December 17, 2002

Walnut Creek Agent Crosses NBA Borders

Dec. 16, 2002

By Ann Tatko
Contra Costa Times

Two-year-old Ranada Duffy ducked around her father's long legs and slipped into his office, where a few toys lay scattered just inside the door.

Bill Duffy reached down and, with one hand, drew her back to his side. "What are you doing?" he asked, earning a giggle in reply.

It's not the type of scene one might expect to find in the office of a sports agent whose company has negotiated more than $500 million in contracts. But then again, Duffy has never wanted to be seen as a conventional sports agent.

"No one really wants to be typecast," Duffy said. "That's why I've always tried to experience things as an outsider, to see what different worlds are like."

And to do things his own way.

He runs his business, Bill Duffy and Associates Sports Management, out of his home in Walnut Creek, with his office only 100 feet from the family's kitchen. He even encourages his nine employees to work from their own homes.

In one year, he has climbed into the ranks of the National Basketball Association's most prominent people as his company represented three of the top four picks in June's NBA draft, including China's 7-foot-5 center Yao Ming, this year's No. 1 selection by the Houston Rockets.

He was named in October to ESPN the Magazine's "Power Pack," its list of the NBA's 25 "shapers and shakers."

His company has expanded globally, with more than 20 European players as clients and offices from California and New York to Yugoslavia. He has begun plans to open a division in South America.

"His influence extends beyond just the United States," Federation of International Basketball president Carl Men Ky Ching said. "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."

At 6-foot-4, Duffy, 42, still looks much like he did 20 years ago when he played basketball for Santa Clara University, where he transferred after playing one year at the University of Minnesota.

His custom-built, 7,000-square-foot home, featuring everything from a game room and backyard basketball court to six satellite dishes and more than a dozen TV sets, speaks to his success and his career.

Yet Duffy doesn't fit squarely into the image of an NBA agent who is changing the league's landscape through globalization.

He is the father of five children, ranging in age from 9 years to 8 months; the son of an Army colonel; and the former roommate of some of sport's biggest names. As a freshman at Minnesota, he roomed with eventual Boston Celtic great Kevin McHale, now a Minnesota Timberwolves executive. After graduating from Santa Clara, he lived with then-49ers great Ronnie Lott.

He aspired to play professional basketball, getting as close as being drafted in the fifth round by the Denver Nuggets in 1982. Yet he had given thought once to being a dentist and a sports journalist, and he said he hopes to mentor children at his church, Calvary Temple in Concord, after he retires.

"I never wanted to be seen as just a basketball player," said Duffy, who spent most of his childhood in southern California.

But basketball is where Duffy has made his most significant mark, especially with Yao, whom he now represents in marketing ventures.

After seeing Yao play in a 1998 exhibition game in San Diego, Duffy spent four years trying to persuade Chinese officials to release their country's top player. He spent thousands of dollars creating a presence in China, countless hours cutting through bureaucratic red tape and made a large emotional investment dealing with Yao and Yao's parents.

In turn, Duffy made a strong impression on Yao, not only because Duffy beat him in the shooting game "horse" shortly after they met, but also because Duffy never gave up on him.

"He committed his business and his life to making my dream possible," Yao said through a translator. "For that reason, I will call him a friend for life."

Duffy readily returns the sentiment.

He made the commitment, he said, because Yao was such a "likable" man, the type of person anyone would root for. He stayed committed because he had said he would.

"I don't have any quit in me," he said. "I don't know if it's out of resiliency or stupidity, but somewhere in between there, I'm not a quitter. And I would never quit on a player."

Duffy's clients can attest to that.

In addition to Yao, BDA Sports Management represented six first-round draft picks this year: the Chicago Bulls' Jay Williams, the Memphis Grizzlies' Drew Gooden, the Indiana Pacers' Fred Jones, the Los Angeles Lakers' Kareem Rush and Detroit Pistons' Tayshaun Prince. The Toronto Raptors' Antonio Davis and the Dallas Mavericks' Steve Nash have been longtime clients as well.

