On a steamy late-August afternoon in Fort Lauderdale, the dealer's Escalade peels into Nova Southeastern University, where a banner outside welcomes visitors to the Miami Dolphins' practice facility. The dealer carries a black backpack, weighed down with $2 million of his product. His bodyguard, who goes by Hennessy, is driving. He usually carries a gun on days like today.
Just as practice ends, Hennessy pulls into a field-adjacent lot. He approaches the attendant and asks for admittance. "Whatcha gonna do for me?" she asks.
"I gotcha," Hennessy says easily, knowing that his word is as good as currency here.
She lets the truck pass through. After parking, Hennessy slings the backpack over one of his broad shoulders, then he and the dealer power walk to the far end zone. A few players, among them running back Ronnie Brown, gather around. Others steer clear. "I'm not into that stuff," says Brian Hartline, a bashful receiver.
This is where the dealer's sale starts -- a couple of stolen moments to let the athletes know that he's here. Then, as the players head back to the locker room, the dealer and Hennessy race to the Escalade. Minutes later they burst through the main doors of the nearby Renaissance Plantation Hotel, the team's lodge during training camp. Typically, deals go down in the privacy of an athlete's room. "But we wanna get them before they go up to nap," the dealer explains. So he gives a nod to Hennessy, who dumps the backpack's contents onto a table near the elevators. And there it is: custom-made watches, blinding bracelets and chains, iced rosaries that would make Jesus blush. Enough to sate each and every Kardashian sister. Or, as the dealer puts it, "just an appetizer." Maybe, but also alluring enough that a whole crowd of Dolphins, now lumbering through the lobby, begins to swarm the table.
"Hey, how ya doin'?" the dealer bellows to all. "I'm AJ the Jeweler!"
ANTHONY JOHN MACHADO is a custom jewelry designer, perhaps the most well-connected in all of pro sports, a world where bling remains the universal hallmark of the good life, of success achieved. Equal parts artist, running buddy and salesman, Machado is the archetypal service provider for the young men in sports and entertainment who go from stone broke one moment to crazy rich the next. And because these newly wealthy celebrities tend to spend their money impulsively, Machado is ever hustling: At this moment, even as he's trying to accessorize the Dolphins, Machado is working an A-list NHL star he heard is in the market for a high-end watch. He's also chasing a school of Marlins.
His big paydays, though, come in bunches around events like the Super Bowl, NBA All-Star weekend and the NFL draft. The second overall pick last April, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, was one of 21 rookies who snapped up Machado pieces. That's a nice jump from the 14 rooks who bought in 2009. Even in this economy -- as NBA and NFL lockouts loom, as union reps tell players to, as one put it, "lay off looking flashy," and money managers beg clients to save paychecks -- Machado is as busy as ever. "Guys aren't buying less," says Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay, a Machado client. "They're just not buying as loud."
Yes, gone are the days when Allen Iverson, Deion Sanders and Stephon Marbury rocked multiple pieces of jewelry that could have doubled as mirrors. The NBA's dress code in 2005, coupled with the rise of trendsetting stars like Jay-Z, ushered in a more subtle era. "Athletes follow the entertainers," says Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. "Years ago, it was all about Cash Money and their gold. Now, Jay-Z is on top, so we want to look like him, like businessmen."
But it still costs, no matter how much it shines. And even though all four major professional sports leagues regularly hold financial boot camps to educate players on fiscal responsibility -- according to Carl Eller, president of football's Retired Players Association, 75 percent of former players have financial problems within two years of retirement -- the lesson gets lost in the locker room. "You want to be perceived as a well-groomed individual," says Steelers defensive back Bryant McFadden. "So you splurge on your haircut, wardrobe, some jewelry."
