With Yao, agent Duffy stands tall, too

Yao Ming's popularity is on the rise, just like the firm of one of his agents, Bill Duffy.

Updated: April 16, 2003, 3:30 PM ET
By Chad Ford | ESPN Insider

The teeming masses of fans -- with cameras, basketball jerseys and markers in hand -- have been waiting outside the Hyatt in Atlanta for the past two hours. Inside, the NBA's top players are holed up, resting before the All-Star Game. Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Michael Jordan are here, but everyone is waiting out in the cold Georgia rain for a rookie from China. When Yao Ming emerges from the hotel, the crowd erupts. Police can barely keep the throng of screaming fans from enveloping the 7-foot-5 giant. Yao gives one of his classic smiles, waves to the crowd and then ducks into a cargo van on his way to the arena. He looks exhausted. And he should be. No one has been busier than Yao the past few months. Between the commercials for Apple and Visa, the magazine shoots, interviews and the hyped matchup with Shaq, Yao hasn't had much time to rest. "He's worn out," says Bill Duffy, one of Yao's agents. "We keep promising him that after the All-Star Game, life is going to slow down for him. No more commercials, no more unnecessary interviews. He wants to focus on basketball the last half of the season. My job is to make sure that he gets to do that." Duffy's task won't be easy. Yao has quickly become a cultural phenomenon. The rush of advertisers, celebrities and fans that want to get a piece of the action have been overwhelming. Yao is one of the biggest success stories of the past 20 years in the NBA. Duffy just sits back and smiles for a bit when asked whether he could foresee all of this. Duffy first saw Yao play in China when Yao was 17 years old. It's been a five-year journey getting him to the NBA. "Getting Yao to this point was the biggest challenge in my life," Duffy says. "To see Yao Ming out there playing well is surreal. "When I first saw him play, people thought I was crazy, but I said he'd be the first pick in the draft. My background as a basketball player helps me to analyze talent. I think that's one of my strengths." Not your typical agent
Duffy claims he also learned his recruiting skills during the one year he played basketball at the University of Minnesota (where he roomed with Kevin McHale). According to Duffy, as a freshman, he helped Minnesota coaches recruit the best class in the nation that year. Duffy eventually transferred to Santa Clara (where he roomed with Kurt Rambis) to finish his playing career and was selected in the fifth round of the 1982 NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets. His career aspirations, however, were much higher. "I've never wanted to be identified as just a basketball player," Duffy says. "I knew I had much more to offer." Indeed, Duffy and his BDA Sports firm have risen from relative obscurity into a powerhouse in the NBA in just a little more than a year. During the 2002 draft, Duffy represented three of the first four NBA picks and six of the first 23. That list included blue-chip clients Yao, Jay Williams, Drew Gooden, Tayshaun Prince, Fred Jones and Kareem Rush. Add to that list long-time clients such as Steve Nash, Antonio Davis and Michael Olowokandi and Duffy is quickly gaining a reputation as a power broker. In fact, last October he was named as one of the NBA's top 25 "shapers and shakers" by ESPN The Magazine. Now here's the twist. Duffy has climbed his way to the top without coating himself in the slime that infests so much of the sports agency business these days. His recruits don't get Hummers, spending sprees or any of the other gifts that have become commonplace in the recruiting game. Duffy operates above board. The general consensus around the NBA is that Duffy is honest, fair and scrupulous in the clients he accepts. "He's a man of his word," Bucks general manager Ernie Grunfeld says. "He's a quality person who is both tough and fair. He's just a great guy to work with." Duffy is setting himself apart with a Jerry Maguire-like mantra about his profession. "My philosophy is to separate myself from the masses by providing competent representation. But also by focusing on the development of our clients as people and humanitarians and just making sure that they value and appreciate the situation they're in," Duffy says. Of course, Duffy makes sure that his players make lots of money both on and off the court. But that isn't his primary concern, he insists. "It's about having a relationship that allows us to have a positive influence in their lives and in their careers," Duffy says. That's why Duffy has shocked some in the NBA world by turning down top prospects with checkered pasts. "Absolutely," he says. "I turn them down all the time. If a kid doesn't want to listen, or take advice or if he doesn't have integrity, what's the point? I'm not here just to make money off kids." Duffy, a devout Christian, tries to practice what he preaches. He works out of his home in Walnut Creek, Calif., so he has plenty of time for his wife and five children. He makes an effort to get personally involved in the lives of each of his clients. He spends as much time motivating them to be better people as he does talking about basketball. "He's much more than an agent. He's a very good friend," says Nash, the Mavericks' All-Star point guard. "He's always been there for me when things get rough. There's been times when I've struggled and maybe I've doubted myself. That's when he really steps up and sharpens your focus. He's a great motivator. He spends so much time working on the personal side of the relationship that there's a trust there. When he tells you something, you believe it." Yao agrees. "Other than being my agent, he is also my friend," he says through a translator. "He risked much to help me have a career in the NBA, and I'm very grateful." Going the extra mile for Yao
Duffy has spent the better part of three years -- and $250,000 of his own money -- trying to convince Chinese basketball officials to allow Yao to play in the NBA. While other agents and teams drooled over Yao, Duffy was the one laying the groundwork. He spent weeks in China forging relationships, making friends and watching over Yao. In 2001, he unsuccessfully lobbied the Chinese Basketball Association for permission to allow Yao to declare for the draft. This summer, Yao was eligible for the draft, whether he declared or not. However, the trick was securing his release from his team, the Shanghai Sharks. Things became so tense at times that Duffy had to back off a little and allow one of Yao's relatives, Erik Zhang, do the negotiating. The release didn't come until the day before the draft. Yao says Duffy's tenacity eventually convinced him to sign with BDA. "He came to China many times," Yao says. "For many Americans this would not have been easy. It involves a lot of the unknown. He was comfortable over there and that made me comfortable." Duffy has had a huge explosion in the number of clients coming into his stable the last few years, leading some to question whether he can keep up the approach as his company expands. Duffy says his business plan is sound. "It goes back to having quality clients. If you have quality clients, it's easy to interact with them," he says. "If they're irresponsible, that hurts us in our ability to service all of our clients. It's unfair to our clients if we have one guy who is always getting in trouble and taking an inordinate amount of our time.

