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The Leaders And Their Packs
A Pro Athlete's Entourage of Hangers-On Offers Adulation--and Headaches

By Kevin Merida and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 21, 2000; Page C01

Picasso rolled with bullfighters, beachcombers and beautiful babes. Hemingway's flunkies wouldn't tolerate flattery of rival Scott Fitzgerald in Papa's presence. Elvis's crew wore "TCB" pendants boasting that they were taking care of business. Sugar Ray Robinson's retinue even included a comedian.

They all had entourages, a carnival mix of pals, sycophants, hustlers, hussies and paid attendants--just like the "posses" that kiss up to today's professional athletes. Except today's professional athletes are living in an entirely different bubble of adoration. It is a surreal and increasingly risky world they must navigate. Sometimes it seems that world is navigating them.

Take Ray Lewis.

One day he is chillin' with his homeys, sporting the white mink coat, cruisin' Atlanta's streets during Super Bowl week in a 40-foot Lincoln Navigator limo--what one driver calls "the private jet of the road." The next thing you know, two people have been stabbed to death outside the Cobalt Lounge at 4 a.m. and the best linebacker in pro football has been charged with murder. Two acquaintances of the Baltimore Ravens player also have been charged. Lewis maintains that he is innocent.

Every time there is one of these bizarre episodes, a public lamp is trained on the pro athlete's lifestyle, his associations, his skill at appraising situations and people. The wonder is: After coming so far and accomplishing so much, why risk it all so cavalierly? Why share the company of those whose behavior could ruin your reputation, if not end your career?

Even when he was manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Pete Rose had an entourage of unsavory characters, some of whom would place bets for him and two of whom were convicted of drug charges. His relationships played a major role in his ejection from baseball.

In Lewis's case, the two men he hung out with that night and who were charged with him have criminal records.

"Even if you are an athlete," says Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, "you can't be secluded and insulated" from the actions of your group.

"We all have to make judgments about who our friends are and what relationships we should maintain," says Bill Strickland, an agent who represents a number of pro basketball and football players. "It's just that you and I don't have to make those judgments in front of the world."

These men--big and strong and tall and fast--get paid millions of dollars to perform in grand arenas. We take our children to see them--children who seek them out for autographs, who put their posters on walls, who mimic their moves. We expect them to be special. Exemplary citizens, as some of them are. But some of them are not special. They are just plain ordinary. Or just plain dumb. Or just plain young--cocky, naive, vulnerable.

True stories: An uncle asks that his electric bill be paid. A mother-in-law is upset because her $250,000 house is not lavish enough. A cousin wants a plane ticket and a hotel room. A childhood buddy is in trouble and needs an attorney. A friend loses his job and asks his NBA homeboy to buy him a car so he can go job-hunting.

"These are not normal requests for most of us," says Dana London, director of Transition Teams, a nonprofit education and support group for professional athletes that is based in Silver Spring. If the athlete begins honoring these requests, she adds, "it's a vicious cycle. If they don't, they have to endure 'You think you're better than us. You wouldn't be here without us.' I always tell them it has to make sense. If you weren't a professional athlete, would this request make sense?"

Troy McSwain is a wardrobe consultant for Mike Tyson, Don King, Boyz II Men, Redskin Michael Westbrook and other prominent athletes and entertainers. One of his clients, an NBA player, was throwing a swank birthday bash in Toronto and asked if McSwain could provide an outfit for a high school chum.

"He didn't want to let his friend go to the party in some Timberlands and jeans," recalls McSwain. "It's like you watch my back, I'll watch yours."

In other words, the player spreads his wealth, and the friends pick up the dry cleaning, make airport runs, arrange for haircuts, park cars. "I call them handlers," says McSwain, who has spent a lot of time around athletes and their crews. "I don't know what kind of job description they really have. They just do [expletive]."

The pro athlete is trailed around the country not just by friends and family. Merchandisers hawking custom-made goods and services show up at summer tournaments, boxing matches, community service events, all the big games. They check into player hotels. The investment guys, the jewelry guys, the car guys, the suit guys.

Somehow the merchandisers always gain access. Often it is through members of a player's entourage. Many athletes are competition freaks off the court as well as on it, so they are willing to spend whatever it takes to acquire better toys than their teammates. NBA rookie Baron Davis ordered his first vehicle before he was even drafted: a pearl-white Lexus GS 400 equipped with two TVs in the headrests, a DVD player, a Sony PlayStation and a hidden video camera.

When it's time for the good times to roll, the players want to share the experience. That's how T'Chaka Sapp of Prince George's County found himself at the Super Bowl this year. He was invited to Atlanta by cousin Warren Sapp, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lineman and the NFL's defensive player of the year. All expenses paid.

