These have been trying times for A. Lee Fentress, a globe-trotting 45-year-old lawyer who cofounded Advantage International Inc., the 3 1/2-year-old Washington-based sports management firm that represents more than 150 athletes from nine offices on four continents.
On June 19, Fentress lost an opportunity to earn his company an estimated $ 500,000 in fees and commissions over several years when his most promising new client, 6-foot-8 basketball all-America Len Bias, died of cocaine intoxication following a party in his dormitory suite at the University of Maryland.
On Aug. 26, Prince George's County State's Attorney Arthur Marshall Jr. asked a grand jury to consider whether to indict Fentress for obstruction of justice for allegedly advising Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell -- another Advantage client -- to remove evidence of drug use from Bias' room. When jurors refused to return any indictments, Marshall publicly called for the Washington Bar Association to investigate Fentress' behavior. "It's not necessarily criminal, but it's wrong," Marshall declared.
Two days later, Bias' father said in an interview that Fentress may have had a conflict of interest in negotiating endorsement contracts with the same shoe company for Len Bias and Lefty Driesell.
Now, Fentress is facing yet another challenge: James Bias has alleged that Advantage did not properly manage his son's affairs and allowed him to spend more than $ 11,000 during the 2 1/2 months before he was selected by the Boston Celtics as the second overall pick of the NBA draft.
"I'm generally not pleased with the way they handled Len's financial affairs," Bias said in an interview. "They did a bum job."
Had Len Bias lived, his projected $ 1 million-plus annual earnings from basketball and endorsement contracts would have allowed him to lead a free-spending life style. But now, after reviewing his late son's financial statements, James Bias said he is concerned that such spending began -- without his knowledge -- before Len Bias had a chance to take his first NBA jump shot.
Specifically, Bias asserted that Fentress made and did not fulfill an oral commitment to limit his son's spending to "around $ 350 per month" and to provide him a life insurance policy.
In the Advantage contract Bias signed April 7, the firm agreed to "recommend and provide for all of your insurance needs, including life, property, health, disability and liability." The contract did not set a time frame. The absence of life insurance is now significant, said Bias' lawyer, Wayne Curry, because a policy may have provided James and Lonise Bias with some badly needed cash to pay off debts related to their son's basketball career. "Mr. and Mrs. Bias are in debt," Curry said.
Fentress said in his first extended interview since Bias' death that he acted properly "every step of the way" in his management of the 22-year-old's financial life. Of Marshall's allegations, Fentress said he had merely recommended to Driesell that Bias' room be made presentable because "the press and TV camera crews would be on their way." Fentress said he never agreed to place a life insurance policy for Bias, and didn't believe he needed one at that time. He asserted that he could not have had a conflict of interest in negotiating the two endorsement deals because he had advised Bias that he also had represented Driesell.
Fentress, speaking in the presence of a partner, Frank Craighill, and a staff lawyer, Pam Lester, said he didn't recall whether he had established a monthly budget for Bias, although, he said, he had advised him to curb his "excessive" spending. Fentress said his company cannot be held responsible for Bias' spending spree, which began in April after Bias obtained a bank loan for $ 15,000, which was deposited into a checking account managed by Advantage. Over a two-month period, Bias withdrew $ 6,263.17 to rent an AMC Cherokee jeep, lease a Nissan 300ZX and purchase an insurance policy on the Nissan, according to sources who have seen Bias' financial statements.
"Len Bias was a 21-year-old adult," Fentress said. "You know, it was his money. We gave advice as we saw fit. Sometimes it was followed. Sometimes it wasn't."
Fentress' participation in the business affairs of Maryland's best-known athlete and best-known coach illustrates the powerful role that an agent can play in the big-money environment of big-time college sports. An examination of the Fentress-Bias relationship also raises a question of responsibility -- the extent of the responsibility that an agent has to an athlete and that an athlete has to himself and his family.
Lee Fentress began his public life in the early '60s, first as a nationally ranked, left-handed tennis player, then as a Washington-based assistant U.S. attorney and campaign aide to presidential aspirant Robert Kennedy. But it wasn't until the early '70s, when he began devoting his full-time energies to the business of sports, that Fentress truly made his mark.
