MILWAUKEE – For the first time in a couple hours, one of the most powerful people in basketball can lay down his phone and lock in on the court at Fiserv Forum. Bret Just, the agent whose fingerprints are all over coaching moves at every level of the sport, has spent much of the night alternating his attention between what’s happening in front of him, refreshing his scoreboard app and texting with a small college coach who is probably a few years away from the big time.
For Just, virtually every game from October to April is an emotional grind. Someone he represents somewhere in the basketball universe is winning or losing, and even though it’s less than three weeks into the NBA season, he can barely go more than a minute without trying to figure out whether it’s going to be a sleepless night.
But now, with a game between the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks getting close in the final minutes, it is time to focus on the client he is here to see.
“Fiz has very positive energy right now,” Just says, referring to Knicks coach David Fizdale. “The whole game he never looks rattled. I do, but I don’t matter.”
Just had worked for months to get Fizdale into another NBA head coaching job after the Memphis Grizzlies fired him 19 games into last season. The two would talk daily, going over what went wrong, what he could fix and how to win every interview that was coming in the offseason.
“It’s a hit-or-miss business, and if you miss you reboot,” Fizdale said at the team’s hotel. “He wouldn’t let me waste one second being down. He sees things two steps ahead. Our conversations helped me see things I wouldn’t have looked for.”
Fizdale’s deal with the Knicks was one of three for NBA head coaches that Just engineered in the offseason, along with J.B. Bickerstaff in Memphis and James Borrego in Charlotte, part of a profile that includes two general managers in Atlanta’s Travis Schlenk and Cleveland’s Koby Altman, various front office executives and some assistant coaches.
Just’s growing NBA network is unique given he is arguably the most influential behind-the-scenes figure in college basketball. His client list includes a dozen head coaches in the high-major leagues, several more in the mid-majors and UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma.
One of the biggest testaments to Just’s reach will occur in a couple weeks at the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, where all four coaches involved – Nebraska’s Tim Miles, Southern Cal’s Andy Enfield, Texas Tech’s Chris Beard and Missouri State’s Dana Ford – are his clients.
“Everyone’s like, you win,” he said. “But in an agent’s mind, I lose. … By the same token, to be honest, it’s pretty damn cool.”
Though Just is the first to acknowledge that the foundation of his business rests on his clients winning – “Without their success, who am I?” he said – it was notable when CBS Sports polled more than 100 coaches last summer, asking them to identify the most powerful person in the sport. Just came in fourth, behind Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.
Not long ago, however, those same coaches probably wouldn’t have known the name Bret Just unless they had recruited a player out of Deerfield High in suburban Chicago, where he was the varsity basketball coach with a 58-26 career record. A mere eight years later, it would be surprising if a coaching change anywhere didn’t involve him.
“There’s only four or five agents in the college space that have the majority of the coaches,” said Daniel Parker, the vice president for the sports division of the powerful Parker Executive Search. “If I have a search, he’s one you call. He’s got a diverse group of coaches and he’s done a good job of building relationships with search firms and athletics directors, but also general managers in the (NBA). That takes of a lot of relationship skills to navigate both the college and professional ranks.”
But for all the influence and connections Just has amassed in a short period of time, he must descend every night into that place where he has no control over the outcome, where every time he hits refresh comes with a surge of optimism and dread.
For much of this night, it is a morose task. Borrego’s team is getting blown out by the Raptors and Bickerstaff’s team is a big underdog in the late game at Utah, but the rebuilding Knicks suddenly have some hope after trailing by double-digits.
“No matter what happens, they’re playing their ass off,” Just says as the Knicks tie it up at 110-110. But the optimism doesn’t last long. The Bucks pull away with three 3-pointers in quick succession, leaving Just to sit silently.
“Now I have to worry about the Grizzlies’ score,” he says.
‘Would not allow myself to fail’
Whether it was Frank Martin’s longshot run to the Final Four with South Carolina in 2016 or Chris Beard going from Arkansas-Little Rock to UNLV to Texas Tech in the span of 2½ weeks, Just has been at the center of some college basketball’s most memorable recent moments.
And when you ask people who have dealt with Just how someone who wasn’t on the radar at the beginning of this decade became one of the power players, they almost unanimously point to the authenticity of his relationships.
“He can fit into any room,” said Beard, who hired Just to represent him during his only year at Arkansas-Little Rock, won an NCAA tournament game and parlayed it into the Texas Tech job. “He can come into Lubbock and eat dinner with the president of the university, then swing by and have beers with the coaches and our student managers will think he’s the coolest guy ever and our AD is really comfortable with him and it’s all genuine. I don’t know if there’s anyone in my life I trust more.”
