Off the court: NBA agent Muhammad Abdur-Rahim

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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, teaches a Sports Law class once a week at Mercer University.

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UMMAH SPORTS: 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.

And you still find the time to teach Sports Law?

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.

Did you always want to work in the sports industry, even when you were a criminal lawyer?

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.

What’s the difference between the agent who’s also a lawyer, and the agent who’s not?

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.

How did you first become interested in being an agent?

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.

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.

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.

I read another interview with you in which you said you didn’t start taking education seriously until college. What would you say to a kid who might read that and think, “Well, he’s a lawyer now, so I don’t have to take school seriously until college, either”?

A lot of us who grow up African-American in the inner-city only have one or two things on our mind as far as a future: Entertainer or athlete. My goal was to be in the NBA. So I always did enough in school to get by, enough to be eligible to play basketball. I was fortunate enough to get an athletic scholarship and not have to pay a dollar for school for four years. But if I had to do it again, I would have had a 4.0 GPA, played basketball at Harvard and went on to Harvard Law, rather than barely get by, barely get by, then at the end take it serious. But you don’t see that as a kid. Second to believing in God and believing in yourself should be education.

I tell kids now, college is expensive. Law school is expensive. The beauty of having good grades before college is you increase your ability to receive a scholarship. It’s essential to success.

Education is important even for pro athletes. You see how well LeBron James speaks, how well Kevin Durant speaks. That goes a long way toward getting that marketing money. LeBron came out of high school, no college degree, but you can tell he’s been reading books and educating himself. Just listen to him speak and you can tell that dude is smart.

Going back to my brother, he spent one year in college before making his decision to jump to the NBA, but even with that and with all the money he made, he decided to go back and graduate from Cal-Berkeley. That’s an example he can show to his kids.

What kind of advice would you give to a rookie agent coming into the game?

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.

What are some of the headaches of the business?

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.

Does your religion also inform those decisions to follow the right path?

I think my religion had a role in the agency I picked. When I looked around at different agencies, at their character and what people think about them, ultimately I went with GSM because of their principles and standards. So I would say that my religion drove me this way, to an agency that does it by the book.

You work in a world full of temptations and things that go against what Islam teaches. How difficult is it to stay focused?

You know, I haven’t really had to deal with that side of the business. Willie was my first NBA client, and he’s a super-religious Christian. When we go out, it’s PG-13. I get in the car and he’s blasting Joel Osteen. There’s temptation out there, don’t get me wrong. There’s always temptation when you’re on the road and guys want to go to the club and do this, do that. I’ve fought with it. But my drive and my ambition is to be great, and you don’t become great by partying your life away.

From what you’ve seen, would it be difficult for a Muslim pro athlete to maintain his deen with all the landmines out there?

I mean, I watched my brother Shareef go through it, but he’s special. What I say that, I mean he’s different. It wasn’t tough for him at all. It wasn’t tough for him to play during Ramadan. He got married at like 21, 22 years old. Here’s a kid that just signed for $72 million and he’s trying to start a family. I think being raised on that foundation of Islam, he’s just a different kind of dude. He always had people around to hold him accountable.

As an agent, one of our biggest objectives is to manage the careers of clients, to point them in the right direction. That’s what Shareef had around him with Aaron, Eric (Goodwin), my mom and my dad. They never sugar-coated things for him. Aaron holds him accountable.

When I was in college, I wanted to go out and party, I’m not gonna lie. Shareef was totally different. During the summer he just wanted to sit at home with the family. When he got to the pros he built a gym at his house so he could work on his game. I don’t think people realize how much time and energy he put into the craft of being a great basketball player. When it came to partying and all that other stuff, he just had no interest.

Are there any unique challenges that might come with representing a Muslim athlete? For example, do you think it’d be harder for a known Muslim athlete to get endorsement deals?

I think what makes America a beautiful country is the Constitution. You look at things since 9/11, and the government has taken steps to make sure Muslims are not discriminated against. So I honestly don’t think it’d be harder. One of the most powerful moments of Obama’s presidency was when they had the “Ground Zero mosque” debate and something like 50 percent of America believed they should not build a mosque on Ground Zero. The popular thing for the President to say would have been to go along with that, but Obama’s message was clear: We are all one. And at the end of the day, there were Muslims died on 9/11 too. There are Muslims that fight everyday for this country’s freedom.

Being a Muslim shouldn’t affect marketing deals, I don’t think. If LeBron James was named Muhammad Abdur-Rahim, he’d still have a $100 million deal from Nike and still be in every commercial. What rings louder than anything is the ability to perform.

You were raised Muslim, but at some point you had to make the conscious decision that you wanted to live your life as a Muslim. Talk about that process.

My mom was Muslim when we were growing up, but after her and my dad divorced, she converted back to Christianity. So I lived between my mom and my dad and I got to see both sides. And my mom, she was an amazing Muslim, and now she’s an amazing Christian. As a teenager, 15 or 16 years old, now I’m questioning Islam. I’m questioning my faith after 9/11, questioning my religion. After 9/11, I think all of American was looking into what Islam was about. If there was any doubt there, 9/11 opened it up. So I looked into other religions — especially Christianity — but in the end it made my belief in Islam stronger.

Is there ever any conflict with you being a Muslim and working with Christian clients, or in a Christian environment?

Not at all. My dad was an imam for 20 years at a mosque in Atlanta. He always raised us with the belief that before we’re Muslim, before anything else, there’s belief in one God. La ilaha illah Allah; “There is no god but God.” That’s the most important thing. Then you take it a step further — “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger” — that’s what makes you a Muslim. We’ve always identified ourselves as Muslims. I identify as a Muslim. But it’s important to have interfaith dialogue.

Aaron is a big-time Christian. He’s a very religious man and comes from a very religious family. But when Shareef was playing in Vancouver, and I was a teenager, Aaron would meet with Shareef and go to the mosque with us. He’d sit there for jummah prayer. And when maybe other Christians would walk out, Aaron would stand up and pray next to me and my brother. That’s big. You just have to realize that before anything, we’re brothers through mankind, through believing in God.

What about Islam appeals to you?

How simple it is. I don’t want to offend anyone, but you look into other religions and than you look at Islam, and it’s just simple. No god but God. Muhammad is his prophet. Believe in Jesus, believe in Moses. Believe in the Old Testament, believe in the New Testament. Believe in the Quran. It’s more reasonable, more rational. In a society where we’re always looking for signs, if you read the books and read the Quran, the signs are there.

What appeals to me about Islam is the beauty of it, the peace of it. In Christianity, if you don’t believe Jesus died for your sins, you’re going to Hell. That doesn’t seem like a fair God to me. In Islam, all people are judged on their deeds, judged on what they leave behind. All people of the books — Jewish people, Muslims, Christians — all people who believe in God are judged on their deeds.

Maybe because I was raised Muslim I have better understanding or the message is clearer, but I look at the evidences and look at the proofs, and it just seems that God’s word and true religion is Islam.

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