Larry Bird was already a basketball hero in his home state of Indiana by the time he was a senior in high school, graduating as the all-time leading scorer at Springs Valley High. By the time he was a senior at Indiana State University, he was being touted as the best college player in the nation.
It was no surprise, then, in June 1978 when the notably shrewd president of the Boston Celtics, Red Auerbach, drafted Larry before his final college season, a tactic allowed by the NBA at the time. So at the young age of twenty-two, and still without a college degree, Larry Bird found himself needing to negotiate with one of the toughest NBA presidents in the league. Larry badly needed an agent! And with the prospects of a million-dollar contract, every talent agent in the sports business wanted the job.
To speed the process along, a committee of business leaders from the city of Terre Haute volunteered to help with the selection. Out of sixty-five agents on the original list, one of the lucky ones who made it to the final list of three was Bob Woolf. The final interviews were held at a country club in Terre Haute. At one end of the long rectangular table sat Bob Woolf. Along the length of the table were all the committee members. And at the other end of the table sat Larry Bird. Larry and Bob shook hands when the interview started, but Larry hardly spoke a word.
Bob knew one of the big questions from the committee would be what Larry’s salary should be. He came prepared with contract details of virtually every top athlete in the country. When the conversation turned to salary, somebody asked, “What does Tommy John make?” Tommy John was a New York Yankees’ pitcher at the time, and the first athlete to have a successful elbow tendon replacement that’s now referred to as “Tommy John surgery.” But he was also a Terre Haute native, and until Larry Bird came along, he was the city’s biggest star athlete.
A hush fell over the room, and every eye turned to Bob as they eagerly awaited his answer. But before Bob could even find his notes, Larry spoke out: “Mr. Woolf, Tommy John happens to be a friend of mine, and I don’t particularly care to know what he makes . . . or have anyone else know what he makes.”
Bob was deeply impressed with the character and integrity expressed in that statement, especially coming from a twenty-two-year-old college student. And it may have helped prepare Bob for his own opportunity to exhibit character and integrity with what happened next.
After the interview, Bob returned to his hotel room. Shortly after he arrived, the phone rang. It was one of the committee members, Lou Meis. They wanted to come by to ask him one final question. Larry was coming too. When they arrived, Lou said, “Here’s the situation. We’ve narrowed it down to you and one other agent. We have to know what your fee will be for representing Larry. The other agent gave us his number. Now we need yours.”
This wasn’t the first time they asked that question. But previously, Bob was able to avoid answering it. It wasn’t even possible for him to approximate a fair figure this far in advance. He had no idea how long the negotiations were going to take or what the work would involve, or even how successful he would be at negotiating a top salary for Larry. All these things, he thought, should influence what his fee was.
“I understand why this question is being asked,” he told the committee. “But I want to work with Larry the same way I work with everyone else. At the end of the negotiations, when Larry has a contract, then we’ll agree on a fee. It wouldn’t be fair to my other clients if I gave special treatment to Larry to get his business.”
Lou looked at Bob intently. “Do you understand the consequences?” he asked, meaning if Bob didn’t give them a number, he probably wouldn’t get the job. Bob nodded and said, “I’m prepared to accept the consequences.”
Everyone shook hands, and the committee members left, Larry having never said a word. Bob knew he had done the right thing, but he wasn’t feeling good about it. He knew he had probably just thrown away his chances at the contract.
About an hour later, there was a knock at the door. It was Lou Meis and Larry Bird. Bob was surprised to see them, but invited them in. Lou said, “Larry would like to ask you something.” Since Larry had not asked a single question during all the interviews, Bob couldn’t imagine what he would ask now.
“Of course,” Bob responded.
“Mr. Woolf, will you represent me?” Larry asked. Despite his shock, Bob quickly answered, “I would be thrilled to.”
Larry explained, “Mr. Woolf, I’ve heard all about how tough Red Auerbach is. And I want somebody to stand up to him the way you stood up to us. You’re the kind of person I want to represent me during my negotiations.”
Sometimes choosing the hard right over the easy wrong doesn’t have to come at a cost. People recognize when someone stands by their convictions, and they respect him for doing so. In Bob Woolf’s case, it also landed him a contract with one of the biggest NBA stars of all time. And as for Larry’s choice of Bob to represent him, well, that worked out pretty well, too. Bob negotiated a five-year, $3.25 million contract with the Celtics, making Larry Bird the highest paid rookie in NBA history at the time.
As with all these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started:
- Why do you think Larry didn’t want anyone to know how much money Tommy John made?
- How difficult do you think it was for Bob to treat Larry Bird like all his other clients when it meant that he might not get the biggest job of his life?
- Most people like to do business with people they trust. Do you think you could trust Bob Woolf? Why or why not?
- Can you think of a situation when not sticking to your convictions would be a good idea?
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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