Just’s mantra is “relationships lead to transactions,” and there was perhaps no better example than when Washington hired former Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins in March 2017.
Few people, including Washington athletics director Jen Cohen, expected Hopkins to leave Syracuse because he had a contract that made him the coach-in-waiting after Jim Boeheim’s scheduled (and subsequently rescinded) retirement in 2018.
But over the course of the prior year, Cohen, whose background was largely in football, bonded with Just as she sought his knowledge of the basketball world. Largely due to his conviction that the easy-going, empathetic Hopkins would appeal to her – “I thought the personality fit was a 10,” Just said – he was able to convince Cohen that she should put Hopkins on her list.
“One of the things that makes Bret really good at his job is it doesn’t feel transactional when you’re working with him in a very transactional industry,” Cohen said. “I think he understands success isn’t just how much money people are making and how many resources the schools have. Those are all important parts of the formula, but the value alignment is really important too.”
The other tentpole of Just’s rise is what makes his story all the more unlikely.
At age 40 and with four kids, Just decided to leave a stable life as a high school coach to pursue a far riskier career.
It wasn’t Just’s first foray into the agent business. After his graduation from Tulane, where he was a walk-on from 1991 to 1993 under Perry Clark, Just moved back to Chicago and joined his father Mark, a longtime baseball scout who had started a small sports agency.
That didn’t turn into a long-term career, however, leaving Just trying to piece together a living through odd jobs, coaching basketball part time and running a pair of drug treatment clinics he and his father had invested in.
“I was watching guys give urine samples,” he said.
Though he eventually established himself as a full-time high school coach in 2008, Just maintained a few contacts in the agent world, which helped him land a meeting at the massive Creative Artists Agency firm in the fall of 2010.
With little to back him up other than a vision and the strength of his personality, Just sold CAA on the potential of a business focused on basketball coaches, particularly as salaries were beginning to explode with all the new television money colleges were about to receive. He also thought his coaching background would give him a head start on a few connections and be attractive to up-and-coming coaches, many of whom didn’t even have agents.
“At the end of the day it was just whether I could build the relationships quickly enough,” Just said. “I’m 40 years old, four kids, basically starting from scratch. But I just felt like I would not allow myself to fail.”
He showed up at the Final Four in 2011 with no clients, no meetings, no connections with search firms and no real plan. Mostly, he stalked hotel lobbies looking to spark conversations with people he knew.
One of them was Brian Wardle, then the Wisconsin-Green Bay coach. They were familiar with each other because Wardle tried to recruit Duje Dukan, one of Just’s Deerfield High players, who ended up signing with Wisconsin.
“He didn’t know what I was doing, and I told him, and he was like, ‘We should talk,’” Just said.
Early on, he relied on those types of chance encounters to recruit clients, one of which the following summer would change the trajectory of his career.
Sweet 16 payday
A week before “Dunk City” became the biggest story in college basketball in March 2013, Just left the arena in Macon, Ga., convinced that the conference championship game he had just watched could get Andy Enfield in the door of the Old Dominion coaching search.
Just, who was still an unknown, had only signed Andy Enfield as a client the previous summer, the result of a random conversation in a Las Vegas restaurant late one night after all the AAU games had been played.
Enfield had never hired an agent but felt like he might need one after his first year at Florida Gulf Coast because he suspected the team he had coming back might be talented enough to put him on the radar of some bigger schools.
“I thought (Just’s) enthusiasm for what I was trying to do at FGCU and his vision for what he wanted to do was very similar,” Enfield said. “He had a couple clients, but not a lot, and he was looking to the future.”
After two NCAA tournament upsets as a No. 15 seed, the future was now. Though it was almost unheard of for a coach to go from a program as small as Florida Gulf Coast to a Power Five conference, Enfield was the hottest name in the industry – and Just was in position to capitalize.
“One of my frustrations when I got into the business is there was such a premium on the NCAA tournament and it felt like ADs and search firms didn’t look at the whole body of work,” Just said. “Then I started experiencing it through my guys, and it’s hard to describe the feeling when your life changes that fast.”
A couple days before the Sweet 16, Just’s phone rang while he was sitting down for dinner at a fancy steakhouse in Dallas. It was the kind of call you don’t miss: Southern Cal athletics director Pat Haden, and for the next hour and a half, they talked through everything as he paced outside the restaurant, from how Enfield would recruit Los Angeles to Enfield’s personal story going from Wall Street to coaching.
