The chosen's one

HE THINKS ABOUT it all the time: What if he hadn't worn a throwback? What if he had worn Polo the way he did most days? He loved Polo, and not just the shirts. He had Polo bedsheets, bathrobes, towels, salt and pepper shakers. But on this day, he went with a vintage football jersey. "If I don't have on that jersey, we don't have a conversation," Rich Paul says.

And if they don't have a conversation, he's not in a State Farm commercial denying love for Kid 'N Play while two friends mimic the bubblegum rappers' dance moves. If they don't have a conversation, he's not onstage at the ESPYS, grooving alongside the NBA's best player in a parody of Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative." If there's no conversation, there are no boardroom meetings with Nike's Phil Knight, no chances to pick the brains of some of the country's smartest, wealthiest businesspeople, no personnel discussions with NBA general managers, no trip to the Oval Office to meet President Obama. If a 17-year-old LeBron James isn't smitten by a powder blue Warren Moon Houston Oilers throwback, Paul is never in a position to become a force in the agent game.

Back then, James was a junior in high school and nearly a household name. He and some friends were at Akron-Canton Airport about to board a flight to Atlanta for the 2002 NCAA Final Four. James was dressed for the occasion, in a Michael Vick Falcons jersey that was sure to get love down South. There was just one problem: The jersey was a replica, not an authentic. All true jerseyheads can spot the difference, and James was a jerseyhead. "Replicas have ironed-on numbers and letters," he says. "On authentics, they're sewn." But James wasn't next to the real thing, so he figured he was safe.

Then along came the real thing. Tiny and thin but with swag twice his size, the then-21-year-old Paul strolled toward the gate in his authentic Warren Moon, complemented by white Air Force 1's with the red sole and red swoosh. James and his friends did double takes. Finally James approached the little man and asked where he got his jersey. Turns out Paul, a Cleveland native, sold them from the trunk of his car. James would soon have a gold Magic Johnson Lakers authentic and a blue Joe Namath Rams one. And James and Paul would soon become the best of friends.

IT'S 10 YEARS later and the 32-year-old Paul is still fascinated by Polo designer Ralph Lauren. He's courtside as the Cavaliers take on the Mavericks, talking with Fred Nance, his high-powered lawyer, who was once a finalist for the NFL commissioner's job. Paul is wearing a neatly tailored gray suit from Lauren's Black Label line with a handsome pocket square and black Louis Vuitton boots. As second-half warmups begin, Mavs guard Dahntay Jones sidles up behind him. "What's going on, superagent?" Jones says with a grin. "Nah, that ain't me," Paul says as they share a pound-hug. "I'm just trying to do my job."

In the dog-eat-dog world of player representation, all agents sleep with one eye open, watching for who could be the next threat. Which competitor is on a first-name basis with a future lottery pick? Who could land the next superstar? Who could catch the eye of one of my clients?

When Paul shook up the agent world in September by abruptly leaving Leon Rose and Creative Artists Agency, he became that guy. Not because breaking from a superagent is unusual but because when he left to start Klutch Sports Group, he took James -- one of the world's most glorified, recognizable athletes -- with him.

"Rich is now a major threat to every large corporate agency that exists," says Chris Luchey, who represents Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler and three other NBA players. Luchey worked for two of the league's most powerful agencies, SFX and Wasserman Media Group, before launching CGL Sports in 2007. He knows from experience that when recruiting college kids, mega-firms feast on the idea that it takes an agency their size to represent marquee players. "The fact that the largest icon in the sport today has an agent from a boutique firm kills every myth these large agencies have been standing on," Luchey says. "There's trembling throughout the industry, and that's why some people are taking shots at Rich."

Here's the common refrain: LeBron James made one of his boys, a woefully unqualified member of his entourage, his agent.

"He didn't graduate from college, so how'd he get certified?" says one competitor.

"I just hope we don't have another Master P situation on our hands," says another, referring to the rapper's unsuccessful foray into the agent biz.

"How's he going to walk into a Fortune 500 sports-brand company and negotiate a deal?" asks one more. "You can't give a dentist a scalpel and say, Go do heart surgery."

And it's not just verbal shots. The NCAA, as of Dec. 19, had yet to confirm reports that Texas guard Myck Kabongo received a season-long suspension for lying about receiving improper benefits last May -- an investigation that implicated Paul, who was then working as a recruiter for CAA. Paul denies any impropriety but knows that even allegations can damage his credibility. Walking the corridors of his alma mater, Cleveland's Benedictine High, Paul shakes his head at the mention of the situation. "It's a cutthroat business,'' says Paul. "I'm a target. Where I come from, I've seen worse."

