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‘I’ve had to work my a– off to prove myself’: Meet the NBA’s only female agent with a client

Danielle Cantor, the only woman certified by the National Basketball Players Association to represent an active player (Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon), is “fierce,” according to Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Danielle Cantor selects a unique ringtone for every client. Whenever Milwaukee Bucks center Greg Monroe calls, a hybrid hip-hop and jazz song plays. If she hears a kick drum cut through a loud beat, it must be Monroe’s teammate Malcolm Brogdon. At this moment, in a ninth floor Northwest Washington corner office designed as a monument to success, the sound of rapper 21 Savage, Otto Porter Jr.’s favorite artist, signals that the Washington Wizards forward is on the line.

Soon, Porter shows up to debrief before the start of the NBA season with Cantor and David Falk, the super agent who once represented Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. Cantor is Falk’s lone partner in his sports agency, F.A.M.E., but in the NBA she holds an even rarer distinction: the only woman, among approximately 30 certified by the National Basketball Players Association, to solely represent an active player.

While Falk serves as the primary agent for F.A.M.E. clients such as Porter and Monroe, Brogdon elected to sign directly with Cantor.

“As a minority in this country, I think it’s important that you give other people that are overlooked or not given similar opportunities — you give them a chance, as well,” said Brogdon, who in June became the first player in NBA history selected in the second round to win the rookie of the year award. “I know what it feels like to be overlooked in the business or not be given credit or just not to be given an opportunity.

“I thought it would be breaking the glass ceiling and we’d be doing something special together.”

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Cantor tailors a brand that best fits the personality of Brogdon, a four-year college player and Virginia graduate who holds a master’s degree. For his first sponsorship deal, she chose a bank. The week before training camp, she flew to Milwaukee to sit in on his five-hour commercial shoot and, after Brogdon weighed in a little less than the Bucks expected, Cantor smoothed things over with the team. While there, she also put in face-time with Monroe, dining out and holding his last contract discussion before he hits free agency in 10 months. By that weekend, Cantor was overseeing Porter’s move into his new home in Arlington, which comes after F.A.M.E. helped him negotiate a four-year, $106 million maximum contract to remain with the Wizards this summer.

This ability, to passionately advocate on behalf of her clients to NBA general managers or even moving companies, helped convince Porter to sign with F.A.M.E. in 2013.

“First impression was, ‘God dang, who is this woman?’ ” Porter said. “She’s fierce. She gets stuff done.”

The mother of two young girls, the Potomac-based Cantor was recognized this month by the SportsBusiness Journal as a “Game Changer,” an honor given to 35 women in leadership positions across sports. While Cantor didn’t even realize she was the only current female NBA agent with a client until she was informed by the publication, NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts said the fact that there aren’t more is disheartening.

“It is an incredibly, incredibly competitive field. I suspect that there’s more dirty laundry than I even want to admit exists,” Roberts said. “Agents themselves tell me it really is a raw-knuckled brawl kind of business. It may be that it’s just the kind of work that women just find distasteful on some levels. I suspect that not a lot of women are trying to knock on these doors, and that disappoints me.”

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Cantor has never really felt like a pioneer — even though she has always kind of been one, stretching back to her days as a ballgirl in the first season the then-Washington Bullets hired females for the job.

Growing up in Bethesda, it was normal to be one of the boys. When Noah Cantor and his buddies played football, so did his little sister. The peer-like relationship of the Cantor siblings was cemented one day at their grandmother’s house when Noah was teasing Danielle, pinning her down. She fought back by knocking his front tooth out.

“Some of us were probably a little more scared of her than she was of us,” Noah said.

That intensity translated to the soccer field, where Danielle was an All-Met goalkeeper at Whitman High School. During a Maryland state finals game for her club team, the Bethesda Shakers, a fearless Cantor lunged to stop a breakaway. The move saved a goal, but Cantor sustained a concussion. She left the field in an ambulance.

She was “very, very competitive,” former Whitman High girls’ soccer coach Sam DeBone said of his four-year varsity letter winner, calling her “the kind of athlete every coach would like to have.”

“In fact,” DeBone added, “if I had a whole team of Danielle Cantors, I’d be very successful.”

Cantor suffered so many injuries — once, as a Bullets ballgirl, an errant Juwan Howard pass broke her nose, her second such injury — that she grew adept at self-diagnosing torn and pulled muscles. She imagined she’d become a sports physician. But after tearing her medial collateral ligament her sophomore year at Penn and toughing it through one more season, she chose to focus on finance. She graduated from the Wharton School of Business and accepted a job at SFX Sports Management in 2000, tasked with marketing professional athletes.

While some of her peers closed the business day at happy hour, Cantor remained in the office, cold-calling Sacramento pizza shops, grocery chains and car dealerships to land sponsorship deals for Mike Bibby, a Kings player who was a Falk client at the time.

Falk took notice. By 2007, he’d decided to relaunch his agency as a boutique operation representing only NBA players. F.A.M.E. would sign only a handful of clients and hire even fewer executives. Actually, just one: Cantor.

“I’m sort of a bit of a contrarian,” Falk said. “The fact that there are so few women is like motivation for me, just to be different. I like being different. I like setting the trends instead of following the trends.”

On business trips, Falk and his executive vice president are a package deal. He and Cantor have been together for every negotiation over the last decade. They sit courtside to watch their clients on the NBA stage. Cantor, who avoids the subject of her age, has bristled at times for being judged on how the relationship looks. Once, while in the arena of a Central Division NBA team, the owner’s wife assumed Cantor was Falk’s girlfriend.

“My goal is to prove myself with owners and GMs, so they know who I am and they respect me — which I think has happened,” Cantor said. “But I’ve had to work my a– off to prove myself.”

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At the negotiating table, Falk does most of the talking while Cantor sits back and observes, her mind running through the spreadsheets she has created to prove their players’ worth. When she does speak, it’s refreshing.

“David Falk is a man who’s done an awful lot in this business, to say the least. He’s a man that people in this league respect … but at times, everyone needs a buffer and Danielle is definitely that for David,” said John Hammond, the Orlando Magic general manager. “Danielle can be sometimes a friendly voice, a calming influence to some of us and I think that’s why she’s appreciated.”

Though on the surface Cantor is a foil to Falk — right down to their contrasting appearances as a blonde woman with piercing light blues eyes and a 67-year-old bald man — their business partnership is a match made in Type-A heaven.

“Here’s the deal: I like to be behind the scenes. And I don’t like people talking about me or writing about me,” she said, enunciating so precisely she bares her teeth on every consonant. “But when I’m in a negotiation, when I’m in a recruiting meeting — game on.”

As the partners waited for Porter to join them in the office, Cantor was very much in the spotlight, getting coached by Falk as they squabbled over the direction of her photo shoot.

“Relax. Just relax,” Falk said, watching Cantor glare out of the window. “Don’t wrinkle your forehead.”

Then he offered: “Want me to tell you a joke?”

“No,” Cantor responded, holding her pose. “[The photographer] told me not to smile. He said, ‘Look natural.’ ”

She expressed how uncomfortable this felt, particularly the attention, because this is a game she’d much rather play in the shadows. Her goal is to be respected, not recognized. Besides, she’s busy.

While she was tied up with the shoot, Falk asked if he should make an important call that was on her to-do list. Cantor responded bluntly: “No. Please don’t.”

Falk got the message, turning away and smiling.

“She’s the boss,” he said.

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