On the heels of an excellent interview with Leigh Steinberg, I was approached by a close friend of BJ Armstrong. The friend requested that I take the time to interview the 1989 first-round pick of the Chicago Bulls who later on became a basketball analyst for ESPN before landing his current job as an NBPA agent with Wasserman Media Group (WMG).
My initial conversation with BJ’s friend occurred about a week prior to my May 11-21 trip to Israel. Until this past Saturday, we were unable to schedule a time for myself and BJ to have a conversation.
Then I received a call at 10:30AM EST, 7:30AM PST. BJ’s friend was ready to hook me up with BJ. We did a quick three-way call and BJ gave me his cell phone number and said that I could call him any day of the week at any time. I already knew that this was the type of guy that the media hopes to get for an interview. I did not take much time to call back and conduct the interview. Half an hour later we had the conversation that is transcribed below.
Me: What made you want to go from being an athlete represented by an agent, to an agent representing professional basketball players?
BJ Armstrong: It was to have a complete understanding of the business. Being a former player, I was very interested in understanding how this all works from a business standpoint: how teams are run, how decisions are made, and overall, how the operations of business are run. Having a complete understanding of the business of sports was what I was most interested in. I began to see the perspective of the role of sports representation. Honestly, I kind of stumbled into my current position as an agent; I didn’t seek it. It was just something I understand and I am happy to be in this profession.
Me: Take me through your recruiting process.
BJ Armstrong: One thing I definitely have understood is that there is no way to know everything and that there is no recruiting regiment. Every situation is different. You have to address what each client feels is most important. The recruiting process is really about delivering on each client’s concerns. What I have learned is how to function in an environment where there is really no certainty at all. There is no stability and there are never any guarantees. You must always be ready to go and function on your toes. I wish I could tell you that I had a brochure, but instead, it’s about having the phones open and to be ready to go from that point forward. An agent must always be able to address concerns quickly.
Me: A lot of people predicted that Derrick Rose would sign with Leon Rose and CAA. How long before you signed Rose did you start recruiting him, and what do you think made him go with WMG over a CAA?
BJ Armstrong: I have known Leon Rose for a long time, and Leon is excellent at what he does. Additionally, the people at CAA excel in what they do; I have the utmost respect for them. My signing of Derrick Rose was like anything in life, I think it was just luck. I played in Chicago. Derrick is from Chicago. I really wish I could put my finger on it and say that it was something we offered and something that other agencies did not offer. Luck and being in the right place at the right time are the only things I can attribute it to. I think the timing just worked out.
Me: Is there any particular reason that Derrick Rose picked you as his primary agent over Arn Tellem?
BJ Armstrong: Again, I think that Derrick chose me largely because I played in Chicago and he grew up in Chicago watching me play. There was a time in Chicago where I played on some pretty good teams. The things that happened in that city as he was growing up probably left a mark on him. Again, I believe that I was the beneficiary of good timing. Derrick and I even played the same position. Sometimes things just line up…you can’t plan it. I think we just had a few similarities in our background that made it all work out for a lot of different reasons.
Me: Do you have any relationship with William Wesley? If so, what is your general impression of his role in professional basketball?
BJ Armstrong: I have known Wesley for over 20 years. I knew him back when I was playing in the late 80s. I have a great relationship with Wes and I have no problems with him whatsoever. He was a part of our family when I was playing in Chicago, when I was traded…I have always known him. He has been nothing but a friend to me since I entered the NBA. He’s been with us forever. It’s just Wes…he’s there. I still see him; he is everywhere. You see him at sporting events, venues, games.
Me: What is your response to David Falk’s recent comment that signing players is becoming less about what you have to offer to the client, and more about paying athletes and/or people close to them in order to represent them?
BJ Armstrong: I guess that is possible from his perspective. More importantly, he would have to answer it in more detail from his experiences. It is interesting that I have gone through the process of representing clients as an ex-athlete. I am certainly not naïve to think that the possibility of corruption isn’t there. I think David would really have to clarify his statement, though, because certainly you cannot say that it’s the only realm of possibility. It’s not the only way that things are done in this business.
