Coaches’ agent a hoops power bro­ker

Bret Just now big-time agent for col­lege, NBA per­son­nel

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Dan Wolken

Bret Just is one of the most in­flu­en­tial be­hind-the-scenes fig­ures in the game

MIL­WAU­KEE – For the first time in a cou­ple of hours, one of the most pow­er­ful peo­ple in bas­ket­ball can lay down his phone and lock in on the court at Fis­erv Fo­rum. Bret Just, the agent whose fin­ger­prints are all over coach­ing moves at ev­ery level of the sport, has spent much of the night al­ter­nat­ing his at­ten­tion be­tween what’s hap­pen­ing in front of him, re­fresh­ing his score­board app and tex­ting with a small-col­lege coach who is likely years away from the big time.

For Just, vir­tu­ally ev­ery game from Oc­to­ber to April is an emo­tional grind. Some­one he rep­re­sents some­where in the bas­ket­ball uni­verse is win­ning or los­ing, and even though it’s less than three weeks into the NBA sea­son, he can barely go more than a minute with­out try­ing to fig­ure out whether it’s go­ing to be a sleep­less night.

But now, with a game be­tween the Bucks and Knicks get­ting close in the fi­nal min­utes, it is time to fo­cus on the client he is here to see.

“Fiz has very pos­i­tive en­ergy right now,” Just says, re­fer­ring to Knicks coach David Fiz­dale. “The whole game he never looks rat­tled. I do, but I don’t mat­ter.”

Just had worked for months to get Fiz­dale into an­other NBA head coach­ing job af­ter the Griz­zlies fired him 19 games

into last sea­son. The two would talk daily, go­ing over what went wrong, what he could fix and how to win ev­ery in­ter­view that was com­ing in the off­sea­son.

“It’s a hit-or-miss busi­ness, and if you miss you re­boot,” Fiz­dale said at the team ho­tel. “He wouldn’t let me waste one sec­ond be­ing down. He sees things two steps ahead. Our con­ver­sa­tions helped me see things I wouldn’t have looked for.”

Fiz­dale’s deal with the Knicks was one of three for NBA head coaches that Just en­gi­neered in the off­sea­son, along with J.B. Bick­er­staff in Mem­phis and James Bor­rego in Charlotte, part of a pro­file that in­cludes two gen­eral man­agers in At­lanta’s Travis Sch­lenk and Cleve­land’s Koby Alt­man, var­i­ous front of­fice ex­ec­u­tives and some as­sis­tant coaches.

Just’s grow­ing NBA net­work is unique given he is ar­guably the most in­flu­en­tial be­hind-the-scenes fig­ure in col­lege bas­ket­ball. His client list in­cludes a dozen head coaches in the high-ma­jor con­fer­ences, sev­eral more in the mid-ma­jors and Con­necti­cut women’s coach Geno Auriemma.

One of the big­gest tes­ta­ments to Just’s reach will oc­cur in a cou­ple of weeks at the Hall of Fame Clas­sic in Kansas City, Mis­souri, where all four coaches in­volved — Ne­braska’s Tim Miles, South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s Andy En­field, Texas Tech’s Chris Beard and Mis­souri State’s Dana Ford — are his clients.

“Ev­ery­one’s like, you win,” he said. “But in an agent’s mind, I lose. ... By the same to­ken, to be hon­est, it’s pretty damn cool.”

Though Just is the first to ac­knowl­edge that the foun­da­tion of his busi­ness rests on his clients win­ning — “With­out their suc­cess, who am I?” he said — it was notable when CBS Sports polled more than 100 coaches last sum­mer ask­ing them to iden­tify the most pow­er­ful per­son in the sport. Just came in fourth, be­hind Mike Krzyzewski, John Cali­pari and Big Ten Com­mis­sioner Jim De­lany.

Not long ago, how­ever, those same coaches prob­a­bly wouldn’t have known the name Bret Just un­less they had re­cruited a player out of Deer­field High in sub­ur­ban Chicago, where he was the var­sity bas­ket­ball coach with a 58-26 ca­reer record. A mere eight years later, it would be sur­pris­ing if a coach­ing change any­where didn’t in­volve him.

“There’s only four or five agents in the col­lege space that have the ma­jor­ity of the coaches,” said Daniel Parker, the vice pres­i­dent for the sports di­vi­sion of the pow­er­ful Parker Ex­ec­u­tive Search. “If I have a search, he’s one you call. He’s got a di­verse group of coaches and he’s done a good job of build­ing re­la­tion­ships with search firms and ath­let­ics di­rec­tors, but also gen­eral man­agers in the (NBA). That takes a lot of re­la­tion­ship skills to nav­i­gate both the col­lege and pro­fes­sional ranks.”

