Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Updated: August 8, 12:19 PM ET
THE PRINCE WHO WOULD BE FANTASY KING
By Christopher Schultz
Imagine playing in an anonymous online fantasy league. You check the papers, watch the news, read the beat blogs. You're close to unstoppable. Close. Because there's one owner as dominant as you. Aggressive trades, stealth waiver pickups, ballsy lineup moves—the guy is a seer. Halfway through the season, the finals are inevitable: you and him.
Now see if this jars you: Your rival lives in Saudi Arabia. Game time for him is the middle of the night, yet he still catches every down. He's in 12 leagues. He spends an hour a day tinkering with his rosters, except for the two hours he puts in on Tuesdays before waivers and the 90 minutes he commits on Saturdays. He's not worried about you. His name is Prince Abdullah.
And Prince Abdullah dominates fantasy football.
It's Saturday, April 26. I'm in Beverly Hills, staring at a house. It's a big house, cartoon big. Stucco the color of bleached caramel, windows and balconies everywhere. Kelsey Grammer used to live here. The front door, 30 feet of dark wood and glass, is flanked by fat-leafed greenery lolling in planters Shaquille O'Neal could hide in. Some doors off the patio are open, letting in perfect California air. I walk in.
In the corner of the wood-paneled room, sitting cross-legged in a leather lounge chair roughly the size and color of Jabba the Hutt, is HRH Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. (HRH = His Royal Highness.) He's wearing exercise pants, soccer sandals and a gray shirt with a 49ers logo on the breast. A 49ers hat, red and crisp, sits next to his chair. He greets me warmly.
Prince Abdullah is facing a wall of five flat-screen TVs. The center one, big as a dining room table, is tuned to the NFL draft, soon to start. Since 1994, Prince Abdullah has come to the U.S. for almost every draft weekend. He might be the biggest NFL fan I've met, which is cool given that, in his country, soccer rules the sports universe. He's also one of the most rabid fantasy football players I've come across. This is less cool, because I've agreed to play against him this fall. Even worse: After the prince won five of his nine leagues in 2006, he went 0-for-12 last year. He says he got complacent. So he's got magazines to read, offenses to analyze, titles to reclaim. And a draft to watch.
Prince Abdullah claps his hands and shouts at the TV: "Fifteen! Fourteen! Thirteen!" He parrots greetings from drafts past before the NFL commissioner even gets to the podium. When Roger Goodell speaks, it's as if he's taking cues from the prince. There's the first pick. Game on.
A few years ago, my buddy Jason Carter sent an e-mail to our fantasy league. He'd just returned from the Carter Center in Atlanta, where he and some other family members had had lunch with a Saudi prince. (Jason is former president Jimmy Carter's grandson.) His note was one of delighted disbelief: He and the prince had talked about fantasy football the whole time. The two had commiserated that Garrison Hearst, the 49ers running back, had torpedoed both their teams. The prince even knew that Marv Levy had an English history degree from Harvard.
I had to meet this guy. So I called Prince Abdullah, and soon we began e-mailing. Then, last season, he said we should be in a league together in 2008. I agreed, and the prince proposed I join him in LA for a get-to-know-your-competition weekend. So, the Friday night before the draft, I find myself at Chinois on Main, a fusion restaurant in Santa Monica. The prince arrives on time, ambling down the sidewalk. He's a filled-out 6'2", with a forever-5 o'clock shadow that matches a mostly shaved head. He wears khakis, an untucked white shirt with blue stripes and black Merrells. He could be any 43-year-old.
But he isn't. He lives in Riyadh with his wife of 18 years and seven kids. He's one of around 4,000 Saudi princes. King Abdullah is his uncle. The two get together to chat every Friday, when they're both in Riyadh. With three partners, Prince Abdullah started the Saudi Paper Manufacturing Company in 1989. In 2006, as CEO, he took the company public and suddenly was worth nine figures. The profits from the IPO allowed him to buy his Beverly Hills house (he also has a place in London). He's an annual attendee of the Super Bowl and a friend of Hakeem Olajuwon's. DOMINATING FANTASY? THAT'S THE LEAST OF THE PRINCE'S AMBITIONS. HE WANTS TO BUY HIS OWN FRANCHISE, AND THE 49ERS TOP HIS LIST.
From 2002 to 2004, while still running Saudi Paper, the prince served as president of Al Hilal, a Saudi soccer club that's the equivalent of the Yankees here: perennial champs, loved by their fans, hated by everyone else. Prince Abdullah had a talent for managing Al Hilal, but he left the post to build Saudi Paper. He thinks his company can double in size over the next four years. After that, he says, "watch out, 49ers." He wants to own a sports team, and his favorite NFL franchise tops the list.
The first NFL game Prince Abdullah saw was Super Bowl XVI, in 1982, 49ers vs. Bengals, at a hotel in Paris. He's been a Niners fan ever since. When the prince discovered fantasy football, in 2001, it proved to be a serendipitous collision of two of his fixations: the NFL and outsmarting people. He now competes in two leagues in Saudi Arabia—Saudi League and Saudi Live—both populated mostly by Saudi friends and relatives. His team names are Saudi 49er and Saudi Niners. He also competes anonymously in American leagues, accumulating titles with team names like Steve Young and John Taylor.
Joining the prince and me at dinner are Saleh Kalefa, a Saudi who works in LA and looks after the prince's house; Saleh's American wife, Emily; and Selahattin Baki, a friendly Turkish man who describes his job as, "I bring him projects." We take our seats; two of the seven chairs remain open. After 20 minutes, an attractive couple walk into the restaurant. The guy spots the prince and brings his date to the table. They sit down. I learn that this is Dhani Jones, the Bengals linebacker. "We met at the Super Bowl last year," the prince says.
