‘We’re all in it together’: Paul Pierce discusses the business of basketball

[L-R] Boston Celtics all-star Paul Pierce with Jeff Schwartz, founder and CEO of the Excel Sports Management agency

[L-R] Boston Celtics all-star Paul Pierce with Jeff Schwartz, founder and CEO of the Excel Sports Management agency

Exactly how far does an agent need to go to keep a professional athlete happy? Just ask Jeff Schwartz, who represents Boston Celtics all-star player Paul Pierce.

“[Paul] sometimes calls me at 4 in the morning, just to see if I’ll answer my phone, which I don’t do anymore,” Schwartz recently told Harvard Law School students. “First thing in the morning, I call him back and he says, ‘too late, I’m dead.’ ”

“This is true … I just like to keep him on his toes,” Pierce said.

Harvard Law School students enjoyed this and other behind-the-scenes tidbits from the world of professional athlete representation in a recent two-hour Q&A hosted by HLS Lecturer Peter Carfagna ’79 for his class, “Sports and the Law: Representing the Professional Athlete.” The panel included nine-time NBA all-star Pierce; Schwartz, founder and CEO of the Excel Sports Management agency; and Mike Zarren ’04, Celtics assistant general manager and team counsel.

Carfagna, who is the faculty supervisor for HLS’s Sports Law Clinics and teaches the classes “Sports Law: Advanced Contract Drafting” and “Sports and the Law: Examining the Legal History and Evolution of America’s Three ‘Major League’ Sports: MLB, NFL and NBA,” works with Zarren to place an HLS clinical student with the Celtics franchise each year. This year’s Celtics clinical student is Trisha Ananiades ’12.

HLS Lecturer Peter Carfagna (right) with Pierce and Schwartz

The guests’ overarching message to students was that the road to good professional representation can be difficult to navigate – for the athlete, the agent and the franchise alike.

Finding the right representation at the start of his career was a careful process for Pierce.

“When you start to become a major prospect, agents … have all kinds of tricks of the trade,” Pierce said. “I had a chance to meet with a lot of prominent agents throughout that time; some who were honest, some who were not so honest. … I was offered $100,000, a home in Malibu, and a Mercedes Benz. … It was really tempting, coming from a single parent home. [My mom] said, ‘that’s not the way to go,’ … and I’m really thankful to her for that.”

Pierce added: “It’s a dirty game … it’s not always honest. Some people cheat to get there, but I think at the end, the most successful [agents] do it the right way. Jeff has done it the right way, and that’s why he’s one of the best, if not the best out there right now.”

Both Pierce and Carfagna compared agent Jeff Schwartz to the title character in the popular sports agent film, “Jerry Maguire.” Carfagna and Schwartz once worked closely together at International Management Group (IMG), where Carfagna served as general counsel and Schwartz was a Tennis Division executive. Over the past two decades, Schwartz has successfully grown his client list from tennis players and a couple of basketball players (including Pierce, who was one of his first basketball clients) to a flourishing multi-sport agency.

Schwartz said that the key to success is staying true to your ethics.

“You’ve got to be able to put your head on the pillow at night and be able to sleep,” Schwartz said. “I never think that one client is worth breaking the rules. There are always going to be clients. I think you have to know who you are and [that] all you have in this business is your reputation.”

Pierce puts great trust in that reputation: “Jeff has been somebody that you have to really, really trust,” he said. “If I ever got in trouble, … he’s going to be one of the first people I call. I call my wife, and then if she’s busy, I’m going to call him.”

Schwartz advised that new agents should value word of mouth, and avoid cutting corners in an effort to fast track their careers.

“Some of the top guys that have been around a long time, 15 or 20 years, they’re going to do it the right way. You see a lot of people that get success quickly, … but they don’t last, and a lot of times, those clients that sign with them, when they don’t do it the right way, they don’t stay.”

He also stressed the importance of putting service first: “Recruiting is hard work and servicing your clients is hard work, and making sure that you stay focused on your clients, because at the end of the day, no matter how big you get in this business, … it is still a personal services business. You have to care about your guys and you have to be involved in their lives.”

The discussion later delved into Pierce’s personal history, and the challenges of balancing basketball with celebrity and business endorsements.

Zarren said: “There are players … who are entertainers first and basketball players second sometimes, and that’s never, ever been the case with Paul.”

Basketball is always the priority, Pierce said. “Without my skill level, I wouldn’t have these other things. That was always important to me – to just always go to the gym. It’s something that was installed in me since I was a kid. My best friend in high school’s dad was the principal and he had the key to the gym, so … to stay out of trouble, we always went to the gym. … Basketball has always been my sanctuary. … Even in our days off today, I still go in after 14 years and 2,563,273 jumpers made.”

When it comes to endorsements, Pierce said that he strives to remain true to himself.

“I’ve always been a person who didn’t want to sell his soul just for a dollar. … So a lot of the things that I’ve always been involved with really represented me to the fullest,” he said. “At the end of the day, … the way you market yourself is the way people are going to look at you.”

Pierce has a longstanding relationship with Nike, and was the first athlete to endorse a Nike signature shoe for children. In recent years, his focus has shifted to his foundation, The Truth Fund, which he founded in 2002 to provide educational and life-enriching opportunities for under-served youth. He is also a vocal advocate against childhood obesity – his rewards-based fan club, FitClub34, provides children with information, resources, and tools to help them become more active and physically fit.

In addition to the business side of basketball, the panel discussed the ramifications of Pierce’s stabbing incident nearly 12 years ago. In September 2000, Pierce was stabbed 11 times in the face, neck and back while at a Boston club with friends.

“That was a really, really difficult moment when you’re an agent, because you feel a little helpless,” Schwartz said. “Thank goodness … they hadn’t hit any major organ. … Amazingly, this happened right before pre-season started. He missed pre-season, but he didn’t miss one game that season and was an all-star that year. It was really impressive.”

Pierce said that the incident helped him realize how his actions affect his family and friends, and inspired him to approach life more carefully – even more so now that he has two daughters.

A positive outcome of the incident was the relationship that Pierce established with Tufts Medical Center, where he underwent surgery. He became a fundraiser for the hospital, established the Paul Pierce Center for Minimally Invasive Surgery and became a member of the hospital’s Board of Governors.

Although Zarren did not yet work for the Celtics when the stabbing occurred, he was able to shed light on what such incidents mean to team management.

“You get to know these guys, so the first thing is [that] you just worry about your friend who’s hurt or in trouble,” Zarren said.

The media jumps on player incidents, Zarren said, “and you have to be in business-crisis mode at the same time that you’re worried about the medical or legal issues.”

Schwartz added that crisis management skills are now more important than ever, as news travels instantly in the age of social media.

“Nothing is a secret anymore,” Schwartz said. “I always tell the guys: … whatever you’re doing, you are a target. You’ve got to be so careful nowadays because … the moment a situation happens … someone on a camera phone is taking a picture and tweeting it.”

The panel ended with a discussion of culture and how the Celtics have embraced the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which roughly translates to: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

“Culture starts from the top [and continues] to the bottom, that means from the owner to the ball boy to the equipment manager,” Pierce said. “I can’t be the best player, we can’t be the best team, unless we’re all in it together.”