He’d never put it on his business card and you won’t find it anywhere on his LinkedIn profile. But one of the greatest compliments Alex Saratsis ever received is a big reason why he had an offseason unlike any agent in NBA history.
“Someone told me I’m the nicest dickhead they ever met,” says Saratsis.
Of course there are plenty of other reasons why the man who represents back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo, one of last season’s breakout stars in the bubble, delivered a record-breaking amount of money to two of his most celebrated clients before the start of the 2020-21 NBA season. But it’s a great line. And, to be completely honest, it’s one the 40-year-old offered up reluctantly on the phone as he talked about his ascension from a guy whose first NBA Draft 18 years ago turned out to be, in his words, “a monumental disaster,” to his unprecedented pair of signings.
It’s also on brand for the native of Greece that now calls Chicago home and credits his brutal honesty for allowing him to be the guy that secured two studs staggering sums of money.
“When I’m negotiating with teams in free agency, being blunt with the client and being blunt with the team makes it easier to get a deal done,” says Saratsis. “So what do you prefer? To be honest and know what your value is? Or the BS? There’s no question I have to tone down the bluntness because it’s counterproductive, but it’s the way that I’ve always been.”
It’s hard to argue with his methods when his results could end up netting Antetokounmpo and Adebayo a combined $423 million. Make no mistake—it was his clients’ immense talent and super-bright future that ultimately got them paid, not Saratsis’s sweet talking during negotiations with the Milwaukee and Miami front offices. And Saratsis knows it. The co-managing director of the basketball division at Octagon, the sports and entertainment talent agency, Saratsis will tell you he hasn’t reinvented the agent playbook. He’s not some maniacal rep manipulating both sides of a negotiation like he believes too many of his contemporaries do. The best business practice is keeping it real, being brutally blunt. And it’s helped him build an incredibly strong bond with his clients.
“The most important thing he told me is that he wanted me to be happy, and to be comfortable with my choice. We talked about every single option for months, but at the end of the day he knows me, and knows what matters the most to me and my family.” — Giannis Antetokounmpo
“I have a real relationship with Alex,” Adebayo told Complex Sports via email. “Most guys don’t have that type of relationship with their agents. He relates to me not only as a player, but as a person. I look at him not only as my agent, but more like a brother.”
On the other hand, the bluntness has cost him some business. Saratsis parted ways with Rudy Gay, who he was close with, back in 2015 when he couldn’t deliver what the veteran forward needed. Perhaps the best example is a conversation Saratsis says he held with a prospective client last year. Saratsis will decline to name him, but the kid was projected to be a fringe second-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. The parents wanted to know what kind of branding and local marketing strategy was in store for their son. Saratsis didn’t hold back.
“I was like, ‘I’m sorry, with all due respect, your son needs to make sure he gets on an NBA roster before we even have this kind of discussion,’” says Saratsis. “They were completely flabbergasted. They could not understand why I said that. I said, ‘If your son is the 50th pick in the draft and he’s playing in Detroit and he’s at the end of the bench, there is no marketing, there is no branding.’ And if he’s going to be there trying to make sure he goes to sign some autographs at a car dealership or is worried about his Instagram followers then I‘ll tell you this isn’t a relationship that’s going to work.”
Is that blunt enough for you?
“Guys that want to hear the BS, guys that want to hear they’re the best player in the world, guys that want to hear, ‘Hey man, it’s [messed] up this guy got $80 million and you only got $60 million,’” says Saratsis. “Those are guys I can’t work with. And those are guys I’ll never be able to work with. Some of these agents think this is the way to get these kids. But those are never really long relationships.”
His most important professional relationship that turned into an extremely close personal relationship is, of course, with Antetokounmpo. Saratsis has been working with the Greek Freak since 2013 when the Bucks drafted the prospect no NBA fan ever thought would morph into a superstar. How Saratsis learned of and signed Antetokounmpo has been talked about enough that we don’t need to rehash it here. Their shared heritage and ability to converse in Greek was huge. But considering Saratsis has been with Antetokounmpo every step of the way during his rise from a teenager who didn’t know the first thing about life in the NBA or the United States—like how to get a driver’s license or furnish his first apartment—into a global superstar and owner of the richest contract in NBA history, you get why their bond goes beyond business.
