The prolific agent gives Boardroom the inside story on working with stars like Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, and Ja Morant, learning from Barack Obama, and his career journey so far.
Wearing a polo shirt and khaki shorts on yet another impossibly hot and dry Las Vegas morning, nobody stopped to take a selfie with or gawk at longtime NBA agent Jim Tanner as he sat for a morning coffee at a Caesars Palace food court.
It certainly seems like he prefers it that way, operating behind the scenes with an if-you-know-you-know mentality. Over the last 25 years, Tanner has represented some of basketball’s biggest and most influential stars as president of Tandem Sports + Entertainment, from Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, and Ray Allen to current All-Stars Ja Morant and Jarrett Allen.
Not bad for someone who never expected to have a career in sports at all.
Jim Tanner grew up in High Point, North Carolina, right in the path of Tobacco Road where UNC, Duke, NC State, and Wake Forest are separated by roughly 25 miles. He was admittedly better at tennis and baseball than basketball as a kid, but decided to pursue academics rather than a tennis career, enrolling at Chapel Hill and becoming a Tar Heel.
“You can’t really grow up in North Carolina without being a basketball fan and going to Carolina,” Tanner told Boardroom as he sipped his coffee at Pronto by Giada and blended in with the mix of tourists and gamblers.
As he graduated with a BA in English literature, one of Tanner’s best friends from college went to be a runner for a football-focused agency. It was through this friend that he began hearing stories and passively learning about the industry, but it was nothing more than that as he moved north to attend law school at the University of Chicago.
Despite being a member of the entertainment and law society there, a career in sports wasn’t on Tanner’s radar. Initial plans to go into litigation shifted over his tenure as he gravitated towards corporate transactions, his specialty as a summer associate.
One of his professors in law school? A bright, dynamic, charismatic man named Barack Obama.
Tanner doesn’t remember the specific class he attended roughly 30 years ago, but recalls it had to do with the constitution and racial issues and there was a small, intimate class size of eight students. He really got to know Obama as a teacher and — of course — as a basketball player.
“By my standards, he was a pretty great player,” Tanner said. “Obviously, he set a great example and he acted the same then as he did when he was president. What struck me about him is he always had this regal quality about him. So even in a pickup game, there were never any arguments on the court when he was around. He elevated how people conducted themselves. I just remember him being incredibly smart, and I knew he would be able to do whatever he wanted. Would I have predicted President of the United States? Probably not, but it certainly didn’t surprise me.”
After getting his JD in 1993, Tanner took a job in corporate finance acquisition for the white shoe law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom in its Washington, DC office. He thought learning how to negotiate and work on big deals would make for some great training, but after four years, he realized that that this wasn’t the work he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Instead of being part of the deal directly; he was merely servicing it.
“There was a personal connection that you didn’t really get,” Tanner said. “It was really purely transactional.”
He needed to make a change. Since he was always interested in public affairs, he briefly stepped aside to work for Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential re-election campaign. “That cured my interest in politics,” Tanner quipped.
It wasn’t long before he was right back at Skadden Arps.
Several months into his return to BigLaw, Tanner still wasn’t sure what to do next. Then, he got a call from a headhunter, a common occurrence at large firms.
It changed his life.
Respected law firm Williams & Connolly had one partner representing athletes, and it was looking for someone with a corporate background and about four years of experience to train as a sports agent. The firm specifically wasn’t looking for someone who had previously been in the sports industry. Tanner booked an interview and things took off.
The partner representing athletes was a man named Lon Babby, who had previously been general counsel for the Baltimore Orioles, where he worked with former NFL star running back Calvin Hill, who was a vice president with the club. When Calvin’s son, Grant, was entering the NBA draft out of Duke in 1994, they’d obviously had experiences with agents before but wanted to try a different route and use a sports lawyer from a firm in Babby.
Tanner joined the firm right after the 1997 NBA Draft, with Babby representing No. 1 overall pick Tim Duncan. He remained in a support capacity for seven years under Babby before signing a fully-fledged client on his own in Josh Childress, who was the sixth overall pick in the 2004 draft out of Stanford by the Atlanta Hawks. A year later, he was the primary agent for North Carolina standout Marvin Williams, who went No. 2 in the 2005 draft, also to the Hawks.
Before Williams entered the fold, Babby and Williams & Connolly were never really able to recruit Tar Heels players as clients with much success, so Tanner met with the late, great Dean Smith — and he guessed that part of the reason the firm was never able to crack Carolina was that Grant Hill, one of the foremost Duke Blue Devils on earth, was the company’s first client.
“He was the nicest guy, so gracious,” Tanner said of Smith, “and I just made the case that I’m a Carolina guy. I went to Carolina, I love Carolina, and I would love to be considered as part of the process. He then helped facilitate the meeting with Coach [Roy] Williams, and then Marvin and his family chose me.”
That began a fruitful relationship between Tanner and Tar Heel greats, including Tyler Hansbrough, Sean May, Raymond Felton, John Henson, Brandan Wright, Justin Jackson, and Luke Maye.
With all the clients Tanner has directly or indirectly represented over the years, including Hill, Duncan, Allen, Shane Battier, Morant, and Desmond Bane— athletes with distinct personalities and different needs— a major part of his job is treating every athlete as an individual.
“The things that are going to appeal to Grant are not necessarily gonna appeal to Ray or Tim,” Tanner said, “so you want to get to know their individual personalities, how they view success, and help them define what success means for them based on their talent, interest level, and certain things. And then you help them execute.”