But the conversation came with a caveat: Just, feeling confident Haden wouldn’t give the job to someone else, wasn’t going to distract his client with any hint of USC’s interest until after Florida Gulf Coast was out of the tournament.
A couple months earlier, Just had been in Enfield’s office in Fort Myers, putting a résumé on paper. Now, as long as Enfield wanted the job, he was on the verge of negotiating a contract worth $1.5 million per year – 10 times what he was making at FGCU.
“I wanted to try to do it by the book,” Enfield said. “That was a very stressful time for me because we were in the midst of a tournament run, but it was a tough situation for Bret because he had to really try to satisfy a lot of people and get information and take a lot of calls and he really had to do it on his own. There had to be a lot of trust involved.”
Enfield going from Florida Gulf Coast to USC became the first in a series of what Just calls “meteoric moves” for his clients, based largely on NCAA tournament success.
While there’s certainly some luck involved when coaches pop onto the national scene with tournament wins, it’s happened enough for Just’s clients – from Beard to Brad Underwood with Stephen F. Austin to Ryan Odom with Maryland-Baltimore County – that it doesn’t seem like an accident but rather an ability to evaluate coaching talent.
“He knows coaching,” said Nebraska’s Tim Miles, who became one of Just’s earliest clients when he was at Colorado State. “And I think he knows what to look for and he understands what’s transferable.”
Too many clients?
Before going to the Knicks-Bucks game, Just had spent the afternoon at Marquette’s practice watching another client, assistant Dwayne Killings, and meeting with Steve Wojciechowski, who is represented by a different agent at CAA.
Just loves watching Wojciehowski run a practice – there’s never a moment where the energy dips – but he got antsy at this one because his phone wasn’t picking up service in the basement of the Al McGuire Center.
“I’m going to have like 70 texts when I get out of here,” he joked.
If this were March, Just would be in real trouble. And it’s not easy work, though his business has now grown to the point where he’ll often replace one client with another.
The exact size of Just’s client list, however, is something he doesn’t discuss. Even though his reputation has now put him in a position to be selective about clients – “If I can’t be fully invested, I won’t take them on at this point,” he said – agents often have to fight against the perception of becoming spread too thin or having too many coaches competing for the same jobs.
“When people say you have too many clients, one of the things I tell them is, ‘You want me to have 30 coaches and act like I have three,’ ” he said.
That’s why Just spends his hours sending texts of support and pores over schedules to create road trips where he can see as many people as possible.
Whether it’s going to Los Angeles so he can hit the Lakers and Clippers as well as USC, UC-Santa Barbara and UC-Riverside, or driving trips across the Missouri Valley and Mid-American Conference, practically every day of his schedule from now until mid-February is planned out to make sure he sees his coaches in person.
“It’s important they know I’m in the trenches with them,” he said. “This is a face-time business. I want to make sure I touch everybody. You’ve got to feel it. You’ve got to get the pulse of what’s going on.”
That constant connection he works to maintain, combined with his coaching background, makes him a de facto part of these programs. He’s not just there to negotiate contracts but rather to counsel his clients on everything from sideline demeanor to how to deal with specific situations with players.
“I can have a basketball conversation with him, and I can get something out of it versus someone just saying, ‘Hey you guys look good on TV,’” Enfield said. “This is a very lonely business at times, and the nice thing about Bret is he can be honest with me through the good and the bad. It’s not always good. You’re going to lose games, but he gives you a sense of reality.”
Outside the visitors’ locker room in Fiserv Forum, Just mingles with Knicks executives and assistants as Fizdale gives his post-game comments following Milwaukee’s 124-113 win. Even though he already had lunch with Fizdale after shootaround earlier that day, he can’t make the 80-minute drive back to the Chicago suburbs without one more conversation.
“Hopefully he’ll see me standing over here and I’ll tell him I love him and it’s all good,” he says.
The night hasn’t given him much good news to this point. In addition to the Knicks, the Borrego’s Hornets lost to the Raptors by 21.
As Just makes the drive home, he resists the urge to fiddle with his phone to see how his final shot at a win that night is working out.
This time, Just is with a passenger, who informs him that the Grizzlies pulled an upset in Utah, winning 92-84 and lifting his mood in a way that didn’t seem possible earlier.
“What?” he says. “No they didn’t. Is that final? Oh my God. Do you understand how big that is?”
For the first time all night, Just can untie the knots in his stomach and perhaps even look forward to some sleep. As a long basketball season begins, with plenty of transactions ahead, he is probably going to need it.