Agents and AAU: Unrequited Love
LOS ANGELES – Kevin Love said he would’ve preferred hitting In-N-Out Burger with his family after another UCLA victory last winter. Yet, there was Pat Barrett, head of one of the top AAU basketball programs in the country, waiting outside the Pauley Pavilion locker room and pleading for Love to come with him instead.
Love had known Barrett since he was in fifth grade, played two years for Barrett’s traveling team and, as a result, said he felt obligated to go. What Love apparently didn’t know was a New York sports agency had donated $250,000 to Barrett’s team under the premise Barrett could deliver players such as Kevin Love – to dinner first, then as a client.
When Love arrived at Mr. Chow, the famed Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hills, the waiting group included Jay Williams, former national player of the year at Duke and 2002 NBA lottery pick.
Williams was there on business, as the chief recruiter for Ceruzzi Sports and Entertainment, the very agency that staked Barrett with a quarter-million dollars.
“I was like, excuse my French, what the [expletive] is this all about?” Love said during a recent interview.
Like other young basketball stars, Love found himself in the middle of a cutthroat business where access to potential NBA players and people of influence is more critical than ever. Some agents still dispatch runners who lurk in the shadows and hope to befriend top college players with hundred-dollar handshakes.
But welcome to Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills, and a newer and more sophisticated way of doing business.
Pat Barrett – Runs the Southern California All-Stars, one of the most prominent AAU teams in the country that has sent 110 players to Division I scholarships, including Kevin Love. The not-for-profit foundation that funds the team and his salary received a $250,000 donation from Ceruzzi Sports and Entertainment.
Marlon Brown – A former AAU coach who served as “recruiting coordinator” for Ceruzzi Sports and was point man in the courtship of Syracuse’s Donte Greene. Developed relationship with Greene’s aunt and uncle, which led the agency to help arrange a $50,000 loan for the uncle.
Charles Grantham – CEO of Ceruzzi Sports and Entertainment, former executive director of the NBA Players Association, where he helped work on four collective bargaining agreements and dean of admission to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
Dean Kapneck – Former ticket broker who parlayed a relationship with real estate mogul Lou Ceruzzi into position as chief operating officer of Ceruzzi Sports. Helped forge relationship with Pat Barrett that led to $250,000 donation to Barrett’s AAU team.
Derrick Marcano – Uncle of Donte Greene, the former Syracuse standout, who secured help from Ceruzzi Sports in obtaining a $50,000 loan. The agency arranged for the loan after identifying Marcano as a person of influence in Greene’s choice of agents.
Kevin Love – A 6-foot-9 forward, played AAU ball for Pat Barrett’s Southern California All-Stars, then helped UCLA reach the 2008 Final Four and became the fifth pick in that June’s NBA draft. Currently a rookie with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Jay Williams – Served as chief recruiter for Ceruzzi Sports and was agency’s point man in courtship of Kevin Love. Led Duke to the 2001 national title, earned honors as college player of the year in 2002 and was the No. 2 pick in the 2002 NBA draft. Pro career cut short by motorcycle accident.
Williams was there to woo Love. Barrett was there to introduce them. Barrett also was there to help avoid trouble – by picking up the check.
The NBA’s four-year-old age-limit rule has such dealings on the rise, and the case of the interaction between Ceruzzi Sports, Barrett, Love and Williams provides a glimpse into what the NCAA sees as a growing problem.
NCAA rules prohibit college players from accepting anything of value from sports agents, and NBA Players Association rules prohibit sports agents from giving college stars anything of value. But no rule explicitly prohibits AAU basketball coaches such as Barrett from accepting a $250,000 donation from an agency such as Ceruzzi Sports, and then playing semantics by paying for dinner when the agency’s front man is there to recruit a player such as Love.
By all accounts, Love would have been a first-round draft pick straight out of high school. Instead he was a classic “one-and-done” in college. That system has driven capitalism underground where the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules are broken.
Money offered by agents for access to players has empowered AAU basketball coaches and far exceeds sponsorships from companies such as Nike and adidas, both of which have cut back funding in recent years.
“Yes, we’re aware of it,” said Rachel Newman Baker, the NCAA’s director of agent, gambling and amateurism activity. “Yes, we’re concerned about it.”
Every major college program is susceptible to potential violations.
“You could count on one hand the number of draft picks doing it the right way,” said Marlon Brown, who has spent most of the past four years as a recruiter for two different New York agencies, including Ceruzzi Sports. “In fairness to the prospect, a lot of times they don’t know.”
