Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O’Neal were high-profile teenagers who shared the same agent and sneaker brand in January 1998, when a mutual acquaintance suggested that they meet for a meal. They went to an Applebee’s restaurant in Portland, Ore.
O’Neal was in his second season there with the Trail Blazers, who had selected him out of high school with the 17th pick in the powerhouse 1996 N.B.A. draft, four picks behind Kobe Bryant. McGrady, who had also been selected out of high school, with the ninth overall pick in 1997, was a rookie with the Toronto Raptors.
“It was just a natural connection,” McGrady said. “We’re like brothers.”
“It was our first time sitting down and having a conversation,” O’Neal said. “For two youngsters to have that type of communication and chemistry, that’s what I always remember every time I come in contact with Tracy.”
That contact is about to become more frequent. McGrady and O’Neal, who have 13 N.B.A. All-Star appearances between them, said in a phone interview that they plan to open a player representation agency this fall. They will call it Seven1 Sports Group and Entertainment.
The name is a mash-up of their jersey numbers from careers that propelled McGrady to induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017 and enabled O’Neal to play for seven teams across 18 seasons and sign player contracts worth more than $150 million. If successful, they would become the most prominent players in N.B.A. history to enter the highly competitive and hard-to-break-into agent business.
McGrady and O’Neal, who both are 41 and live in Texas, said they were secure financially but felt a pull to forge a new path in their post-playing careers after discussing the matter regularly over the past two years. Their talks intensified over the past four months while they were mostly limited to their homes because of the coronavirus pandemic. McGrady (who lives in suburban Houston) and O’Neal (who lives in suburban Dallas) found themselves, in O’Neal’s words, with “time to process and think hard — together” about how they could help young players, particularly young Black players, the most.
“We think it’s needed, and we have a passion for it,” McGrady said. “We’re around kids every single day because we have youth programs. It just makes sense. We see the lack of information that these kids are getting, so we would be doing a disservice to our people if we don’t lend our expertise of what we know and help guide them. This is a calling that we have.”
McGrady said he would serve as a co-owner and adviser to players and most likely step away from the broadcasting role he has had the past four and a half seasons with ESPN. O’Neal intends to take the National Basketball Players Association test in January to become a registered N.B.A. agent and hold partner status alongside McGrady.
“Make no mistake,” O’Neal said, “this is very personal.”
The relationships O’Neal built with several top draft prospects at his Drive Nation sports complex in Irving, Texas, provided another strong nudge. Three potential first-round picks in the N.B.A. draft in October — R.J. Hampton, Tyrese Maxey and Jahmi’us Ramsey — came through the Drive Nation program, as did the highly rated 2021 draft candidate Cade Cunningham. Fielding numerous questions from those players and their families about various aspects of turning pro convinced O’Neal that he and McGrady had much to offer, despite the obvious questions they will face about their lack of negotiating and marketing experience.
“There’s no magic wand for this,” O’Neal said. “We’re not trying to say we’re the magic wand. But we’re going to be different. You can’t name another pair of people who have had the level of success and the ups and downs that we’ve had in our careers.”
In what became an emotional conference call as they discussed the new venture, McGrady and O’Neal opened up about the various pressures they felt even at the peak of those careers. Both said the strain of superstar pressures — and the lack of paternal guidance to help them through it — was greater than they ever let on as active players.
“I didn’t meet my father until he was 30, and he died nine months after that,” O’Neal said. “I was truly blessed to have a core of people around me that helped me get through my struggles, but I guarantee you not one team I played for knew that about me. Not one team knew I struggled with that — not being able to pick up the phone and call my dad and ask him, ‘Can you help me?’ Or, ‘Are you proud of me?’ Or to cherish me being drafted or my kids being born.”
“You just brought something back when you said that,” McGrady told O’Neal on the call. He said he had a relationship with his father, Tracy McGrady Sr., while he was playing, but not a strong one.
“Over my career, I hated the fact that I never once was able to just bring my pops to my environment,” McGrady said. “Do you know how hard it is to be an elite player in this league, to be considered a superstar, and then you have a career-changing injury? To be on top and have a career-changing injury and you don’t even get to have a discussion with your father about going through those things — do you know how difficult that is?”
After earning seven All-Star selections and winning two N.B.A. scoring titles, McGrady began having serious knee issues with the Houston Rockets during the 2007-08 season. The next season, as his 29th birthday approached, he needed microfracture surgery on his left knee. The Rockets traded him to the Knicks in February 2010, and in his last three and a half N.B.A. seasons, McGrady played for four teams and never averaged more than 9.4 points per game. He last played at age 33.
“When I had microfracture surgery, I was depressed,” McGrady said. “And the only people I had around me were my wife and my mom. That was painful.”
What McGrady and O’Neal can offer potential clients right away, beyond name recognition, is the wisdom gained from dealing with such crises. The value of their expertise may rise further if the N.B.A., as it hopes, reinstates the rule that allows players to jump directly from high school to the N.B.A. McGrady, O’Neal, Bryant and Kevin Garnett brought that leap back to prominence in the mid-1990s for the first time since the 1970s.
Of course, for all of the life experiences they can pass on to prospective clients from the combined 34 seasons they played in the N.B.A., McGrady and O’Neal have no deal-making history to draw from compared with the league’s most established player representation firms. They said they hoped to recruit players entering the 2021 N.B.A. draft and players already in the league, but that will mean competing with the likes of Excel Sports (led by Jeff Schwartz, the former tennis agent turned N.B.A. power agent), BDA Sports (led by Bill Duffy, one of the league’s most experienced agents) and Klutch Sports (whose chief executive officer, Rich Paul, landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in June 2019).
O’Neal said he and McGrady were in the process of hiring “seasoned partners,” including a few “old-school pit bulls,” to make up for what they lacked in representation know-how.
“This business isn’t waiting on me to pass a test,” O’Neal said.
Only a handful of former players have moved into player representation, most notably B.J. Armstrong, who adapted well to the business after playing alongside Michael Jordan on three of the Chicago Bulls’ six championship teams in the 1990s. Armstrong said in a telephone interview that similar motivations persuaded him to become an agent after a stint as a Bulls executive, when he recognized that incoming N.B.A. players were getting younger and lacked outlets for guidance.
“It was something that I never thought about when I was playing,” said Armstrong, who represents Detroit’s Derrick Rose among his nearly 20 clients with the sports agency Wasserman. “After I worked in a front office, I can remember thinking, ‘Who’s getting them ready to understand the business they’re walking into?’ I saw an opportunity to make myself accessible to questions I wish I could have asked someone when I was playing.”
McGrady is undeterred by the paucity of N.B.A. players who have made this transition. He let out a hearty laugh when it was pointed out that Arn Tellem, the former power agent who represented both McGrady and O’Neal, left the field they will now try to crack to become the vice chairman of the Detroit Pistons in 2015.
Asked about trying to find their niche in such a cutthroat industry, McGrady said of his new rivals: “At the end of the day, they can’t get all the players. Obviously it’s going to take us some time to get our feet wet and really understand how this thing works. But we’re not intimidated by anybody. We know there’s going to be a lot of people trying to poke holes into this.”
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