CLEVELAND — When Rich Paul was a boy, he would ride the bus here to the center of his hometown to treat himself to a $1 hot dog. One morning this month, he drove his Mercedes to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and was halfway through his steak and eggs when his phone started dancing on the white tablecloth.
The news was out: The Cleveland Cavaliers were trading their young stars Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, and a future pick, to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love, the superstar forward and the man LeBron James called soon after announcing that he was coming home. They had won a gold medal together at the London Olympics, and James believed they shared a high basketball IQ. The Cavaliers were remaking themselves for a title run in a hurry.
For Paul, everything had fallen in place: the years learning the finer points of the business, the time spent rebuilding torched bridges, the heartfelt letter that softened the hard feelings.
The city that had turned on its favorite son had fallen back in love. Now, Paul could smile.
After all, he was on a pretty good run. The first contract he had ever negotiated had become the biggest sports story of the year, and Paul, James’ agent, had played a big part in his homecoming.
“So many things had to go right, and I have thought about that every day along the way,’’ Paul said.
James’ decision to return to Cleveland involved many factors, on and off the basketball court. But at the heart of James’ homecoming is a promise made 12 years ago between a teenage basketball phenom and a self-made businessman selling throwback jerseys out of the trunk of his car.
In an interview in a suite overlooking the University of Akron’s football field, James, 29, recalled those conversations with Paul long before either of them was on the sports radar, let alone at its center.
“He used to listen to me and how I was going to get out of the inner city and make a difference, and I used to listen to him say how he was going to get out and make a difference,’’ James said. “Those conversations turned to how we are going to do it, and then to, why not do it together? I wanted him to be with me.’’
A Generous Heart
The windows of his father’s store are boarded up, and the pay phone that once rang at all hours and carried pleas for help has been ripped from its shell. There’s not much left on the corner of 125th and Arlington beyond broken glass and splintered wood.
Paul and his father used to live in a one-bedroom apartment above R & J Confectionary. They were up each morning at 6:30 to punch in lottery tickets and sell milk and bread to the denizens of Glenville. No one had much in that East Cleveland neighborhood — people worked two jobs and grandmothers were raising their grandchildren amid late-night gunshots and crack houses.
There were weeks when Rich Paul Sr. gave away more than he sold, and when the pay phone outside rang, he always answered, even though he knew it was going to cost him bail money or a trip to the emergency room. He came up with the tuition to send his son across town to Benedictine, a predominantly white Roman Catholic high school.
He kept his son in tennis shoes and offered life lessons, the simple ones about love and respect, patience and hard work. When his father died of cancer 14 years ago, while the younger Paul was still in high school, the Greater Friendship Baptist Church overflowed with neighbors waiting to pay their final respects, Paul remembers.
“He was the father of the neighborhood and the voice of reason for everyone,’’ said Paul, now 33. “Everything I needed to know to run my business and to be a good human being, I got right here from my father.’’
He learned well. His Klutch Sports Group is taking on the Ivy League-educated lawyers that populate Hollywood mega agencies like Creative Artists Agency. His success traces back to a chance encounter with James 12 years ago that has put him at the nexus of a renaissance for not only the Cavaliers but also the psyche of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.
Paul and James first crossed paths in the Akron-Canton Airport as they were about to board a flight to Atlanta.
James, captivated by Paul’s Warren Moon throwback jersey, asked where he got it. It turned out that Paul was selling jerseys out of the trunk of his car and was going to Atlanta to buy more. He gave James his connection in Atlanta, and he told him to drop his name for a discount, and then went on his way.
“It was fate,’’ Paul said. “I could have missed the plane. I could have taken an earlier flight. I could have not worn the jersey. I could have been having a bad day and not spoken to him.’’
When James returned from Atlanta, he called Paul to thank him, and they had the first of many long conversations, which deepened into a friendship and eventually an intertwined future.
“We hit it off instantly,’’ James said. “Every time I was doing something, I’d call Rich and ask if he can make it, and he’d say, ‘I’ll be right there,’ and he was.’’
