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Roundtable: Female NBA agents explain challenges of the job

Only three women represented players on rosters at the start of the season

LOS ANGELES – For NBA agent Erika Ruiz, there was no one for her to look up to in her field who looked like her. That’s why it’s important for the Mexican American to find time to offer words of wisdom to women of color who aspire to be an NBA agent just like her one day.

“I did not have that person,” said Ruiz during an interview with The Undefeated. “It keeps me going. Anyone who says this job isn’t hard or is not challenging when you’re trying to do something where you don’t see someone like you, I’d say they are maybe not tapped into what they’re feeling. And that’s not a knock. That’s the work.

“I have these moments where I get the smallest compliment from someone saying, ‘I want to do this because of you. It makes those weeks, months go from I’d like to do this to I need to do this to I can do this.’ You got to have something that pushes you. If I can open one door, 10 doors, 100 doors, I’m going to keep fighting to do that.”

The NBA entered the 2020-21 season with roughly 450 players who are represented by a long list of agents. But only three women represented players who were on rosters at the start of the season: Ruiz and two white women, Danielle Cantor and Jessica Holtz.

There are African American women registered as agents with the National Basketball Players Association, including successful NFL agent Nicole Lynn, but none were involved as representation for any players in terms of on-the-court contracts entering the season.

At the start of Women’s History Month, The Undefeated spoke to Ruiz, Holtz and Cantor about their journeys and how they hope to be an inspiration for other women.

Who or what inspired you to become an NBA agent?

Cantor: I worked for a big agency, SFX, for the first seven years of my career, focusing more in marketing athlete endorsements and branding. … Ultimately I ended up going with [NBA agent] David Falk. And the reason I went with David was one, because he was a pioneer in the business, learning from one of the best, but also because it was his idea for me to become an agent. At that time he said to me, ‘I want you to become my partner and you’re not going to just do marketing and PR and all of that. But I want you to really become an expert in the CBA and salary cap and certified as an agent.’ So had he not said that to me, I’m not sure if I ever would have really even thought about becoming an agent.

Holtz: I have peers that inspire me, Danielle Cantor. She had been doing it before and she’s incredibly smart. I have a lot of women, former colleagues that I worked with at the league office that are in front-office positions, like Becky Bonner, Teresa Resch and Annabel Padilla, at the [Orlando] Magic and [Toronto] Raptors and [Brooklyn] Nets, respectively. And so, just seeing my peers, talking to my clients and understanding what’s possible. I think that that was really the inspiration for it.

Ruiz: When I played college basketball, I got to be exposed to the business slightly, just playing at the same time as some players that went pro. And the more I learned about the business, the more I heard how difficult it was, how cutthroat it was, how women didn’t belong. When I was told that, it wasn’t to be negative. People took it as trying to give me the game. Right? Like, you don’t know what you’re getting into. But I had to be sure that if I wanted to do this, that I was all-in. And I think what inspired me once I learned more about it was I have a chance to create my own path. And my dad always taught me: ‘Don’t wait for doors to open, knock them down if it’s something you want.’

Who was your first NBA client and what did it mean to you when they said they wanted you to represent them?

Cantor: [Falk] and I sort of co-represented all of the guys we signed between 2007 and until I started Malcolm [Brogdon]. And I was involved in everything, for every single recruiting meeting, every free-agent negotiation, all the draft preparation, draft calls. … And so when Malcolm came along, it’s a lot about timing. It was the right time where I felt I had enough experience. I had the relationships I needed. I had, most importantly, the confidence to know that I could do this on my own. And he believed in me. He is the right kind of person because for what he stands for. And so all of the stars were aligned, so to speak.

Holtz: In terms of the contract side, Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns were my first clients after [longtime NBA agent] Leon Rose left to go be president of the Knicks. They chose me, and that wasn’t something someone told them to do, that wasn’t something that the agency had decided. It was something that they decided because they believed in me. And so, that belief in me as somebody to represent them and somebody to shepherd their careers, meant everything, it said a lot about them too. And they thought I was the best person for the job, man or a woman. And so that is something special about it, something that I don’t take lightly.

Ruiz: I started as an assistant. But the first client I helped sign was Jordan Bell. Later on, I found out about Jordan from his manager that, ‘We signed at CAA because of you.’ And this was months, months, months later. It meant the world to me. It stuck with me forever, and it actually gave me the courage to keep pushing forward.

What has been the biggest challenge or disappointing moment you had working in sports?

Cantor: Years ago I was already a certified agent and involved in every aspect of on-court and off-court business. I went to a [Indiana Pacers] game with my partner David Falk, and we were sitting courtside. And then on the other side of him was a team owner and his wife. The wife slipped behind to try to make a conversation with me so that the two of them, David and the owner, could talk. And a few minutes in the conversation, I realized that she thought that I was David’s girlfriend. …

I was pretty insulted. I think I was more shocked than anything, because I was talking about the business with her. And I just didn’t realize before that that’s what a lot of people probably thought.