Our waiter approaches to hand out menus and reveal the specials. Prince Abdullah waves off the menus. "We're ready to order," he says. The prince names dish after dish, occasionally asking Saleh in Arabic to clarify the items he's after—Shanghai lobster, Chinois chicken salad, Mongolian lamb. The waiter gives the prince an appreciative look. The prince asks if there's anything else he'd recommend and the whole sizzling catfish makes the list.
Jones tells me that, at the prince's house the day before, they were watching a soccer match when he asked the prince a question. Without looking away from the TV, the prince responded, "Five minutes." As if to say, hang on. Prince Abdullah, hearing Jones tell the story, smiles, shrugs and says, "It was a question that required a long answer."
I'm looking at the collection of infotainment that surrounds the prince's lounge chair. Sports Illustrated: The Football Book and Guinness World Records. Stacks of mostly unopened DVDs—Charlie Wilson's War, The Savages, Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains—pile against the wall. He sees me looking at the Carter disc and says, "If you say 'decent man,' I think nobody fits the description more."
The prince brings his family here whenever the kids aren't in school, which amounts to one or two months a year. They play soccer and swim out back every day. In their old LA house, he and his wife marked on the walls how tall his children were each year. When they moved to this house, he says, "I wanted to take that wall, rip it off, take it with me."
Right now, as the first round progresses, the prince is stretched out in his chair in the corner. He's speaking Arabic on the phone, and he picks up a bottle of Armani cologne and sprays a little on himself. I close my eyes and listen to a language I'll never learn—sonorous, with a lilting, soporific cadence and soft-edged intonations, punctuated by occasional hawking-a-loogie sounds.
When Prince Abdullah hangs up, he gives me a tour of the house. It's warm and open and inviting. He strolls by a wine room whose glass door is locked. "You don't drink; it's a waste of time," he says. No booze inside, just paintings. This does not bode well for my season.
Though the prince could compete in fantasy for Larry Flynt stakes, he doesn't play for money. Winners of the Saudi leagues have their team names engraved on replicas of the Lombardi Trophy. The trophies rest on a table in Prince Abdullah's Riyadh basement amid cubed shelves that hold helmets representing every NFL team. The shelves stack up next to a wall of flat-screens where the prince and his friends watch games on Sundays from 10 p.m. until the morning, sitting on cushions on the floor.
For many of us, fantasy is a way to retain a tangible stake in a game we can't play any longer. We pay an entry fee, draft a squad and, if it works out, win the pot from fellow past-our-prime friends. But the prince, he keeps it real—the trophy is all he cares about. Prince Abdullah plays only to win.
The Prince thinks a lot about management tactics and strategy. His 49ers all-time MVP is former owner Eddie DeBartolo. "Not Joe Montana," he says. "It starts with the owner, because if he wants to win—look at the Browns and Bengals. They don't like to spend any money." In fantasy, of course, there's no real money to spend. The main way to be a mover and shaker is to make trades, and by all accounts, Prince Abdullah proposes more than most. His cousin and Saudi League rival Prince Turki says that when it comes to fantasy, Prince Abdullah is "very competitive. Even if he has a bad start, he keeps trading and picking up players." "IT STARTS WITH THE OWNER," THE PRINCE SAYS. "BECAUSE IF HE WANTS TO WIN—LOOK AT THE BROWNS AND BENGALS. THEY DON'T LIKE TO SPEND ANY MONEY."
Karl Drilling confirms the report. An equities and options trader who's the only American in the Saudi League, Drilling says that when the prince's team was struggling last year, he kept working trades, and his team improved. But the playoffs still remained out of reach. Drilling laughs when he recalls that the prince then proposed eight teams go to the playoffs rather than the standard four.
Prince Abdullah's draft strategy is pretty conventional: Take Peyton or Brady if either is available early. Otherwise, fill the backfield. In later rounds, according to Drilling, the prince is very good at "uncovering names that aren't well-known." In 2006, for example, he grabbed Maurice Jones-Drew, whose monster rookie season was instrumental in Prince Abdullah's five titles that season. But there are some players the prince says he won't pick, like Donovan McNabb, because "he's often injured."
The prince has a long memory when it comes to the NFL and fantasy. In 1995, the Niners were the reigning Super Bowl champs but 5–4 heading into a game in Dallas. Prince Abdullah remembers San Francisco had lost two in a row. He lists the several 49ers who were injured for the game. "We were underdogs by 14 or 15 points," he says. The prince flew for almost a whole day from Riyadh to attend the game. "We won by, like, two touchdowns," he says. "It was one of the happiest trips of my life."
With most games on TV these days, even in Riyadh, the prince is less likely to watch one in person. If he does, he says, "Monday night is better," because attending one Sunday game means missing all the others—a whole day of fantasy data missed. There's also the matter of the also-ran 49ers: "I don't want to fly 24 hours and get my ass kicked."
Which is why he's anxiously awaiting the Niners' first pick of the day, No. 29. When they're finally on the clock, the 49ers take UNC defensive end Kentwan Balmer. Prince Abdullah pulls out his draft guide: "Let me read everything about this guy."
I watch the prince read and can feel the stakes rising. Fantasy now breeds diehard fans halfway around the globe, in lands that people associate with oil, sand, soccer and camels. One of these fans, Abdullah, is gearing up to kick my ass. He cannot know what the 49ers will do, how far they are from contending again. But he is the architect of his own teams; he can turn himself into a champion. Take away the five flat-screens, the 90210 zip code and the princedom, and what do you have left? A guy, just like you and me, who hates to lose at fantasy.
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