Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The NBA Gold Rush

It took some time for the Americans to discover the great potential that is hidden in the far west of their continent. Almost eighty years has gone by since the USA declaration of independence in Philadelphia, which is in the east, until the discovery of the vast gold deposits on the other side – the valuable resource which filled the untouched land of the Rocky mountains and Siera Nevada.

It was those true pioneers who went to look for their good fortune in the 19th century and changed the face of the whole American society forever. Now, in the start of the new millennium, Americans are looking to make some money from the gold hidden in the East – over the Atlantic ocean, in Europe. This time the pioneers are the sports agents, the gold explorers of the basketball world.

Marc Cornstein, 35, is a true New Yorker. Born, raised and educated in the city and works from there in his 'Pinnacle' agency headquarters. A swift peek in his long clients list raise some odd looking names that are even harder to pronounce. That said, there are quite a few GMs who are ready to sacrifice their teeth and a considerable amount of dollars to add them to their teams. Nenad Krstic, Darko Milicic, Primoz Brezec and even Beno Udrih are legit NBA players today. Most of them owe Cornstein their career, he owes them a lot of his good reputation and financial success.

Like Cornstein, Steven Heumann also fell not far from the Big Apple. He did grew up in New Jersey, but crossed the Hadson river on his way to Manhattan, where he is acting as a senior partner in 'EnterSport' agency. Heumann, 31, whom as a teenager worked as a ball boy for the Boston Celtics and spent some time in Yeshiva University, can be proud in as high profiled clients list as Cornstein's.

Along with local talents as Randy Foye (picked seventh in the last NBA draft), he imported Andrei Kirilenko, Tony Parker, Nikoloz Tskitishvili and others to the US. He will try to do the same thing in the future with our Lior Eliyahoo.

Apart of being young, successful agents, that fulfill the dream of every jewish mother as well as their own, the two has another thing in common – they made their big breakthrough with their sharp instincts and willingness to go far away, across the ocean, and to bring back from there the best European talents. Cornstein and Heumann are two of the leading pioneers, the trail blazers of the late gold rush.

From a NY restaurant to Yugoslavia basketball courts
"I was 22 when I finished my studies and started looking my way in the field, that wasn't as popular as it is today", Cornstein recalls his starting point as a players agent, "The truth is I was very lucky. I used to dine in one of the restaurants in New York, where I got to know and make friends with a waiter with a heavy foreign accent. Apparently, he was a former basketball player who immigrated to the US. His name is Spomenko Pajevic. In the end, we both went to Yugoslavia and with his contacts we reached the local players. First, we represented them in Europe, and then we started bringing some of them to America. By the way, in days to come, Semi became the company's vice president".

Serbian Aleksander Radojevic (picked 12th by the Toronto Raptors in the 99' draft) was the first European talent Cornstein brought to the NBA. Since then he imported a bunch of players from east Europe to the main stage of the basketball world. This year for example, he brought to the New Jersey Nets, the young Serbian center Mile Ilic, that will team up with another successful giant of his, Krstic. Other clients, Croat Damir Markota and Vladimir Vermeenko from Belarus were picked in the second round of the last draft.

"When I started working with NBA teams in the late nineties, the trend of drafting foreign players hadn't been developed yet, but it was obvious that scouts were intrigued with the potential. From their point of view, talent is talent, and it doesn't matter if he's from Serbia, Mongolia or Israel. At the end of the day winning is all that matters, that is the only way they value their success. Today it became regularity – the gap had been narrowed and that is great. Today, there are as much as sixty foreign players in the NBA (15 percent of all players) and a lot of them had acclimated and regarded as real stars".

Super-Heumann in Europe
If we are talking about real stars, then it's well obvious that Heumann made it big. Not like Cornstein, who was focusing on Eastern Europe, Heumann traveled all over the continent to bring with him Russian Kirilenko, Turkish Mehmet Okur, French Parker and Croat Gordan Giricek – all are quality NBA players. But the star dust of his players didn't stick to him right away. It took a lot hard work, intensive and gray, especially in the beginning, ten years ago.

"After finishing my studies in NYU, I made the decision to go to Europe", say Heumann, "Naturally, I wanted to see the world after school and I thought it could also be a great opportunity to experience the European market. I knew it would be a better starting point for me, since there is less competition there. If in the US you have one agent for six players, in Europe you have one agent to maybe sixty. At first I was representing players that you never heard of, and I already forgot. That said, it was an opportunity for me to get into business, manage negotiations and making contacts".

