Austin Brown knows a thing or two about adaptability. After, all the co-head of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) Sports’ basketball division started post-undergraduate life in finance and thought he wanted to work in corporate law. Never in his wildest dreams did he picture himself negotiating on behalf of NBA stars.
But life throws plenty of curveballs our way.
Brown started working at J.P. Morgan in 2007, right before a recession rocked the American economy. He ultimately decided to go to law school and Washington and Lee University, where his life changed forever.
After interning at an agency before law school and after 1L, a dean at Washington and Lee encouraged the former Evanston Township (IL) High School standout to use his externship as a means of diving deeper into that world. He ended up reconnecting with an old co-worker, who recruited him to CAA.
Now, Brown is one of the top NBA agents in the business. Still, when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic, he felt just as helpless as the rest of us. Perhaps even more so, considering his job demands consistent traveling.
“I’m used to being on the road two and a half or three weeks a month,” Brown said during a recent interview with Sportscasting. “Suddenly, you were stationed. You weren’t going anywhere.”
However, with nearly a decade at CAA under his belt, Brown responded the only way he knew how: He got to work. It’s the same determination and professionalism that helped him go from a career in finance to landing some of the biggest names in the NBA, including Donovan Mitchell, Zion Williamson, and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jaren Jackson Jr.
Sportscasting spoke to Brown about navigating the challenges of COVID and building relationships with clients.
Finding clarity and innovating in an unprecedented time
The NBA’s shutdown is a pretty definitive marker of when American life changed for good. Players — and agents like Brown — wondered how the league planned to proceed. Everyone also pondered the larger societal impact.
“[Our clients] are used to us having a lot of the answers,” Brown said. “But this was a situation where nobody had the answers.”
How could anyone anticipate the seismic cultural shift that would follow, let alone when NBA players would return to the hardwood? In many ways, the pandemic has forever changed American work culture. That certainly applied to Brown’s role with CAA at the time.
With traveling off the table for large chunks of time, Brown and his team had to devise ways to add clients. Typically, the spring and summer prove busiest for CAA as they scout collegiate talent and make the rounds at events such as the Draft Combine. But the pandemic canceled the 2020 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and eliminated all predraft activities, with the draft not taking place until that November.
Alas, Brown and the rest of CAA NBA created ways for draft prospects and potential signees to complete workouts, many of which were done virtually and in their own homes. He revealed that he was signing some clients over Zoom calls before even meeting them in person.
Aside from having to tailor workout times and routines to different markets across the country, Brown wanted to ensure that his current clientele was healthy in mind and spirit, as well.
“There’s a difference between FaceTime and physically sitting with clients to talk about basketball or life. To not have that was an adjustment for everybody. A lot of people forget … they’re athletes, but they’re people first.
“I probably became busier during the pandemic because staying connected was so important.”
Brown explained that the pandemic helped him find a deeper appreciation for life and a sense of gratefulness for the chance to work in the game that became his first passion as a child.
“It’s a go, go, go business. I learned how to slow down and enjoy the ride.”
Working in the post-COVID era has also helped further strengthen the bonds of trust between the NBA agent and his clients.
Building trust, overcoming adversity, and imparting knowledge
Brown has already gone through plenty of trials and tribulations alongside his clients.
Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a torn meniscus in the Orlando “bubble.” Kyle Kuzma, D’Angelo Russell, Gary Harris, and more have been traded (some have been dealt numerous times) in recent seasons. Those are but a few of the numerous experiences Brown’s clients have had.
However, he said that adversity can help forge a tighter bond with his athletes.
“When you’re first establishing a relationship with the client, you’re constantly building trust,” Brown said. “The situations you go through build trust. Somebody is choosing to put their career in your hands. You have to treat it as if it’s your own.”
As Brown noted, making it to the NBA is incredibly difficult. He wants to do everything he can to maximize his clients’ staying power.
“I don’t tell [my clients] what they want to hear, but what they need to hear,” Brown stated.
There’s also a distinct difference in handling younger clients versus grizzled veterans.
For players just coming into the league, there’s a sense of the unknown. They don’t know where they will get drafted or what endorsements might come their way. It’s also an adjustment to move to an 82-game season and, for many high draft picks, play for losing teams when all they’ve known is winning.
It’s a lot to take in. Thus, maturation and time management off the court are every bit as important as making gains on the floor.
“People are pulling at you in every direction for different things,” Brown pointed out. “Nothing about what you’re doing necessarily changes, but how you’re doing it changes.”
Conversely, older players eventually make that adjustment to life in the NBA and understand some of the more transactional aspects of being a professional.
“Most players become more involved in the business side of basketball as they have more years in the league,” Brown said. “They’ve gotten to their second or third contract, maybe they’ve been traded. They understand the rhythm of the business a bit more as time goes on.”
Still, that doesn’t mean those players don’t need fierce advocates in their corner. Brown’s clients don’t just get his intelligence and savvy. They get someone who has a pure love for the game and his role in it, especially forming and cultivating those relationships with clients over time.
Living a dream
A lot of skepticism came with the Memphis Grizzlies’ decision to sign Jackson to a $105 million extension this offseason.
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft missed time at the end of his rookie season with a quad injury. After tearing his meniscus in Orlando, JJJ missed all but 17 games (including the play-in and playoffs) of the 2020-21 campaign. But the former Michigan State standout has laid all doubt to rest this season, anchoring Memphis’ defense as a DPOY candidate.
Having played a role in negotiating that deal and watching Jackson evolve, Brown explained there’s no greater sense of gratification than watching someone validate their worth, particularly someone of JJJ’s character.
“When you see a guy put in so much work and they’re able to get a contract like that, it’s a feeling that’s hard to put into words,” Brown said. “Jaren still has this pureness where he’s so appreciative of everything that’s come his way. He doesn’t take anything for granted; nothing is lost on him.”
It’s the same approach Brown has with all his clientele, whom he proudly hailed as grounded individuals. He is acutely aware of each journey and appreciates all the steps along the way, all the while maintaining an outward-looking perspective.
“For me to be part of the process from the beginning, that’s what renews my love for the job. It’s not about being the best agent for myself. It’s about being the best agent for my clients.”
With Brown having undergone his own transformative journey and now preparing to enjoy his 10th year at CAA, it’s clear he excels at doing just that.
“Basketball had always been one of my first loves. For me to have the chance to work in the game … it’s a dream come true.”