Ceruzzi Sports is anything but a fly-by-night operation.
Founded in April 2007, the agency was well-funded by its namesake, Lou Ceruzzi, a wealthy New England commercial real estate developer who saw a chance to diversify into the potentially lucrative business.
Ceruzzi Sports’ CEO is Charles Grantham, the well-respected former executive director of the NBA’s Players Association. Its 19th-floor office at One Penn Plaza offers a sweeping view of lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty in the distance and Madison Square Garden across the street. And its top recruiter/runner was no street guy.
Williams, whose pro career was cut short by a motorcycle accident, won an NCAA title at Duke in 2001. Upon the agency’s founding, the principals considered themselves the “dream team.”
What it became was a nightmare in a business where things like respect, integrity and prime midtown office space don’t count for nearly as much as connections – and money.
Ceruzzi Sports had the money and did what it felt was necessary to get clients – doing, what agency executives told Yahoo! Sports the majority of firms do – pay big in ways that bought them access to players.
Agency executives said their outlays included:
• Donating an initial $250,000 and later an estimated $50,000 more to the non-profit organization Barrett uses to run his Southern California All-Stars AAU program.
According to Grantham, Barrett promised he would provide entrée to more than a dozen of his top college-aged prospects, including Love, Taj Gibson (USC) and Chase Budinger (Arizona).
“Our intent,” said Grantham, “was to get access to what you would consider potential NBA players.”
UCLA coach Ben Howland and his staff were unaware Ceruzzi Sports or any of its principals were recruiting Love or that the agency had donated money to Barrett’s AAU program, an athletic department spokesman said.
• Securing a $50,000 line of credit for Derrick Marcano, the uncle of then-Syracuse freshman Donte Greene. The bank loan was established with Ceruzzi Sports’ backing during the 2007-08 season as Greene led the Orange in scoring. It is a potential violation of NCAA rules, which prohibit a player’s relatives from accepting anything of value from an agent.
“It was done because [Marcano] needed the money and we thought he was a person of influence [in Greene’s decision to choose an agent],” Grantham said.
Syracuse has launched an internal investigation into whether any NCAA violations occurred, according to an athletic department spokesman.
Marcano, a mortgage broker, said he asked for help with the loan after Ceruzzi Sports contacted him and expressed interest in representing Greene. Marcano said he would have been unable to get the loan without the help of Ceruzzi Sports.
Greene, who plays for the Sacramento Kings, did not respond to requests for comment made through the Kings.
Ceruzzi is just one agency and hardly a big one. Its clients include just two NBA players – Amare Stoudemire and Sean Williams. Despite its efforts, the agency failed to sign Love, Greene or any picks in the 2008 draft.
The trends that sent Kevin Love to that unwanted dinner trace back to the 1990s. In an effort to control rookie labor costs, the NBA created a salary structure for draft picks. It eliminated the financial incentive for college players to stay in school and move up in the draft.
The draft was soon flooded with young players, including a record eight high school players in 2004. Agents no longer could wait for a prospect to finish college; they couldn’t wait for them to even start.
College coaches were now standing side by side with agents at AAU tournaments and high school games. “In the parking lots and at the concessions stands and in the hotel rooms” is where the NCAA’s Newman Baker said agents linger.
And they were working with often the most influential person in a young player’s life – his AAU basketball coach – who spends months crisscrossing the country with the players for as many as 80 games a year.
Savvy AAU coaches realized that being the middle man for future millionaires had value. Some, such as Barrett, set up not-for-profit organizations to fund their teams and draw full-time salaries. That allowed agents, as well as college boosters, to donate to middle men anonymously. It was even a tax write-off.
“It’s standard operating procedure that every agent knows AAU coaches and deals with AAU coaches,” Grantham said.
In 2006, the NBA responded to the influx of high school players by creating an age limit that made players wait one year after leaving high school. Previously, college coaches often served as the middlemen. But in the spring of 2007, Ceruzzi Sports sized up the new landscape and as they sought an AAU program to work with one name kept coming up – Pat Barrett.
“College coaches all told me that [Barrett was] the guy,” said Dean Kapneck, the chief operating officer of Ceruzzi Sports. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, if you want to have access to so-and-so and so-and-so, you’ve got to go through Pat Barrett.’ We really felt he would be our West Coast liaison. He had a pipeline of players.”
