|Super agent/suburban dad Leon Rose practices the fundamentals with the girls’ team he coaches at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, N.J. Daughter Brooke, 11, (right) and son Sam, 13, benefit from having a father who loves coaching their Maccabees-league teams. When he finds the time, Rose still hits the boards himself in Philadelphia’s Jewish Basketball League.
This spring was a particularly lively one for professional basketball. In Philadelphia the talk was all about Allen Iverson. Were the 76ers honchos fed up after “A.I.” made headlines for arriving late at fans’ appreciation night? Meanwhile over in Cleveland, Cavaliers aficionados lined up to “witness” (as the Nike marketing blitz proclaimed) “King (LeBron) James” holding court in his first playoffs game.
Besides their prominence in the national sports pages what else do these two NBA icons have in common?
They share an agent: Leon Rose ’83.
“He’s now, arguably, the top agent in the NBA, which is a little bit of a surprise,” says Rick Falk, who, as assistant varsity basketball coach, knew Leon when he was playing guard for the Red Devils.
The term “sports agent” was not even in the vernacular back when Head Coach Gene Evans recruited Rose from Cherry Hill High School East in New Jersey to play for Dickinson. Thanks to the 1996 hit film starring a preening, back-slapping, fast-talking Tom Cruise as super agent Jerry Maguire, it’s a familiar term.
Rose’s wife, trim and pretty, dark-haired, dark-eyed Donna, laughs when the Jerry Maguire image of the agent is invoked. Her Leon is a guy more interested in working up a sweat coaching his son’s and daughter’s basketball teams than spritzing around in bespoke suits. He’s a guy who invites prospective NBA players from Australia or Africa into their home for weeks at a time. She lends a hand, driving 7-footers in her silver SUV to the gym for workouts while Leon works the phone or travels to meet with one of the players he represents.
Most of his 11 NBA clients are in the Midwest and East, including, besides Iverson and James, other SportsCenter regulars: Richard “Rip” Hamilton of the Detroit Pistons, Eddie Jones of the Memphis Grizzlies and Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls. He has a half-dozen other players in Europe and Australia and hopes to make inroads into Africa. Despite the company he keeps, Rose is anything but starstruck.
“The most amazing thing about him is he is just the same old Leon he was at Dickinson,” says Falk, a physical-education teacher and high-school girls’ varsity basketball coach in Boiling Springs, Pa. “There’s nothing phony about him. He’s an unassuming, down-to-earth, great guy. He doesn’t sit there and talk about the top guys he’s had or where he’s been. He happened to mention one time that he was in the hall with LeBron’s dad waiting for Iverson after a game. How many guys can say that?” Falk says in wonder.
In a generic-looking office complex in Pennsauken, N.J., Rose shares a third-floor suite with his father Zev and other partners in Sherman, Silverstein, Kohl, Rose & Podolsky P.A. He cuts a low-key figure with only the photos on the walls of his famous clients betraying that he may be more than just another hard-working lawyer. Though he certainly is that, too.
While studying political science at Dickinson, Rose planned to become a teacher and coach. But his father convinced him to consider the law. “I have legal lines in my family,” he says, pulling out an art-deco-era law-school yearbook that contains a photo of his namesake grandfather. “And my grandmother worked for [Philadelphia-area legal icon] Mitch Cohen for 30 years,” he says with pride. “That was always an influence in my family.”
Basketball was another passion that paid off. “My playing experience helped to prepare me for a lot of things in life,” he says. “At Dickinson, there were a lot of good players, and I wound up not playing all that much. But going through the rigors of practice and playing on a team taught me a lot.”
Falk confirms that Rose wasn’t always in the starting lineup. “But he was a coach’s player—he’d do anything he was asked to do and give 100 percent all of the time. If he didn’t play as much as he wanted, he wouldn’t complain.”
Rose was led to Dickinson by two things: Sam Asbell ’66, a childhood neighbor of Rose’s father who recommended the school, “and the opportunity to play basketball at a great academic institution. My Dickinson experience gave me the tools to be an agent, prepared me to go into the law and to deal with people.”
Rose started out as a prosecutor in Camden County, N.J., who coached as an assistant for a Division III program at Rutgers University-Camden and, while in Temple law school, for his old high school. He joined his father’s firm in 1990 as a litigator then, three years later, began edging into the sports-agent role, but not by design.
The uncle of former LaSalle College star Lionel Simmons of the Sacramento Kings asked Rose to work on some NBA contract issues. “When I got involved in the situation, I thought it was pretty neat,” Rose recalls.
“Being a coach, I wanted to have an influence on players’ lives—teach and help them. Now I’m a coach at the next level of someone’s life and career. I’m kind of like the point person for day-to-day activities, obviously contracts with the team, and endorsements and daily-life activities with which they need guidance. Being a concierge is one part of what I do. I oversee a lot of things.”
For his higher-profile players, that may involve marketing, public relations and crisis management.
When dealing with a crisis he says, “you do what you can with the situation you have. You need to be responsive. I’ve built what I do based on how I built being a good lawyer. If you do a good job, word will spread. I take care of my clients and don’t worry about the next ones. It’s about relationships.”
His relationship-building skills have paid big dividends. Rose connected with Iverson through another 76er he represented, Aaron McKie. Rose became acquainted with LeBron James when he was a high-schooler from Akron spectating at Cavaliers’ games.
“I knew him through two young Cavaliers players I represented, and the relationship naturally developed,” Rose explains. “He knew me; a comfort level was there.” So when the 21-year-old, whom Rose calls the “future of the NBA,” switched agents last August, it was Rose he chose.
Expect plenty of chatter about Rose and James on ESPN.com next month when James is up for a six-year extension of his contract, predicted to be in the vicinity of $95 million. Rose gets a max 4 percent of his players’ contracts, 2 percent on a minimum contract.
The South Jersey resident had a fast-paced spring, traveling around witnessing “The King” dominate his first playoff games. He confides that James is the rare, unsullied pro athlete that his public image portrays.
“He is really special, wise beyond his years on and off the court. He’s a people person, and that comes through.”
Besides athletic skills, Rose looks at personal qualities when taking on a client. “People you represent are going to represent you,” he says. “Fortunately, I’ve been involved with a lot of good people over the years.”