Sapp wasn't in the bowl; he was just there to hang. They traveled by limo from one nightspot to the next. Food, drinks, whatever, on Warren. At one lounge, recalled T'Chaka, "Warren had an open tab, and by the time we left the bill was $5,000."

To Warren Sapp, that is no cheese at all.

Ironically, Sapp and his crew were five limousines back from Ray Lewis's stretch Navigator when the brawl took place outside the Cobalt nightclub. They thought it was a traffic accident. Turned out it was homicide. Sometimes bad things happen to good times.

So Sapp ends up giving a testimonial for Lewis at his bail hearing because they both played at the University of Miami and Lewis is his good friend. He mentions that one of those charged with Lewis, Joseph L. Sweeting, was not a friend but a "hanger-on." Sapp goes on to suggest what everyone in his world already knows--that sports entourages routinely include guys players don't know at all, even guys who may have criminal records.

They turn up as friends of friends. Maybe they know the barber. Maybe they know the bodyguard. That's how they worm into the limos. That's how they slip into the clubs. Mr. Smith, how many in your party? He doesn't know them all, but what the hell, 15 bodies bunched up behind Mr. Smith slide in on his voucher.

Walk the halls of Lorton, says Darnell Duper, a D.C. correctional officer, and it is striking how many inmates have connections to professional athletes. Some are friends, and some are friends of the friends.

"We grew up in homes with tin roofs," explains Duper, whose cousin Mark Duper is a former wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins. Duper recalls when Mark made his first trip back home to Mureveville, La., after signing his pro contract. He arrived by limo. He wanted to show the neighborhood what he had become and that he had not forgotten who he had been.

Which is okay, up to a point.

"It's all right to remember your friends," says Miami Heat all-star Alonzo Mourning, "but at the same time you have to develop an understanding that you can't do some things you used to do in the past. They don't understand that what they are doing is jeopardizing you. It is not going to be their name splashed around. It is going to be yours."

Mourning learned this firsthand in April 1996 when federal investigators raided his house in Potomac and seized guns, ammunition and $40,000 in cash during a drug search. The target of the sting was Earl Lee Norton Jr., Mourning's cousin, who had lived in the player's home on and off. Mourning, who was traveling with his team at the time, was not implicated. But he was right: It was his name that was splashed all over the news. Who's ever heard of Earl Lee Norton Jr.?

Strength in Numbers

Packs are formed every day. Hollywood had its Rat Pack, then its Brat Pack, then its Black Pack. The kind of packs athletes travel with start in their neighborhoods.

"The fundamental word is protection," says Larry "Raoul" James, who grew up in a Harlem housing project and is now an entertainment lawyer with his own fledgling record company. "We rolled in packs for protection. When you came from certain neighborhoods, people would try to [expletive] with you. A lot of these kids who are in the music industry are the same people I grew up with, the same people in the pack."

James tells a story that illustrates an attitude prevalent within the subcultures of both sports and music: Xaviera, a New York singer he manages, was in a South Carolina club where she was scheduled to perform. A guy walked by and grabbed her rear end.

"She goes crazy. She's yelling. When we finally calm her down, the first thing she says is, 'I can't wait till we have a bigger budget, so I can bring my peoples with me. If I had my peoples up in here, this wouldn't happen. They'd be beating that [expletive] right now.' "

The point, James adds, is this: "If you have your people, you send some strength."

Many of the younger athletes feel that way, too. They are products of the increasingly evident intersection of the music and sports industries. Rappers want to be ballers (Master P), and ballers want to be rappers (Allen Iverson, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant).

As for the packs, they sometimes cause their leaders trouble.

In August 1997, a member of Iverson's pack was pulled over for speeding while driving the star point guard's Mercedes-Benz. Virginia state troopers discovered a gun and marijuana in the car. Iverson, who plays for the Philadelphia 76ers, was charged with two misdemeanors and received probation and community service.

The following summer, two of Iverson's longtime friends borrowed his Benz and were arrested by narcotics officers. This time, Iverson was not cited, but his car was seized, along with marijuana and cocaine.

Iverson has been fiercely loyal to those he grew up with, at times defiant about relationships he says helped him survive when he didn't have anything. Despite Iverson's off-the-court problems, he says he has no problem concentrating at game time. "I have to focus," he said as he practiced free throws before the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 13.

It is an instinct Carl Banks understands and appreciates, but rejects.

"We've got some guys making bad choices, period."

In his playing days, Banks was one of the NFL's top linebackers. Now, he is director of player development for the New York Jets. He wants players to develop not just on the field but off it. So he counsels them about domestic abuse, restaurant etiquette, carrying too much walking-around money, vacations, off-season activities, groupies . . . and yes, packs.

