Who's the guy Klay Thompson and other NBA stars trust to manage their wealth? One who knows how to rebound with $8000 stuffed into his underwear.
Every day of Joe McLean's job, as the premier wealth manager of the NBA elite, requires him to make the kind of purchases that most of us make only once or twice in a lifetime. He bought 25 cars on behalf of his clients last year, and he probably sold nearly as many. He closed on four houses in February alone. You wouldn't believe how many pool tables he's bought, let alone how many pools.
Managing basketball players' money is not the same thing as managing their wealth. It's McLean's job to protect his clients' assets no matter what form they take. Their cars need customising. Their houses need renovating. Their private bowling alleys need polishing. Their koi ponds — filled with 30 creatures, each worth around US$5000 — need a specific kind of emergency netting installed when the team is on the road and there's a hurricane bearing down.
That particular fish-lover was Hassan Whiteside, the Miami Heat's quirky 7-foot centre, who also owns about a dozen custom indoor fish tanks. "He's named every single fish in his ponds," McLean said. "He calls them his Little OGs. He speaks to them. He talks about them every day."
This is not to say McLean's clients are profligate. To retain his services, each player must agree to put aside at least 60 per cent of every dollar he earns, with the rate climbing to 80 per cent if he's fortunate enough to land a long-term deal. Or they're gone. McLean has fired two clients for ignoring the policy. He hates it because "in my mind it means I'm giving up on them," he said. "But they didn't buy into it."
As McLean described his business one evening in March, over crabcakes at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, DC, you could see why some of the country's best-paid athletes have entrusted him with their money. At 45, he radiated steadiness and precision. Black rectangular reading glasses elegantly set off his pale complexion and top-to-bottom verticality: tall body (6-foot-6), tall nose, tall forehead. His slender blue J Hilburn suit didn't bunch in the places that even well-tailored suits tend to bunch. His tie formed a knot that can only be described as spectacular. Everything about him communicated the sense that he's got this covered.
This off season, at least three of McLean's clients are likely to sign mega-contracts in the range of US$200 million. One of them, Klay Thompson, whose Golden State Warriors are trying for their third straight NBA title, is just 29 and single, but he has worked out with McLean a plan to provide for his future family for a century.
At the Ritz, McLean was waiting for another pending free agent to arrive on the Orlando Magic team bus. Nikola Vucevic was having a transformational season, from second-tier centre into all-star, which meant that he was also about to transform from rich to filthy rich. But Vucevic's monster payday was four months away, and McLean wanted to talk to him about buying a special kind of insurance, in case of injury. "Some guys do it, some guys don't," McLean said. "Part of my job is to give them all the information."
In the coming weeks, he would have a similar conversation with Thompson, whose situation is simple: If the Warriors offer him a five-year maximum contract, which could be worth up to US$190m, he's staying put. And if they don't? Will he shop around? "He shouldn't have to," McLean said, grinning. "If he has to, he will. But hopefully he doesn't have to." (The Warriors have given every indication that they plan to keep Thompson.)
McLean doesn't negotiate his clients' deals — he's not an agent. His job is to grow every dollar that comes in and track every dollar that goes out. He's part investor, part butler, a CFO and a golf buddy, a sports therapist and, when necessary, the disapproving dad. When the explosive power forward Aaron Gordon got his first big contract last summer (US$84m), McLean warned him that "with great abundance comes great discipline."
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Gordon, 23, is unusually self-aware for a rich young athlete, and he knew it was exactly what he needed to hear. "Joe helps me pump the brakes," he said over the phone in April, the night before Orlando's first playoff game in more than a decade. "I like the idea of instant gratification. I want to hit home runs every single time. Joe's been dealing with money for a long time, and he understands it's not about home runs, you know, it's about the singles, it's about the doubles. Longevity."
"Say I need golf clubs — like, custom golf clubs," Gordon continued. "He knows exactly where to go, who to get it from. Or say I need my car shipped across the country. He does that. He's just a do-it-all guy. He has so many resources. And he connects you with the right people so you don't get, basically, played."
