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Being in the league has always been about more than winning championships and taking home the title. Today, players build brands, influence politics, and move culture on and off the court. The last day of the REVOLT Summit in Los Angeles in October, heavyweights of the game, the legendary Ice Cube and Lebron James’ super-agent Rich Paul sat down during the “Ball So Hard: Players Taking the Power Back” panel to discuss the NBA and get deep into the business of being an athlete.
Moderated by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, Cube and Paul discussed the league, power and ownership. After a warm welcome and temperature check of the crowd, Smith got straight to asking each of the men about what pushed them into creating powerhouse agency Klutch Sports Group (owned by Paul) and the BIG3 League (owned by Cube).
“Coming into it, I just wanted to build a company that could number one, educates athletes,” Paul said, explaining the mission of Klutch Sports, adding, “Number two, I just wanted the athlete to be able to sleep well at night knowing that their representation is actually making the best decision for their wellbeing.” After having been in the game a while, Paul founded Klutch, which stands for knowledge, longevity, understanding, trust, commitment and honesty; which according to him, are necessary components of being the best athlete and person.
Initially started out with just four guys in 2012, Klutch Sports has grown into a 24-person company, signing $1.6 billion in contracts in the last six years. “With success, my thought process has been now you have to do more with infrastructure, forward-thinking and education,” Paul added, which based on his roster and bright future is going well.
Rapper, actor and icon Ice Cube added another title to his resume in 2017 when he co-founded the BIG3 — a professional basketball league consisting of All-Stars and Hall of Famers. And when asked why, Cube made it simple, “It was really all about something I wanted to see.”
He continued: “As an artist, it would kill me if someone came up to me at 33, 34 years old, and say it’s over man, you done,” referring to the timeline many pros ballers live by, “It would be so much to me, left on the table, and that’s how I feel about these athletes.” With the BIG3, players are given a chance to show they still have skills. “You know grey hairs don’t mean you done,” Cube said with a smile.
As both Paul and Cube have transitioned and elongated their careers, Smith speaks on the power structures they have both built, asking what pieces of wisdom are they sharing with the modern-day athlete.
Paul took it away first, affirming it’s all in the infrastructure or discipline an athlete has. “That’s going to tell me everything I know about them as a person, so now I know areas I have to educate them to become more well rounded,” he said, adding, “They’re men, they are more than athletes.”
Smith then questioned the notion, “Somebody has to answer to somebody,” which Cube clarifies is absolutely good advice. “You gotta know your role, play your role, try to master your role and then try to move up,” he said.
“A lot of people just see the finished product, they don’t see the grind it takes to get to that point,” Cube continued, referencing how we live in a world of instant gratification and social media highlights. He added, “You have to make sure you have a plan, and a plan to execute your plan and how to learn from others.” Although BIG3 players are more experienced, Cube shares they are still consistently learning methods for growing and maturing in all aspects. “Any game you in, don’t limit yourself, don’t age yourself, don’t let the world age you,” he stated.
When it gets to player empowerment, Smith questioned whether modern-day athletes are at the height of the movement. Paul replies with a quick yes, highlighting social media as a key factor in the game. Cube, aligning with Paul’s view, attached the entrepreneurial mindset and empires that pro athletes observed through Michael Jordon and LeBron James for example. “Those things are enticing,” he affirmed.
Since James was mentioned and played a big role in Paul’s career, Smith, who says you can’t talk about the power of the modern-day athlete without the athlete, asked the agent to describe that come up. “I think the most important thing he did was surround himself with people that was smarter than he was,” Paul said. The notion of doing so led Smith to get Cube’s take. “First, you gotta humble yourself in some ways,” he stated. “You got to know where you entering the game at and what’s at stake.” As he boiled it down, Cube zoned in on knowing who and where you are, but specifically, “Know your worth.”
Smith digs deep, getting into the darker side of empowerment, the league and knowing yourself as an athlete. Comparing the risks taken both past and present, he brings up the conflict many athletes welcome when it comes to speaking out regarding political and social issues. To no surprise, Colin Kaepernick is brought into the conversation, “I use that to highlight the fact every now and then, owners of sports are finding ways to remind you you don’t have the power you think you have,” the sports journalist added.
“It can happen,” Cube responds. “When we put ourselves out there like that, we have to know all the consequences.” Acknowledging that a lot of players chose to do the right thing regardless of what’s at stake, including Kaepernick, he continued, “When it’s the right thing to do, the hell with sports.”
Prompted by Smith, Paul addresses his own power struggle with the NCAA’s attempt to implement a “Rich Paul Rule,” which restricted those without degrees and other criteria opportunities to become sports agents. “I felt like it was targeted toward the minorities, and that didn’t sit well with me,” he said, noting life skills that are taught through experience are oftentimes the knowledge needed for the job. While this aimed to diminish him, the NCAA lost the battle, which added another win for Paul.
With the REVOLT Summit known for providing many opportunities, Cube dished out more advice for the climb and how to approach a Rich Paul or Ice Cube. “Hone in your talents, hone in your skill, show people your talents,” he stated. Furthermore, he dropped a word for those who merely focus on the end and not the moment in which you stand. Cube said, “The journey is just as beautiful as getting to the top. Trust me.”
As the conversation concluded, both Cube and Paul share the importance of education, understanding your platform and knowing how to win. Paul’s words, which culminate each of their advice, were that your “foundation has to be strong.”
Ultimately, Smith closed out with a quote from the great Denzel Washington. “Do what you have to do, so you can do what you want to do,” he declared. The moderator went on with his own words, “You got to be ready to grind, you got to be ready to sacrifice, you got to go for it. And even then, once you accomplish your goal, perform like you’re starving.”