He has lots of conversations. He is a keen observer of impending self-destruction. If he overhears two players talking about having sex with the same woman, he pulls them in. "You guys are setting yourself up." If he sees members of a player's pack talking trash and disrespecting women in the parking lot after a game, he pulls the player in.

Sometimes players want to do the right thing but don't know quite what to say to their friends. No problem. Banks will provide a script. Just tell your pack this: "You no longer represent the neighborhood. You represent me and my team. We all know where we're from. So we don't have to represent that a million miles away. So leave your guns at home because we're not going anywhere you'll need them."

Stars, One and All

If you want an up-close glimpse of this world--the athletes, the groupies, the parties, the limos, the scalpers, the autograph hounds and the entourages--the place to be is NBA All-Star Weekend, one of the most extravagant events in professional sports.

For Steve Francis, the former Maryland Terps star who has emerged as one of the league's top rookies, the weekend begins when he boards America West Flight 241, leaving Baltimore at 7:30 a.m. With him are cousin Derek Francis, childhood friend Kevin Sales and Nate Peake, part of his management team. It is Feb. 11, and they are headed to Oakland.

Just because he is a pro millionaire now, Francis says, doesn't mean he should leave his homeboys behind.

"It gets to a point where it is understood you are not going to switch up or do nothing different," says Francis, as he and his crew settle into first-class seats.

And yet some things are different, which even Francis recognizes. He's the one playing in the rookie game, he's the one in the slam-dunk contest, he's the one Reebok is throwing a hip-hop party for at the Fillmore in San Francisco. He's the one with the image to uphold. So, after his group gobbles up pan pizzas and apple juice during a layover, he's the one who points to the trash someone left on the floor and says: "Ya'll pick that up."

All-Star Weekend is mostly about partying, but the all-stars also manage to keep up with the news. They've been reading about the Ray Lewis case (okay, many watch ESPN's "SportsCenter"). They know that the lifestyles of pro athletes are in for another round of scrutiny. It is not the entourages, per se, that are the problem, some players say. It's the management of them.

"You have to be a leader," explains Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers. "I am the leader of my crew."

"It is self-discipline," says Dikembe Mutombo of the Atlanta Hawks. "I will not be around friends who have a reputation for killing somebody. Most of my friends are there to advise me, to make sure I don't get into trouble."

"You have to be careful now that you are in the spotlight," says Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons. "You are a role model. You have to conduct yourself in a professional manner. Most of the guys in the league have done that for the most part, but sports is a microcosm of our society."

Except when it comes to partying. In that department, sports is not a microcosm of our society. "The people here are not your average Joe Blows at a common club," says Jan Taylor, a 27-year-old computer network administrator who was headed into the NBA Players Association party at the San Francisco Hilton. Which explains why she was wearing skin-tight white pants with black tiger stripes, a body-hugging pink blouse and pink slippers to match. She was there to attract notice. "You know how we do it."

Microcosm of society? Outside the party Nike threw at its store in San Francisco, people stand in a long line until rain finally soaks them, and then they rush the doors, and then the doors are closed. No more access for regular people. Meanwhile, a steady stream of white stretch limos pull up, carrying players and their entourages--Alonzo Mourning and his crew, rookie Elton Brand and his crew--who stroll right inside.

In Oakland, a fight breaks out at Allen Iverson's party. As soon as punches are thrown, Iverson--who is not even close to the altercation--is circled by his crew, about six of them, and hustled into a VIP room near the front entrance of the club. Many undoubtedly missed the fight, as so many eyes were fixed on the woman in the cowboy hat who was wearing a see-through skirt and a thong.

But clearly, the hot ticket of the entire weekend is the players association gig on Saturday night at the Hilton, entertainment provided by Mary J. Blige and the Gap Band. Steve Francis leaves his own party to be there. Scalpers are selling invitations--to an invitation-only party--for $50. Some enterprising souls manage to sneak in with the kitchen help. Star-gazers cram the Hilton lobby hoping to score a few player autographs or snatch a peek at the other celebs--like models Tyson Beckford and Tyra Banks and rapper LL Cool J. The white-marble-floored lobby and the bar is as far as they can get. The actual party is in the Grand Ballroom on the second floor, but no way can you get up there--unless you are somebody. Security guards are checking invitations at the top of the escalator.

By 3:30 a.m. Sunday, the Hilton is so overrun by throngs of bystanders that hotel manager Diane Martinez has had enough. "Please clear the hallway," she booms from a megaphone. Finally, a fire marshal puts the building on lockdown, and the cops--with their blue jumpsuits and helmets and plastic handcuffs--take control. Corridors are sealed off and by 4 a.m. the officers are gently ushering the fans out of the lobby and into the rain-soaked streets, where the limousines are lined up waiting for the all-stars.

And their entourages.

Staff writer Jennifer Frey contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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