McLean earns players' trust in part by doing the work — sourcing the golf clubs, buying the koi nets — almost entirely himself. His company, Intersect Capital, manages contracts worth US$1.7 billion for about 50 athletes, and it could add another billion in value this summer alone. And yet his firm, which is in San Ramon, California, employs only 10 other people, because the white-glove treatment is the whole point.
"One hundred per cent, all in," McLean said, "for any aspect of their lives, 24/7."
Then he stuffed $8,000 into his underwear
McLean likes to say he got his first lesson in wealth management in 1997, at age 22, before a game in a small gym outside Barcelona, Spain. After playing college ball for Arizona and then a semipro stint in North Dakota, he'd signed with a Spanish team. But two months into his contract, he still hadn't been paid.
A few hours before tip off, McLean and a US teammate decided to refuse to suit up until they got what they were owed, which was about US$16,000 each. "I don't think the coach had noticed until the team took to the floor during layup lines, and we're still sitting there in jeans," McLean recalled.
Once they explained — "No pay, no play" — the coach stormed off and fetched the general manager. Then he stormed off to fetch the owner, who stormed some more and then relented. Twenty minutes later, McLean said, a lackey appeared with "literally a brown bag stuffed with cash."
Now he and his teammate had a new problem: US$32,000 and nowhere to stash it. A US backpacker whom they'd recently befriended happened to be in the crowd, and so they offered him US$500 to guard half of the money during the game.
"We put him right next to the scorers table," McLean said, "and I told him, 'I barely know you. I swear to God, if you even get up to go to the bathroom, I will run off this floor and chase you down.'"
Then they stuffed US$8000 into their underwear and hit the floor. "We actually both had really good games," McLean said.
At a stop in Cyprus, spectators registered their displeasure by heating coins with cigarette lighters and flicking them at players on the bench. "Very passionate fans," McLean said, dryly. More than once, he was hit on the shoulder with a scalding coin. He made a final run at making an NBA squad and survived all the way through training camp with the 1998 Sacramento Kings. But when he showed up to catch the bus to the airport for the season opener, he was met by the head coach.
"He looked me in the eyes and then just put his head down," McLean said. The Kings had replaced him. "And that's the closest I ever got to making it." A few steps from the team bus. "It was brutal. Just brutal."
Bitterness consumed McLean for a while, and he left sports for a decade to focus on mastering a new career in finance. He began managing the assets of normal, unable-to-dunk people, but before long, some of his old Arizona teammates enlisted his help. They knew he was good with money, and they knew he could be trusted with theirs. And because he was a former athlete, one who'd come within an eyelash of the NBA himself, he knew what made them tick.
McLean understood that athletes, the special ones anyway, are goal-oriented. They want to be pushed, they want to be coached. It started to dawn on him that this was his path, at long last, back to the NBA.
$5000 a week to cut grass
The top stars in every US pro sport make gobs of money. McLean also has clients in the NFL (Jameis Winston, Whitney Mercilus), Major League Baseball (Nolan Arenado, Dexter Fowler) and the PGA (Sergio Garcia), but the gobs are the biggest in the NBA The league-average player salary is nearly US$10m, compared with about US$3m in the NFL. James Harden, the NBA's best-paid player, will make nearly US$50m in the 2022-23 season.
All those riches attract opportunists, and some outright crooks. "The guys are much smarter now," McLean said. But players still get conned. Recently, Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball sued a family friend, accusing him of siphoning US$1.5m from an apparel company Ball's father had started. Far more common is garden-variety exploitation — overcharging, skimming off the top, dumb deals done in good faith.
Last summer, after Gordon signed his US$84m deal, he bought a house and was immediately confronted with all kinds of mundane homeowner questions for which he had no answers. Such as: How much should it cost to mow my lawn?
"The first couple people that came to the property were sending these invoices trying to charge US$4000 to US$5000 a week to cut grass and do some power washing," McLean said. Gordon has a big house, but not that big — it should have cost around US$500. "So I've got to go back to Orlando and get people that we trust on the property. I've got to speak to everyone that goes near it because they're all signing NDAs."
