“You can’t let it get you down
You’ve come too far to turn around
You gotta walk with your head up high
Believing you can reach the sky….”
A Song of Faith, Yolanda Adams
The tears came streaming down his cheeks as Adisa Bakari sang aloud, wheeling his rental car through the back woods of Alabama in late 2001. He was chasing his dream, his vision, encouraged by the Yolanda Adams CD, Believe, which was blasting through the speakers of the car’s stereo system.
“People were probably looking at me like I was crazy, but I knew I was going to make this thing happen,” said Bakari, who heads up The Sports Entertainment group at the international law firm Kelley Drye.
With the sweet voice of Yolanda Adams in his ear, he traversed the country via plane, train and automobile when he first began taking steps to establish a sports representation agency. He traveled and lodged at his own expense, swiping his own personal credit card to get to college football All-Star showcases like the East-West Shrine Game, The Blue-Grey Football Classic and The Gridiron Classic, talking to any prospect and potential NFL player that would listen, hoping that they could feel his sincerity and passion.
He knew, unequivocally, that this was his calling. His life experience up to this point was a culmination of occurrences that delivered him to this juncture, where he decided to veer away from the path of comfort as a rising corporate attorney in the executive compensation field and into the abyss of the unproven and unknown.
And while some may have seen a move fraught with peril, Bakari saw an untapped opportunity. He was, as he’d done since his junior year in college, taking control of his destiny while fulfilling a dream in the process. The vision had been coagulating in his mind for years. The concept had been conceived long ago. Now, he was simply taking the first steps towards something that was preordained long ago.
The time to seize the moment, and alter the trajectory of his life and the lives of others was at hand. Adisa Bakari was more than ready to take a leap of faith. He was ready to make his dream a reality.
Bakari was born and raised in Washington, DC, the youngest of three children who was primarily raised by his grandmother. His grandparents, who met in DC when they were in their twenties, had migrated to the nation’s capital from North Carolina and Louisiana, as many African-Americans did during The Great Migration, in hopes of a better life than what they’d experienced growing up in the racially charged, violent powder keg of the south.
His grandmother followed her older sister up North, while his grandfather pursued the earlier footsteps of his relatives, who’d left New Orleans to attend Howard University and eventually settled in DC.
When Bakari was twelve, his grandfather, who worked for the Pinkerton Security company, suffered a devastating stroke.
“He was certainly a very strong influence in my life prior to the stroke, which effectively rendered him with Alzheimer-type effects,” said Bakari. “He needed specialized care from then on out. My grandmother was tasked with caring for him while she simultaneously raised all of us. We didn’t have a lot of money but we had a lot of love. My home was filled with support and encouragement.”
The foresight of becoming an attorney one day was not his own.
“My grandmother was the one who said that I was going to be a lawyer,” said Bakari. “She etched it in stone. For as long as I can remember, she had that vision for me. When people would ask me what I was going to do when I grew up, I said, ‘I’m gonna be a lawyer,’ because that’s what she told me I was going to be.”
His daily walk, despite his lofty ambitions, was often filled with treacherous obstacles. Washington, DC in the 1980’s, from the outside, might have seemed like a great place if one was judging by the energy and celebrations in RFK Stadium, as the Redskins became one of the marquee NFL franchises while winning two Super Bowls during the decade.
But the city that Bakari came of age in could be a treacherous and forbidding place for poor, teenage African-Americans.
DC was previously a place where the black middle class flourished due to the growth of employment opportunities in the federal government. But the city’s economically disadvantaged communities -plagued by segregated housing patterns that lingered despite the ending of legally mandated segregation, an exorbitant unemployment rate, an unequal public education system and systematic brutality at the hands of the police - did not share in that prosperity.
Those communities exploded into six days of chaos and rioting in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. The severe damage and repercussions of the riots were still being felt by city residents when Bakari was a teen.
The plague of crack-cocaine ravaged DC’s African-American communities during Bakari’s formative years.
To the soundtrack of Go-Go music - the energetic, unique funk subgenre that originated in the city with a blend of R&B and early Hip Hop, fueled by live instruments and body-shivering percussion, played to vivacious young dancehall audiences while sporting the African-American religious tradition of call-and-response - residents were suffering through a heartbreaking and soaring homicide rate that labeled the city, once known as a utopia for Black thought, business, education and achievement, as the “Murder Capital of the World.”
(1984, Hanover Place in Bakari's Northwest DC neighborhood, a notorious open-air crack market)
The atmosphere and angst of coming of age in such an environment was aptly captured by The Atlantic’s National Correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates in his recent book, Between the World and Me, when discussing his experiences nearby in 1980’s Baltimore.
“That was 1986,” Coates writes. “That year I felt myself drowning in the news reports of murder. I was aware that these murders very often did not land upon the intended targets but fell upon great-aunts, PTA mothers, overtime uncles, and joyful children – fell upon them random and relentless, like great sheets of rain…I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog.”
