"This is sweet!" he exclaims upon finding the seats that have been assigned to him and his colleague Jay Laney. As far as the NIT is concerned, Parker and Laney are in New York representing "Tiger Illustrated," a Web site dedicated to University of Memphis athletics. (Parker operates the site.) But the real reason Parker has come to the Big Apple is to be seen. And his seat along the baseline of the historic court affords him plenty of visibility.
Two of the four teams in the Final Four of the NIT are Alabama and the University of Memphis -- two teams that are part of Parker's territory. He is partner and lead negotiator for Mid-South Sports Management. In other words, Parker, 25, is a sports agent.
His courtside seat is meant to impress the players from both Alabama and Memphis. It is done in the unobtrusive manner that Parker often employs. He isn't flashy. He's quietly persistent.
Sports agents have been both vilified and romanticized in recent years, the former by sports fans who blame them for the sky-rocketing salaries which they see precipitating the total destruction of sports and the latter in fictional characterizations such as the Oscar-winning movie Jerry Maguire and the HBO series Arliss.
To Parker it is a business, though, one that he has been involved in since college when he became a runner for Athletic Resource Management, the successful Memphis sports agency founded by Kyle Rote Jr. and Jimmy Sexton. There Parker learned the business from two of the most successful sports agents in the country. It was also where he formed friendships with Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, two of ARM's most visible clients. In fact, Parker traveled with the Chicago Bulls on many of their road trips during the glory days of Michael Jordan. In Parker's home is a pair of Pippen's sneakers from the days when he played with the Bulls. A pair from Grant is on display in his office.
But there is another side to Parker. He is a Christian who doesn't drink or smoke. "My foul mouth is my only vice," he says. Parker recently passed up an invitation to fly to Las Vegas for a friend's bachelor party.
He tells of a mutual friend who did go and wonders how Parker could have passed it up. "It conflicts with my life goals," he said. He has a knack for saying things like that. After a while it sounds natural, expected.
The conflict for Parker is to stay straight in the midst of all the temptation that is a natural part of being a sports agent.
"Anytime you have money involved there is the potential for corruption," says Britton Wilkins, a longtime Parker friend. "When you have money and stiff competition like there is in the sports agent business, I think there is a tendency for people to bend or to put their morals aside. That is my encouragement for Brian, for him not to do that. And as far as I know, thus far he hasn't."
Wilkins, a former linebacker at the University of Memphis and, like Parker, a graduate of Evangelical Christian School, is one of several Christian friends the young sports agent turns to for what he calls "accountability." Others include former UT running back Aaron Hayden and basketball player John Wilfong who played at Memphis in the mid-1980s.
Parker may have to enlarge his accountability board if he is to stay clean in what is universally considered a dirty business.
"There is a lot of cheating that goes on. Unfortunately, integrity is not a given in any business. All I can do is worry about my own actions," Parker says. "Is it going on all around me? Sure. This business is like any other, you've got your good and your bad people in it. I just choose to be on the good side, or at least make an attempt to be."
Dale Brown, the former basketball coach at LSU, is another Parker friend who helps keep him straight.
"When he told me he was going to become an agent, I said, 'I am going to be honest with you. I don't have real good feelings about a great number of agents. I just hope you never ever become flexible or compromise,'" Brown says. "One of the stimulants that made me retire from coaching was that I couldn't find enough guys I wanted to hug and care about anymore. There was too much narcissism and delusions of grandeur and laziness academically. I told Brian, 'I just hope your vision isn't shattered,' and he said, 'Well, if it ever is, I'll get out of it.'"
Parker says he thinks of Brown as a second father. And Brown sounds like a dad who is worried. "He loves sports. He is similar to me in that he has still got a kind of a Pollyanna attitude about it. He'll get burned a few times, you know, somebody will say something, or lie to him, or cheat him, and then he'll have to keep his spirits up because it is a dog-eat-dog affair. In Shaquille's new book he mentions that an agent with a briefcase with $80,000 was ready to give him the money -- no note signed, no nothing -- and get his parents a new home if he let him represent him. And Shaquille said, 'The guy must think I was stupid. I would never want to get hooked up with people like that.'"