"The power of paying the bills," he added, "is seeing when someone's trying to exploit them."
For some players, it's not crooks they need protection from — it's their own teams. In the 2017 postseason, Boston's Isaiah Thomas earned near-folkloric status across Celtics Nation by playing through an injury and the sudden death of his little sister. But grinding it out made the injury worse, and Thomas underwent major surgery. Suddenly, instead of going into a contract year healthy and likely to fetch US$100m, Thomas was an undersized 30-year-old with a bum hip. Boston traded him, and he's now making the league veterans' minimum.
Even in the "business is business" world of sports it was staggeringly callous, and the wounds are still raw, including for McLean. Thomas is one of his oldest clients. "It's not done," McLean said at one point, although it was unclear if he was referring to the possibility of litigation against the Celtics or the karmic boomerang that Boston has experienced since the trade. (He declined to elaborate.)
Thomas is trying to rebuild his career with the Denver Nuggets, his fourth team in three seasons, and there's a good chance he'll be on the move again this summer. McLean will handle all the logistics — the next house in the next city, new schools for the kids — so his client can focus on basketball.
"The last six or seven years, I've been through so much," Thomas said, speaking by phone in April before a playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs. "And Joe's been right by my side. Whether he has to tell me, 'OK, this month you spent too much, we gotta calm down these next few months' — I trust him that much."
Thomas was the very last player selected in the 2011 draft. He is listed at 5-foot-9, making him one of the shortest players in the NBA. "It's like, 'This is just how it's always been.' We've hit lows and we've hit highs, but we've hit them together. I think that's where the trust lies, because it's bigger than my finances."
Cars. Cars. Cars.
About an hour into dinner at the Ritz, McLean's phone lit up with a text from the Magic's Vucevic. Fifteen minutes away. While we waited, McLean pulled out a notebook and opened it to a list he'd pulled together of everything his job had required over the previous two weeks.
The handwriting was small, and the list covered at least three full pages. Multiple home renovations. Early budget forecasting with Arenado, who just re-upped with the Colorado Rockies for eight years and US$260m. Closing a deal for Thompson to become (they believe) the first NBA player with his own line of golf equipment. (Eat it, Steph.)
To do all this, McLean charges clients an administrative fee, plus a percentage of their assets invested with his firm: 1 per cent on the first US$5m, and less for larger amounts.
Vucevic, a 7-footer from Montenegro, arrived and gave McLean a powerful clasp-and-hug, then stuffed his 117g body into the banquette next to him. "Vooch" is married with a young family, reserved, cautious by nature. He's not on Instagram. He does not party. When he talks about money matters, it's as if he's channelling McLean.
"The long-term plan is to me the most important job right now," Vucevic said, "because I am making a lot of money and there's a lot of cash flow, but once I retire it's going to be very different. I want to make sure that I can sustain a similar lifestyle because my money is making me money."
He does have one vice, the same one as pretty much every NBA player, and in his early 20s, he and McLean fought about it all the time: cars.
"Cars," Vooch said, smiling.
Nothing stresses out McLean more, although he's better about it than he used to be. "Now it's like, OK, just one," he said. "Whatever you want — but just one. That's it.'"
The indulgence came up in almost every interview.
"Cars," Thomas said.
"Cars," Gordon said.
"I've heard stories of pro athletes just buying car, after car, after car, after car, after car, after car, after car, and they don't have the money," Gordon added. "They're paying all these car notes and going into debt. And they're not even driving the cars." He has a mere four cars, two of which he gave to his parents. By NBA standards, his driveway in Orlando is an empty parking lot. Even the vehicles he kept for himself reflect a budding fiscal maturity that would make McLean beam.
"I'm a man of balance," Gordon said. "So one car is really fancy — a Rolls-Royce. And then just to balance it out and put Joe's mind at ease, I went and bought a Tahoe. Very efficient car."
Written by: Devin Gordon
Photographs by: Wini Wintermeyer
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES