Once Mike Dunleavy pushed past David Falk and reached out to Elton Brand, appealed to his star’s sensibilities and sentimentality for his Clippers’ home, the belief was that the most cunning and cutthroat agent of them all decided to treat this end-around as an act of treason.
Negotiations had stalled, management had grown uneasy, fearful of Falk’s influence and the Clips coach brought the franchise’s case directly to Brand. After all these years, the most famous agent of all was back in the game, back on the big stage, back with basketball waiting on his next move.
“From that point on,” one NBA GM said, “Falk was going to do everything he could to screw the Clippers.”
Along the way, too, everyone else could see what was happening here: The Bald Eagle was emboldened again. Falk was empowered. He was alive again, and the Clippers were done. As it turned out, he didn’t just screw the Clippers. Falk drilled them.
This was the ultimate retro week, with the promise of basketball’s longest-suffering franchise flushed when Falk hustled Brand into a five-year, $82 million contract with the Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, the Sixers have an intriguing young nucleus, a city near his New York home and the welcoming arms of a franchise that went to great lengths to clear cap space for him.
Maybe returning East was always in Brand’s heart, but it was never believed to be in his plans. Only now, Brand has gone to Philly, and the Clippers franchise, even with Baron Davis, has taken an irrevocable step backward. Such a beloved figure, Brand had been Clippers professionalism where there had been none. First to practice, a gentleman to all, the Clips are losing so much more than a guaranteed 20-and-10 every night.
Brand is a grown-up, responsible for his own choices, but Falk will forever be framed as the reason everything fell apart there.
Around the NBA, executives are still asking the same question: Did the Clippers and Brand have a prearranged deal that the power forward turned his back on? No one will ever admit it, but there was an understanding within the Clippers that the opt-out would allow them to bring back Brand and Davis together.
Several executives still believed, in the words of one Eastern Conference GM, that “Brand had pulled a Boozer.” Translated: Brand backed out of a preordained deal, which could explain why the Clippers were so stubborn about elevating the original $70 million offer that they made him in the wake of the opt-out.
Within this week, Falk had been privately griping that Brand had been angered with what the agent termed a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer. Falk grumbled that the Clips had left no room to negotiate, no discussion about closing the gap on the $90 million Golden State offer.
So, Falk started to tell Sixers GM Ed Stefanski: Go get more cap space. This could happen. Get more. So, Stefanski unloaded two contracts, cleared $2 million and stopped thinking that Atlanta Hawks restricted free agent Josh Smith was his No. 1 priority.
After Thursday, the Clippers had no more contact with Brand. All along, everything has to go through Falk. Now, there was a price to pay for the Clips. And now, they were terrified. Falk as a filter to Brand felt like a doomsday scenario. When the agent himself became sluggish about returning the Clippers’ calls in the final hours, the franchise feared the worst. They were getting Falked.
Owner Donald Sterling was willing to renounce several players to nearly match the Sixers’ $82 million offer, but the Clips could never be sure that Falk ever presented Brand with the information. Soon, Brand was gone to Philadelphia, Corey Maggette had grabbed $50 million in Golden State and David Falk had returned to orchestrate a July power play out of his old playbook.
“Once they let Brand opt out, they had to know that Falk would come back and bite them in the ass,” one GM said. “Did they think he wasn’t going to turn this into some kind of a drama? He was dying to get back into the spotlight here, to get himself a lot of attention again.”
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Falk was shoulder to shoulder with David Stern as the most powerful suit in the sport. Michael Jordan was his calling card, the front man for a stable of clients that included Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and James Worthy. He was a ubiquitous public presence, the de facto president of the players’ union and a man every league executive feared, if crossed, could run him right out of a job.
Falk made hundreds of millions of dollars, left the business, but returned in the past couple of years because he missed the action. Until now, his return had mostly been marked with tiresome public proclamations about how the agent business had gone to hell in his absence.
Around the league, executives and agents are tired of Falk’s hypocritical rants about the ethics of the current crop, about how players are bought up so young, how alliances with AAU programs and street peddlers reached down into high school to procure players.
Falk had his own middle men, except they wore suits and had been declared educators. Yet, he was going to get those Georgetown and North Carolina stars, because John Thompson and Dean Smith said so. Now, the next generation get lectures on how corrupt it all is, and it’s a load of garbage.
The world no longer bows before Falk, the clients no longer rush to him. John Thompson is gone, but his son, John Thompson III, has honored the family tradition of pushing future Hoya pros to Falk. In the past two drafts, Falk has represented Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert and Patrick Ewing Jr. This spring, front-office executives dreaded his calls endlessly pitching Hibbert as a guaranteed lottery pick (17th to Indiana) and Ewing Jr., as a late first-rounder (43rd to Sacramento). They understand that an agent selling his prospects on teams is part of the job, but they can all do without the endless soliloquies on the good old days in the NBA, when it was run righteously: Under his rule.
When told Falk was working on a memoir, one league executive said, “I think I’ve already heard the audio book.”
Another said, “I honestly had my speaker phone on mute as he was talking so he couldn’t hear me taking other calls on my cell phone.”
This time, David Falk has the last laugh. No more going on and on about the old days, he was back in business, back on the big stage. Once more, basketball had to pay heed to the agent who changed everything, who just never, ever goes away. Pity those poor Clippers on Elton Brand’s way out the door, on crossing the most ruthless agent of all. Falked again.
- David Falk