Rich Paul is an anomaly. Perhaps best known as one-fourth of LeBron James’ “Four Horsemen” group, which also includes other childhood friends Maverick Carter and Randy Mims, Paul is also an agent for some of the biggest names in sports: Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Ben Simmons, and John Wall, to name a few. He’s the brains behind Klutch Sports Group, an agency founded in 2012 that recently partnered with United Talent Agency to grow its reach even further (a documentary series on the agency, Klutch Academy, premiered last month).
He’s someone that’s been so instrumental in shaping the current landscape of sports agency deals that the NCAA once attempted to require NBA agents to have bachelor’s degrees with its infamous “Rich Paul Rule.” In response, Paul penned an op-ed arguing that “requiring a four-year degree accomplishes only one thing—systematically excluding those who come from a world where college is unrealistic” and in the same week, the NCAA dropped the provision.
Speaking with Complex from his Beverly Hills office on a Tuesday afternoon, Paul outlined the next endeavor in his quickly expanding résumé: a footwear and apparel collaboration with New Balance. He’s broken a lot of ground in the world of sports already, and this will make him the first agent with a sneaker collab. Paul’s model of choice for the first release is the New Balance 550, a retro basketball shoe from the late ‘80s that has recently found new life through a series of collaborations with New York boutique Aimé Leon Dore and popular in-line colorways. It’s a sneaker that reminds Paul, who turns 40 on Dec. 16, of the era he grew up in. It’s a basketball shoe, but it’s not intended to actually play hoops in—fitting for someone who has such a connection to the sport without actually getting shots off.
And although it’s a collaboration bearing his name, for Paul, it’s bigger than him.
“This is to encourage kids to dream bigger and to find their balance,” he says. “Within finding that balance, I think they find confidence within themselves. Self-esteem is so important. In a time like today, in which everything on social media is a right-now type of environment. I worry about our kids today, given the fact that there’s so much shown, but there’s no pathway to get it, you know? Everyone’s showing the end result.”
Paul’s career has produced countless results, but it’s clear he views the work it took to get there as just as important. His sincerity about setting an example for the next generation is apparent. With the Rich Paul x New Balance 550, which is priced at $130 and releases on Dec. 10, the multifaceted agent hopes to instill this message to the youth. Our conversation about the new collab, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, appears below.
I think the first thing a lot of us were wondering is, why New Balance? It was, I don’t want to say a surprise, but it just kind of caught us off guard, the connection between you and the brand.
I think that the brand, obviously, it’s a family owned brand. Chris [Davis, New Balance chief marketing officer and senior vice president of merchandising] and I are really close friends, and it made sense in terms of what this is about and everything. Obviously, you always want to find your balance in life. I’ve done things with them before, very out-of-the-box, disruptive initiatives, like with Darius Bazley and the internship there. So, we just always had a very genuine relationship. I think that they’re a brand who can actually connect in a very authentic way with flexibility. So, when they came to me with this idea, and what it was really about, I felt like it was the right place and I will always be a good partner to them because they’ve always treated me and my clients well.
Ultimately, they’re a great brand. For what they stand for, the things they’ve done throughout and in a very consistent manner. It’s been really cool. I know they won some awards this past year in terms of just all the cool things that they were bringing forth and different silhouettes, different styles of shoes, and even on the apparel side. It’s been pretty cool to see the growth and see the success that they’ve had over the last couple of years. So, it was a no brainer for me, honestly. Wasn’t much thought there.
You kind of touched on a little bit of my next question with that answer. But, I know you’ve been in this space for quite a long time. You’ve got ties to a lot of different brands. Was there ever another opportunity or time for you to do a collaboration like this? What about this made it seem like now is the time to go with it?
Yeah, well, I think that I like to do things [that are] purposeful and impactful. And, in this case, there’s this idea of success and what that really means. There’s this idea of being able to actually be someone from a very realistic perspective. And a lot of times, kids find a tough time having examples, right? They dream big, but how many of those dreams are actually realistic? In this case, I felt like it was an opportunity for us to encourage the youth, and to really inspire them that their thoughts do have value, their wants are achievable and attainable, their dreams are definitely reachable.
Any time that you are allowed to align with something like that, again, it’s a no brainer for me because if anyone knows me, they know that that’s what I’m about. It’s not so much about me, but it’s about being able to inspire. There’s a ton of Rich Pauls, both in a female and male body that’s out there that will be better than me someday. If I can give them the—what I would say would be the positive motivation to even just… A lot of times, people are discouraged, right? Without even following through with their initial thought. I want them to not be discouraged, to really believe in whatever they think they can be. You can actually be that, and I’m living proof of that.
You think this collaboration will kind of show that and get that across to the youth?
Well, that’s the point of it. Although, obviously, it’s my name on the bill, if you really look deeper into it, it’s much bigger than that. I mean, because number one, that don’t normally happen, right? We don’t know any other agent or young Black kid from Cleveland that don’t bounce a ball or don’t catch a ball or don’t throw a ball that gets the opportunity [to get their own shoe].
So, again, you always struggle with, should you do something or should you not do something? In this case, the impact that I felt like it could have going forward, and the fact that kids could really touch it and feel it and see it, and knowing my story, and really look in the mirror and understand that, “Yeah, what’s in front of me may look dull and may be gray, but there’s brighter days ahead if I continue to persevere, continue to believe in myself and my abilities.”
I like that. I want to go back a little bit. I was reading a recent interview with you and you were talking about how you used to have to take bus trips to get sneakers, and later you started getting rides from people. I was wondering, how does it feel to kind of go from having to jump through all those hoops to get a pair of sneakers, to now being in this role and getting your very own shoe?
Yeah, I think, again, it goes back to everything that I’ve talked about in the first two questions. Looking back on my life, struggles that I had growing up. We were always on the go in terms of adjusting, right? Whatever was in front of you, you had to adjust to make better of it. There were no excuses to be made. There was no real help, per se. So, at a very young age, you had to really make decisions that you probably shouldn’t have been making at that age. If you wanted something, you had to be willing to do the things necessary to go out and get it.
Looking back on it, I’m appreciative of those bus trips. I’m appreciative of everybody. Whoever put down whatever they were doing to give me a ride because I had this notion. There was no social media or anything like that. So it was just me going on a conversation I probably had with a manager at Foot Locker or Footaction the week before that, and he told me that these shoes were coming. But going there, I didn’t know if it was going to exactly be there. But in a lot of cases they were, and you had to be really, what I would say was, I was really creative in a lot of ways. I never forget, I used to really make relationships with the managers of these shoe stores to really understand what was coming and to actually get it early. I really did that, and greased their palms as well.
That was one of the first times I learned how important relationships were. At such a young age, I’m 12 and 13 years old, building those relationships with those guys, and having to, where they actually followed through. We had conversations and I showed up and they followed through. That was important back in those days, for sure.
I want to talk about the 550 itself a little bit. What made you go with that specific model? And also, the design? I’ve heard a couple things and it sounds like the colors might be connected to Benedictine High School.
Well, I think the 550 is nostalgic. If anybody knows me, I’m really an old soul in a lot of ways. I grew up in that late ’80s, early ‘90s type of feel. It just was a style that I felt had a basketball inspiration, but was really a lifestyle shoe. So because of that, I felt like the blend was really dope, because as you know, I’m an agent man, and I have players that play the game and I never wanted to be in a position where, obviously, I can’t lead a basketball shoe, I don’t play the game. But from a lifestyle perspective, it was actually very authentic to who I was as a person and how I think and really how I dress.
It was very seamless. I pictured wearing them with my laces untied, like my uncle Lance used to wear his shoes with his laces kind of untied, but in a very cool way. I used to always want to wear my shoes like that, very untied, but they were equivalent to being tied. If that makes sense. It was just more of a style thing. Just really like chilling, like a really chill vibe.
Out of all the styles I picked, that one was first. I have another one in mind if we get a second go round at it. But, I also have some different colorways. The colorway for this one was just more so based from a universal perspective. Everyone can wear it, the palette of it, you can match it with pretty much anything in terms of the base. Then you have the other colors in it. It’s more of like, if you look at the sky, you get those colors. So, when you’re dreaming big, it all kind of ties in.
OK, it’s nice to hear that there’s more on the way. Sounds like there might be another model on the way.
I don’t know, man. I’m just throwing it out there, Riley. I like to kind of speak things into existence. But, look, New Balance being willing and wanting and having that flexibility, I can’t say that other brands wouldn’t do it, or didn’t. I just think that [New Balance] really sees a value in it and jumps on it and are very open-minded and wanting to do it. I think that it’s something that kind of gives them an edge in a lot of situations.
For sure. What are some of your earliest memories of a brand? And, maybe some favorite models outside of the 550?
In Cleveland where I grew up at, we always wore New Balance, and it was more so from a very chill vibe, and they were accepted across the board. And then, as you got older, you started to realize the real value was the comfort. You’re like, “Oh, [this is a] really comfortable shoe.” But the 992s, the 990s. I think the 1500s, the 997s. I remember the brand vividly, and every time I go back, even into the employee store, whatnot, it’s right there on campus. Even from the apparel side, really dope tracksuits and windbreakers and things like that. And if you go further east, like the DC, the DMV area, and then obviously in Philly, it’s all my friends wear. It’s a real thing on that I-95 corridor.
So it’s always been there, and obviously, we know all the brands that have been consistent throughout the years. But, New Balance has always had their own lane, and has always had their own relevance in culture. For sure.