In 1971, he joined two former Virginia Law School classmates -- Craighill and Donald Dell -- at their sports-oriented law firm in Washington. Four years later the firm expanded to become ProServ Inc., an internationally respected sports marketing company that would represent hundreds of athletes, including former Maryland basketball stars Tom McMillen, John Lucas, Adrian Branch and Buck Williams.
In March 1983, Fentress and Craighill left ProServ to form Advantage International, bringing along dozens of ProServ clients, including Moses Malone and Hana Mandlikova, and leaving behind a trail of bitterness. Although Advantage quickly became a force in the industry, it had no success in attracting clients from the University of Maryland.
Fentress took a step in that direction in August 1985 when he agreed to assist Driesell with the renegotiation of his Maryland contract. For 16 years, Driesell had represented himself in his negotiations with the university. But as he entered the 1985-86 school year, and the twilight of his coaching life, Driesell was determined to cut the best deal he possibly could.
"Lefty felt that he needed somebody to be in his corner because I was a lawyer," then-Maryland athletic director Dick Dull recalled in an interview last summer.
"I was having problems with Dick Dull -- getting some things I deserved," Driesell explained.
Fentress negotiated a 10-year contract, estimated to be worth between $ 2 million and $ 3 million, that had Driesell coaching for six years and serving as an assistant athletic director for four more. Pleased with the job Fentress had done, Driesell again sought his assistance last fall with the renegotiation of an endorsement deal with Nike, the Oregon-based shoe and sporting apparel company.
In 1982, Driesell had signed a four-year contract with Nike that in consecutive years would pay him $ 25,000, $ 30,000, $ 50,000 and $ 60,000, according to an industry source. Although the deal also included stock options, its value paled next to the contracts that had been negotiated by Atlantic Coast Conference coaches such as North Carolina's Dean Smith and North Carolina State's Jim Valvano.
Nike offered to increase Driesell's annual retainer to $ 75,000 effective when his contract expired on Aug. 31, 1986, the source said. The $ 15,000 raise seemed reasonable enough -- until Driesell was offered a four-year, $ 400,000 contract by Reebok International, a Massachusetts-based manufacturer of aerobic and running shoes and apparel that would be introducing a line of basketball shoes in January.
"Coach Driesell said, 'I have two questions for you: Have you ever heard of Reebok and, secondly, what do you think about the numbers?' " Fentress recalled. "I said, 'I have heard about Reebok. It's a great company. It's a real success story.' I related that we'd had a relationship with them in the past with tennis players. My advice to Coach Driesell was: 'Accept the offer immediately.' "
Driesell's defection from Nike represented a coup for Reebok because Driesell was one of the most colorful figures in the game, his team played in the high-exposure ACC and he also happened to coach perhaps the most commercially attractive athlete in college basketball.
Nike had begun making its pitch for Len Bias last fall. "I told Lenny that we really wanted him," recalled Nike's Washington-area representative, Howard White, who played for Driesell during the early '70s. "Lenny's major was design, and he was into fashion design, so we intended to allow him to do some designing for us."
Bias had the look that Nike, Reebok and other shoe companies wanted to know better. Elegant, confident, dressed for success -- this was Leonard K. Bias.
But in January, with the draft six months away, Bias apparently was short on cash. Late that month, he received a $ 500 loan from former Maryland teammate Ben Coleman -- a check signed by Coleman's agent, Bill Pollack of Professional Management Associates of Washington. Coleman explained: "I was playing in the Italian league, in Trieste. One day, after Maryland beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Len called me. I asked him if he needed anything and he said he did. Bill Pollack takes care of my bills, so I asked him to send Lenny the money."
Asked if he knew why Bias needed the money, Coleman said, "Well, he was a senior, right? So maybe he wanted to take a vacation or something. You know, you don't question nobody, like, of Lenny's stature."