Me: How important is it for an agent to understand the socioeconomic condition of a basketball player’s family?
BJ Armstrong: As a profession, we place a lot of emphasis on solving peoples problems. It’s very easy for me to identify a socioeconomic problem, but the solution is to help someone else understand how to fix the problem instead of solving it for him. What I’m most interested in doing is offering solutions that my clients can put into action by themselves. When I entered this business, my main goal was to help people become self-sufficient instead of do everything for them. I want to help them understand the business, what is fantasy and what is reality. Once you understand how the business works, then you have an opportunity to play the game. If you don’t understand how it works, then you can only identify the problems. If WMG doesn’t help its clients to become self-sufficient players, then we aren’t doing our jobs. I was very fortunate to come into sports representation with Arn Tellem; he has helped me understand the business in the same way that we help out clients find solutions to their problems. It was a very refreshing idea that he would help me help myself and not tell me what to do. We are about building men here. The most important idea is to help them get organized on the floor and off the floor. Anyone can tell you what the problems are, but helping them to function in this situation is a whole different thing.
Me: Would you ever represent someone with a history of baggage?
BJ Armstrong: I am not here to judge what has happened in a person’s life. All of our relationships are based on being forthright, radically honest, but more importantly, we are going to ask them to be responsible and be accountable. We are going to do our part by doing the very best that we can, but we are also going to ask our clients to do something as well. We ask our clients to work in the spirit of collaboration and cooperation. We ask them to be just as involved in this relationship as we are. With that, I have found that when people contribute to the success, you have a chance. If you want to be successful here, you have to have commitment from both sides. We work with these kids every day, we have to be honest with one another, and we must work under a spirit of collaboration and cooperation. Whatever happened in the past, that’s the past. This is a business of now. Now is all that we have.
Me: Have you had any contact with O.J. Mayo since he dropped Calvin Andrews and BDA, and what are your feelings on what has recently transpired?
BJ Armstrong: I have not been in contact with O.J. I am a person who deals with the facts. I don’t know what has happened. I have only heard about the situation in the same way as the general public. I only deal with what I know. There were a lot of things that were said, and from what I understand from just talking with the kids, O.J. is a terrific kid and I wish him all the best. I hope it gets resolved for everyone involved. I hope that we move on and focus on the positives instead of the negatives.
Me: What are some examples of post career opportunities that you have lined up for your current clients/athletes?
BJ Armstrong: I encourage these young men to educate themselves. They will find their interests and will have an opportunity to do whatever it is that they want to do. I notice that they are interested in a variety of things, but due to their extreme time commitment to basketball, their other interests that they have get put to the side. I always, first and foremost, have emphasized that our clients pursue their education, get their degree, and from there, move onto whatever field they choose. After education, we can go about our business of continuing the theme of being self-sufficient.
Me: What types of events, duties and/or roles as an agent have been different from what you might have thought before entering the business?
BJ Armstrong: That is very simple. This is a 24 hour job, 7 days a week. You must be on your game all of the time. There is no 9-5, there is no set theme, there is no description. I find that very exciting. You get an opportunity to live in an uncertain environment. With this job, there is no correct or wrong way. You have to be ready to go, because you never know what is going to happen. You never know if a player gets injured, cut, is expected to go here but gets traded there. The uncertainty of the job encourages you to be incredibly organized and you have to be able to function in an environment where there is no certainty. I happen to rather enjoy having to always be ready to deal right now.
Me: Do you think former players like you, Lee Malchioni, etc. have an advantage in the sports agent industry because of your former playing experience on the big stage?
BJ Armstrong: My parents always told me this: Without the benefit of experience, you are not going to know what to do. Even today, I remember my parents telling me that. Experience is an advantage in any profession. Having a mentor gives someone a huge advantage in life. Until you touch a hot stove, there is no way to truly know how it burns. I take full responsibility for the stewardship of attracting people who want to reach their potential. When you are trying to reach that potential, you try to contact someone who has excelled in that profession. You don’t ask a librarian to help you become a Navy Seal. I wish that I could’ve asked someone like me the same questions when I was playing.