Positive Agent of Change—NBA Style

SCU’s Bill Duffy on Representing 30 NBA, 100 International Players: “Not For the Faint of Heart”

For three decades, veteran sports agent William “Bill” Duffy ’82 has represented some of the most celebrated basketball players in the National Basketball Association, including fellow SCU alum Steve Nash ’96, to China’s Yao Ming, to Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks’ latest star rookie.

Shining the spotlight on others is the way Duffy likes it, and he rarely veers from that mindset.  Which is why being named Santa Clara University’s 2019 Bronco Legend isn’t easy for the former SCU basketball standout.

“I don’t really look at things on an individual basis, so to be singled out is a little uncomfortable,’’ he says good-naturedly.

“You don’t do things by yourself, you don’t live by yourself, you don’t function by yourself,’’ adds the husband and father of five. “It’s the people around you that allow you to be successful–your family, your friends, your colleagues.”

Bronco Legends like Duffy, who was honored Feb. 23 at the 13th Annual Pasta Feed and Bronco Legends Celebration–are alumni (individuals or teams) who contributed significantly to Bronco Athletics during their time at SCU.

The former SCU hoopster more than met the definition: In his junior year at SCU, Duffy led the team in steals. As a senior, he was the Broncos’ leading scorer, the 1982 Scholar-Athlete of the Year, and District 8 All-American.

Drafted after graduation by the Denver Nuggets, he soon decided to pursue a different career, returning to the Bay Area where his longtime childhood friend Ronnie Lott was a rising star with the San Francisco 49ers.

It was after Lott introduced Duffy to his own agent that Duffy began helping to recruit NFL players, ultimately jump-starting his 32-year-long career representing NBA players, including SCU’s Nash ‘96. By 1998, he founded his own firm, BDA Sports Management, based in Walnut Creek.

We recently talked with Duffy—now, like Lott, a member of the SCU Board of Trustees—about his path to Santa Clara, what makes him tick, how his Catholic upbringing and Jesuit education helped mold his good-guy reputation in an often ruthless profession, and any advice he has to SCU students hoping to pursue a professional sports agent career.

 

The tumultuous life of a sports agent–the competitive highs and lows, traveling 200 days a year–might seem brutal to outsiders. What feeds your passion?
A. Two things: You’re engaged in helping athletes fully develop something they love (their careers), and you’re participating in developing their family fortune. You can help the trajectory of a family and their whole economic situation.

What’s a major frustration that gets in the way of doing your job?
A. The people around these athletes who are not serving them well, who are toxic, including some family members and friends. There are a lot of people trying to exploit them.

What do you think makes you different from other agents?
A. I think I look at all the parts, not just my individual position (representing a player). I believe in a win-win-win philosophy. It means I don’t want to put a general manager’s job in jeopardy by picking every last penny of his budget if he needs to build a team. I also want to have a continued long-term working relationship with the teams, because you have to think long-term. If you don’t project the future, your future is unpredictable. 

You’re known in the industry as a kind of life coach to your clients, making sure they develop as individuals both on and off the court, and plan for their futures.
A. 
I want to bring value and positivity to everyone I meet. I want to be an agent of change, from a humanistic standpoint. At the core of it, it’s not about me. It’s about how do I help people be successful and that’s everyone that’s in my path. That’s just a philosophy I have as a human being. I also want to make sure my clients are served so that all of their needs are met and I’m pushing them to be, not just great basketball players, but great humanitarians, great parents, great whatever. Whatever they’re doing–just be great.

What advice would you give SCU students who would like get into the competitive world of professional sports management business?
A
. It’s not for the faint of heart. You’d better be able to handle massive rejection. There’s a high level of expectation from high profile people. And there’s millions and millions and millions of dollars at stake. There’s really no room for error or slippage. If you’re in a relationship with a loved one, they hopefully will understand that you’re basically on call 24/7. And it’s a high-touch business; you have to be face to face with players, because if you aren’t, somebody else will be there. And that other person does not have your best interest.

