby of the Toronto Raptors.

Some N.B.A. agents have quietly admired what Mr. Paul has accomplished, while others find him too aggressive in pursuing clients from other agencies.

Mr. Paul said he was proud that many of his clients began their careers with other agents. He sees it as a sign of his superior ability to connect with players.

“This is one thing my dad always taught us: No matter what somebody else is doing to you or done to you, that don’t mean you follow suit,” Mr. Paul said. “You stay the course. You do what you know is right.”

There are those who don’t like the credit he gets for fostering an era of player empowerment in the N.B.A. Mr. Paul is known for aggressively advocating for his clients’ interests, even if that means demanding a trade while they are under contract, but he doesn’t shy away from telling them to pull back when he finds their wishes unrealistic.

Mr. Paul’s Klutch Sports Group has nearly 200 clients.Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times

As he navigates the current landscape of athlete management, he worries about the way players and their parents think about branding.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a great basketball player and make all the money you can being a great basketball player,” Mr. Paul said. “Because I look at it this way: Being a great basketball player, being able to make four or five, $600 million playing a game of basketball is no different than building a business and selling it.”

Mr. Paul’s career has kept him close to superstardom. But recently, his relationship with Adele has thrust him into a spotlight that isn’t always comfortable.

“I try to keep it as private as I possibly can,” he said. 

When he and Adele began attending N.B.A. games together, dozens of search engine optimized headlines followed, asking: “Who is Adele’s boyfriend, Rich Paul?” Last month she even referred to Mr. Paul as her husband while speaking to a fan.

“I’m in a place now where I’d rather she be happy than me,” Mr. Paul said. “Not that I don’t want to be happy, I want it to sound the right way. Just understanding the importance of someone that you are involved with, that you’re dating and that you’re spending your time with, that you may love. You understand the importance of them and their happiness.”

Love has never been an easy subject for him. His parents never told him they loved him, though he says he has no doubt they did.

Now, he said, he makes a point to tell his three children he loves them. It is one lesson he didn’t learn from his father because vulnerability was dangerous when he was growing up.

It is one illustration of how different his life is from the one he lived growing up. But he doesn’t want anyone to forget how it started."

Rich Paul, N.B.A. Power Broker, Growing Up and Finding Peace - The New York Times

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