Just as often as not, that means stopping at AJ's Jewelry on trips through Miami. His shop -- really more of a stand -- is no bigger than a baseball dugout, sandwiched between a Winn-Dixie and an IHOP in the U.S. 1 Discount Mall in the suburb of Cutler Bay. Machado, whose family emigrated from Spain to Florida when he was 4, opened the store in 1992. At first, he served locals, selling mainly no-frills chains, rings and watches in the $100 range. But in 2000, a star running back for the University of Miami randomly stopped by the shop, looking to swap a chain for a ring. "I'm like, 'What's with this chubby, happy guy behind the counter?' " Clinton Portis recalls with a chuckle. Machado's approach includes offering seasoned wings and pitchers of fresh-squeezed juice. Portis liked the deal he got, not to mention the family atmosphere at the store, so much that he brought Machado into the U family, giving him a roster that now includes Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Santana Moss, Frank Gore, Vince Wilfork, Devin Hester and Antrel Rolle. These clients are walking billboards, and Machado now has hooks into all 32 NFL teams and nearly half of the NBA's 30 clubs. His athlete client list exceeds 350. The rear wall of his stand is called the Bling of Honor and highlights a collection of hundreds of photos documenting his sales to high-profile jocks.
In one picture is Moss, a receiver, who wanted a pendant with the Superman emblem. Chiefs wideout Dwayne Bowe asked for an iced charm in the form of a Bible, studded with his late grandmother's initials. Titans running back Chris Johnson wanted something to commemorate his record 40-yard combine time of 4.24. Machado made him a 50-carat replica of a stopwatch, the time frozen in white-on-black rocks.
At the Renaissance, Machado's net has caught a big one in Tony McDaniel, a veteran defensive tackle who made $1.9 million last season. He's modeling a 58-carat bracelet and a 62-carat necklace in the lobby mirror. "Yeah, I like this right here," he says before buying both, along with a yellow-gold chain featuring 40 carats of yellow ice. Total cost: $127,000. McDaniel will test-drive the stones tonight. "I wanted something to get my date excited, let her see what I might put on her wrist someday."
He's not the only Dolphin who splurges. After less than an hour in the lobby, Machado's total sales top $200,000.
THE TEXT FROM Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s assistant arrived an hour before a scheduled August showing at the Vegas-based boxer's Miami hotel room: Floyd had to leave abruptly. Call you when he gets back. Machado, who was in the passenger seat of his Escalade and says he had a $100,000 sale in the crosshairs, hardly batted an eyelash. That's the way it goes in this business. Being on call is just standard operating procedure for the 40-year-old Machado, who hangs his hat on customer service. That means free repairs, jewelry showings on an hour's notice and cross-country flights to deliver what he calls the Big Boys, like a $250,000 necklace he made for one NFL star. "These guys are used to getting catered to, and if we're not there, somebody else is," Machado, who is a husband and father of three, says while dining at Prime One Twelve, a South Beach hot spot frequented by Bill Clinton, A-Rod and men who show more cleavage than women. Locals with juice, like Machado, can skip the wait with help from the manager, who wears a wired earpiece and looks like he should be chasing Jason Statham. Within minutes of being spotted, Machado is shown to his table. He greets retired NBA player Tim Hardaway, a client, along the way.
Machado is wearing a $32,000 Rolex, a piece he calls a casual watch. His other toys include a 28-foot fishing boat, a Range Rover, a Maserati and the Escalade. Salary? "Mid- to high-six figures," he says. Machado is a Dolphins season ticket-holder and even scored a seat next to Jay-Z at the Grammys last year. Now he's thinking about ponying up for Heat seats. With LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade's squad, Machado's turf has become the new mecca of basketball. "Those three dogs bring more celebrities, more cameras," he says. "For business, it's phenomenal."
Wade has been a client since 2006, when he ordered an eyepopper of a charm: his initials, with interlocking Z's for sons Zion and Zaire and his No. 3, made of 50 carats of princess-cut, white and canary diamonds. Then came Wade's teammates -- past, present and future. Dorell Wright, Michael Beasley, Daequan Cook and Udonis Haslem have all been customers. LeBron once had a Rolex delivered to his room at the Setai Hotel while he was in town during his Cleveland days. Machado says he's working on getting Bosh, who at that very moment happens to stroll past the table. "I'm this close to grabbin' his arm," says Machado, while pressing his fingers together, "but this isn't a work night."