Top pro prospects are recruited by sports agents, just as they were out of high school by their college coaches. To maintain an amateur standing with the NCAA, the players are not allowed to sign with an agent or accept any gifts -- monetary or otherwise -- before they play their final game. This sometimes puts coaches, who desperately want to safeguard their players' eligibility, and agents, who want to win the player's signature, in an adversarial position.
Parker says he wants to be known as an ethical agent and tries not to do anything that would get him crossways with a coach, especially at any of the Mid-South schools which he targets.
"Recruiting is obviously the dirtiest aspect of this business," he says. "I'm a firm believer that if I bust my tail and do it the right way and work hard, if my actions honor God in all that I do, He promises that in the end He will honor me."
When a player signs a contract with an agent, the agent receives, under union rules, a maximum 3 percent for an NFL player and 4 percent for an NBA player. The agent gets paid over the length of the contract at the same time that the player gets paid. A $10 million NBA contract is worth $400,000 to the agent who negotiates the deal.
The NBA minimum salary for rookies is $316,969. It will increase to $332,817 in 2002. In the more budget-conscious NFL the minimum is $209,000. Either way, an agent's cut can be serious money.
Currently 1,112 agents are certified by the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). Meanwhile only 328 athletes are invited to the NFL combine where the highest-rated players are tested and evaluated. Just under 400 agents have at least one client. Only 110 represent five or more players.
The NFL draft this weekend is important to Parker and Mid-South Sports Management.They have four clients that Parker expects to be drafted, most in the fourth- to fifth-round range. They are linebacker Matt Stewart of Vanderbilt; Arkansas State's Robert Kilow, a wide receiver; defensive lineman Ellis Wyms of Mississippi State; and Corey Holmes, a running back from Mississippi Valley State. Holmes and Kilow, skill-position players from schools that fly below the radar of TV, probably have the best opportunity to surprise in the NFL. Stewart is thought to be a solid player who could last a long time because of his experience as a deep-snapper.
The sports pages are full of stories about professional athletes who have squandered the money they made. Part of Parker's pitch to prospective clients includes a reality check and the promise to provide a personal touch.
"The average length of a pro football player's career is just over three years. It is my job to help him save as much money as possible in order for him to live a comfortable life once his career is over," says Parker. "We help our clients maintain a budget and teach them throughout their career the value of what they have and how to manage it. It is a learning process for the player and the reward and satisfaction you get being an agent is knowing you have made a positive impact in someone's life."
Not having any first-round draft picks lined up doesn't bother Parker. "My goal is to continue building this company with quality clients who have productive careers and are good citizens," he says. "It really doesn't matter what round they are drafted in. Terrell Davis [Denver Broncos] was a late-round pick and look at what he has accomplished. Isaac Bruce was a third-round pick and he is on pace to become one of the greatest wide receivers of all time. Evaluating talent is such an inexact science it is really difficult to tell who will be a player and who won't."
Stewart, a linebacker from Vanderbilt, will be watching the draft nervously. His parents will come down from Maryland to be at his house in Nashville. Projected to be a fourth- or fifth-round pick, Stewart will probably call Parker several times during the two-day draft.
Since signing with Mid-South Sports Management, Stewart and Parker have become close. Not surprising, since they are close to the same age. Parker traveled with Stewart to Montgomery, Alabama, where the linebacker improved his stock in the draft by being named the Gray MVP in the annual Blue-Gray Game. The two also traveled to the West Coast for the East-West Shrine Classic. Early last month Stewart came to Memphis where he worked out with fitness guru Dean Lotz.
"I got to meet his parents. It seems like they instilled some good values in him," Stewart says of Jack Parker, the longtime CFO of Union Planters Bank Corporation and his wife, Gloria. "I can tell by the way he talks that he is a man of morals. He seems really honest."