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  • "I still have my pulse on everything going on in the company and it's all quality interaction. It's very important to maintain that personable aspect of things as we grow." It isn't easy, however. Duffy's empire is absolutely sprawling. In addition to his long list of NBA clients, Duffy represents more than 40 players outside of the United States. He has made forays into China and Eastern Europe and will soon explore South America. Duffy credits a diverse background for his pioneer spirit. The son of an army colonel, Duffy lived in five different countries, including Taiwan, when he was growing up. He has three adopted siblings, including an older sister who's half-Korean, half-white, and another sister who is half-Taiwanese and half-black. When he was living in the States, he grew up in a black neighborhood, went to an all-Hispanic elementary school and graduated from a white high school. Such experiences have impacted the way Duffy does business. "The pursuit of different basketball markets is a completely natural evolution of my life pattern," he says. "I've been exposed to so many cultures that I can go to anywhere in the world and feel comfortable." That's amazing considering that Duffy doesn't speak a foreign language and considers such exotic places as Belgrade and Shanghai as his stomping grounds. Forget about being a pioneer for African-American agents. Duffy's global vision has him ahead of virtually everyone else in the NBA. "His influence extends beyond just the United States," Federation of International Basketball president Carl Men Ky Ching recently told the Contra Costa Times. "He sees basketball for what it is: an international sport that can open doors for players worldwide. And he is the leader for opening those doors." Perhaps it's Duffy's background that makes him shift nervously when talking about the effect race has had on his career. "I would never allow the color of my skin to be a hindrance, and it never has been. I refuse to let it be," he says. "If anything, it's probably been an advantage. The NBA is predominately African-American, so I get access to players that makes it easier." Duffy is also one of the only African-American agents in the NBA who also represents white players. "We have a lot of white clients and I've heard in the past that a lot of African-American agents don't recruit white kids because they hear they're not going to be interested. That's never entered my mind," he says. "You have to understand that this is a hip-hop generation. The white basketball players are as hip as the black guys because they come from the same culture. It's all the same as far as I'm concerned." Duffy claims that his international clients are especially colorblind. "It's a diverse world. Certainly there are still issues here," he adds. "But if you go to China or Yugoslavia, they don't care about that. It's all about business." Still, Duffy is aware of past discrimination. He claims that his father was passed up for promotions in the Army for years because of the color of his skin. He also has a more constant reminder of the struggles his own ancestors have made to make his opportunities possible. Duffy's mother-in-law used to double date with Martin Luther King, who was a pastor at her church. Rosa Parks was Duffy's mother-in-law's neighbor. "My daughter told her teacher for Black History Month that her grandma used to date with Martin Luther King and they all said, 'Yeah right.' So we called her up and she sent out Christmas cards that she's received over the years from Dr. King and his wife. They were all blown away. I'm blessed to have those type of influences in my life."

    Chad Ford writes the daily NBA Insider column for ESPN Insider. To get a free 30-day trial, click here.

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