Muhammad Abdur-Rahim is a man on the run and on the rise.
When I caught up with the 29-year-old agent and legal counsel for Goodwin Sports Management, he was in his hometown near Atlanta, his next stop scheduled for Memphis, and not quite sure when he would next see the inside of his actual office in Seattle. Even when Abdur-Rahim is back home, there’s work to do. At this stage in his career, every trip is a business trip.
Abdur-Rahim played college ball at Detroit-Mercy following a stellar career at Wheeler (Ga.) High School, where he still holds the single-game scoring record. The Wheeler alumni list, by the way, includes Nuggets center J.J. Hickson, overseas pro Jermareo Davidson and Muhammad’s older brother, former NBA All-Star Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
Instead of pursuing his own pro basketball career, Muhammad went to law school. After a few months of working criminal law, he landed a job with the Charlotte Bobcats, and in 2012 moved to the other side of the negotiating table as an agent.
In addition to his responsibilities as legal counsel–which include working with GSM clients like Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan and Nate Robinson–Abdur-Rahim personally represents Hickson and Clippers guard Willie Green. On top of that, he teaches a Sports Law class once a week at Mercer University.
In an excerpt from the interview on my new website, UmmahSports.net, Abdur-Rahim maps out the road to becoming a big-time player behind the scenes:
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Dime: What’s your typical day at work?
Muhammad Abdur-Rahim: A lot of it is drafting, reading and reviewing legal documents. Endorsement deals, player contracts, partnership agreements, buyouts, card deals, memorabilia deals, making sure we’re not missing deadlines–everything it takes to run the business on the legal side. I have my clients, and any legal work that any GSM clients need, I do; either myself or my mentor Noah Croom. I make it a point of interest to master the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Then there’s preparing for the offseason and free agency, making sure our guys are maximizing their worth. I also scout players on the East Coast and the Southeast. So at this time of year, in March, a lot of it is going to games and seeing potential clients we may be interested in.
Dime: And you still find the time to teach Sports Law?
MAR: It’s something to stay busy. The beauty of my job is that it’s not one where you have to be in the office every day. I get out to Seattle a lot, but I have the flexibility to do something like this, where I have the opportunity to teach and give back. This is such a crazy, dirty, unethical business that a lot of kids want to get into but don’t understand the ramifications.
Dime: Did you always want to work in the sports industry, even when you were a criminal lawyer?
MAR: When I came out of law school, my heart was in the player representation side of it. I talked to (agent) Calvin Andrews, and he literally told me, “Don’t do it. Whatever you do, don’t become a sports agent.” I talked to (agent) David Falk, and his message was the same: “Do anything but this if you can.” So for the first three, four months out of law school, my focus was on working for an NBA team; getting in from that side and pushing hard to get into a front-office job. It was thrilling pursuing that goal, but at the time I was married, so I needed a job. I took a job with a small law firm, and I was still persistent in trying to get on with a team and eventually went to work for the Bobcats. But it kind of hit me after a while; my true passion, regardless of what anybody was saying, was representing players. That’s always what I wanted to do, and I was lying to myself trying to chase these other goals.
Dime: What’s the difference between the agent who’s also a lawyer, and the agent who’s not?
MAR: When you’re a lawyer, you’re held to a higher standard as an agent. When you’re a lawyer, you can’t recruit or solicit clients, otherwise it violates your ethical code. You risk not only losing your NBA license but your law license. If you see Andrew Wiggins walking down the street, you can’t go up to him and talk about representing him. As opposed to Bobby Ray who’s not a lawyer, he’s not held to those standards. So you’ll see a lot of agents who come in with law degrees, they don’t even renew their law license so they free themselves up to solicit clients.
Another advantage is the education part of it. Contracts are legal documents. The CBA is a legal document, written by lawyers, and it governs everything our clients do, from the dress code to per diem to how much money they can make in salary. As a lawyer who’s trained to read those kind of documents, the better you understand them, the better you can advocate for your client.
Sometimes a player will look up–two or three years into his career–and he doesn’t have a will. He doesn’t have any understanding of estate planning, of what innuities are. As a lawyer you can point him in the right direction. It’s beneficial to a player to have somebody who’s familiar with things like exceptions to the salary cap, which every year costs players money. And we’re not talking about a little bit of money; it’s a lot of money. Somebody who really understands the CBA can maximize your worth as a player.
One thing I learned in law school was to question everything; it’s about limiting your liability. Every day you’re asking, “Can I do this? Can I do that?” It makes you think twice before you do something wrong.
Dime: How did you first become interested in being an agent?
MAR: It started off when my older brother was going through the process of going to the NBA after his freshman year at Cal and we met with (agent) Aaron Goodwin. Over the years I got to know the Goodwin brothers and see how they worked. The idea of being an agent came from seeing the day-to-day stuff, just being around my brother and being around guys like Gary Payton. When I was in college, Shareef and Aaron sold me on the idea of going to law school–not just being an agent but having that legal backing.
Dime: At some point you had to decide that pro basketball wasn’t going to happen–or that you just weren’t going to chase it.
MAR: It was in stages. My freshman year at Detroit, I came in and Willie Green was my teammate. And just right away I saw a big difference between what he could do and what I could do. So my freshman year I was kind of down on myself, but in the summer I worked out with my brother against NBA guys, and sometimes I’d feel like I wasn’t that far away. So my sophomore year it was like, “Hey, maybe I can do it.” Then my junior year, my stats were terrible. By then you see the difference between a pro and a college player and it was like, “This is what it is.” I mean, I’m competitive. I’m super competitive. I always want to be the best at anything I do, but after a while you realize, hey, the same success your brother had with basketball, you’re not going to have. But I still have that drive, so the same way I worked out with my brother two and three times a day at basketball, that’s the way I studied in law school. It’s the same drive and energy I put forth into my work now.
Dime: What kind of advice would you give to a rookie agent coming into the game?
MAR: A lot of guys don’t realize that your client’s interest is higher than your interest. My duty to J.J. and to Willie is higher than my duty to myself, and a lot of times higher than my duty to the agency. That’s especially important to remember for overseas clients. You have a player overseas and he has a million problems, and you’re all the way over here (in the U.S.). What can you do? You don’t speak the language. How we do it at Goodwin is that we have overseas partners. Other guys get greedy and try to do it all themselves so they can keep all the commissions for themselves. If the agent fee is 10 percent, splitting five percent with an overseas agency that’s going to be hands-on, that can address the client’s needs immediately, it’s worth it because it’s best for the client to have somebody on the ground in that country.
Dime: What are some of the headaches of the business?
MAR: It’s a crazy business. It’s a competitive business. Any agent will tell you that. David Falk told me that, other guys told me that, but you don’t get it until you get in it. The key is finding clients like we’ve found. We’re very selective about who we represent, and it’s so much easier when you have great guys who are mature and doing the right things. Agents complain about having to be babysitters, but that’s not the case for us. We’re a family. We’re a brotherhood.
So many agents–and lawyers–do unethical things and don’t get caught, though. What really keeps you honest when there’s enough shadiness in the industry to easily slip under the radar?
The reason why I joined GSM when I came into this business is because they do things the right way. You won’t find them in the strip club. It’s not about buying a kid a fancy car or taking him out to the club. You sign with us, we work our butts off, we get you the better deals. That’s how I’m trying to do it.
Dime contributor Austin Burton recently launched UmmahSports.net, an online magazine that focuses on Muslim figures in the sports world and health and fitness in the Muslim community.
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