“DC was definitely going through a tumultuous decade when I was growing up,” said Bakari. “The crack epidemic impacted everybody living in the city.”
Outside of his grandmother’s nurturing, sports became another impetus that pushed him away from some of the concrete quicksand that swallowed up some of his peers.
The first organized sport he played was baseball.
“The first game I ever played, I struck out three times,” said Bakari. “I remember that vividly. It made me more determined to go back and be better the next time.”
Football was the sport that he eventually fell in love with. What he initially lacked in skill, he made up for with heart and determination while suiting up for the Rudolph Raiders.
“I was never the most athletic guy on the field,” he said. “But I worked hard and tried hard.”
At Calvin Coolidge High School, football became the epicenter of his universe. The team and its coaches provided another nurturing family that pushed him toward being serious about his studies.
“There were plenty of weekends where we’d spend the night over a teammate or a coach’s house, where somebody’s mother would be cooking for and feeding us all weekend,” Bakari said. “Our coaches would always instill in us that most, if not all of us, would not make it to the NFL, but that we could all go to college. It was very instrumental to me because in order to play, you had to have a certain GPA.”
“We all had dreams of playing in the NFL, and we didn’t want to disappoint our families and our coaches,” Bakari continued. "So we did what we needed to do to maintain our grades so that we could play. Those lessons that I learned playing football, in terms of the preparation, persistence, study and hard work, carry over into all walks of life.”
Bakari was a very good high school defensive back and safety. He was recruited to play college ball at Delaware State University.
“I was a typical DC kid,” he said, thinking back on his 18-year-old self. “I thought I knew more than I did. I thought I was tougher than I was and I thought I had all of the answers. I went to Delaware State with nothing but football on my brain. And I realized on that first day of practice that I was not as good as I thought I was.”
During his first week on campus, his view of the world expanded beyond football, when he met the woman who would become his wife now of over 20 years. He also began internalizing some lessons that tickled his hidden intellectual curiosity.
“I met certain professors who instilled a greater sense of purpose, a greater sense of community, who forced me to start studying and reflecting upon the history of Black people in this country and in this world,” he said. “I began to see myself, and my role in the world, differently. My freshman year, I did just enough academically to be eligible to play football, which was the most important thing to me besides oxygen at that point.”
But after encountering those professors and making a concerted effort to study the experiences of people of color on a global scale, his motivations began to change. Things that had once been important to him began to shift. His focus and desire to achieve something, now with his mind, intensified.
(Bakari's client, Buffalo Bills new starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor sparkled in his debut last weekend)
“I went from having the bare minimum grades to stay qualified for football to having a 4.0 GPA,” said Bakari. “I wasn’t playing very well, and realized that I had no chance of playing beyond the Division I-AA level. I stopped playing my junior year and decided that I was going to become a sports attorney. I was going to put all of my focus towards helping individuals that looked like me, who come from my beginnings, to leverage their pro sports careers to transform themselves and the financial make-ups of their families.”
Upon being accepted to numerous law schools, he chose to attend the University of Wisconsin. He based his decision solely off of the presence of one faculty member, Ed Garvey.
When Garvey was fresh out of Wisconsin’s law school in 1970, his firm assigned him to advise the NFL Player’s Union President, the Baltimore Colts’ Pro Bowl tight end John Mackey during the union’s contract negotiations with the league’s owners. Garvey later served as the Executive Director of the NFL Players Association for twelve years.
“In its first iteration, Ed Garvey was one of the key authors of the Collective Bargaining Agreement,” said Bakari. “That was the reason why I chose to go to Wisconsin.”
While spending his summers clerking at large, prestigious law firms, Bakari was not shy about approaching his bosses with his ideas of starting a sports practice, if he were to join firm upon attaining his Juris Doctor degree.
“That idea was met with a lot of admonition, and I was told, ‘Why don’t you try to get a job here before you try to change what we do,’” Bakari said.
After graduating from Law School, he joined the firm of Dow Lohnes in their Washington, DC office and was placed in their Executive Compensation practice group.
“I was negotiating equity and cash-based compensation arrangements for traditional corporate executives,” he said. “During my third year at the firm, I revisited management with the idea of using my skill set as an executive compensation lawyer, and applying that skill set to a different marketplace – pro athletes.”
Bakari subscribes to the notion that “Your career belongs to you. Unless you decide to shape it, other people will shape it for you.”
(Adisa Bakari and Jeffery Whitney, who head up Kelley Drye & Warren's Sports Entertainment Group)
He knew that he did not want to practice law in the traditional sense. He did not feel fulfilled, despite his enviable paycheck for someone who had yet to turn 30, and felt with every ounce of his spirit that he was not put on the planet to excel in corporate law.
“The whole idea of doing what I was doing did not comport with my idea of working with people of similar backgrounds and beginnings,” said Bakari.