Jessica Holtz (right) with Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (left).

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Holtz: I’ve had moments that were really discouraging, where I felt like I didn’t belong in a room or was made to feel like I didn’t belong in the room. Whether it’s men making eye contact or seeking somebody with a bigger title for validation in terms of what I was saying. Even, ‘Let me talk to the player agent,’ instead of talking to me when I had the right answer, or I had the access to the answer or had the relationship with the guy, that always got to me and made me realize there’s a reason. …

This isn’t necessarily about me and I shouldn’t take it personally, but there’s a framework with which people in my position are being viewed and that I need to change and do what I can to control the change for me, but more broadly change out for other people in my position.

Ruiz: For all of us, there’s a lot of things that we could perceive as an insult. And if I focused on that, I might not be in this field. But I just try not to fixate on those things. And it’s all about perspective for me.

What needs to happen to get more women in this field and also more women of color?

Cantor: We’re getting there. We’re really close. There needs to be more conversation around it, there needs to be more opportunities for women. And I agree with women of color, to gain more relevant experience and exposure to have those opportunities.

Part of the problem is I think so many women in this business are in marketing or PR or a client service role, support role. And people just didn’t see women in upper-level management positions or as agents. And then when people want to hire women and women of color for those positions now, they’re lacking the experience. So it’s like the age-old chicken or the egg, how are you going to get the experience if people aren’t giving them the opportunities, and vice versa.

Holtz: It really is seeing is believing. [San Antonio Spurs head coach] Gregg Popovich, I love what he did [recently] when [Spurs assistant coach] Becky Hammon was coaching after he was ejected. It was a really important moment in sports to see a woman in a head-coaching job in the NBA, but she was really qualified and he always knew that. And he put her in that position day one, when it wasn’t popular, it wasn’t something that people are necessarily doing. …

We need men to be arm in arm with us in order to gain that equal footing, and for men to be able to look past what’s in front of you and say, ‘You know what, she is the best person for the job.’ Even if this isn’t a job traditionally held by women and women of color. And that’s where the men can really step up and help us on this journey.

Ruiz: I really believe the talent is there. I know and see so many women, women of color, men of color who want this, who have the talent. I guess I would say to the gatekeepers and those who are in the position of hiring in the business representation is: We’ve got to put as much effort into finding talent for your office and agencies as we do for client representation, when we try to identify that next superstar on the court.

What responsibility do you feel you have to be a role model for women who look up to you?

Cantor: It’s an enormous responsibility. I really prefer to be behind the scenes. … But when I realized the responsibility I had to all of the young women who will come after me, that’s when I decided to speak out, and I do feel it’s a huge responsibility.

Holtz: I want to open doors for others. I want to be able to show women, we can do this. I want to be able to show women, this is normal. I want to show women that we belong here. And I have some incredible women peers that are doing great things every day, and a lot of times people aren’t watching and there’s not a light shown on that. And so, if I can be arm in arm and bring other women with me in terms of my career path and show that we can be equals, that’s everything to me and that’s going to be what’s the most impactful.

Ruiz: I owe it to myself and to those who want to pursue this or see me as a role model to be my most authentic self, not to filter or conform. I read Abby Wambach’s book and I loved when she said, ‘Be grateful for what I have, demand what I deserve.’ I think it’s extremely important that I do that, because if I don’t do it for me, I’m not helping those behind me or after me that are up next.

What do you tell women who reach out to you for advice?

Cantor: One of my favorite things to do right now is spend time mentoring and just talking about the business to and with these young women who reach out. … I didn’t have a female role model or mentor in business, and I wish I had. It’s really important to be able to see what’s possible and then do it even better. And I know that everyone else out there is going to do it even better.

I think too often, at least in my experience, women felt threatened by other strong, talented, intelligent women, and that’s not how I am. And I don’t believe in that, I think there’s no reason to feel threatened by other talented women. I think we got to stick together, we got to help each other out and lift each other up.

Danielle Cantor (center) with former NBA players Dikembe Mutombo (left), and Roy Hibbert (right).

Holtz: I just tell them to believe in themselves and stick to their gut. Women have great intuition and I know people say that all the time. But it’s really true, especially in a business that is so relationship-based and intuition-based. So I try to instill confidence whenever I hear that. If I can do it, you can do it. Just hard work and believing your ambition is OK and that you belong there, is the most important thing.

Ruiz: There’s no exact blueprint to how to become an agent in this, and there’s no time frame that you have to stick to. It’s never too late to enter into the business. But a lot of people were extremely supportive, and I was really taken aback after the draft. On Her Turf had posted on their Instagram that I was the only female to represent a player in the draft, and the support was overwhelming in the best way. I try to reach out to as many people and … definitely plan to continue to touch as many people as I can.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.