At age 52, white, and often dressed in a rumpled, wrinkled look, Barrett is an unlikely basketball power broker. Yet in more than 25 years he’s coached more than a hundred Division I prospects.
Negative attention in media, from investigative books to “60 Minutes,” has never stopped him from bringing in talent.
His recent teams featured more than a dozen potential NBA prospects including Love, Gibson, Budinger, James Keefe (UCLA), Brandon Jennings (Europe), Taylor King (Duke before transferring to Villanova), Daniel Hackett (USC), Renardo Sidney (committed to USC), Malik Story (Indiana) and Taylor Harrison (Cal).
Barrett touted himself as the gatekeeper to that talent, selling access to those prospects, according to Kapneck.
“He said, ‘I’ll deliver. You know, you’ll get Kevin. You’ll get something. You’re participating in my program,’” Kapneck said. “Pat thought he could get any single kid out of his program, period. Anybody.”
Barrett denied repeated requests for comment.
If Barrett was doing the selling, he didn’t lack for buyers. Ceruzzi Sports officials said they later found at least three other agencies were working with Barrett.
Ceruzzi Sports agreed to donate $250,000 to Barrett’s organization between September 2007 and February 2008, according to Kapneck. The agency also agreed to donate another $250,000 over the following two years.
“If you’ve got access to ten D-I players who are eligible for the draft, then what would you say: ‘Can I get two of them? ‘” Grantham said in explaining the rationale. “If you got two [per year] it would be a successful recruiting period. If you got one you’d be happy.”
The one who would make everyone happy at Ceruzzi Sports was Kevin Love.
A burly, 6-foot-9 forward, he hooked up with Barrett’s California-based team despite living in Lake Oswego, Ore. He was a likely lottery pick. As a nephew of some of the founding members of the Beach Boys and a white star at high-profile UCLA, he appeared to have long-term marketing potential.
Using the access Barrett offered, Grantham sent in his star recruiter, Williams, to court Love and other Pac-10 players. Williams was working for ESPN as a color commentator and had been hired as a salaried employee by Ceruzzi Sports. He envisioned it as an entry-level job with a future as a full-time sports agent. He was out of the NBA but at 26 still carried cache with young players.
“That’s what I was used for, the wow stick,” Williams said.
Kevin Love wasn’t all that wowed. He’s a polite guy but also, by basketball standards, a down to earth one. “I’m an apple pie-and-ice cream kind of guy,” he said. NBA stars, Mr. Chow and flashy nights meant little. He claims he wanted no part of dealing with agents, and said he was shocked to find Williams at the restaurant.
“My face turned completely red,” he said. “I respect [Williams] as a player. But he came after me and once he started talking about all that agent stuff, I said, ‘You know what, talk to my family.’”
Love said he left the dinner after the appetizers.
While Ceruzzi Sports is adamant it never made a direct payment to Love or his family – as adamant as the Loves are that they never took money from any agents – it isn’t certain what happened with all the money sent to Barrett.
“We gave money to the program and what Mr. Barrett did with the money was at his discretion,” Kapneck said.
Barrett declined comment.
Kapneck said Barrett requested additional funds that Barrett said would go directly to Stan Love, but Kapneck refused. What he thought was happening with the donated money remains unclear. Ostensibly, it was given to fund Barrett’s AAU teams. However, a March 14, 2008 email between Kapneck and one of the agency’s investors included a discussion about offsetting soaring expenses and mentioned the Loves specifically.
– Dean Kapneck, the chief operating officer of Ceruzzi Sports.
“We will get all the money back on side deals plus money laid out to the Loves,” Kapneck wrote in the email.
Kapneck confirmed the accuracy of the email but explained that when he typed “the Loves” he meant “Pat Barrett.”
“I wanted to make it explicitly clear that Pat Barrett was the Loves to me,” Kapneck said. “He was the Loves. I mean, Pat Barrett was all these people. He was the pipeline. These were his people.”
By late winter in 2008, Kapneck said, he still thought the investment with Barrett was a good one. After all, Barrett had introduced Kapneck to the father of Chase Budinger and the mother of Brandon Jennings while continuing to tout his close relationship with Love. But in March, things began to sour for Ceruzzi Sports.
Budinger declared he would return to Arizona for this season. High schooler Jennings was still a year away. Suddenly it became apparent the only draft-eligible player Barrett had any connection with would be Love. Ceruzzi Sports said Barrett kept asking for more money.
