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Mention June 30 to Jeff Fried, and he’ll get giddy. Well, as giddy as an ex-accountant gets. The MCI Center hosts the NBA draft that evening, the first time the selection soiree will be held in this city. Steve Francis, a local product who played through all the bad hands dealt him early in life, will be there, and could well be the first player selected. In any case, he’ll be a lottery pick, and maybe even rich by sunup. Fried, now a sports agent, will be right beside the University of Maryland phenom, eager to start crunching some very big numbers and, at 42, to launch his own career in pro basketball.
Fans love Francis as much for what he overcame before arriving in College Park as for all the highlight-film acrobatics he performs on the court. By the time Francis was 10, he had gone to work to help his single mother support the family. She died during his senior year at Montgomery Blair High School. He got a tattoo with her name, Brenda, on his right arm, and then dropped out. But with the prodding of friends and mentors from his Takoma Park neighborhood, Francis got a GED and found a junior college program, Allegany, that would let him play ball. After a year, he transferred to San Jacinto Junior College in Texas. Neither team lost a game with Francis. He couldn’t pull off that sort of miracle at Maryland, but with Francis in uniform, the Terps put up a school record, 28 wins last season.
Francis surprised almost nobody when he announced in late March that he’d be giving up his senior year to go pro. The shock came two weeks later, when Francis signed on with Fried and Co. The firm had been trying to make inroads into the NBA for three years; of the dozen or so guys Fried represented, one had had a cup of coffee with the L.A. Clippers, and some others had bounced around Europe or the CBA, but none had done anything Fan-tastic enough to make Fried a player in the NBA.
“Arguably, you’ve never heard of any of the players we’ve worked with,” says Fried.
Most folks in the basketball biz haven’t heard of Fried, either. And in today’s market, star players generally retain star agents to do their bidding.
The latest crop of sports agents is top-heavy with flashy and brash types who gained their celebrity in some other arena. Guys like Master P, the rapper (born Percy Miller) who roped in Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams back when most gridiron buffs assumed the Texas running back would be the pick of the litter. Then there are Puff Daddy, Magic Johnson, and even Johnny Cochran, all of whom recently began calling themselves agents and making plays for a cut of the sports dollar.
The old guard, meanwhile, features megalomaniacs who got famous on the strength of re-engineering the league to make their clients rich. D.C. teams have all been stung by members of this class: David Falk held the Bullets hostage during Juwan Howard’s contract talks, Gus Sunseri put the fear of God into the Redskins while Sean Gilbert got chubby in Pennsylvania, and Brian Cook got Adam Oates to hold out and say he’d never play in Washington in order to get the final two years of his $2.15 million per season contract voided.
And in the end, all of them got paid.
Francis heard from most everybody, from both camps, as soon as it became clear he’d be leaving Maryland. And he ignored all callers but Fried. Fried doesn’t wear a 24-karat rope chain like the new breed or ooze the squeeze-blood-from-a-stone psychosis of the old-school stalwarts. (A hairdo is the only outward attribute Fried shares with Falk.) He’s humble and mild. But, belying his Potomac address, Fried has bonds with Francis that the other suitors couldn’t match.
Fried also grew up poor, in the projects in Brooklyn. He never had the time to find out if he had the talent to make his boyhood athletic aspirations come true. He went to work when he was 12, and by his senior year of high school, Fried was pulling the midnight shift at the local post office five days a week, punching out just in time to go to class. He went to Brooklyn College back when it was a tuition-free and very selective institution, and he became a certified public accountant. But Fried never saw himself as a bean counter. So, against his mother’s wishes, he changed careers and enrolled at American University’s law school.
“I never could make my mother understand that giving up a $15,750-a-year job to go back to school wasn’t crazy,” he says. “That was steady work, and to her, you don’t give up steady work.”
He got his law degree in 1985 and fell into a profitable niche in aviation finance, assisting airlines in foreign countriesone of his biggest early deals was arranging the sale of two Airbuses to Jamaica. In 1988, with his practice in full flight, an associate gave Fried’s number to a then-unknown boxing manager named Rock Newman, who was looking for somebody to put together a syndicate to invest in an Olympic silver medalist, Riddick Bowe. (Bowe lost in Seoul to super-heavyweight gold medalist Lennox Lewis, who at the time claimed Canada.) Fried brokered the deal for Bowe, a fellow Brooklyn native. Along with its being a nice fiscal decision”All the investors got a 400 percent return on their money,” Fried saysthat project provided Fried the entree to the sports world that he’d been craving.
Bowe had won his first 31 fights by the time he decisioned Evander Holyfield to take the undisputed heavyweight championship on Nov. 13, 1992.
“I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d really accomplished something,” Fried says. “That’s the way it is in the sports business: You judge how you’re doing by how your client does.”
For a time, that meant Fried was doing incredibly well. At the peak of Bowe’s career, Fried negotiated the boxer’s $100 million pact with HBO, the most lucrative television deal any boxer had ever gotten. Most of that money went unpaid when Bowe unraveled. The Bowe ties, however, got Fried a lot more ring work, including stints as legal counsel for Mike Tyson’s current promoter, America Presents, and for Sharmba Mitchell. Mitchell is the reigning super-lightweight champion of the world, and, as things turned out, both he and his manager and mentor, Nate Peake, grew up in the same Takoma Park neighborhood that Steve Francis used to call home.
Mitchell and Peake said all the right things about Fried when they heard their buddy was looking for an agent, and Francis listened. Fried had his first superstar.
In recent weeks, as Mitchell has been preparing for a title defense against Reggie Green, Francis has been working out with Peake.
Fried, meanwhile, has been working on Francis’ mental preparation, grilling him about the temptations and pressures that young athletes face when they make that leap from merely famous to rich and famous. “He’s ready,” says Fried. “With all he’s been through, he’s just so appreciative of everything, and he’s a joy to be around. You can’t not be a fan of Steve. I’m so proud of him, and I really mean that.”
Saturday night at MCI Center, Francis was among the first to jump in the ring after the bell rang in the 12th and final round of the Mitchell-Green fight. When the announcer proclaimed Mitchell the winner by decision and still champion, Francis and Peake were there to help celebrate. Fried, after offering his own acclamations, broke up the Takoma Park reunion briefly and took Francis aside. He asked his most famous client to think about all the hard work Mitchell had put in and all the sacrifices he’d made to get to that moment, about how he’d earned the right to hear his name announced and to take in the cheers of a hometown crowd. In two months, in that same arena, it’ll be Francis’ turn.Dave McKenna