At friendship or business, Noah Koné will manage


There among the electric, artificial highs of Las Vegas, the mood in the luxury hotel room should have been one of elation. A group of friends were celebrating the success of one their own, the rare case of making it, and not just big. NBA big. These were young men, college students one day and the next, through their friend’s success, rubbing elbows with the so-called whales that gamble away six figures in the back rooms, far from the smoke-filled lobby.

Instead, Noah Koné watched uncomfortably as his high school teammate and friend, NBA lottery pick Terrence Ross, hesitated just for a moment before becoming the group’s mealticket. They were all there to support Ross, who was engaged in Summer League activities as a rookie in 2012. But activities cost money, something Ross suddenly had and his friends didn’t. Cash exchanged hands, as it so often does under the flashing neon of Las Vegas streets, and Koné could only feel guilt.

“It made me feel so slimy,” said Koné in an interview earlier this year.

It was there and then that he decided that he wasn’t going to be just another open hand and hanger-on, a stock character clinging to the world of NBA successes, where millionaires find themselves beholden to so many mouths and wallets to feed that they wind up losing it all. Koné would be there for Ross as a friend. But he wanted to — needed to — do something more.

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Nearly four years later, Koné is now the president of K-One Media, a firm that provides marketing and management services for clients in the fields of sport and entertainment. Ross is a client, as is Terrence Jones, formerly of the Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans. There are others, too, but this trio shares a bond, as friends and former teammates at Portland’s Jefferson High School, where they would lead the school to three-straight state championships and form, in effect, their first successful partnership.

“These guys would get calls from schools and then hand me the phone and make me pretend to be them.”

“Me and T-Ross joke all the time that’s where I really began as his manager,” says Koné of their high-school career. Ross was undoubtedly Jefferson’s best player and while the trio was leading the school to unchartered success, “you can only go so far in Portland” says Koné. More established programs began to make inquiries, among them Montrose Christian in Rockville, Maryland, a school that would produce elite players like Kevin Durant, Justin Anderson and, for a brief time, Ross, a union that might not have happened if not for Koné.

“He took the call from Montrose while he was at my house and I convinced him to go there,” Koné explains.

Ross would play a season at Montrose but return home to Portland, eventually garnering the attention of top colleges like UCLA, Oregon and the University of Washington. Koné first honed his skills as a manager by handling some of those recruiting calls while pretending to be Ross and Jones over the phone. “I’ve always been a facilitator,” laughs Koné as he explains the well-meaning deception. “These guys would get calls from schools and then hand me the phone and make me pretend to be them so I would sound good for college coaches.” It was all in good fun, he adds, but, showing the dedication that he would as their manager years later, admits there were so many of these conversations “they needed someone to be there for them.”

Ross would join the Washington Huskies. Jones took a scholarship at storied University of Kentucky. As for Koné? “I was playing for Carroll College in Helena, Montana,” he deadpans.

Koné had limited offers and chose Carroll through an innate understanding that basketball — at least on the court — wasn’t really the key to his successful future. “I was never going to be an All-Star or anything,” he explains. Instead, he majored in public relations at the liberal arts college and toiled away for the Fighting Saints while appreciating his friends’ success from afar.

Life would change drastically for both Koné and Ross in 2012, when the latter would declare his eligibility for the NBA Draft and be selected eighth overall by the Toronto Raptors. The draft was held in Newark, New Jersey that year and Ross, a likely lottery selection, had invited Koné and other friends to be part of this life-altering moment. It was while walking through the bustling streets of New York City’s Times Square that Koné witnessed firsthand how fame has a drastic and immediate impact.

“I remember being in Madison Square Garden right before the draft and remarking about New York how we could walk through with no problems,” recalls Koné. “Nobody knew who any of us were. And just the next night [following the Draft], we couldn’t walk within 10 feet without somebody recognizing him. That was the first time I got to see the magnitude that [Ross] might have stepped into something that he couldn’t just step out of.”

“You hear all these horror stories of friends and friends-of-friends getting involved and things get complicated”

Following the revelatory moment in Las Vegas later that summer, Koné returned to sleepy Helena, to continue his studies and make the most of a basketball career that was clearly going nowhere. “I went back for my junior year and we were simply awful, something like 2-26,” said Koné. “But halfway through the season, T-Ross gave me a call and said, ‘I’m going to enter the Dunk Contest’. He calls me four days before he’s going to enter it because he found out pretty late and asked me to come to Houston for the All-Star game. But I was in the middle of a season myself. Still, I realized that we weren’t very good and I decided to quit so I could go to Houston.”

The risk of doing so would have cost Koné his scholarship but, quite frankly, opportunities like this don’t come up very often and he resigned himself to having to find work to continue paying for school. Fortunately, his head coach was understanding enough to allow Koné to join his childhood friend for the once-in-a-lifetime event and Ross won the contest with a thunderous performance.

It was in Houston that Koné got a taste of the logistics behind planning events and the vast marketing opportunities that would soon be available to his former teammate. He’d return to school and continue through the drudgery of a meaningless season but with each inevitable loss, his attention was directed at a bigger picture that had just come into focus.

Courtesy of Noah Koné
Courtesy of Noah Koné /

During the summer of 2013, Ross asked Koné to meet him in Los Angeles, where he’d be training during the offseason. Koné had intended to work that summer to help defray some school-related costs. But Ross sweetened the deal by not only guaranteeing that he could line up an internship at a marketing agency but that he could work for his friend in a limited capacity. Koné balked at the idea, at least at first.

“I had to make some money, of course, but I also didn’t want just go out there without a clear plan and just jump on the bandwagon,” Koné explained. “You hear all these horror stories of friends and friends-of-friends getting involved and things get complicated and end up really badly.” Eventually he’d relent, reasoning that the experience would help him in his future professional endeavors.

“A player has to make a connection for them to understand the magnitude of their own platform”

The work wasn’t fulfilling. “I was just being a runner, an assistant, making sure contracts are forwarded, making sure we were at certain places on time — making sure meat was hot and ice was cold — nothing special,” said Koné. But he soon discovered a keen eye for detail and that his studies helped immensely. Contractual language was easier than he’d anticipated and the steps needed to coordinate an event became second nature. “At one point I said to myself, ‘I can really understand this’” said Koné. “But the key was Ross, because he trusted me and allowed me to take on more and more responsibility.” Soon, Koné was taking the lead on organizing a mixed bag of PR-related events, from charity appearances to long-term endorsements.

When Ross defended his title as Slam Dunk champion in February 2014 (albeit as part of a widely-panned format that pitted dunkers from respective NBA conferences against each other), it was Koné who was at the helm, arranging a deal with Sprite, the contest’s main sponsor, as well as the participation of rap mogul and Toronto native Drake. Ross and his Eastern Conference teammates would win the competition.

Koné soon finished school and fellow high school teammate Jones had been drafted by the Rockets, providing Koné with a whole other array of marketing opportunities. Working his way up the ranks was still required. He was well-intentioned but relatively inexperienced, not yet an entrepreneur in his own right. “I had done a lot of work for very little reward, and I didn’t have a proper business to take credit for it,” said Koné. “I was nowhere to be seen on the credits of these award-winning campaigns. So I decided to build my own storefront, which is where K-One Media began.”

Koné makes it clear that he is a manager, a difference between the agents and marketing personnel that most NBA players have access to. The agents are there, as Koné explains, to ensure that a player’s basketball situation is secured. “That’s where the major money is, where the majority of an agency’s time is directed.” There’s also a marketing team which focuses on endorsements and developing a profile that agencies generally don’t focus on because there simply not as lucrative. “Unless you’re a LeBron James or Chris Paul,” Koné adds.

Ross’ representation did a fine job, by Koné’s estimation, of building a profile. “But there was a lot of meat left on that bone,” he says. This is where K-One came into play, “picking up the scraps and putting together a portfolio” for his clients. Koné explains that the majority of players just don’t know the number of opportunities that are available to them, concentrating on the “basketball-related” activities that demand so much of their focus and time. And while agencies, by and large, are looking out for their clients’ best interests, they also oversee things to such an extent that players rarely control their own destinies.

“Some guys have people in their corners that are really in it just for themselves”

“A mentality shift has to happen. A player has to make a connection for them to understand the magnitude of their own platform,” Koné explains. “Up until that point, it’s pretty much the agents or team facilitating everything. Then, when a player has that ‘A-ha!” moment, that’s when they realize, ‘I’m in the NBA’ or ‘I’m in the NFL’ or ‘I’ve got a hit single’ and I can do some of these things on my own. Then there’s a mindset shift and that allows the people around them to take more advantage of a fuller scope of things that become available.”

While this type of awakening sounds inherently fulfilling, there is also a danger it could represent. “Some guys have people in their corners that are really in it just for themselves, just in it to say they’re affiliated with players,” said Koné. From masquerading as managers to persuading athletes to invest in can’t-miss deals that always do, Koné has seen it all, bad business conducted under the guise of friendship.

And the players, unprepared for the sudden rags-to-riches adjustment that comes with a professional’s salary, sometimes need saving from themselves. Koné explained how rookies can often spend beyond their means as they try to match the living-large lifestyles of veterans that have earned millions of dollars more over the course of their respective careers.

Courtesy of Noah Koné
Courtesy of Noah Koné /

His partnership with Ross stands out as a sharp contrast, a sharing of values that dates back to the days before they had access to NBA levels of wealth. “I’ve been very lucky that T-Ross is a focused, grounded person and has been very level-headed about his money, has not been a big spender and is very mindful about his future.”

The business relationship works because of their friendship, rather than in spite of it.

“It can put a strain on a relationship it might not work for everyone.”

Koné acknowledges that mixing the two isn’t always an easy fit. “It can put a strain on a relationship,” he admits, adding that “it might not work for everyone.” There was a give-and-take that took a while to develop, a detached layer that was added on top of a deep friendship that had been established for years. Clashes are inevitable and tempers flare. Ultimately, Koné says, “you just have to earn that respect despite already being good friends” The paradigm shift he spoke of required both Koné and Ross to balance their friendship and see themselves also as separate business entities. And while that seems impossible, there was already a precedent that provided a clear template for which they could both follow.

“Klutch Sports,” says Koné, “is absolutely the golden standard.”

For the uninitiated, Klutch Sports Group is the agency founded by Rich Paul in 2012, one that began in the trunk of a car in Cleveland, Ohio. Paul was selling throwback jerseys in 2003 when he formed a friendship with high school basketball player out of nearby Akron. The young phenom, of course, was LeBron James and as his star continued to shine brighter, so did Paul’s. Klutch Sports continues to represent James but has added a slew of prominent NBA players, among them Eric Bledsoe and John Wall.

“That’s the dream,” says Koné of the work Paul has done alongside James. “We saw that with Terrence, when he was first drafted and his mom was actually directing traffic for quite some time. He was going to be ‘our LeBron’ and everybody was going to do something to help his career and if we do what we’re supposed to do, then our own respective careers will grow in the process.”

In truth, Koné is more like James’ trusted advisor Maverick Carter than Paul. In that capacity, Carter has been the lead in constructing a lifetime sponsorship with Nike, Inc. that is reportedly worth in excess of $1 billion. Their partnership extends far beyond basketball, even as Paul’s clientele and James’ legacy keep growing. From the roots of Klutch Sports has grown the most recent venture, Spring Hill Entertainment, a “multiplatform production company” that is involved in television programming, movies and more.

While James and his closest friends beam goldenly, that’s a level of shine that Koné and Ross aren’t likely to ever reach. “They got lucky that LeBron is the best player in the world,” the former explains, “so when you’re trying to build things around him that’s somewhat easier.” But the process of including those closest around them, immersing themselves in the work and finding new, creative ways to succeed can still be followed.

In fact, it may be a standard that more and more NBA players will be willing to follow, even if they never achieve Jamesian levels of success. Ross spoke to The Step Back in December about his relationships, both business and other, with Koné and sees that being implemented more and more around the league.

“You always want to go with someone that you can absolutely trust,” said Ross, “especially when you get into the league and you don’t really feel like you have anyone like that. I mean, you trust a lot of people to a certain extent but with Noah, growing up together, it’s just easier, almost like another part of me going out there on my behalf and talking for me. It’s been a blessing having him on my side.”

For Ross and K-One Media, as well as James and Klutch Sports or Spring Hill, the end goal is always the same: taking back control in a world they helped create. It’s a rich dichotomy where players will find themselves both at the center of their respective business empires and as peripheral factors in its management.

“There is still a stigma about players being ‘dumb athletes’ that you’d think that would go away the higher up the chain you go, when you have millions of dollars and success and brands looking to sponsor you,” says Koné. “They don’t expect you to ask questions, they don’t expect you to go the extra mile to find out information. And I really resent that mentality of ‘You go play basketball’ or ‘You go throw the football’ and managers should just manage.”

Worse still, in a league that’s predominantly African-American, Koné strongly believes that “in context of a black man, they don’t expect much from you in the first place.”

Koné never expected to be challenging the structure of player management or racial stereotypes when he first answered phone calls from college recruiters all those years ago. But it’s a necessary byproduct of wanting to take care of your friends, to ensure they aren’t being victimized by a system that seems at times geared to do just that. While James and his friends challenge convention publicly with every new commercial or movie cameo, Koné remains, at least for now, behind the scenes,  yet still an active agent of change.

Will more and more players and friends follow a similar pattern? That would appear to be the case, Koné concedes, as long as they’re willing to do the work, be diligent and stay true to the values that form a bond well before the money and the system can tear apart what took so long to build. Mixing friendship with business has always been frowned upon but perhaps the times have truly changed.

“It is a shift in power,” Koné states bluntly, and perhaps that was always how it should have been.