At one point Kapneck said he even gave Barrett a personal loan for an undisclosed amount. Before Ceruzzi Sports cut him off, total allocations to Barrett exceeded $300,000, although Kapneck said he doesn’t want to know the exact total because “it would make my stomach nauseous.”
Barrett declined comment.
The Loves said they were warned to stay away from Barrett in the fall of 2007 by Tyson Chandler, one of Barrett’s former players and current New Orleans Hornet. Stan Love, Kevin’s father, said he kept that in mind. But the family didn’t cut off contact until March 2008, which Stan Love said is when he discovered Barrett’s organization was receiving donations from Ceruzzi Sports while Barrett was “trying to push Ceruzzi down Kevin’s throat.”
“Here’s the deal with Pat Barrett, he should not be in business,” Stan Love said.
Barrett declined to comment on Love’s allegations and characterizations.
After the Final Four, Ceruzzi Sports did get a series of meetings with the Loves. Kapneck talked to Kevin Love once and Charles Grantham had two sit-downs with the family.
Stan Love said he met with Grantham only because as a former NBA player himself in the early 1970s, he respected the former union leader and because Grantham “wanted to know where his money was.”
“I told him, ‘I didn’t get any of your money,’” Stan Love said. “‘You were giving it Pat Barrett and he was spending it on all these teams he had and his [younger high school players].’”
The Loves said Ceruzzi Sports never had a chance to sign Kevin, both because of their dealing with Barrett and their discomfort with Jay Williams.
“If I was going with an agent,” said Kevin Love, “why would I ever go with a guy who, no offense, but he crashed a motorcycle into a tree. I’m not going to go with a guy that’s reckless.”
Williams left Ceruzzi Sports after efforts to sign Love failed saying he grew disenchanted with an industry where agents thought they could “buy off” prospects. He was also troubled by the cutthroat battles for clients.
Williams said he was recruiting Gary Forbes out of the University of Massachusetts last season when he ran into another recruiter for an agent.
“‘Back the [expletive] away from my dude,’” Williams recalled being told. “‘This is my family. This is my money.’
“It’s a different level, man,” Williams said. “The agents are the guys making a lot of money. Middle people get a [percentage point of a player’s contract] here, or cash there. That’s how you eat. I’ve seen grown men get jumped for ratting somebody out. I’ve seen it. That’s one reason I stepped away.”
The way Kevin Love looks at it, stepping away was a choice he didn’t have. He signed with agent Jeff Schwartz after his freshman season and was the fifth choice in the NBA draft. He now starts for the Minnesota Timberwolves and will make $2.6 million this season.
Yet he sounded disappointed to learn Barrett has raised more than $250,000 because the AAU coach allegedly claimed he could deliver Love to Ceruzzi Sports. He also questioned why young “tennis players, golfers and baseball players” are allowed to earn money directly out of high school rather than being forced to wait a year and subjected to a predatory system.
While it turns out Barrett was incapable of sending Love to Ceruzzi Sports, the coach still made money by giving the impression he could make it happen. In essence, Kevin Love was sold.
“Kids get taken advantage of,” Love said. “I felt used.”
Ceruzzi Sports didn’t donate to an AAU program to gain access to their other major target, 6-11 Donte Greene, who had followed Carmelo Anthony’s path from Baltimore to Syracuse University.
They went another route.
Soon after forming, the agency hired Marlon Brown as a recruiter. Brown, a Brooklyn native, had been an AAU coach and assistant at Dundalk Community College in Baltimore before working for a different New York agency that went under.
With a gift of gab and deep connections in grassroots basketball, the then 35-year-old Brown was a natural. He came on the recommendation of a number of college coaches, according to Kapneck.
In the spring of 2007, Brown took a seat in the stands of the McDonald’s All-American game in Louisville, Ky. and heard the woman next to him mention Baltimore.
“What do you know about Baltimore,” he recalled asking playfully, ready to rely on his four-season stint coaching in the city.
Turned out Peaches Marcano wasn’t just from Baltimore, she was the aunt of Donte Greene, who was playing in the game. A friendship was born.
Eight months later, Peaches and her family – husband, Derrick, and their children in tow – had Thanksgiving dinner at Brown’s second-floor apartment in Jersey City, N.J. The family was in town to watch Greene play for Syracuse in a tournament at Madison Square Garden. It’s a sign of just how personal relationships between agents and prospects can get.
