Nov. 10, 2002
By Jake Curtis
San Francisco Chronicle
It is approaching dawn on June 26, the day of the 2002 NBA draft.
Walnut Creek agent (and former Santa Clara hoops star) Bill Duffy has been on the phone continuously since the previous evening monitoring negotiations with Yao Ming's team, the Shanghai Sharks. If the Sharks receive satisfactory monetary compensation and release Yao's rights to the NBA, the Houston Rockets will make him the No. 1 pick in the draft that evening.
If not, the Rockets will pass on Yao and trade the first pick, rather than take the obvious alternative, Jay Williams, because Houston already has a proven point guard in Steve Francis. That creates additional pressure for Duffy, who besides being an adviser to Yao the past four years, is also the agent for Williams.
If Yao is released, Williams knows he'll be taken with the No. 2 pick by the Bulls. If not, Williams' NBA future is up in the air, and uncertainty is angst to athletes. The Yao outcome also would have a ripple affect on the NBA future of Drew Gooden, the former El Cerrito High School and Kansas star, who is expected to be taken fourth or fifth in the draft. His anxiety is rising about his undetermined fate, and he is also represented by a member of Duffy's company, Calvin Andrews.
"We were all very nervous," said Althea Williams, Jay's mother, who, along with Jay and Duffy were staying at a New York City hotel so they could be present at the draft.
Then, at 5 a.m., the rising tension suddenly breaks; Duffy receives confirmation that Yao has been released by the Sharks. The anxiety dissolves, and things drops nicely into place that night. The Rockets take Yao, the Bulls choose Williams, and, after the Warriors take Mike Dunleavy, Gooden goes to Memphis with the fourth pick.
Before the night is over, Duffy and his company, BDA Sports (Bill Duffy and Associates), will enter the realm of elite NBA agents, representing three of the top four NBA picks and six of the first 23 choices: Williams, Gooden, Freddie Jones, Kareem Rush, Tayshaun Prince and Yao. Yao's unique representation group (Team Yao) revolves around three people: University of Chicago graduate student Erik Zhang and University of Chicago business school deputy dean John Huizinga, neither of whom had any previous sports management experience, and Duffy, Yao's marketing agent.
Duffy does not have a high-powered look or persona. Married and the father of five, none of whom is older than 9, he works out of his home in a wooded part of Walnut Creek, where a meal at Chili's constitutes a power lunch. But with Mike Sullivan, whose clients include the No. 1 picks of the past two NFL drafts (Michael Vick and David Carr), also working out of Walnut Creek, this piece of East Bay suburbia is becoming a haven for pro sports representation.
According to one high-ranking NBA administrator, Duffy, 42, has virtually caught up to the NBA's big-city power agencies. "And," said the administrator, "he's doing it in a very nice way -- quiet and professional. 'Unscrupulous agent' should not be one word, and with Bill it isn't."
"BDA Sports did so well this year," said one prominent sports-business journalist, "that many in the industry were wondering what he was giving away."
Apparently he's giving away only Bill Duffy, an amalgam of various life experiences and a basketball talent that might have landed him in the NBA if he had so chosen. Santa Clara's top scorer in 1982, Duffy was a fifth-round draft pick of the Denver Nuggets, and shooting around with Yao and Williams helped land both.
"When he beat Jason in HORSE," said Althea Williams, "I think Bill had him."
He had Althea and her husband, David, on their first meeting. When interviewing a dozen prospective advisers following Williams' sophomore year at Duke, the Williamses' first question to each was what he thought of their decision to have Jason return to college for another year to graduate, even though he would have been the No. 1 pick in 2001. Many backed out. Most tried to change their minds.
"Bill said the decision was different, but thought it was the right decision," Althea Williams said.
She found comfort in Duffy, who, unlike many agents, is not a lawyer. "Bill doesn't look like agent, didn't act like an agent, and never talked negatively about anyone," she said.
His demeanor in the moments before the draft, when player and family are fraught with anxiety, made a lasting impression.
"Bill sat there cool, calm and collected," Althea said."We needed to know, and he never batted an eye. He just looked over at me and my husband and gave us a slight smile. I could cry right now thinking about it."
Maybe Duffy was calm because, hours earlier, the deal on Yao had been closed.
Four years earlier, after seeing Yao play in the United States, Duffy arranged a meeting with Yao and his parents in China. The language and cultural differences did not distance Duffy, whose life experiences made it seem natural. The son of an African American army colonel, Duffy grew up saying, "Yes, sir," and having his clothes tossed onto the lawn when his room was messy. He went to kindergarten and first grade in Taiwan, surrounded by Asian children, then moved to a black neighborhood in Pomona (Los Angeles County), attending a predominately Hispanic elementary school and Catholic high school that was almost exclusively white. He grew up with adopted siblings who were Korean and Chinese. "I couldn't help but be color-blind," he said.
Duffy hit it off with Yao and his family, and the next day he went to the gym with the 7-5, 18-year-old Yao to shoot around.
"He was matching me on 3s," said Duffy. "I was blown away."
At Yao's request, Duffy immediately began investigating how to get Yao to the NBA, starting a wild logistical and cultural adventure that the NBA and Chinese basketball had never seen.
Erik Zhang, a 28-year-old business student and distant relative of Yao's, joined Duffy as an adviser two years ago and handled the face-to-face negotiations with the myriad Chinese factions that had to sign off on Yao even after the Sharks released him.
"It was a new thing for them, and you're talking about taking away the Michael Jordan of China," Zhang said.
Every few weeks Duffy confronted an obstacle he thought could not be surmounted. "But then when I heard Yao's voice, I said, 'Oh man, we've got to stick with this.' He's such a nice guy and so loyal. He'd get on the phone and talk to my kids."
On Oct. 17, the final agreement was reached with the Chinese Basketball Association after Yao gave assurances he would continue to play for the Chinese national team. As the agent for Steve Nash, Antonio Davis, Michael Olowokandi and others, Duffy had been through numerous foreign and domestic negotiations. But he'd never experienced anything as taxing, as costly, as complicated as this. Would he do it again? "Only for Yao," he said.