You don’t have to cut people’s throats to achieve success. You can be nice, but you can be competitive. I feel like I’m very competitive. I just refuse to compromise my values. I don’t ever want my meekness to be taken for weakness.

To be an effective agent, you also have to know you’re dealing with the human dynamic of people. You have to be a psychologist, you have to be a negotiator, you really have to understand how to deal with psychological issues a player might have. The fragmented family, the dysfunction of the family. There’s a lot of different components to it. You have to be able to manage all of that. That’s not simple.

 

What else would you advise SCU students?
A.
There’s a lot of opportunities in the world of sports and it just isn’t on the agent’s side. There’s working for the team. There’s a lot of tech companies that have a sports focus because there’s a merging of technology and sports. Most of the major companies have some type of sports focus, whether it’s sports marketing, advertising. There are the shoe companies; games; there’s the product placement; a big company like Procter & Gamble, they have athletes endorse products. There’s a lot of areas within the ecosystem of sports, it’s not just necessarily being a sports agent. Working in the sports department at somebody’s school, it’s almost like a pro organization with the media, sports information department, sports medicine. Working with the coaches and the team. If you have that type of experience and exposure, that would probably position you well, as far as looking up the ladder.

 

What are the best majors for SCU students interested in your field?
A.
I almost think everything, but business, economics, accounting, law, and for me, political science. I’ve done stuff in China. I’ve done stuff in Europe. Basketball in particular is a global sport; an example would be when I was recruiting Yao Ming, when he was in China, understanding the political structure and how the hierarchy in that particular government worked because it’s a communist country. Just understanding generally how the different political ideologies work from country to country.

 

You arrived at Santa Clara University in 1980 after two years playing basketball at the University of Minnesota. Why SCU?
A.
I’m Catholic, so when I was in high school I was one of Santa Clara’s targets because of my background. I went to Damien High School in La Verne, California. It’s a Catholic school. My mom was a devout Catholic. I think everyone knew that. My dad was Catholic as well, so it was their hope that I would attend a Catholic college.

 

But as a high-profile recruit, you’ve said you had set your heart on playing at UCLA under basketball coach great John Wooden.
A.
I grew up idolizing the UCLA program and then John Wooden retired. I basically didn’t know what to do, because I (thought I) was going to go to UCLA. Then the University of Minnesota recruited me. The coach saw me at a camp and recruited me very aggressively. I went out on a visit and it just so happened that because of me being a “big” recruit, they had Kevin McHale; Michael Thompson, who’s Klay Thompson’s father; the late Flip Saunders, who ended up being a high-profile NBA coach; and Tony Dungy, who’s a hall of fame football player—he was also a basketball player at Minnesota, as well as football player. They were my hosts, and I just fell in love with all these guys. I ended up attending the University of Minnesota. I played there for two years and then things weren’t working out as well … When people found out I was going to transfer, I heard from about 50 schools, but I wanted to go to Santa Clara. It’s a Catholic school, it’s on the West Coast, I had friends who had gone there and I had followed their program. It was a perfect fit, and probably the best decision for me in terms of my own personal development and the continuation of my education. Being in the Bay Area, obviously meeting my future wife, who’s a native of the Bay Area, it all came together.

 

What did you know about the Bay Area?
A.
When I was 10 years old, when my dad returned from Vietnam, he was a military colonel in the Army and Inspector General at The Presidio. But at that time, my mom didn’t want to uproot our family because we had lived all over the world and that was when I was entering high school and my older brother was in high school. My mom just said we’re not going to move, so we used to commute here to see my dad or he’d commute on weekends, but I fell in love with the Bay Area in particular. In my mind I always said, “Man, I’d love to live there.” When it came time to go to college, I just felt an affinity toward the Bay Area, which is my favorite place on Earth. Fortunately, Santa Clara is located in the Bay Area.