“I don’t think people understand the kind of relationship me and my family has with Alex,” Antetokounmpo told Complex Sports via email. “He is as close to family to me as anyone that is not blood related can be.”
So there must’ve been pressure negotiating the richest extension in NBA history for a generational talent that could single-handedly change the fortunes of a city in ways only a few other superstars—like Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City and LeBron James in Cleveland—previously have, right? Kind of. But maybe not like you’d expect.
“[There was] never pressure from Giannis’s side, and as everybody was giving me [crap] about, we took our time,” says Saratsis. “There’s so much more to his thought process and who he is as an individual, that it’s not just, ‘Here’s $228 million.’”
How Antetokounmpo ultimately made up his mind to sign the extension went down like this: He was encouraged by Saratsis to wait until close to the Dec. 22 deadline to make up his mind. After the Bucks were bounced early from the playoffs again, Antetokounmpo spent time in Greece. Saratsis told his friend and client not to come to any conclusions until he returned to the States before training camp began. And to make sure his priorities were in proper order.
“The most important thing he told me is that he wanted me to be happy, and to be comfortable with my choice,” says Antetokounmpo. “We talked about every single option for months, but at the end of the day he knows me, and knows what matters the most to me and my family.”
Saratsis wanted Antetokounmpo to go to bed some nights believing he was delaying a decision until summer, then see how he felt in the morning about it. Other nights, the top five NBA player should go to bed believing he was signing the extension, then see how he felt in the morning. Peace of mind over money. Serenity over settling.
“There was nothing we were going to go to the Bucks with and they were going to say no,” says Saratsis. “It’s not just a business decision, it’s an emotional decision. Yeah, things can change and we can ask for a trade if you want to, but for all intents and purposes this is the next few years of your career, in the prime of your career, and I want you to be happy.”
While Milwaukee fans, the Bucks organization, and the entire NBA universe waited on pins and needles for Antetokounmpo to sign the extension or agonizingly push it off until summer, Saratsis laughed as report after report claimed to know what the Greek Freak was thinking. Or going to do. The false stories and ludicrous soundbites from NBA pundits numbered in the hundreds, Saratsis says. Antetokounmpo quietly made up his mind on a Sunday night, two days before it was announced he would re-up with Milwaukee.
“There are literally four people that know what we’re thinking and what we’re weighing and what we want to do and none of those four are talking,” he says. “[Antetokounmpo’s] not a guy who talks to his barber or talks to his homeboys from back home. We don’t open our mouths, we don’t leak, we don’t do any of that stuff, so it was really funny to me during that process how everybody said they had an inside track when nobody did.”
Most importantly, Saratsis would like to dispel any notion he played Antetokounmpo and Adebayo against each other while negotiating their extensions. He absolutely never tipped off the Heat about Antetokounmpo’s intentions. Considering the order in which the two stars signed their extensions and the shady business agents, rightfully or wrongfully, are assumed to practice, it’s a narrative Saratsis knows will persist. Miami had long been rumored as a potential landing spot for Antetokounmpo this upcoming summer if he were to leave Milwaukee. That depended heavily on how the Heat structured the team’s future salary cap situation with Adebayo, their burgeoning star, worthy of a max extension after their run to the NBA Finals. If Adebayo signed for massive money, convention said that would rule out Miami as a free agent destination for Antetokounmpo. Saratsis must have given the Heat a heads up the Greak Freak would re-up with Milwaukee since Adebayo signed his extension weeks before Antetokounmpo, right? Wrong.
“I can tell you that honestly,” says Saratsis. “‘Oh, well Bam signed, they must know something.’ They knew nothing. And I made sure. Agents do this all the time: You leverage one guy for another. And I never do that. It’s good to have information, but I would never talk Giannis’s business with Miami, and I would never talk about Miami’s business with any other team. You don’t leverage one guy for another.”