When he approached management with his idea of starting a sports practice, he was prepared for them to say no. He’d already placed a ‘For Sale’ sign in the front yard of the home that he and his wife had purchased when he graduated from law school. He’d taken out a contract on a home in Southeast DC that was considerably less.
“I was ready to move and build this thing with three children and with my wife being a stay at home mom,” he said. “I needed to do it. I was completely unfulfilled professionally.”
He was not intimidated or disheartened with building the business from scratch.
"Being a black kid growing up in DC in the ‘80s, the odds were not that daunting compared to the ones I’d already overcome,” said Bakari. “If you made it home when I was coming up, you were having a good day.”
Dow Lohnes decided to take a chance on him, and gave him a little wiggle room to get the sports practice up and operational.
He went to those first college all star games with Yolanda Adams’ words pushing him forward. He felt that there was a niche that he could exploit. His vision was based in the reality that close to 80% of NFL players retire with no money.
“It’s a rags to riches to rags again story,” Bakari stated. “So something is wrong with the qualitative value of representation that athletes in the NFL have historically been receiving. My pitch was simple. I told that first group of clients that I signed, ‘You’re no different than a corporate executive. Football is your job. It’s not what you are. If you don’t view yourself as a traditional corporate executive and only view yourself as a football player, you’re most likely to end up among the 80% who retire with nothing.'”
(Last season, Bakari's client Matt Forte broke the single-season record for receptions by a running back with 102)
He also had a strong selling point, telling prospective clients that his firm had been around for over a hundred years, representing some of the world’s wealthiest individuals. In addition to serving as their primary lawyer and agent, they would have a team of lawyers protecting all of their business concerns, in the same way that someone like Daniel Snyder or Jerry Jones, who own the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys respectively, have.
“I told them that they should have the same type of representation as the owner of the franchise that drafts them,” said Bakari. “Those guys aren’t represented by some guy from their country club. They’re represented by big law. My pitch is that the players make up the executive pool of one of the most popular and lucrative sports brands in the world, the industry that is the NFL. They should be receiving top notch business and legal representation.”
Bakari stresses that with the amount of money that players make, they should not only be transforming themselves and their immediate families, but we should also be seeing the transformation of entire communities.
He initially signed nine clients. As he began to build his roster, it became easier to sign others. In 2006, he signed his seminal draft class, which included running back Maurice Jones-Drew and safety Antoine Bethea.
When Dow Lohnes merged with a much larger firm, Cooley Godward, Bakari moved his sports practice to Kelley Drye.
“I decided not to go because I didn’t want to be in a law firm that big,” Bakari explained. “So I moved my practice to Kelley Drye & Warren. It’s among the oldest firms in the country, has a great geographical footprint in DC, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and it has all of the complimentary practice areas that I need.”
Today, he represents approximately 40 NFL players, including the Bears’ Matt Forte, Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell and Buffalo’s new starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He’s pushing to position his clients for long-term success, given that the average pro football career only lasts for three years. He wants them to understand that the NFL can be a bridge to greater opportunities, if leveraged properly.
(Bakari's client, Pittsburgh Steeler Le'Veon Bell is considered among the NFL's best running backs)
To that end, he hosts an annual retreat for all of his clients. The retreats, which began in 2012, present sessions on personal branding, the powers and pitfalls of social media, financial education, wealth preservation and growth strategies, franchise investment opportunities, what companies look for when choosing an endorser, evaluating business proposals, avoiding financial difficulties and preparation for adjustment to the obstacles of sudden wealth management, among others.
During the initial retreat in Washington, DC, Bakari arranged a session at the Player’s Association headquarters, where they were addressed by the NFLPA’s Executive Director, DeMaurice Smith.
“It’s great to see an agent taking responsibility to pull all his players together to talk about the real issues of the business of football,” Smith told Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter after the initial retreat in 2012. “Adisa has always had foresight how he looks at his role as an agent, in terms of making sure his players are maximizing their role in the business of football.”
“The primary purpose of the retreats are financial literacy, increasing business savvy and also recognizing that to whom much is given, much is required,” said Bakari. “We are our brother’s keeper.”
Adisa is reminded every day of where he came from. He currently lives five minutes from where he grew up. But that five minutes is a figurative world away from the one that he inhabits now.
“The vast majority of people that I grew up with are in prison or deceased,” said Bakari. “I’d be lying if I said that, somehow, I was special. I could have easily been among that roster. But I was not. And I don’t take that lightly. I take my job very seriously, this commitment that I have, the trust that these young men place in me, that their families place in me, to help shape them as men, to help them transform the financial makeup of their families, to end the cycle of poverty in their families.”
Bakari acknowledges that poverty is a cycle, but he believes that wealth creation can also be a cycle. He might have hung up his cleats in college, but in actuality, he never really stopped playing the game that he loves.
Today, he’s simply teaching and helping others how to play and succeed at those vital aspects of the game, the ones that truly matter.