They traveled to Amateur Athletic Union tournaments together and played pickup games — Paul was a member of two state championship teams at Benedictine. But mostly they talked: about their favorite television shows and girlfriends, about the classmates at their respective Catholic schools and the affluence they took for granted, about the friends from the neighborhood that they had lost to jail or worse. They also talked about the grind that Gloria James and Rich Paul Sr. endured as single parents and the wisdom and drive each had handed down to them.
“He had all these life skills that he got from his dad, and pretty soon I had all these people ask me, ‘Why do you have this Cleveland guy around?’’’ James said.
Ted Ginn knew the answer. He watched “Little Rich’’ growing up in Glenville and was a friend of his father’s. He knew him as an 8-year-old behind the counter of R & J bantering with the regulars. He saw Paul as an eighth-grader, paging through the Robb Report and DuPont Registry, pointing out the Mercedeses and Rolexes he would own one day.
Like his father, Paul had a sense of style and a generous heart. The elder Paul favored business suits and the lush sweaters that Bill Cosby had made popular on television.
Little Rich was always ahead of the curve fashion-wise — landing the neighborhood’s newest versions of Air Jordans and the latest in the Ralph Lauren lines. He could not wear them to Benedictine because the school required hard shoes and a uniform, so he lent his wardrobe to his friends at Glenville High School.
“He was a cut above the other kids, and really had a strong mind,’’ said Ginn, Glenville’s longtime football coach. “He wanted to know how things worked and asked the right questions. Little Rich was a good listener.’’
In between his conversations with James, Paul was building his throwback jersey business. He counted professional athletes like Juwan Howard among his clients and was looking to open a store with Andy Hyman, the Atlanta businessman who supplied the jerseys.
Hyman was curious enough to meet with Paul when he asked about investing in his business. He was unprepared, however, for the slight, baby-faced kid who appeared at his store. It was clear Paul had more of a dream than real dollars, but Hyman found something “irresistible’’ in Paul, and he agreed to sell him the jerseys slightly above cost as they continued to get to know each other.
“He was so persistent, but in a very nice way,’’ said Hyman, a manager for the Original Retro Brand, a T-shirt seller. “He is a really charismatic guy and has a sweet way of dealing with people.’’
Paul also put the work in. He had to know what he was selling, so he drove to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in nearby Canton, Ohio, to learn about the greats who had come before his time. He lent the jerseys to friends to wear to the nightclubs where they talked up his product and handed out his cards.
James was often seen in vintage Joe Namaths or Magic Johnsons, and Paul always had a pile with them as they traveled the Amateur Athletic Union circuit. The jerseys that he was buying from Hyman for $160 were flying out of his trunk for $300, and soon he had $15,000 a week in revenue. Hyman was onboard, and the search for a store location was on.
It did not get far. Not long after the Cavaliers drafted James out of high school with their top pick in the 2003 NBA draft, he handed a paycheck over to Paul. It was Paul’s first two weeks of a $50,000 annual salary, to do what, exactly, neither of them knew. “He told me that he really didn’t have a job for me, but that he wanted me close and we’d figure it out,’’ Paul said.
Maverick Carter and Randy Mims, two lifelong friends of James’, were also put on the payroll, and the “Four Horsemen’’ were born. They had a signature handshake, and they put a silhouette of a knight on their tennis shoes. They promised one another that they would be more than an entourage or posse. They did not know how yet, but James said he knew that he was making a sound investment.
“It wasn’t, can we have a few dollars and go out and buy something,’’ James said. “They looked at it like an opportunity and said, hey, he believes in me, let’s go out and do something.’’
The Four Horsemen
Paul worked to make himself useful any way he could. Before professional fashion stylists became a vital part of an NBA star’s entourage, Paul handled those duties for James. He helped James rehearse for his Nike commercials, suggesting ways for him to be funnier.
Mainly, Paul did what he did best: He listened. When he met billionaire investor Warren Buffett, he paid attention when Buffett told him to trust his gut. From music and film impresario David Geffen, he learned the power of organization and the need to surround yourself with the best talent available.
“I was a sponge,’’ Paul said. “I just tuned in whenever we had these meetings. LeBron had no obligation to me. I was not entitled to anything. I wanted to be valuable.’’