 

What does Santa Clara University mean to you?
A.
First of all, Santa Clara is everything it’s advertised, in terms of just a great experience, in terms of a quality education. But also, I was able to experience the contrast between a big school like the University of Minnesota, which had 55,000 students, and then Santa Clara which at the time had 5,500 students.

I gained from both. When you’re playing basketball, you’re kind of visible, so you do tend to meet more people than a regular student athlete. But at Santa Clara, I really was able to build really more solid relationships because there’s just more constant contact with a larger number of individuals because, for instance, there’s one cafeteria on campus. There’s one sports facility.

It was probably the best decision I made (aside from marrying my wife!)—in terms of my career and then putting the focus more on academics and athletics. Santa Clara was the great balance I needed at that time.

 

What was your major?
A.
Public relations/social sciences.

 

What do Santa Clara’s Jesuit values mean to you?
A.
They are consistent with my upbringing. Charity, humility, holding the regard of everyone ahead of your own. I just feel like that was a continuation of how I was raised by my parents.

Did your parents watch you become a sports agent?
A.
My mom died last year at age 94. She knew that I played basketball. She didn’t look at it necessarily as a business, but I continued to stay in basketball even after I quit playing. She saw that I was able to make some money, so she thought I was doing pretty well with this basketball thing, so keep doing what you’re doing. My dad passed away in 1998 before I had any real level of success. It didn’t matter to him anyway, he just loved his kids.

 

What do you remember about growing up in a military family?
A.
There’s no ifs, ands, maybes, or buts. My dad was pretty regimented and rigid. There was some benefit to that: You understand how hard you have to work and that there’s rules and regulations. It served me well.

 

How else do you think SCU has helped you?
A
. It carries on beyond when I was at the school because after I left Santa Clara and I started building my sports practice, there were probably 10 situations over maybe a 20-year-period of time where I needed some type of professional assistance, whether it be a lawyer or an accountant or a contractor or just some type of need from a business perspective or legal perspective. I would call Jerry Kerr ’61 at the alumni office, and it was 100 percent success in terms of him finding a Santa Clara alumni, wherever it would be in the United States—I don’t care if it was in Florida or New York. There’d be a Bronco there and he would connect me with them within a day. We’d get on the phone and then whatever case it was, it’d be successful. The communication, the support, the follow-up was just flawless.

 

Do any SCU alumni work at BDA Sports?
A.
My CFO is a Santa Clara graduate, Julie Neumann ’94. Her maiden name was Julie Oscamou. She’s been with me for 25 years. One of my vice presidents of client branding and strategy is Shauna Smith. Her husband, Fred Smith, was an Associate AD at Santa Clara. So it’s Santa Clara I kind of rely on. My Santa Clara people.

 

How many NBA players does BDA Sports represent, and who are some of your up-and-coming players?
A.
Right now we have 30 NBA players. And then 100 or so international clients. Some of our up-and-coming players are Luka Doncic, DeAndre Ayton, Zach Lavine, Nikola Vucevic, Kelly Oubre, Goran Dragic, and Josh Richardson.

 

You came from a family with five children, and you and your wife Jamese have five children, three boys and two girls. How old are they?
A.
25, 23, 20, 18 and 16.

 

Have any attended SCU?
A.
Yes, my son Christian is a junior there.

 

Does he want to go into your business?
A.
Not directly, but he’d love to be in sports in some capacity. He had an internship with the PAC-12 a couple of years ago. He’s just looking around.

 

Q. Finally: Is there something about you that might surprise other people?
A.
Well, I’m just a real simple guy living in the suburbs. I live in Walnut Creek and I just love going to Little League, going to school events, being with families in this community. Sometimes I’m in New York or Hollywood, or at crazy high-profile things like the ESPYs (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award), but I prefer just a very basic, low-key, quiet life. I don’t like all that limelight stuff.

post-image SCU’s Bill Duffy on Representing 30 NBA, 100 International Players: “Not For the Faint of Heart”
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