A RENTED TURQUOISE Oldsmobile plows through snowy Dallas 48 hours before kickoff of Super Bowl XLV. Inside are Machado, Hennessy and that little black backpack. It's loaded with $2 million worth of jewelry. The only other car on the road is a Brinks truck, which is careering out of control in front of them. "Whee," squeals Machado, who's sweating behind the wheel. The tires spin as he swerves around the Brinks. "Come on, this is fun!" He's 30 minutes late to a meeting with his client, one of the NFL's top players. It'll last 10 minutes. And make him $56,000.
After another 30 minutes, the turquoise Olds finally slides into the wide apron of the Rosewood Crescent Hotel, a swanky spot in uptown Dallas. A sale is about to go down in Room 300. Larry Fitzgerald welcomes his guests at the door with a big smile. "AJ, how you gonna travel around with all that ice?" the All-Pro receiver says. "You're crazy, man!"
Fitzgerald, a Machado client for four years, knows the dangers of boarding bling. Not too long ago, the Cardinal explains, "someone stole a watch right out of my house. So AJ made me buy a safe."
Fitzgerald was lucky. Former Celtic Sebastian Telfair's $50,000 chain was snatched from his neck while he stood outside a New York restaurant in 2006. A year later, thieves broke into the Chicago homes of basketball players Antoine Walker and Eddy Curry, tying up everyone in the houses and robbing them at gunpoint. "When you're a young guy, it's about showing people you got money," Portis says. "But there's a time for it. If you're on top of the couch, popping bottles, jewelry hanging out, you're just inviting the bad guys."
Machado has rules too. If athletes can't make it to the shop, he'll deliver to a home or hotel. He won't deliver to cars or clubs. And he'll never deliver sans Hennessy, a human theft deterrent with his Coke-machine build and licensed 9mm, which he packs on "delivery days" like today.
Inside Room 300 at the Crescent, Fitzgerald is looking to replace his stolen timepiece with something he can wear to several corporate events over the weekend. He straps on a diamond-studded Audemars Piguet, "a once-in-a-lifetime watch," Fitzgerald says. Too bad he's already got one. Instead, he settles for a rare, platinum Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date II, which Machado snagged in Switzerland. That piece will set Fitzgerald back $56,000, more cash than he's carrying. Machado insists his longtime client take the watch anyway: "Fitz, I trust you. You're family." In return, Fitzgerald offers to dole out a stack of Machado's business cards. "I'll hand them out tonight."
Fifteen minutes later, Machado's party is ordering dinner at Capital Grille, a ritzy steak house next to the hotel. He receives a text. It's from one of the Packers, sequestered inside the Omni Mandalay Hotel. He is looking to shop.
LESS THAN 46 hours before kickoff, Machado and Hennessy walk past five dead-serious security guards manning the Omni's lobby doors. Their escort is rookie cornerback Sam Shields, whose two interceptions helped clinch the NFC title for Green Bay. The three of them settle at a table in the back of the hotel's fancy Italian restaurant, Machado's tip to the maître d' assuring privacy. Shields, another ex-Hurricane, has been a client of Machado since he bought a low-cost chain during his freshman year. Today he is looking for something in black ice. "The shiny stuff is played out," he says. "My generation is into the classy look." Shields snags a rosary, studs and bracelet, black ice all, for $15,000. He lays out 20 $100 bills and signs an installment plan for the rest.
Minutes later Green Bay defensive end Jarius Wynn comes by the table to claim a Gucci watch and two bracelets for a total of $6,500. In all, seven Packers -- along with 11 Steelers the night before -- wind up purchasing pieces. Machado is exhausted. He's ready to call it a night. Then his cell lights up.
Yo, got more guys who want to see some stuff, reads a text from a Steeler. When you comin' by?
He's on his way.
Sam Alipour is a contributing writer to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter here.