Pollack said he didn't make a serious attempt to recruit Bias "because as soon as we determined that Lefty was represented by Fentress . . . it was clear that [Bias] was going to go with Fentress."
Although Bias was sought by hundreds of agencies last spring, he interviewed only two: ProServ and Advantage.
Bias, his parents and Driesell met with ProServ executives Dell and David Falk in the Maryland coach's office. The firm's major selling point was its track record in the NBA -- its roster of clients included Patrick Ewing, James Worthy, Adrian Dantley and Michael Jordan -- and on the Maryland campus.
Advantage managing directors Fentress and Craighill made their presentation to Bias and his parents at their plush, art-decorated headquarters in Georgetown. Driesell also was present.
". . . We specialize in all areas of representation for professional athletes, just as you specialize in playing basketball," read a proposal Advantage prepared for the Biases. "We understand the pressures you will be under and the risks you will face in the pros -- and we are prepared to help you come out on top of them. That's our job and our commitment . . ."
The proposal also set forth Advantage's definition of a sports agent. "Your representative," it stated, "is an adviser, accountant, attorney, broker, secretary and, most of all, a friend."
Although Fentress said he did not know if Driesell had a role in Bias' decision, he believed Advantage's association with the coach could work in the company's favor. "If, in fact, Coach Driesell felt we did a good job for him . . . that fact wouldn't escape the Biases," Fentress said.
Driesell said he told Bias that he favored Fentress "because he did not have as many big-name players and I thought he'd do a better job for him."
Terms of Agreement
On April 7, Bias signed with Advantage. In its contract with Bias, Advantage agreed to negotiate his NBA contract for 3 percent of the gross value of the contract, provide "business and financial management" services for an annual retainer "not to exceed 2 percent" of his NBA income and negotiate endorsement deals for a 20 percent fee.
"As your financial advisers, we will develop a personal long-term financial plan for you which will coordinate your investments, taxes, monthly budget and estate planning," the contract stated. That meant that Advantage would, among its other duties, oversee and pay Bias' monthly bills, assist him in the "negotiation, purchase of major items such as residence, condominium, automobile or other large items" and "recommend and provide for all of Bias' insurance needs."
Fentress said he recommended and placed for Bias a $ 1 million accident and disability policy, with an accidental death provision, to supplement a $ 1 million disability policy, with no accidental death rider, that his father had bought for him in August 1985. Both policies stipulated that no benefits would be paid in the event of a self-induced, drug-related death, sources said.
As for life insurance, James Bias said, "They were supposed to get it . . . It's in the contract, that they'd acquire life insurance."
Actually, Fentress said, Advantage does not as a general practice -- and did not in Bias' case -- recommend life insurance for clients in the months before they sign their first pro contracts. Fentress explained: "For an athlete who's 21 years old in the fit of health, to think that in a 60-day or 90-day period he's going to die and it's not going to be an accident, we've always taken the view that the chance of that is so remote that when you weigh that chance versus going out and borrowing money to pay an insurance premium . . . that it's a bad business proposition."
Fentress knew that Bias needed spending money, and on the day the Maryland star signed with Advantage it was agreed he would apply for a loan "to take him through the summer rather comfortably," Fentress recalled. That same day, Bias received a $ 15,000 loan, payable in one year with 9 1/2 percent interest, from Sovran/D.C. National Bank.
James Bias said it was orally agreed at that meeting that Fentress would limit Bias' spending to "around $ 350 a month." Fentress said he had no recollection of such an agreement, although, he said, he urged Bias in May to curtail his spending.
Bias' spending escalated only three days after he received the $ 15,000 loan. According to a source who has seen Bias' financial statements, the following withdrawals were made from his account at Advantage:
April 10: cash, $ 500.
April 10: check, $ 382 to the University of Maryland for parking fines.
April 15: check, $ 1,850 to purchase one-year, $ 1 million accident and death insurance policy.
April 24: cash, $ 600.
April 24: check, $ 645 to Dollar Rent A Car for two-week rental of a 1985 AMC Cherokee jeep.