The fact that his agent is only a few years older than him did not give Stewart pause. "He seemed like he has a lot of experience even though he's only 25," the player says. "So that really didn't enter into my mind."
Brian Parker believes in the old-fashioned definition. In fact he prefers the original Webster's definition: "fortunate, happy, kind, prosperous." Of course he knows that's from 1806.
He drives a fully loaded 2000 BMW. For business, there's the company car, a 2001 Black Yukon with leather interior and On-Star technology. He lives in Eagleride, a gated subdivision on the eighth hole of Colonial Country Club. He travels extensively and runs up large expense accounts, which his company expects. He's movie-star handsome with the kind of twinkling eyes that make women hand him their phone numbers when they first meet him.
You keep reminding yourself, he is only 25. But his most productive days are still ahead of him. Already he is living the life of Riley. And he knows it.
Through Dale Brown, Parker has gotten to know John Wooden, the 90-year old who is universally considered the best college basketball coach ever.
"I had a dinner appointment with John Wooden and I asked Brian to come and he almost had a heart attack!" Brown says. "He and Coach Wooden really hit it off. I think John has a knack of seeing through people. He really seemed to like Brian."
Parker is working the underclassmen at the schools where he believes his business will be made -- Tennessee, Alabama, and the other SEC schools. He also considers the U of M a key school. He signed Marcus Moody last week. Most think that Moody is most likely looking at a career in Europe, but Parker didn't hesitate to sign him. Because "he's a good kid and a Memphis kid." He doesn't say it, but it might also give him an advantage when Kelly Wise needs an agent, whether it is this year or next.
On the day off in New York (between the semifinals and championship games) Parker dines at Mickey Mantle's Restaurant then takes a stroll through Central Park. During the afternoon he is constantly getting e-mail messages on his toll-free beeper. One is from Lorenzen Wright, the former Tiger and Booker T. Washington High School star who signed a multi-year, $42 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks last year.
Wright is a friend but not a client. And though he had a good game the night before (getting a highlight on SportsCenter) it is his new look (an afro and headband to make him look taller) that he is writing to Parker about. It is the sort of exchange two teenagers might carry on. In fact, Wright and Parker first became friends during their teen years. Back in 1994, Parker was the only white player on the local team that finished as the third-best AAU team in the United States (they lost in the national tournament to Vince Carter's Florida team). The center on that Memphis team was Lorenzen Wright. Last year Wright invited Parker to the New Year's Eve party he hosted in Atlanta.
Although he thinks that it was unlikely that he could nab him this late in the game, while in New York Parker makes a pass at Rashad Phillips, the point guard who is the all-time scoring leader for Detroit-Mercy, a Jesuit school also in the NIT finals. Parker is rewarded with a chance to make a presentation in his hotel room (all the teams stayed at the Marriott-Marquis in Times Square). Phillips, who because of his size and quickness is often compared to Allen Iverson, eventually decides on a New York agent, but Parker knows that getting a chance to make a presentation to a player is the first step.
"You would not believe the amount of players we miss out on because of the market we are in," he says.
But don't expect Mid-South Sports Management to move to New York anytime soon. There may be advantages, but Brian Parker's quiet determination and old-fashioned values probably play better in Memphis. Besides, this is where his family is. This is home. This is sweet.
There are two firms in Memphis that represent professional athletes. Athletic Resource Management (ARM) is owned by Morgan Keegan and is the veteran agency, called by The Chicago Sun Times "one of the top 12 sports management firms in the country." The principals are Kyle Rote Jr., Jimmy Sexton, and Reggie Barnes.
The other local firm is Mid-South Sports Management, founded by Duncan Williams, the president of Duncan Williams, Inc., a Memphis-based investment firm. Besides Parker and client service director Jay Laney, the firm employs Allan Wade as its attorney to handle tax returns and assist in contract negotiations. Wade, an attorney at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, and Caldwell, is also the attorney for the Memphis City Council. Mid-South has offices in the Falls Building downtown with a majestic view of the Mississippi River.
