This month’s cover of Sports Illustrated features Cleveland native Rich Paul with the caption “The King Maker.” Paul has been LeBron James’ longtime agent and has become the elite contract negotiator for the NBA’s biggest stars.
WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto said it all began in 2002, when Paul was selling jerseys out of his car, and he met a 17-year-old James at the Akron-Canton airport.
A connection over vintage jerseys
“LeBron sees him wearing a Warren Moon throwback jersey. They begin talking, and Rich tells him his main distributor is in Atlanta. So when LeBron is in Atlanta, he buys some more jerseys, and they hit it off," Pluto said.
Paul's call during "The Decision" show
Pluto said Paul joined James’ inner circle, starting out running errands and doing marketing. But Paul aspired to be an agent, and he started to gain prominence during the infamous "Decision" show, when James announced he was leaving Cleveland for Miami.
“Nobody in the LeBron camp bothered to call the Cavaliers right before to tell them LeBron was going to Miami," Pluto said. "Right before the show Rich Paul picks up the phone and calls Chris Grant, the Cavs’ general manager, and tells him that out of respect he wanted to tell him what their guy is doing.”
"Chris Grant and Dan Gilbert remembered that," he said. "The one tentacle that didn’t break with LeBron going to Miami was this wannabe big-time agent.”
"The Return" dealmaker
Within a couple years, James made Paul his agent.
“During LeBron’s time in Miami, he decides to have his own agent heading into free agency in 2014. He breaks away from a bigger agency, and he and Rich Paul and Maverick Carter form this company called Klutch Sports."
And Pluto said the key to their success was bringing on Mark Termini.
“They needed an older head to be an agent. Termini from Brecksville becomes sports attorney/contract negotiator. And they start to get clients, and they start to make deals," he said.
Pluto said it was Paul's good-faith phone call back in 2010 that paved the way for James to return to Cleveland in 2014.
“Rich Paul reaches out to the Cavs even when there’s all this bad blood between Gilbert and LeBron," he said. "They meet literally at this big kitchen table at this house in Miami. As Gilbert is making these business suggestions, Rich Paul’s talking and Termini’s got the computer out, and they’re going back and forth. After a couple hours, they cut this deal."
An elite (and growing) client list
Meanwhile, Paul starts expanding his client base, signing Cavs players J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson to big deals. His client list is around 20 players, including some of the most elite in the NBA, including Draymond Green and Ben Simmons. He recently helped Eric Bledsoe get a four-year, $70 million contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks.
And another one of Paul's big-time clients is Anthony Davis. Paul negotiated the recent deal that sent Davis from New Orleans to the L.A. Lakers to join James.
Pluto said Paul and Klutch Sports are closing in on negotiating close to $1 billion in contracts.
“The NBA’s kind of in an uproar …'Who is Rich Paul, and where did he come from?’ But actually if you think about it, this guy who came from the mean streets of the east side of Cleveland was always interested in business," he said.
"Then he was also wise enough to know he doesn’t know every single thing about the agent business and brought in an older agent to make sure those contracts go the right away," he said.
And Pluto said the remarkable thing about Paul is that it's not just LeBron who has made him successful.
"Because in fact, other agents would say he only cares about LeBron. So they had to cut some deals early on and say, ‘No, we got Tristan Thompson $82 million from the Cavs.’"
On a side note, the Cavs' 5th pick in the NBA draft this past week is Darius Garland of Vanderbilt University. He's represented by Paul and Klutch Sports. Garland had a private workout with the Cavs recently in L.A, arranged by Paul and Klutch.