May 7: check, $ 643.60 to Dollar Rent A Car for two additional weeks' rental of jeep.
May 7: check, $ 867 to Anton Leasing of Rockville for Nissan 300ZX; amount included a $ 500 deposit.
May 13: cash, $ 250.
May 20: cash, $ 600.
May 21: check, $ 367 to Anton Leasing for Nissan.
May 21: charge, $ 65 for American Express Gold Card membership.
May 23: cash, $ 300.
May 23: check, $ 4,240.57 for one-year auto insurance policy.
June 13: check, $ 400 to agent Bill Pollack for repayment of $ 500 loan from Ben Coleman. (Pollack said he tried unsuccessfully to collect the additional $ 100.)
Total expenditures: $ 11,710.17.
Although Len Bias owned a '76 Olds Cutlass, James Bias said he did not object to the rental of the jeep -- until he learned it was costing his son about $ 320 a week. "I told my son that you'd be better off getting a lease," Bias said. "So he went back and talked to [Advantage] and leased the Nissan." Fentress said he had recommended Bias rent rather than commit to a monthly lease "in the hope that we were able to finalize an endorsement agreement" that would have provided Bias with the use of a car.
James Bias said he didn't object to the leasing of the Nissan -- until after his son's death, when he learned the cost of the insurance. "To my thinking, it was way out of line," Bias said. Fentress said: "That's the going rate . . . Our personnel here shopped it and that was the best price they came up with."
Fentress said that in mid-May he had a "long chat" with Bias, "telling him that his spending was excessive" and that he should curtail it. "I remember a couple of times when Len had, I thought, pretty sizable bills for a veterinarian for some dog or dogs he had," Fentress said. "I asked him if those were all necessary. He said, 'Yeah, I've got to do this. But I'm spending a little bit too much, and I'll slow down.' "
Bias did slow down, a little, according to Fentress. "But the $ 15,000 was his money," Craighill said. "He signed for it. We had no obligation . . . If he wants to buy a Rolls-Royce and he wants to spend the money that way, well, it's his money and he gets a chance to do that."
Asked if his son had a responsibility to curb his own spending, James Bias said: "Why would you get somebody to manage your money if they couldn't do that? Isn't that plain? Len hired somebody to manage his money so it would be handled in a way that was beneficial to him."
On the morning of June 17, when he was drafted by the league champion Celtics, Len Bias didn't hesitate to tell reporters what he intended to buy with his first NBA dollars. "A car," he said. "A Mercedes." James Bias smiled when asked if he planned to help his son select a car. "If you've seen how Len dresses, you know he doesn't need any help picking out a car," he said. "He's got his own sense of style."
Bias would soon have enough money to buy his dream car. After informal negotiations with several shoe companies produced no top-dollar offers, Fentress said he reached a tentative agreement with Reebok.
On June 18, Bias arrived with his father and Fentress at Reebok's offices outside Boston. While Bias and his father toured the company plant, Fentress finalized a deal that, an industry source said, would pay Bias $ 325,000 a year for five years, plus $ 10,000 if he was named NBA rookie of the year, $ 10,000 each time he was named to the league's all-star team and $ 35,000 each time his team reached the NBA championship game. The contract would be terminated if Bias died, retired or was convicted of a felony.
Elated, Bias phoned Driesell with news of the contract. "I tried to talk him out of it," Driesell recalled. "I said, 'Wait a minute. It's kind of early. Don't you think you should wait to see if you could get more money from Nike or Adidas or Converse?' He said, 'I got a great deal.' "
Bias left Reebok's office without a contract -- it was to be signed the next week -- then attended a cocktail party hosted by Reebok for two Celtics players. As dozens of Boston-area retailers looked on, Reebok President Paul Fireman introduced Bias as the "newest member of the Reebok family." Fentress said he had no qualms about allowing the deal to be announced before a contract was signed. "Reebok is a solid, first-rate company," he said.
Bias returned to Washington that night and at 6:36 the next morning, he was rushed to Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale after he collapsed in his dormitory suite. As a medical team tried to revive his lifeless superstar, Driesell sought the advice of the man who for 10 weeks had been the architect of Bias' professional basketball career.