But for all the in­flu­ence and con­nec­tions Just has amassed in a short pe­riod of time, he must de­scend ev­ery night into that place where he has no con­trol over the out­come, where ev­ery time he hits re­fresh comes with a surge of op­ti­mism and dread.

For much of this night, it is a mo­rose task. Bor­rego’s team is get­ting blown out by the Rap­tors and Bick­er­staff ’s team is a big un­der­dog in the late game at Utah, but the re­build­ing Knicks sud­denly have some hope af­ter trail­ing by dou­ble dig­its.

“No mat­ter what hap­pens, they’re play­ing their ass off,” Just says as the Knicks tie it up at 110-110. But the op­ti­mism doesn’t last long. The Bucks pull away with three 3-point­ers in quick suc­ces­sion, leav­ing Just to sit si­lently.

“Now I have to worry about the Griz­zlies score,” he says.

‘Would not al­low my­self to fail’

Whether it was Frank Martin’s long­shot run to the Fi­nal Four with South Carolina in 2016 or Chris Beard go­ing from Ar­kan­sas-Lit­tle Rock to UNLV to Texas Tech in the span of 21⁄ 2 weeks, Just has been at the cen­ter of some of col­lege bas­ket­ball’s most mem­o­rable re­cent mo­ments.

And when you ask peo­ple who have dealt with Just how some­one who wasn’t on the radar at the be­gin­ning of this decade be­came one of the power play­ers, they al­most unan­i­mously point to the authen­tic­ity of his re­la­tion­ships.

“He can fit into any room,” said Beard, who hired Just to rep­re­sent him dur­ing his only year at Ar­kan­sas-Lit­tle Rock, won an NCAA tour­na­ment game and par­layed it into the Texas Tech job. “He can come into Lub­bock and eat din­ner with the pres­i­dent of the uni­ver­sity, then swing by and have beers with the coaches and our stu­dent man­agers will think he’s the coolest guy ever and our AD is re­ally com­fort­able with him and it’s all gen­uine. I don’t know if there’s any­one in my life I trust more.”

Just’s mantra is “re­la­tion­ships lead to trans­ac­tions,” and there was per­haps no bet­ter ex­am­ple than when Wash­ing­ton hired for­mer Syra­cuse as­sis­tant Mike Hop­kins in March 2017.

Few peo­ple, in­clud­ing Wash­ing­ton ath­let­ics di­rec­tor Jen Co­hen, ex­pected Hop­kins to leave Syra­cuse be­cause he had a con­tract that made him the coachin-wait­ing af­ter Jim Boe­heim’s sched­uled (and sub­se­quently re­scinded) re­tire­ment in 2018.

But over the course of the prior year, Co­hen, whose back­ground was largely in foot­ball, bonded with Just as she sought his knowl­edge of the bas­ket­ball world. Largely due to his con­vic­tion that the easy­go­ing, em­pa­thetic Hop­kins would ap­peal to her — “I thought the per­son­al­ity fit was a 10,” Just said — he was able to per­suade Co­hen that she should put Hop­kins on her list.

“One of the things that makes Bret re­ally good at his job is it doesn’t feel trans­ac­tional when you’re work­ing with him in a very trans­ac­tional in­dus­try,” Co­hen said. “I think he un­der­stands suc­cess isn’t just how much money peo­ple are mak­ing and how many re­sources the schools have. Those are all im­por­tant parts of the for­mula, but the value align­ment is re­ally im­por­tant too.”

The other tent pole of Just’s rise is what makes his story all the more un­likely.

At 40 and with four kids, Just de­cided to leave a sta­ble life as a high school coach to pur­sue a far riskier ca­reer.

It wasn’t Just’s first foray into the agent busi­ness. Af­ter his grad­u­a­tion from Tu­lane, where he was a walk-on from 1991 to 1993 un­der Perry Clark, Just moved back to Chicago and joined his fa­ther, Mark, a long­time base­ball scout who had started a small sports agency.

That didn’t turn into a long-term ca­reer, how­ever, leav­ing Just try­ing to piece to­gether a liv­ing through odd jobs, coach­ing bas­ket­ball part time and run­ning two drug treat­ment clin­ics he and his fa­ther had in­vested in.

“I was watch­ing guys give urine sam­ples,” he said.

Though he even­tu­ally es­tab­lished him­self as a full-time high school coach in 2008, Just main­tained a few con­tacts in the agent world, which helped him land a meet­ing at the mas­sive Cre­ative Artists Agency firm in the fall of 2010.

With lit­tle to back him up other than a vi­sion and the strength of his per­son­al­ity, Just sold CAA on the po­ten­tial of a busi­ness fo­cused on bas­ket­ball coaches, par­tic­u­larly as salaries were be­gin­ning to ex­plode with all the new tele­vi­sion money col­leges were about to re­ceive. He also thought his coach­ing back­ground would give him a head start on a few con­nec­tions and be at­trac­tive to up-and-com­ing coaches, many of whom didn’t even have agents.