In 2006, the Four Horsemen essentially rebranded themselves. James fired his agent Aaron Goodwin and formed LRMR Management Co. (using the first initial of each’s name). They had decided to take care of the LeBron James brand themselves.
Maverick Carter was put in charge of the firm. Randy Mims continued to serve as James’ chief of staff, coordinating his travel and his daily schedule. Paul told James that he wanted to become an agent — his agent — but knew he needed more exposure to the business.
“He wanted to learn the ropes,’’ James said. “I told him whenever you are ready, let me know.’’
So Paul went to work for James’ agent Leon Rose, who had negotiated James’ extension with the Cavs in 2006 and whose practice was bought by CAA the following year.
No one was surprised that Paul was good at recruiting talent, bringing aboard NBA players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Tristan Thompson and Eric Bledsoe. In a bruising business long on paranoia and short on friends, Paul had earned a reputation as a smart, straight-shooting negotiator.
“He is a really good communicator and knows the basketball side real well — I could see him on our side of the game someday,’’ said David Griffin, the Cavaliers’ general manager.
It was not until September 2012 that Paul told James he was ready to strike out on his own. Ten days later, Klutch Sports Group was open for business, and its first client was the most coveted in all of sports: LeBron James. Thompson and Bledsoe, along with San Antonio guard Cory Joseph and Washington Wizards forward Kevin Seraphin, signed with Paul as well.
But the doubts and badmouthing among the tribe of 4-percenters were immediate and nasty. The griping dismissed Paul as merely a frontman for James. Critics questioned how someone with only a high school diploma could become a certified agent, and they wondered how hard it could be to represent LeBron James.
Paul shrugs it all off. He insists that Klutch is all his and that he is off James’ payroll. The NBA Players Association does not require a college degree, and most agencies bring on legal teams to handle the contracts, as Paul has. (Paul has brought in veteran agent Mark Termini to oversee contract negotiations, and he works with lawyer Fred Nance, once a finalist for the NFL commissioner’s job, and a battery of lawyers at his firm, Squire Patton Boggs.)
And to the question of how hard is it to represent LeBron James:
“Ask the other two guys he had,’’ Paul said.
No one was surprised when James chose to become a free agent this summer. What few people knew was that James wanted to come home.
James asked Paul to test the waters in Cleveland and see if the Cavs were interested in moving past “The Decision’’ and “The Letter,’’ the angry rejoinder from Cleveland’s owner, Dan Gilbert.
Not everyone within James’ inner circle had been comfortable with how he left the Cavs four years ago. Paul was among them. The night that James announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach,’’ Paul called Chris Grant, then the Cavs’ general manager.
“There is no easy way to break up with your wife,’’ Paul said. “I wanted him to know it was a business decision for LeBron, not a personal one. I’m not a regrets guy, but as far as how it went down, I can say our intentions were good. I guess you can say of the outcome, it allowed all of us to grow.’’
Even though James was in Miami, Paul attended the Cavs’ next season opener and made a point of visiting the team’s executives. “There was a foundation of trust,’’ said Griffin, the general manager.
This summer, Paul told Griffin that James was interested in returning, but said there were no guarantees.
“Once LeBron started getting serious about Cleveland, I knew he needed to sit with Dan in person,’’ said Paul. “He had to talk to him directly.’’
On July 6, Gilbert flew to South Florida to meet with James. They sat down at the kitchen table, and Gilbert apologized for the letter and “one terrible’’ night that had eclipsed the previous five rewarding years together.
It was clear as well that James was ready to move on, but he was perhaps even more interested in whether the Cavs had the money to immediately build a championship team. Gilbert assured James the Cavs had the resources and were willing to use them.
At the end of the night, neither side knew whether a reunion would happen.
Finally, on the morning of July 11, Paul picked up the phone and called Gilbert.
“Dan, congratulations,’’ he told him. “LeBron is coming home.’’
James has been lauded for his faithfulness to his roots. But Paul deserves some of the credit for making the return possible.
“The organization wants to win a championship for the city and Northeast Ohio, and LeBron wants to win more championships,’’ Griffin said. “But we wouldn’t be where we are today if Rich hadn’t handled things the way he did.’’