Parker started out as a 19-year-old "runner" for ARM. He worked for Sexton and Rote until 1999, when Williams made him an offer to good to refuse. "Competition is good. It's healthy competition. I have a lot of fun going up against Jimmy and Kyle," Parker says.
There is a rule in the sports agent biz: Never say anything publicly -- good or bad -- about the competition. So both sides are a little reluctant to discuss the rivalry which has reportedly gotten heated in the past few months.
"I think that is what America is all about -- creating opportunity, dreaming dreams, and setting goals. It doesn't bother me at all," says Rote about Parker's leaving.
"My experience working for Kyle and Jimmy is one I will always cherish," Parker says.
"I am very thankful that he noticed and appreciated what Jimmy and I have tried to do with our company," responds Rote. "We need as many good people in our industry as we can get. I am very hopeful that he will be able to follow that moral and ethical path." -- DF
Five questions for an insider.
1. In what ways will the NBA coming to Memphis help your business? Will it mean more competition?
PARKER: Having a pro franchise in Memphis will add validity to Memphis being a major-league sports city. There are already lots of positives about being based in Memphis. There are plenty of talented players from Mid-South colleges that are easy to target as potential clients, so an NBA team coming to town is icing on the cake for me. It will also be easier to keep a pulse on the day-to-day activities of the league, which is vital for a sports agent. I'm sure more competition will pop up as a result, but a little healthy competition never hurt anyone.
2. On the other hand, how will the NBA benefit other businesses and even ordinary folks?
PARKER: Long-term economic gain is the goal. Economists all tell us that the multiplier effect is approximately seven to one, which means every dollar spent will turn over at least seven times, which will eventually create more jobs in the city. Not only will this help the pursuit team, which represents a number of the large corporations based in Memphis, it will help all major businesses attract and retain top-notch employees. Those employees will then begin spending their money right here in Memphis starting with the purchase of a new home.
3. What about those who say there aren't enough people in Memphis who can afford NBA tickets?
PARKER: All of the publicity about the high-priced ticket average is misleading and there will be more than enough low-priced tickets for everybody that wants to attend an NBA game. I think Memphis is currently experiencing the beginning of a sweetheart stage economically that cities like Charlotte and Nashville experienced a decade ago. There are so many positives taking place in our city, like the $2.1 billion expansion of St. Jude's hospital downtown. That project alone will add 1,000 new jobs to the city. The expansion and improvement of the Cook Convention Center and FedEx's new deal with the post office, which will bring a big number of new pilots to town, will only improve our economy. Along with the continued improvements in our demographics and the rise in per capita income, the dollars will be there to support an NBA team.
4. In your travels, can you tell the difference in cities that have big-league sports teams and those that don't?
PARKER: No question. Having a pro sports team brings a city together. Take New Orleans for example; even when the Saints are terrible (and that's most of the time), pro football is all people there want to talk about. People from different backgrounds have something to discuss with each other on the street or on the subway. Nashville and Jacksonville are completely different cities since the Titans and Jags came to town. If you visit those places enough you will see the impact the NFL has had on the city's self-image. I think Memphis has struggled greatly in the self-image department and a pro team is just what we need.
5. What if we build the arena and the team doesn't succeed here?
PARKER: There is no question it is better for Memphis to try. Fear of failure causes a lot of people to end up mediocre. We weren't willing to step up to the plate and build a new stadium when we had a chance to secure an NFL franchise, and that hurt the city. All you have to do is look three hours down I-40 at what an NFL team can do for a city. Successful people are not afraid to fail, and I think the city of Memphis needs to take that same attitude.
Yes, this has risks, but it also has big rewards. If done properly there will be great economic rewards, but how do you put a price on the intangible reward of city pride and togetherness an NBA franchise can bring to the table? To me it's a no-brainer. I can envision what Memphis will look like in 10 years. With the development of the riverfront in the works and the creation of Uptown Memphis [formerly the Greenlaw district], an NBA arena downtown near AutoZone Park would be the finishing touch.-- DF