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 Tuesday, May 9
Love him or hate him, Bearup's a player
 
By Pat Forde
Special to ESPN.com

 He was at the Final Four, of course. In the hotel bar with Bob Huggins and Larry Eustachy one night. At another Indianapolis establishment with a pro scout and an assistant from a Top 25 program another night. Always around, always in the mix.

Erick Barkley
The Erick Barkley saga had Bearup's name in the New York media.

Where there is action, there is Bret Bearup.

Not necessarily front and center, mind you. The Most Controversial Man in College Basketball does much of his maneuvering off radar. He is not a power broker in the traditional sense of a Mike Krzyzewski, a Bob Knight, a C.M. Newton or a Dean Smith. His is backroom power.

Stogie in one hand and a tumbler in another, Bret Bearup can work a lobby with the best of them -- buying drinks into the wee hours, soaking up information, making connections. His cell phone and pager go off 24/7. A veritable gossip clearinghouse, he is the guy to call when you need to know the story behind the story.

As president of Atlanta-based ProTrust Capital, Bearup is a financial adviser to a vast clientele of athletes and entertainers, investing money and creating investment opportunities. Since he is not classified as an agent, Bearup has a wider latitude to associate himself with players and coaches on the professional, college and high school levels. You'd be hard-pressed to find dissatisfied clients, but it isn't hard to find skeptical college coaches and administrators.

It is hard to find ones willing to criticize Bearup on the record.

"None of these coaches will ever say a bad word about the guy, because he's plugged into talent," said a prominent media member who covers college basketball nationally -- and who didn't want his name used.

What the coaches will whisper confidentially is this:

  • Bearup is a kingmaker, using his access and influence to steer players to programs he favors (Cincinnati and Florida most prominently, although coaches at both schools vehemently deny any such thing).

  • Bearup's connections to high school stars has helped lead them to go pro earlier and earlier.

  • Bearup uses his loophole to act as a conduit between agents and players.

  • Bearup is a powerful ally of adidas in its bitter sneaker war with Nike.

    Bearup denies all charges, in detail and at great length. What cannot be denied is his ability to glide between realms -- making money, making friends, making enemies. Smooth, smart and hip, he can riff with suit-and-tie executives and saggy-pantsed teenagers both. Perhaps most importantly, he is in tight with a powerful cadre of summer-team coaches who influence many of the top players.

    The former University of Kentucky forward from 1980-85 is a big man (6 feet 9 and weighing more than 300 pounds) with a big reputation.

    He counts among his clients Tim Duncan, Nick Van Exel, Rik Smits, Paul Pierce, Elton Brand, Baron Davis, Jonathan Bender and dozens of others (including Hootie and the Blowfish). And he appears to be getting stronger. Bearup said last summer that 11 of the 29 first-round draft picks were ProTrust clients.

    "He's the hottest topic on the circuit," adidas kingpin Sonny Vaccaro said last summer.

    "It would appear, to my limited knowledge, that Bret Bearup is one of the most powerful and influential people in the -- what do we call this? -- process," said recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons, who is by no means limited in his knowledge of basketball's inner workings.

    Bearup has been the subterranean buzz in college ball for about 18 months, since South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler controversially went to war with Bearup and Florida coach Billy Donovan at the 1998 Southeastern Conference media days gathering. Without naming names, Fogler accused Bearup and Florida of walking a shady ethical line by using Bearup's summer European tour with high-school all-stars as a recruiting vehicle for the Gators.

    Fogler continued the cold war during this season, when he opined that the SEC Most Valuable Player was Bret Bearup. That comment undoubtedly was well-received in Gainesville.

    But Bearup's name hit the bright lights and big city last month, when it became connected with the freak show involving Erick Barkley at St. John's. Records belonging to agent Andy Miller, who is reportedly in the thick of a nasty turf battle over Barkley, showed a datebook reference in December saying "Bearup-Barkley," and the New York Post reported that Bearup supplied Barkley a $50,000 line of credit in March.

    As it turns out, that part probably was overdramatized. The $50,000 line of credit is a standard service Bearup's company offers to clients -- after, he insists, they have decided to forsake college for the pro ranks. It is, in fact, the very thing that set Fogler against Bearup a few years ago: Bearup extended the same service to high school senior and South Carolina recruiting target Jermaine O'Neal when he decided to jilt college for the NBA.

    But the next thing you knew, papers had Andy Miller's phone records and were reporting more than 40 phone calls from the agent to Florida sophomore star Mike Miller. Mike is no relation to Andy -- but he is a friend of Bearup's who went on two of his European trips. If you think anyone other than Bret Bearup will handle Mike Miller's money when he goes pro (which could be any day), you're not thinking clearly.

      I think coaching is a noble profession. I think those guys have a lot in them that I have in me -- liking to be around the game, like to be around the kids. But it really isn't my job to make their recruiting any easier, nor is it my job to make their recruiting any harder. I'm really beginning to resent the supposition that I would do that.
    —  Bret Bearup

    But when confronted with the label of being the unseen hand moving college ball, Bearup will tell you it's all overblown.

    "The fact that people perceive me to have power like that is not completely unwelcome to me," he said last July, before offering an exhaustive list of reasons why that reputation is more than a little bit mythology. "You have no idea how many times college coaches come up to me and say, 'I need a player from you.' It's unbelievable how often that happens. And I really get tired of saying, 'I just wish I was as powerful as you guys thought I was.'

    "I think coaching is a noble profession. I think those guys have a lot in them that I have in me -- liking to be around the game, like to be around the kids. But it really isn't my job to make their recruiting any easier, nor is it my job to make their recruiting any harder. I'm really beginning to resent the supposition that I would do that."

    Nevertheless, Bearup has been prone to turning up in the darnedest places the past couple years.

    When Duke blew up last spring with a procession of departures by underclassmen, Bearup was a first-hand witness -- some might even say an accomplice. When forward Chris Burgess decided to transfer and wound up at Utah, Bearup contacted Utes coach Rick Majerus, according to Bearup and Ken Burgess, Chris' father. Ken Burgess invests with Bearup.

    When All-American prospect Carlos Boozer was deciding between UCLA and Duke, he received inside information in late March that Burgess would be leaving Durham, thus freeing up playing time. Boozer committed to Duke weeks before Burgess announced he was leaving. Bearup acknowledged being the source of that information.

    And when Brand and Avery went pro, Bearup was there to scoop them up as clients. He even allowed them to borrow two of his cars to test drive -- Brand a Cadillac and Avery a Mercedes.

    That's not all. When Mike Miller was visiting Florida for the Tennessee football game in 1997, Bearup was there. He said he was in town to pitch Volunteers QB Peyton Manning as a client and also to check out Florida guard Jason Williams -- but he didn't mind bumping into Miller, either.

    And when Jonathan Bender was planning an official visit to Kentucky, he called Bearup to see if he could be in Lexington at the same time. Bearup said that when he told Bender he couldn't make it, Bender cancelled the visit.

    He's no household name, but everyone inside the game knows who Bret Bearup is. They just can't agree on what he does, why he does it or who benefits. The only thing that seems sure is that Bearup isn't going away, even if they change the rules and curb his latitude.

    "It's in my blood," he said.

    Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com
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