With ease, Duffy can tell stories about all of his clients. He remembers his first meetings with each one. He watches them play in every game, either in person or on television. He spends more than 200 days a year traveling to help them and future clients.

He is their "other" parent as well as their teacher, adviser and anyone else they might need.

"I care about them, because a lot of this away from the limelight is not as (glamorous) as people think," Duffy said.

Nash saw that three years ago when he signed a contract extension worth more than $30 million with the Mavericks. Shortly thereafter, Nash struggled to play through an injury.

Night after night, he had to deal with booing from the Dallas fans. Night after night, he got a call from Duffy.

"At times like those, it's easy to doubt yourself," Nash said. "(Duffy) never let me lose focus. He kept reassuring me that things would get better. With Bill, he only has to tell you something once or twice before you believe it, too."

Duffy has spent more than 15 years building his business on a foundation of networking and recruiting.

When a professional playing career didn't materialize, Duffy decided to shift his focus to the other area he knew best: the business end of sports.

Having watched players such as Thompson and McHale, Duffy already had a working knowledge of what sports agents did. He thought he could bring a more personal approach to the business.

"Because I'd been exposed to it myself, I knew that some guys had good reputations and some guys had bad ones," Duffy said. "I wanted to build on the personal side of it, to develop long-term relationships."

He struck out on his own, with Lott there to help him acquire his first client, Cleveland Browns receiver Webster Slaughter in 1985. Former Warriors forward Jim Petersen, a friend from his days at Minnesota, became his first basketball client.

Duffy eventually found office space in Lafayette and began raising his family in Antioch. Nine years later, with his business and his family expanded, Duffy combined both by building his home, complete with office, on a semi-private lot in Walnut Creek.

"For my business, this is very practical," Duffy said. "Everything is right here at my disposal."

It also allows Duffy a less formal setting for developing relationships with his clients, and recruiting others.

Even as a player at Santa Clara, Duffy had a knack for recruiting. Within days of arriving at Santa Clara, he lured a St. Francis High School prospect away from Stanford and Washington after just two meals and a shoot-around.

"You buy into what he tells you because it's not a hard sell," Nash said. "You can trust him right away."

Duffy developed his business approach over time, starting in his freshman year at Minnesota.

Duffy had a locker next to eventual No. 1 draft pick Mychal Thompson, who received dozens of letters every day from agents and shoe companies.

"I was just fascinated, so he was like, 'Take a look,'" Duffy said. "I used to look through his mail and I kind of learned."

These days, Duffy watches TV to study how celebrities manage their business relationships. He reads about politics around the world.

About the only subject he's never been able to study and retain is foreign languages, even with more than 20 European clients. But he's still found a way to get by just fine.

"People understand banking," Duffy said. "I found out that when you say, 'such and such' in U.S. dollars, that registers real well."

Despite the success Duffy commands in the business, he never really felt as if he'd found his niche, until recently.

A few nights after his return from speaking in China, Duffy couldn't sleep. So at 2 a.m., he sat in his office skimming through a stack of magazines when he came across an issue of Dime, a magazine written and published by basketball experts.

A few pages in, Duffy found an article on the most powerful people in pro basketball. And there he was, listed at No. 13 -- behind NBA legend Michael Jordan, NBA commissioner David Stern and Nike CEO Phil Knight but ahead of players such as Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, coaches such as the Lakers' Phil Jackson and commentators such as Dick Vitale.

"When you see this, you're like, 'Wow,'" Duffy said.

Yet, even with his name so well known in the NBA ranks, Duffy likes the fact that he can walk through Walnut Creek without anyone noticing him.

"I have a lot of empathy for the pro athlete whose face is recognizable, because everywhere they go, they just get attacked," Duffy said. "I'm only known behind the scenes. People don't really know who I am."

He smiled. "It's great to be anonymous."