Utah's gamble
It might be that the big break through of Heumann also came in the 1999 draft, when the Utah Jazz chose then anonymous Kirilenko with the 24th pick in the first round – 12 picks after Cornstein's Radojevic, that in the meantime vanished from the scene. Heumann gives a lot of credit to the Jazz management, that gave Kirilenko a chance.

"I worked with someone from Russia that told me I have to see this young guy that he found", said Heumann, "We got curious, we bought a flight tickets and came to see him. From first sight it was obvious he will be a great basketball player, but it was obvious he'll need some time, and not ready to be a star right away. The Jazz had time, Karl Malone still played there and they didn't need an immediate replacement. Scott Layden (Jazz GM back then) was interested and was ready to gamble on him. After two years in CSKA Moscow, he went to Utah and the gamble was very successful. But I have to say the Jazz did something that wasn't very common those days, and took a chance on a player on a player they didn't really know".

- How do you shop an unknown talent to a NBA team?
"It’s harder than in the case of young American players, that being followed from close by scouts in the high school and college leagues. When it comes to foreign talents, you need to be more involved as an agent. From my experience, I've learned that in order to succeed in this business, you need to keep you credibility. You can't go around claiming that you have found the next Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol, because you will lose the trust you gained in the past and people won't take you seriously in the future. I hope that I proved my self as a credible professional, and I think that's is why the teams I work with take my recommendations seriously".
Cornstein agree, when it comes to the agent's duty while shopping foreign players to NBA teams: "When you are trying to shop a foreign talent, you need to deal with the skepticism of the American GM's and scouts, that not always familiar with your client. Your job as an agent is much bigger in this case. You have to persuade them that it's a talent worth investing in".

The Americans started doing homework
Although the popularity of foreign players in this millennium had sky rocketed, it seems that lately it getting back into proportions and the team's staff members who was so excited in the past with the exotic scent of players from overseas, became a little bit more skeptic. Side by side of unique cases like the Raptors – your everyday European Team, that made history with picking Andrea Bregniani first in the draft, lately you have teams that prefer to pick foreigners in the late phases of the first round. Usually they prefer to pick them in the second round, where they are not obliged to offer contracts.

One example that raise these kind of doubt between American basketball experts is Darko Milicic, that was picked second by Detroit Pistons in the 2003 draft and since then mostly disappointed. Cornstein, His agent, is not giving up on him and still see a lot of promise in him.

"Darko's biggest problem is the fact that he was picked in a problematic draft, from his point of view. You have Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in the same class. It will always stand up against him, but you have to remember he is still very young and full of potential. He proved he is a special player since he left Detroit to the Orlando Magic and also in the Serbian national team. His best is still before and whoever want to see him as a joke, will be proved wrong in a year or two".

That said, it's obvious even for Cornstein that you can't have a bull's-eye with every pick of a foreign player, even today when teams have a world wide scouting crew with their own talent seekers in every corner of the globe. "You can understand the doubts the teams have now, because they got wider perspective about players from overseas. It's not a new trend anymore.
"It's only natural that on every Nowitzki, you'll have a Tskitishvili or Milicic, if someone insist to see him as a failure, but it's not different than high school players. On every Lebron you have a Korleone Young and others like him. You can't expect hundred percents success. Now days, every team needs to do it's homeworks".

"Today every team has an international scouts, and they will look for players everywhere, if it's in Bulgaria, Russia or Nicaragua. Some years ago it was different", say Heumann, "Today Americans give a lot more attention to what could be the consequents of signing a foreign player. Skita (Skitishvili) and Milicic came to the US as unproved talents, not like Giricek, Okur or Zaza Pachulia.

"This is a big problem because the NBA is not a place to develop yourself as a player, they don't have time for that. You have to prove yourself and fast. You need to adjust to the culture and also to the style of game. It you are good and experienced enough, you'll succeed, but if you are not ready, then you'll have problems".

Homecoming or failure in the US
Some of the implications of the weakening of the European trend, is the recent buyouts of stars who was sent back to Europe, after coming short in making a mark in the NBA. Two good examples in this context are Cornstein's Zoran Planinic and Heumann's Arvydas Maceijauskas. The Croatian Guard that almost ended up in Maccabi Tel Aviv, after being cut from the Nets, signed with Tau Vitoria of Spain. The Lithuanian shooter left New Orleans/Oklahoma Hornets after a disappointing season and joined Pini Gershon's Olympiakos Pireus. The agents, maybe not as their clients, are not so disappointed.

"Not everyone can make it in the NBA, that is very demanding form both physical and mental aspects and that's what happened to Planinic, Raul Lopez and Sergei Monia" claims Cornstein, "It not so terrible, because in recent year there is a big change in the European market. Big teams like Maccabi, Panathinaikos and others have bigger budgets and they benefit from the latest Euro-Dollar ratio. When it comes to players from the lower levels, they give competition to NBA teams.