“At the end of the day it was just whether I could build the re­la­tion­ships quickly enough,” Just said. “I’m 40 years old, four kids, ba­si­cally start­ing from scratch. But I just felt like I would not al­low my­self to fail.”

He showed up at the Fi­nal Four in 2011 with no clients, no meet­ings, no con­nec­tions with search firms and no real plan. Mostly, he stalked ho­tel lob­bies look­ing to spark con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple he knew.

One of them was Brian War­dle, then the Wis­con­sin-Green Bay coach. They were fa­mil­iar with each other be­cause War­dle tried to re­cruit Duje Dukan, one of Just’s Deer­field High play­ers, who ended up sign­ing with Wis­con­sin.

“He didn’t know what I was do­ing, and I told him, and he was like, ‘We should talk,’ ” Just said.

Early on, he re­lied on those types of chance en­coun­ters to re­cruit clients, one of which the fol­low­ing sum­mer would change the tra­jec­tory of his ca­reer.

Sweet 16 pay­day

A week be­fore “Dunk City” be­came the big­gest story in col­lege bas­ket­ball in March 2013, Just left the arena in Ma­con, Ge­or­gia, con­vinced that the con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship game he had just watched could get Andy En­field in the door of the Old Do­min­ion coach­ing search.

Just, who was still an un­known, had signed En­field as a client the pre­vi­ous sum­mer, the re­sult of a ran­dom con­ver­sa­tion in a Las Ve­gas res­tau­rant late one night af­ter all the AAU games had been played.

En­field had never hired an agent but felt like he might need one af­ter his first year at Florida Gulf Coast be­cause he sus­pected the team he had com­ing back might be tal­ented enough to put him on the radar of some big­ger schools.

“I thought (Just’s) en­thu­si­asm for what I was try­ing to do at FGCU and his vi­sion for what he wanted to do was very sim­i­lar,” En­field said. “He had a cou­ple clients, but not a lot, and he was look­ing to the fu­ture.”

Af­ter two NCAA tour­na­ment up­sets as a No. 15 seed, the fu­ture was now. Though it was al­most un­heard of for a coach to go from a pro­gram as small as Florida Gulf Coast to a Power Five con­fer­ence, En­field was the hottest name in the in­dus­try, and Just was in po­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ize.

“One of my frus­tra­tions when I got into the busi­ness is there was such a pre­mium on the NCAA tour­na­ment and it felt like ADs and search firms didn’t look at the whole body of work,” Just said. “Then I started ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it through my guys, and it’s hard to de­scribe the feel­ing when your life changes that fast.”

A cou­ple of days be­fore the Sweet 16, Just’s phone rang while he was sit­ting down for din­ner at a fancy steak­house in Dal­las. It was the kind of call you don’t miss: South­ern Cal­i­for­nia ath­let­ics di­rec­tor Pat Haden, and for the next hour and a half, they talked through ev­ery­thing as he paced out­side the res­tau­rant, from how En­field would re­cruit Los An­ge­les to En­field’s per­sonal story go­ing from Wall Street to coach­ing.

But the con­ver­sa­tion came with a caveat: Just, feel­ing con­fi­dent Haden wouldn’t give the job to some­one else, wasn’t go­ing to dis­tract his client with any hint of USC’s in­ter­est un­til af­ter Florida Gulf Coast was out of the tour­na­ment.

A cou­ple of months ear­lier, Just had been in En­field’s of­fice in Fort My­ers, putting a ré­sumé on pa­per. Now, as long as En­field wanted the job, he was on the verge of ne­go­ti­at­ing a con­tract worth $1.5 mil­lion a year, 10 times what he was mak­ing at FGCU.

“I wanted to try to do it by the book,” En­field said. “That was a very stress­ful time for me be­cause we were in the midst of a tour­na­ment run, but it was a tough sit­u­a­tion for Bret be­cause he had to re­ally try to sat­isfy a lot of peo­ple and get in­for­ma­tion and take a lot of calls and he re­ally had to do it on his own. There had to be a lot of trust in­volved.”

En­field go­ing from Florida Gulf Coast to USC be­came the first in a series of what Just calls “me­te­oric moves” for his clients, based largely on NCAA tour­na­ment suc­cess.

While there’s cer­tainly some luck in­volved when coaches pop onto the na­tional scene with tour­na­ment wins, it’s hap­pened enough for Just’s clients — from Beard to Brad Un­der­wood with Stephen F. Austin to Ryan Odom with Mary­land-Bal­ti­more County — that it doesn’t seem like an ac­ci­dent but rather an abil­ity to eval­u­ate coach­ing tal­ent.

