Oprah's beau advises struggling Pacers on image management

March 10, 2008

Best-selling author Stedman Graham says professional athletes should think of themselves as "a corporation unto themselves."

"They need to represent themselves as a major business would," Graham said during a recent telephone interview. "That awareness is created by a different kind of thinking."

Graham--who is perhaps best known as television star Oprah Winfrey's boyfriend--brought that message to the Indiana Pacers during a three-hour private seminar in late January that was designed to get the players to rethink the importance of their individual images.

Players said they enjoyed the program, and Pacers officials are considering bringing Graham back for follow-up sessions.

"He talked a lot about brand and how that relates to your earning potential," said Pacers guard Kareem Rush. "[Graham] focused on a lot of life issues, your inner circle, having your life organized, and maintaining a real focus in all aspects of your life. It was very informative."

Hiring Graham is another step Pacers management has taken to enhance player development and boost the players' and team's image in the wake of numerous high-profile off-court incidents, including shootings, strip club fights and, most recently, connections with accused murderers and rapists.

With the team's attendance in a free fall--down more than 3,000 per game from last year and last in the National Basketball Association--the team is at a crossroads, sports marketers said.

"Like it or not at this point, the players are the public face of the team, and their image reflects on the brand of the franchise," said Milt Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos., a locally based sports marketing consultancy. "Unfortunately right now in this community, the Pacers are a negative brand. It's a tough, tough situation. But I think management is doing everything they can, and this is another step in the right direction."

The hiring of Graham is not a move that was likely made as a public relations stunt, because the Pacers sought no publicity for it. It was only discovered after IBJ was tipped by a source outside the team who had heard Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh speak about it during a private gathering of local leaders.

The National Organization of Professional Athletes and Celebrities Talent Agency, based in Winter Garden, Fla., lists Graham's speaking fees at between $10,000 and $20,000. Pacers officials wouldn't say how much it cost to have Graham speak to the players.

"The Pacers are known across the NBA as having one of the most solid player development programs," said Myra Borshoff Cook, who was hired by the Pacers earlier this year to help with crisis communications and public relations. "This program with Stedman Graham is out of the ordinary and is another example of how committed [team management] is."

The NBA mandates a rookie program designed to help players adjust to life as a professional athlete, but many in the industry say it's no longer enough.

"These players are coming into the league younger and younger and with less education and life experiences," said Nova Lanktree, executive vice president of marketing services for CSMG International, a Chicago-based firm that represents athletes in commercial deals. She said sports agents sometimes help players adjust to life in the NBA, but more often the agents stick strictly to helping players negotiate commercial opportunities.

Taking unconventional, even drastic, steps to correct the team's image might be more important for the Pacers than most teams, said Lanktree, who currently works with NBA stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

"The people who live in Indiana have higher standards of character and morality than is the case nationally," Lanktree said. "I'm sure the team is aware of that. I applaud [Pacers management's] response. It's a powerful statement that they're not just going to stand by and watch this thing crumble."

While Graham's connection to Oprah has made him a household name, Pacers officials insist he has the credentials to get players' attention and improve their image.

"His relationship with Oprah is like the pink elephant in the room," said Kathryn Jordan, Pacers vice president of team development. "But this is not about Oprah. Stedman played basketball, he's worked with athletes, so he can relate."

Graham began reaching out to the NBA this year, according to league officials, but the Pacers are the first team to hire him. Graham said he met Pacers co-owner Herb Simon in Santa Barbara, Calif., social circles.

"We talked about some of the issues they have been having," Graham said. "I told Herb about my theories on teaching people about finding an identity and finding out who they are."

Graham, who has written six self-help books, said he based his talk with Pacers players on his book, "Build Your Own Life Brand!: A Powerful Strategy to Maximize Your Potential and Enhance Your Value for Ultimate Achievement." He said his experience as a collegiate basketball player at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas-where he roomed with the father of Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings-and professionally in Europe helps him relate the material to NBA players.

In his talk with the Pacers, Graham emphasized how to use knowledge to grow and to focus on family and spirituality.

"I try to teach them to be lifelong learners and to take more control of their lives, and not just do what other people tell them to do," Graham said.

It's the same message Graham delivers to executives employed by many of his corporate clients, which have included Wells Fargo, Merrill Lynch, CVS Pharmacy, Georgia Pacific, Pro-Line International, Hyatt Hotels Corp., Manpower, CNN and GlaxoSmithKline.

In addition to his corporate work, Graham, who earned a master's degree from Ball State University, has taught leadership courses at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. He also founded and directed George Washington University's Forum for Sport and Event Management and Marketing.

And Graham has spent 20-plus years taking a hard line against drugs. In 1985, he founded AAD Education, Health and Sports (formerly Athletes Against Drugs), a 500-member, not-for-profit organization of professional athletes and other civic leaders committed to developing leadership in underserved youth.

After Walsh was introduced to Graham by Simon and heard what Graham had to say, he was convinced the program could help the team's players, Jordan said.

"The players' brand image reflects on the team, and naturally, that is very important to us," Jordan said. "This has the potential to have a significant impact on our organization."

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