Heumann agrees: "There are some players that come to the US as stars, and they want to play, but the coaches not considering it and not always find place for them on their teams. That what happened with Macas. Byron Scott didn't give him a chance and dried him on the bench. He got really disappointed and was frustrated and you can understand him, although he didn't complain. The European market developed and there are a lot more reach teams that are willing to spend money on good players and the proof is the great contract Arvydas got from Olympiakos".

Saras' opportunity
Other Lithuanian star that didn't really make it big in the NBA is Israeli fans favorite Sarunas Jasikevicius, but it seems both agents agree that his place is in the best league in the world and he should prove it this year with the Indiana Pacers. "He's a good player, although I think he is more a shooting-guard than a point-guard, anyway he need more time to prove himself" say Heumann.

Cornstein sounds much more enthusiastic: "Every player needs some time to adapt and maybe Rick Carlisle will give him a chance this year. I'm a great Saras fan, he was the best player in Europe and he's experienced enough and talented enough to adjust to the NBA game, although it is a different game.

Beno Udrih's Take Off
In this context, It's surprising that Beno Udrih, who is represented by Cornstein, managed to adopt so well to the new reality in San Antonio Spurs much quicker than the more experience Saras, who replaced him in Yad Eliyahoo arena in 2002 "Beno is unique case. Few years ago, when he played for Olimipija Ljubljana, he was regarded as one of the best young point guards in Europe. He did feel he wasn't appreciated enough in Maccabi, although he liked playing there. When he left, he got off the NBA radar during his traveling through Russia, Italy and Greece.

"I first met him in April 2004, and one month later I asked him where he thinks he ought to be drafted, and he said in the first round. I showed him all the draft predictions and he saw his name is not in there. 'This is what you have to face' I told him, 'You have to climb all these levels to get to where you feel you should be'. I have to admit I never so a player so determined. He worked so hard, gave his best and never complained. All the time he kept on asking: 'What is the next thing I need to do?". We managed to get him an invitation to the pre-draft rookie camp in Chicago, although he wasn't on the original players list. In the end, he finished as the camp MVP. Later on he impressed people in his private workouts he had with teams and from that point, his stocks soured and he did the unthinkable – he was picked 28th by the Spurs".

An Israeli affair
Both Heumann and Cornstein are jewish, as well as a bunch of the American sports agents. Almost as inverse ratio to the quantity of jewish players in the NBA. Both of them don't have an explanation to this, but they do hope that Los Angeles Lakers' rookie PG Jordan Farmar, and maybe even Yotam Halperin and Lior Eliyahoo will save the jewish people reputation. As mentioned, the last one is represented by Heumann, who is speaking fluent Hebrew and visits Israel frequently.

"Lior is in an opposite situation of most of the players in his age" claims Heumann, who also brought Ukranian Olexey Pecherov to the Washington Wizards as a first round pick, and matched Eliyahoo to the Houston Rockets with the 44th pick. "During the last to years in Hapoel Galil Elyon, he gained a lot of experience and and valuable playing time. Now he can take it to higher level in Maccabi Tel Aviv. He will practice against better players, in better facilities, and will play in the Euroleague. In any case, the Rockets intend on sending someone who will work with him privately and try to improve his skills".

Heumann, who also represents Yaniv Green and Robert Rothbart, sees great promise in the Israeli basketball market and look at it's promotion as an important cause. "I love Israel and visit it frequently. I would like to help promote the local talents as well as the Israeli league. Obviously, Maccabi is the best team which is also the wealthiest, but I would like to help the other teams, so the league can be more competitive. There are a lot of talents in Israel: Lior, Halperin, Omri Caspi, Rothbart and Yogev Ohayon. As I see it, Tal Burstein, could already be a NBA player, I believe I could have brought him there, if I only I could. I always wanted to represent him".

Other Israeli player that Heumann actually already brought to the NBA is Oded Katash, which the agent take much pride in and see him as a mark In his career. "Katash was the first high-profile player and I did it even though big David Falk (former Michael Jordan's agent) was courting him. It brought me great pride, especially since I got him a contract with the New York Knicks in 1998, unfortunately the Lock-out during that year prevented it from being implemented".

And what about Cornstein, who have been in Israeli only once as a teenager? He is not representing any Israeli at that point, but would be happy to do so and be more involved with the local market. "I'm sure my mom would be happy if that will happen" he says about the land of milk and honey. Who knows, maybe sometime they will find some gold in our country.

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