“He knows coach­ing,” said Ne­braska’s Tim Miles, who be­came one of Just’s ear­li­est clients when he was at Colorado State. “And I think he knows what to look for and he un­der­stands what’s trans­fer­able.”

Too many clients?

Be­fore go­ing to the Knicks-Bucks game, Just had spent the af­ter­noon at Mar­quette’s prac­tice watch­ing an­other client, as­sis­tant Dwayne Killings, and meet­ing with Steve Wo­j­ciechowski, who is rep­re­sented by a dif­fer­ent agent at CAA.

Just loves watch­ing Wo­j­ciehowski run a prac­tice — there’s never a mo­ment where the en­ergy dips — but he got antsy at this one be­cause his phone wasn’t pick­ing up ser­vice in the base­ment of the Al McGuire Cen­ter.

“I’m go­ing to have like 70 texts when I get out of here,” he joked.

If this were March, Just would be in real trou­ble. And it’s not easy work, though his busi­ness has now grown to the point where he’ll often re­place one client with an­other.

The ex­act size of Just’s client list, how­ever, is some­thing he doesn’t dis­cuss. Even though his rep­u­ta­tion has now put him in a po­si­tion to be se­lec­tive about clients — “If I can’t be fully in­vested, I won’t take them on at this point,” he said — agents often have to fight against the per­cep­tion of be­com­ing spread too thin or hav­ing too many coaches com­pet­ing for the same jobs.

“When peo­ple say you have too many clients, one of the things I tell them is, ‘You want me to have 30 coaches and act like I have three,’ ” he said.

That’s why Just spends his hours send­ing texts of sup­port and pores over sched­ules to cre­ate road trips where he can see as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble.

Whether it’s go­ing to Los An­ge­les so he can hit the Lak­ers and Clip­pers as well as USC, UC-Santa Bar­bara and UCRiver­side, or driv­ing trips across the Mis­souri Val­ley and Mid-Amer­i­can con­fer­ences, prac­ti­cally ev­ery day of his sched­ule from now un­til mid-Fe­bru­ary is planned out to make sure he sees his coaches in per­son.

“It’s im­por­tant they know I’m in the trenches with them,” he said. “This is a face-time busi­ness. I want to make sure I touch ev­ery­body. You’ve got to feel it. You’ve got to get the pulse of what’s go­ing on.”

That con­stant con­nec­tion he works to main­tain, com­bined with his coach­ing back­ground, makes him a de facto part of these pro­grams. He’s not just there to ne­go­ti­ate con­tracts but rather to coun­sel his clients on ev­ery­thing from side­line de­meanor to how to deal with spe­cific sit­u­a­tions with play­ers.

“I can have a bas­ket­ball con­ver­sa­tion with him, and I can get some­thing out of it ver­sus some­one just say­ing, ‘Hey you guys look good on TV,’ ” En­field said. “This is a very lonely busi­ness at times, and the nice thing about Bret is he can be hon­est with me through the good and the bad. It’s not al­ways good. You’re go­ing to lose games, but he gives you a sense of re­al­ity.”

Long day capped with late win

Out­side the vis­i­tors locker room in Fis­erv Fo­rum, Just min­gles with Knicks ex­ec­u­tives and as­sis­tants as Fiz­dale gives his com­ments af­ter Mil­wau­kee’s 124-113 win. Even though he al­ready had lunch with Fiz­dale af­ter shootaround that day, he can’t make the 80-minute drive back to the Chicago sub­urbs with­out one more con­ver­sa­tion.

“Hope­fully he’ll see me stand­ing over here and I’ll tell him I love him and it’s all good,” he says.

The night hasn’t given him much good news to this point. In ad­di­tion to the Knicks, the Bor­rego’s Hor­nets lost to the Rap­tors by 21.

As Just makes the drive home, he re­sists the urge to fid­dle with his phone to see how his fi­nal shot at a win that night is work­ing out.

This time, Just is with a pas­sen­ger, who in­forms him that the Griz­zlies pulled an up­set in Utah, win­ning 92-84 and lift­ing his mood in a way that didn’t seem pos­si­ble ear­lier.

“What?” he says. “No they didn’t. Is that fi­nal? Oh my God. Do you un­der­stand how big that is?”

For the first time all night, Just can un­tie the knots in his stom­ach and per­haps even look for­ward to some sleep. As a long bas­ket­ball sea­son be­gins, with plenty of trans­ac­tions ahead, he is prob­a­bly go­ing to need it.


Coach­ing agent Bret Just strikes up a con­ver­sa­tion with Bulls gen­eral man­ager Gar For­man.


Bret Just came in fourth in a CBS Sports poll of coaches ask­ing them to iden­tify the most pow­er­ful per­son in col­lege bas­ket­ball.

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