Because agents who do that have a short shelf life. Greed and clout chasing cloud the motives of too many player reps, says Saratsis, who are really only looking out for themselves. “If you’re comfortable enough in your relationship, there’s absolutely no reason to BS people, no reason to lead guys on or be untruthful,” says Saratsis. He declines to name names, but he says shadiness is “tremendously prevalent” in the industry. Saratsis doesn’t have the same notoriety as other A-list NBA agents like Rich Paul, Bill Duffy, or Mark Bartelstein. And he doesn’t feature the star-studded lineup of clients like some of his peers. But the rep for Lakers guard Dennis Schröder, Sixers sharpshooter Seth Curry, and 10 other players is respected around the league.
“One of the things with him is he is really clear with where he feels the player needs to go in their career, trajectory, or situationally,” says Thunder GM Sam Presti who has known Saratsis for nearly two decades. “What might seem blunt to some people is actually kind of like the output of a lot of thought and he’s kind of narrowing it down to be as simple as possible from his point of view. At the same time, I also don’t think he takes it so seriously that there’s no relationship. I think that’s one of the reasons that he’s been as successful as he’s been.”
Even after a career year, Saratsis is keeping things in perspective. He’s grounded by his family, especially his wife, Amanda Muhs Saratsis, who is an assistant professor of neurological surgery and biochemistry and molecular genetics at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. She’s literally helping save children’s lives every day. And if Antetokounmpo and Adebayo didn’t work their asses off, Saratsis wouldn’t earn his percentage—no more than 4 percent as capped by the NBPA.
“These guys are the reasons you become successful,” he says.
Saratsis got into the business despite never aspiring to be an agent growing up. Fresh out of Northwestern, he joined a management firm in Chicago and then took some tough, but necessary Ls during his first years in the business. Like in 2003, when he repped the Polish prospect Maciej Lampe who was drafted by the Knicks with the first selection in the second-round. Lampe was supposed to be a top 10 pick and Saratsis, who had graduated in 2002 and hadn’t grasped the intricacies of NBA business like buyouts and what a draft and stash was, squirmed with his client in the green room all night long. It was the lowest point of his career.
Eighteen years later, he negotiated more NBA contracts in total value than other agent this past offseason, according to NBPA tabulations. Timing and luck played a huge role in his success, like when he was tipped off about Antetokounmpo during his days heading Octagon’s basketball business in Europe. So did hard work and perseverance spending so much time overseas and finally having two players selected in the same draft—Antetokounmpo at No. 15 to the Bucks and Schröder two picks later to the Hawks. Saratsis’s unique upbringing that began in his native Greece and stretched to Mexico and Japan before he settled in the States was incredibly vital, giving him an international background few reps could match. His ball-busting Greek father who loved him, but always allowed Saratsis to figure things out on his own, deserves major credit for instilling a lot of that bluntness in his son.
Like the time Saratsis, just 12, was held up at gunpoint in Mexico City. While working a job his father, a manager for a pharmaceutical company, helped secure, it was Saratsis’s responsibility to run money between a bank downtown and the company three-to-four times a day. One afternoon, Saratsis was stopped outside the bank and had a gun shoved into his back. Vandals in the crime-ridden city had cased his routine and the kid was easy prey. He handed over the cash without incident. When Costas Saratsis arrived to pick up his justifiably freaked out son, eyes all teared up, he didn’t hold back.
“‘Well, why did you keep taking the same route? What did you expect to happen?’” Saratsis remembers his father telling him in the most loving, adoring way. “When you’ve got a kid traumatized, that is as blunt as you can be.”
When Saratsis rolls into a meeting with a prospective client he’ll offer up two options. He can run through the typical flashy deck that looks great and unleash the usual agent spiel that sounds slick. Or they can have a conversation. No bullshit. Keep it real, keep it moving, and keep killing it for his clients. That’s how the nicest dickhead does business.