“We were cool,” Brown said. “I wanted Derrick and his family to meet my kids and my wife. They were going to be up here for a tournament and they didn’t have anything to do. So rather than take them around the city, I said, come over here and chill.”
Ceruzzi Sports was in.
Brown said his job was to get access to the player and the family for his bosses. He did that. Derrick Marcano, who secured a $50,000 loan thanks to the agency, said he even spoke to Lou Ceruzzi. While dealing with Kapneck, Marcano let it be known that he too was in real estate but was worried a potential deal was about to slip away due to an inability to secure funding.
Soon after the line of credit was established. While Marcano has to pay it back, all agree he couldn’t have received it without Ceruzzi Sports’ backing.
“The loan was more of a favor by the owner of Ceruzzi Sports,” Marcano said. “I told them what my needs were and they offered their help.
“So it really had nothing to do with the basketball side of things. I never intended it to be a benefit for Donte. It really was for me and my family to continue my direction in my entrepreneurship.”
Ceruzzi Sports saw it somewhat differently, a recruiting advantage.
“I saw Derrick as a person that could get us access to Donte,” Kapneck said.
Brown said he had nothing to do with the line of credit, although he knew about it. He said he made five trips to Syracuse to recruit Greene in an above-board manner. In an example of the merging worlds of college basketball and agent recruitment, he said the reason for his presence was understood by some of the Syracuse assistant coaches.
“Why would I be up there? People know who I am,” Brown said
He also said, as a general practice, he would inform college coaches that he was recruiting a player so “not to catch them off guard. That is by-the-book type stuff.” Brown added, “To my knowledge there was never any contact with [head coach] Jim Boeheim, ever.”
Since it isn’t a violation for an agent to recruit players, the presence on campus of people such as Williams and Brown is an awkward modern reality. The relationship between college recruiters and agent recruiters is rarely adversarial. Especially with the one-and-done rule, the college coach can’t afford to anger a runner, who often has connections to potential college recruits.
“Coaches have more interaction with agents because the kids are coming there for a year then moving on,” Newman Baker of the NCAA said.
The NCAA’s chief concern is an increase in quid pro quo between college coaches and agents, who shuffle kids through the pipeline.
“We’re concerned in terms of agents steering certain kids to certain [schools],” Newman Baker said. “We’re concerned about agreements under the table between agents and even our college coaches.”
Greene had chosen Syracuse before Ceruzzi Sports was founded and it helped secure his uncle a line of credit. Not that the money for Marcano worked. Ceruzzi Sports struck out on Greene, who signed with agent Bill Strickland.
“Major disappointment,” Kapneck said.
It’s poetic justice for some agents, such as Florida-based agent Jeff Wechsler, who said he refuses to hire a runner or give a formal presentation to a draft prospect outside the structure of the college program.
“I don’t get a lot of kids, and maybe that’s why,” he said. He gets most of his clients through veteran player referrals. “I don’t have sour grapes,” Wechsler said. “I’d rather not have players than pay someone to get me a player.”
Still, Wechsler said he looks at where the agent business is headed and expresses “disgust.”
“These [middle men] are remoras,” he said. “They suck onto these players and they feed off of them. The agents are the sharks and the kid in the middle is the bait.”
Despite claiming no financial dealings with any middle men, Wechsler did manage to do something Ceruzzi Sports and all its outlays couldn’t: He signed a first-round draft pick, Indiana senior D.J. White. Wechsler said he didn’t make a presentation to White until after the college season. White went 29th overall, one spot behind Greene.
For Ceruzzi, the 2008 draft class was a bust. They made a run at DeMarcus Nelson, the Duke guard who now plays for Golden State, by talking to his father, Ron, about a job with the agency. Ron Nelson said he went with a start-up agency instead. The recruitment by Jay Williams of Arizona’s Jerryd Bayless went nowhere. They missed on everyone else.
“It’s an ongoing battle of control,” Grantham said. “Who controls whom?”
Grantham did manage to sign just one player in the spring of 2008 – Gary Ervin, an undrafted guard out of Arkansas currently playing in the NBA Developmental League.
How’d they get even a lowly client? It might have helped that they gave a job to his uncle, Anthony Ross.
From family favors to lines of credits to six-figure traveling team donations to surprise meetings at Mr. Chow, now more than ever in the age-limit era, the business of sports agents runs full throttle – at times in violation of the written rules of the NCAA and almost always in spite of them.
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