Henry Thomas was a 5-6 point guard at Harlan High School in Chicago who proved he could play at the major college level. Now is he is of the most high powered agents in professional basketball with a stable of clients that once included Tim Hardaway and now features Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Michael Finley, Anthony Parker, Devin Harris, Shaun Livingston, Ronnie Brewer, Udonis Haslem and Dee Brown.
Thomas, 57, is 1970 graduate of Harlan and a 1974 graduate of Bradley. He attended DePaul's law school and obtained a master's degree in taxation in 1984. He was influenced into representing professional players by Joe Napoli, who taught a business law course at Bradley and also represented former Westinghouse star Hersey Hawkins. He also taught a sports law seminar at DePaul for 23 years.
After founding his own sports management company in 1993. He sold his company to Coordinated Sports Management Group in 2002, then recently joined Creative Artists Agency, one of Hollywood's largest talent agencies that has opted to add professional athletes to its bulging portfolio of clients. Now he is in position to compete with David Falk, Arn Tellem, Bill Duffy, Leon Rose, Jeff Schwartz and Dan Fegan as one of the biggest wheeler-dealers in the NBA.
I've known Henry since he was an all-city player at Harlan. He recently agreed to participate in a Q&A session that covers all aspects of his career.
You were a 5-6 guard at Harlan and Bradley. How did that experience impact on the rest of your life?
Expectations weren't high for me to have success. I wasn't highly recruited out of high school. Baseball coaches felt I was making a huge mistake by playing basketball. But I felt I could play at the Division I level. I saw Frank Sylvester play at Bradley at 5-4. I proved I could play at the Division I level. It helped develop confidence in me. It had something to do with the success I have had as a sports agent.
What life lessons did Harlan coach Lee Umbles teach you?
The importance of having confidence in yourself. He also taught discipline and working hard. He gave me an opportunity to have success. He was never satisfied. He drove us to be better, to be as good as we could be. I gained a lot of confidence in myself as a basketball player and more as a person.
When did you decide to become a sports agent?
When I took a business law course as a junior at Bradley. I knew I wouldn't be a pro player but I wanted to stay involved with basketball in some way. It motivated me to go to law school.
I wasn't sure if I wanted to coach. (Bradley coach) Joe Stowell asked me to be an assistant but I already had applied to law school. It was something that would enable me to stay involved in basketball and have an impact on kids who were talented enough to play in the NBA. I'd like to think I have had a positive impact on them with advice and counsel and helped them to maximize the opportunity they have as a pro player.
Sports agents are often compared to used car salesmen and ambulance chasers. How do you deal with that?
By recognizing that in almost any profession there are men and women who are perceived as somewhat unsavory and unethical. In my profession, there probably are those who fit in that category. But there are others who are principled and make every effort to service their clients in the best way possible.
What is your mission?
To do all I can to help my guys maximize the opportunity that they have as pro basketball players, negotiate contracts, realize their market value, take advantage of off-the-court opportunities, make them understand the importance of taking care of their money, monitor who they forge relationships with.
What is the toughest aspect of being an agent?
If you have a family, it's a 24/7 job. You are always on call. The challenge is to balance your time between job and personal life.
If I had it to do over again, I would...
Choose the exact same profession. My rewards are being involved in a game I fell in love with at 10. It is also rewarding to feel you have helped a young man who was talented enough to play the game and early a significant living and have an impact on his life.
When you are looking for a new client, what characteristics are important?
Maturity. I look for guys who are talented enough to play in the NBA. I look for a client who will listen and has a good foundation around him that will enable him to be the kind of client who will listen to experienced counsel. I ask myself: "Will he be a good match for me?" After all, some think I am too old at 57 to represent them, that I can't identify with them or their parents.
Are professional athletes overpaid?
I don't think they are overpaid. In whatever profession you are in, in our society, we value entertainment. We pay a lot of money to be entertained. All professional athletes are entertainers. The amount of money they make is a function of the owners and the system in the sport.
Does your business need to be policed?
There is some policing. The NBA Players Association has regulations. Some states have passed statutes. There probably should be something else. Maybe the players association should take a more active role. You have to have reasonable people involved. Then athletes won't be receptive to unethical or illegal tactics.
You are a lifelong Chicagoan. What do you like most about the city?
The people are more friendly and approachable. I like the energy of the city. It always has been a sports town. The fans are passionate about their teams. I love Lake Michigan, the food and the different ethnic neighborhoods.
If Ihad to take a client to one restaurant, it would be...
Gibson's or Table Fifty-Two.
Your favorite vacation destination?
Maui. It's very peaceful.
Your advice to young kids who dream of playing in the NBA?
There is nothing wrong with having that as a dream but don't put all your eggs in one basket. Get your education. Get a degree. Make contacts with positive people who an help you along the way.
If I was the czar of basketball, I would...
Make sure that all Sports Centers of the world would show highlights of the game that reflect good teamwork instead of dunks. Those are the kinds of plays that influence kids. Those are the highlight plays of today, the new media approach to covering basketball.
If I was the coach of my own team, my starting five would be...
Ken Maxey, Mel Reddick, Billy Harris, Jerome Freeman and Ike Rudd, all players I played against or with or admired when I was growing up.
If the game better today than when you were growing up?
The talent is better. Kids are more skilled and bigger and more athletic. Each generation had skilled athletes. There was no LeBron James 30-40 years ago. But I don't know if the game is better. The game is played by more skilled athletes now. But there is more appreciation of the way the game was played years ago by less skilled players. In those days, there wasn't as much one-on-one. There was more teamwork, more fundamentals.
After running your own company, you opted to join a bigger firm, then an even bigger firm. Why?
I was at a point that I needed more investors to grow more business. One area you have to compete in is the ability to get endorsement deals and off-the-court stuff. I needed a marketing person. It is costly to be competitive. I have more resources behind me now, more people I can call to get assistance in helping to service my guys.
There were many positive and negative things said and written about the Wade/Bosh/James move to Miami. You represent Wade and Bosh and your friend, Leon Rose, represents James. What is your take on the transaction?
It was simply a matter that they made a move that was going to make them the most happy. It was defined by the opportunity to compete for championships every year. My role is to help them digest the information. I went to all the presentations and asked questions. I compared and contrasted. Ultimately, it was their decision.
The reason this became more likely to happen was because of USA Basketball's decision to use NBA players in the Olympics rather than college players. Now they are putting guys together who have played together and spent a lot of time together in practice and games. It is unrealistic to think they won't form bonds. So it makes sense that they would want to play with each other.