WHEN JAMES RETURNED from that Final Four a decade ago, he called Paul and invited him to hang out in Akron. Both had mothers who struggled with the perils of urban life while raising their sons. Both grew up in the 'hood but attended mostly white Catholic high schools to play basketball. Both recognized the importance of doing well in school. "We used to say, There's nothing cool about being a dummy," Paul recalls.

He'd accompany James to hoop camps and tournaments. They'd spend hours doing pushups and talking about everything from being considered just another inner-city kid to the importance of respecting your mother regardless of her past. "I was always picking his mind, and he was always picking mine," James says.

Shortly after James was drafted, he called Paul one afternoon and asked for his Social Security number. Paul had no idea what James was up to, but about a week later he received a check from King James Inc. It was his first two weeks' pay. There was no plan -- certainly no business plan -- in place then, but James was confident they'd figure it out along the way. "I just felt like Rich was someone I wanted to grow with," James says. "He'd always kept it real with me, and I wanted him to be down with my team."

The team became known as the Four Horsemen: James, Paul, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims. Although Paul had earned a rep as the party guy for putting together events at clubs and such, it became evident early on that he was not merely interested in enjoying the spoils of having a pal in the NBA. "Me and Mav and Randy would stay up hours and hours and hours and try to figure out what we were going to do when LeBron was done playing," Paul says. They formed LRMR, a marketing firm for James.

But Paul was busy in other areas too. Nike noticed that in its meetings with James, the superstar would look to Paul for advice on the design of his clothes and sneakers. Paul would spend time on the streets of different cities, taking note of what styles were hot to keep James' products on the cutting edge. He also wasn't shy about engaging Knight and other powerful executives in business conversation.

In fact, Paul's ability to develop relationships across all racial and socioeconomic lines is perhaps his greatest strength, and it came in handy when he left LRMR to recruit for Rose in 2008. He brought several players, basketball and football, to CAA and helped turn Rose into one of the most powerful agents in the business. Rose, knowing Paul would someday follow in his footsteps, let him participate in negotiations, talk to GMs and essentially do the work of an agent. "I had great teaching," Paul says. "Working with Nike and at CAA, that's the equivalent of going to Michigan Law School and to MIT."

THE NBA PLAYERS' union says more than 10 of its certified agents either do not have a college degree or did not have one at the time they were certified. Yet regardless of their level of education, every single agent goes to the union for advice on contracts and has the help of his own legal team. Paul, who took college courses at Akron and Cleveland State, has the same support systems available to him. "There are very few agents who are truly sophisticated school-taught lawyers who understand everything about contract law," says one longtime GM who has dealt with Paul. "There's no specific training to be an agent. Most of the smart ones are more marketing guys than anything else. Is Rich sophisticated enough? Well, he's sophisticated enough that he has LeBron."

James is not the only one who has faith in Paul. Former lottery pick Tristan Thompson of the Cavs, Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe and Spurs guard Cory Joseph have also joined Klutch. In reality, though, the threat is not actually Paul but this new breed of agent. Not Klutch but a series of Klutches. If Paul is successful, what's to stop another superstar's ambitious best friend from learning the corporate game while still maintaining the authenticity and street cred it takes to earn the trust and friendship of players? Make no mistake about it: Many middlemen, recruiters or runners are watching Paul closely, wondering whether he might blaze a trail they can soon follow.

"The middlemen put in all the work and get crumbs for it," says one NBA executive. "Rich could end up being a model for young guys in the future who are close to a star player. They could follow what he's doing and start changing the name of the game."

IN THE SUMMER of 2011, Paul, James, Dwyane Wade and others were in the Bahamas, just weeks after the Heat had been upset by Dallas in the Finals. The dinner table in their rented mansion was full of steak, seafood, fruit and more, but the mood was sour. James and Wade were beating themselves up, trying to explain what happened. Paul stepped in. "Man, it wasn't meant for y'all to win.''

"Man, what are you talking about?'' said an irked James.

"The reason you didn't win it is that you weren't being you," Paul said. "You were playing with a lot of anger, being someone you're not. If God had let you win, you would've felt like you should be that person -- angry, thinking everybody's against you, not having fun on the court. That's not you."

"Man, whatever," said James. "I'm not trying to hear this."

"It's bigger than what you did on the floor, Bron. It started from day one, when you decided to be someone else. God took you from your highest point to your lowest point so you could be humble, so you could look in the mirror and be a better player. Experience is the best teacher."

James was quiet. But the words, uttered by one of the few men who can deliver King James an unpopular message, hit home. Before long in interviews, at his camp, in the mirror, LeBron was saying the exact same thing.

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