I want to talk to you a little bit about some of the Klutch players that are wearing New Balance and the relationship between Klutch and the brand. Obviously, you mentioned Darius Bazley, there’s also Dejounte Murray. Can we expect to see any other Klutch players wearing it?
Oh yeah. We like to have a partnership with New Balance just like other brands. I think for them, they like to pick people that they feel like will be authentic to the brand and really support the brand in a very true partnership. It’s not a thing for money, which is pretty refreshing to see. But, obviously, on my end when I’m negotiating a deal for my players, obviously you’re trying to get the most money you possibly can. So sometimes you run into a little hurdle there, but for the most part, I think every day that goes by, guys are being more and more open-minded to the brand, especially with them being back into the basketball space.
Look, Dejounte and Darius, they love the brand, the brand loves them. It’s been a great partnership for those guys and we’ll continue to try to support the brand with clients as they come up and be available, given the fact that it makes sense. And if it doesn’t make sense, they understand and we move on.
And speaking of Bazley, one other thing was the “Gap Year” documentary. I actually had a chance to talk to him about that last year, and I really enjoyed it. I think the whole idea of him doing the internship, the outside of the box thinking, was just a nice approach. In hindsight, how do you think all of that went? And would you consider doing something like that again?
Yeah, I think it went great. I think it was very helpful for Baze, especially going into a space in which it was an interest, it wasn’t a forced thing. Obviously you’ve got to play basketball in shoes, obviously he loves fashion. It made sense. For him to get that insight at that age and really understand how the industry actually worked, and the impact he had on the company as well internally. I think it’s a place where he’ll always be able to go back to, and he had a lot of fun doing it. He really had a lot of fun doing it. I was appreciative of them being understanding that there was a business component to it and they were open-minded to that as well.
That was impressive of the brand and it was a unique thing. It was just very authentic. It was just something that I was trying to figure out, how can I position this kid into which he was able to grow with idle time that made sense. And so, finding that opportunity, that internship with New Balance, was really cool.
This last one, it might be a little bit of a complicated question, but for the Klutch athletes with ties to other brands, how can they be involved in the success with you? How can they kind of ride this new wave that you are on?
Well, they won’t get this one, but they understand. I think that maybe some will save it for… If they were to get their hands on [a pair], save it just to have as a moment in time. But my guys are pretty understanding. They turn a blind eye to a lot of this stuff that gets used against me negatively, in terms of competition, agents, rival agents. Well, there is no rival agents. But in terms of other agents, they go out and try to say little slick stuff, but they don’t have the story. So I think that I have to make decisions that’s much bigger than me and with authentic content.
And then, there’ll be a community component to it, where I’m going to Cleveland, my hometown, to really speak to kids about the importance of following through and believing that you can, that whatever it is you want to be in life, you can actually be that, despite the challenges that are brought forth to you throughout your childhood.
I think it’s important for kids to really have that conversation and not to grow up with spite within you, because everyone has their challenges, including your parents. A lot of kids that I grew up with, including myself, we grew up without our parent, or parents. And, during those times, you have a hard time understanding why. But no one ever really sat down and asked them if they were OK mentally. What are they going through? How can we help them be better? Instead of just that pain that you feel, you just recycle that pain, from you back to them, from them back to you.
As I’m older and more mature today and look back on it, a lot of their absence was because they didn’t want you to see them in a certain presence, in a certain light. And so, they were more so protecting you, or so they thought. It has a traumatizing effect on you. So again, part of this whole thing is having those types of experiences and being able to go back and really have a conversation with the youth about it. And for them to take a piece of something and say, and know that, “I can be this.” Or in most cases, I would ask them to strive to be even better.
And so, man, I think it’s all God’s plan to be honest with you. I don’t really seek these type of things. I think that the story is unique. It’s kind of like an oxymoron. It’s unique, but at the same time, it’s unfortunate that the story is so unique, right? But we are where we are and we still have a long way to go. Me and my story and it being highlighted, I guess it’s just part of what God always had planned for me. So I’m embracing it. I’m not shying away from it due to the fact that what someone may think you should or shouldn’t be doing. I think they put enough limits on us that we have to defy those things and as long as it’s with great intent, you lean in.
I like that, man. It’s awesome to see you adding yet another thing to your repertoire.
Yeah. You know, I’m excited about it, man. It’s just something authentic to me. As you know, it’s been a lot of things that I’ve been able to accomplish, not only for me, but for the company as well. We have a unique partnership with UTA (United Talent Agency) and [me] being on the board of UTA. Which is a thing that when I was growing up, we didn’t even know that companies had boards. Obviously my business partners and different companies and the success we’ve had as a unit and the success story of the Four Horsemen and what we’ve been able to show and the example we’ve been able to set for youth is very important to us.