"I first got a call from Coach Driesell at 8:50 to inform me that Len was in the hospital, in very serious condition," Fentress recalled. "They couldn't get his heart started, and he just wanted me to know."
Fentress said he conferred with Craighill about what could be done to revive Bias.
"We were in a helpless situation," Fentress said. "Len was in a small hospital in Prince George's County . . . We got the names of the best cardiologists we could find in the city and we inquired whether we could get a helicopter . . . maybe a military helicopter . . . to fly a cardiologist to that hospital."
Fentress said he made several calls -- one to Sen. Edward Kennedy's office -- trying to locate a helicopter. But before any arrangements could be made, Bias was dead, of cardiac arrest induced by cocaine intoxication. At that point, Driesell left the hospital and headed for his office in Cole Field House.
"As soon as I walked in, I was told Fentress was on the phone," Driesell recalled. "I told him Leonard had passed away. He was hysterical, in shock. He said, 'What happened, what happened?' I said, 'There was some mention at the hospital that cocaine may have been involved.' He said, 'Get an assistant coach to clean up Leonard's room.' I told Oliver [Purnell], 'Lee said to clean up Leonard's room.' He was a lawyer and I was doing what he told me." (Purnell has said he went to Bias' room but did not follow Driesell's instructions.)
"It was an emotional time, to be sure, but not hysterical," Fentress said, adding that his instructions were meant only to make the room presentable for the media, and not to remove evidence. Neither Fentress nor the Washington Bar Association would comment on whether Fentress' alleged conduct is being reviewed by the bar.
That morning, Fentress sent two of his employes to James and Lonise Bias' house to assist them with funeral arrangements and serve as their news media liaison. Advantage also established a fund to benefit the Bias family. Curry said $ 12,094 -- which includes a $ 10,000 check from the Celtics -- has been donated to the family.The donations will help James Bias pay off the debts related to his son's death and basketball career, including the $ 6,000 he had borrowed to buy the disability policy last year. (Curry said that, based on his understanding of estate law, Bias' parents are not responsible for repaying their son's $ 15,000 loan.)
"I think it bears stating that at Advantage, we not only did everything we could do to help in the situation, we had absolutely zero to gain from anything we did for them [after Bias' death]," Craighill said. "We spent hundreds of hours and willingly so because we thought it was the right thing to do. But we've never been paid a dime by Len Bias, the Bias family or the estate and never will, never want to be."
As for James Bias' complaints, Craighill said, "The family obviously is disappointed, is grief-stricken and had high hopes for Lenny and his career and the family. And I think it's not unnatural they would explore all the avenues of, 'Are there any sources of funds?' And they got a lawyer and we recommended they get a lawyer."
Curry said he was introduced to the Bias family two days after Len's death by a "mutual friend." He said he was retained in mid-July "to assist them in terms of counseling through this fairly anguishing episode and frankly to examine their legal posture."
Curry would not rule out the possibility of making a claim against Reebok. "I intend to contact Reebok to get a sense of their position and frankly to share our own," he said. Reebok's position is clear, according to John Morgan, a marketing director for the company: "We really don't feel as though we owe the Biases or anybody anything."
Neither Curry nor James Bias would comment on whether any action was being contemplated against Advantage. "Len's parents are just upset with the management of Len's financial affairs," Curry said. ". . . If that's what you can do with just $ 15,000, what could have been expected as regards to the management of $ 1 million or more, which Len was expected to be able to earn?"
At Advantage International's Washington headquarters the other day, Lee Fentress, flanked by his company lawyer and longtime partner, said he could not understand why James Bias is upset with the firm.
"You know, here's a young man who's spent four years in college," Fentress said. "You know, there are things out there that he's going to want. So he talked to me about replenishing a lot of his wardrobe. He wanted a car. Those are natural things for a young man who's going to be a multimillionaire in 90 days, and it's kind of hard to hold off when you've waited four years. It's a very natural kind of thing."