Tanner was helping Babby grow out the Williams & Connolly sports practice by finding not just great players, but great people as well. They don’t necessarily have to be All-NBA or All-Star players, but athletes that have high character and are focused on maximizing the opportunities presented to them.
“If you ask people about Tandem,” Tanner said, “I think that person would say the type of people we have are the good guys in the NBA who are really smart and care for people.”
In 2010, not long after LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, Babby left Williams & Connolly to become the Phoenix Suns‘ President of Basketball Operations, a move Tanner didn’t see coming. But he was ready to take the reins and take on the challenge, exhibited by the client base staying with the firm under Tanner’s guidance.
Tanner ran the sports practice at Williams & Connolly for three years before finally considering going out on his own.
“I felt like, ‘I’m running somebody else’s playbook.’ I was running Lon’s playbook,” he said. “One night I just woke up and said, ‘I would do things differently and I have the opportunity to do things differently. So let’s do that.’”
Tanner left Williams & Connolly and started Tandem in 2013. His vision was to take the advantages that come with a capable law firm and combine them with the perfect mix of agents, support staff, marketing, PR, and social media pros to give athletes and entertainers the most comprehensive, vociferous representation possible. The ethos of practicing, preparing, and negotiating like an attorney would remain, as well as avoiding conflicts of interest and focusing on the ethics, he said.
Tanner the continued to recruit the sorts of clients who would appreciate and benefit from receiving more personal attention, interaction, and collaboration at Tandem than at companies with flashier names or longer histories.
“We’re not as focused on market share or getting every client,” Tanner added, “rather, really maximizing every opportunity that client has.”
Right on cue, it became powerfully clear during the 2018-19 college basketball season an electric Murray State University point guard named Ja Morant was shooting up the NBA Draft boards. Ja’s father, Tee, played high school basketball with Ray Allen, and the Morant family reached out to Allen for advice on how to proceed with his upcoming NBA representation. The Hall of Famer and his mother gave Tanner a warm recommendation, and the Morant family came to choose Tandem as their agency. The high riser was drafted No. 2 overall by the Memphis Grizzlies.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is that a lot of our clients come by way of referral from existing clients or their parents,” Tanner said.
Morant won NBA Rookie of the Year in 2020, but blew up last year in averaging 27.4 points, 6.7 assists, and 5.7 rebounds, leading Memphis to the second round of the playoffs and earning Second Team All-NBA, and Most Improved Player honors. It was a meteoric rise from promising young phenom to franchise-altering superstar — and perhaps future MVP.
“The best comparison is Jeremy Lin,” he said. “Jeremy hired us right in the midst of Linsanity, and I think it’s very similar to what we experienced with Ja last year. There were so many opportunities coming to us in terms of marketing, PR, everything. You’ve got to be really focused, capable of handling a lot of things at once, and really helping him vet those opportunities to maximize both the money that comes along with them but also the authenticity of the fit.”
Tanner then helped Morant negotiate a five-year rookie max extension this summer with the Grizzlies worth as much as $213 million.
“From day one, Jim has prioritized the things most important to me,” Bane told Boardroom. “I appreciate that he makes every decision collaborative and it’s about more than basketball, he’s also prioritized helping me make an impact in my community.”
Despite being in the agency business for 25 years now, Tanner said he always needs to learn and adapt to the times. Whether it’s through NFTs, cryptocurrency, or NIL, he and his Tandem colleagues have a responsibility to become experts on these emerging topics and determine who the major players are in a relevant area or industry. A large part of that, he said, is not just having the talent in place around you to help facilitate those necessary adjustments, but also making sure those individuals are engaged and empowered to provide clients with the best possible representation.
Over time, the biggest change he’s noticed in this ongoing pursuit is the influence of social media and the potent ways in which it can impact an athlete’s career both positively or negatively.
“There are many examples of people that have made mistakes in social media that can affect their marketability and how fans perceive them,” Tanner said. “So you have to be really careful and have a strategy for it.”
As college and NBA players become more entrepreneurially focused and motivated, Tanner has gotten to tout his background as a mergers and acquisitions attorney with years of experience in transactions and investments.
“Players like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Grant Hill have shown them the way in terms of using their platforms,” Tanner said. “Obviously, they earn a lot of money playing on the court, but they can also use the platform to go far beyond that in terms of wealth and investments. So they’ve seen those examples and players are learning from it.”
Those opportunities will continue to expand for players moving forward, especially if the NBA salary cap grows in ways people think it may after the next TV deal is negotiated, where we could see salaries grow 30-40% and in several years see the highest-paid players approach $100 million per year.
Tanner will use his experience and industry connections to continue growing his client base, but something he said he doesn’t especially like at the moment is how some of the biggest decisions in this regard ultimately get made.
“I would encourage people to really do their homework and their due diligence as they make agent selections, and make decisions based on the merits and really evaluate the options of what they’ve been able to do for their clients,” he said. “I think there are a lot of decisions that are made based on nefarious things that go on, and I think that can be very short-term thinking as opposed to long-term.”
With 2022 No. 9 overall pick Jeremy Sochan joining Morant, Jarrett Allen, Bane, Thaddeus Young, Cam Thomas, Luke Kornet, Ish Wainwright, and AJ Lawson as current clients in the NBA, both present and future are as bright for Jim Tanner and Tandem as they were during the first 25 years of his career. That bodes well as the agency begins its second decade in business against the backdrop of an NBA that’s as talented and exciting as it’s ever been.