Quiet Adviser : School Psychologist Counsels Several Top Basketball Stars
If he wanted to, a former junior college All-American basketball player with a degree in psychology could probably send several NBA owners off to see a shrink.
Just a few words from Dr. Charles Tucker and Magic Johnson of the Lakers, Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons, and Mark Aguirre of the Dallas Mavericks would stay home.
Tucker, who has been called a guru, an adviser, a confidante, a Svengali and a hard-boiled negotiator, is one of the most powerful men in professional basketball.
He is also one of the least known.
Tucker is not a lawyer or an agent, really, but he is an adviser to nine NBA players who seek his counsel on everything from contracts to personal problems to what endorsements to sign to when to send birthday cards.
Tucker is a friend to the stars, hoop variety.
“It’s a necessary role,” Laker owner Jerry Buss said. “And Tucker plays it very well.
“I came to basketball from tennis, where the players seemed to require a strong-willed person with whom to discuss their personal lives and their playing lives. There is so much hustle and bustle around superstars, whether in tennis or basketball. Tuck has his players’ unquestioned faith, 100%. He deserves that trust.”
Outside of his big three of Johnson, Thomas and Aguirre, Tucker also advises Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper of Dallas, Glenn Rivers of Atlanta, Herb Williams of Indiana, Mike McGee of the Lakers and Phil Hubbard of Cleveland.
Johnson, Thomas and Aguirre are working under terms of Tucker-inspired contracts worth a collective $48 million. Blackman recently agreed to a $7-million contract.
Tucker does not charge a percentage for his services and works on a handshake. He accepts whatever fee a player wants to give him as long as Tucker believes it is not too much.
“I’ve given back three Mercedeses in the last year when Earvin, Isiah and Mark each wanted to give me one,” Tucker said. “I don’t want ‘em because I don’t need ‘em. Got my own car. A Jeep.”
He also owns a 1932 Ford, a 1934 Chevrolet and a 1973 Jaguar. That’s the car he loaned to young Earvin Johnson to take to the Everett High School prom in Lansing, Mich.
Johnson and Tucker met when Johnson was a ninth grader at Rich Junior High School. Tucker, now 38, was a psychologist for the Lansing school district, a job he still has.
In the years that followed, Tucker and Johnson grew close, and both say that early friendship is the basis of their relationship today.
“I didn’t know how Earvin was gonna come out,” Tucker said. “If you help somebody, you don’t do it to get something out of him. I want some friendships. I’m kinda funny that way. After all, you can only spend so much money. Happiness is more important for your life. We forget that sometimes.”
Tucker was born in Mississippi, but his family moved to Michigan when he was 12. In high school at Kalamazoo, Tucker was an all-city guard, and when he went on to Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, he made the junior college All-American team.
Tucker later earned his master’s degree in psychology at Western Michigan, then tried out, unsuccessfully, with the Dallas Chaparrals and the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Assn.
His last professional tryout was with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1976. Coach Gene Shue kept another rookie guard, Mike Dunleavy, who had been Tucker’s roommate in training camp, instead of Tucker.
So Tucker returned to Western Michigan and earned his doctorate in psychology. He was 25 years old.
When Johnson turned professional after his sophomore season at Michigan State, Tucker continued in his role of adviser. After that, Tucker added Thomas, then Aguirre to his list of clients, then the rest.
“I don’t recruit anybody,” Tucker said. “I let them come to me. I work with people who think like I do. Every week, I get lots of players who ask me to help them. I get people who aren’t jealous of each other and what they make. I get good people.”
Tucker does not do a single in his dealings with the players. He is only one part of the act. Chicago attorney-brothers George and Harry Andrews make up the rest of it.
The Andrews brothers are responsible for drawing up the contracts that Tucker and the players shape up with owners such as Buss, Donald Carter in Dallas and William Davidson in Detroit.
George Andrews said he and his brother are like Tucker in that they also work on a handshake agreement with the players. The brothers, however, get a flat fee from some players, a percentage from others.
The arrangement is different from the normal attorney-client relationship.
“These aren’t ordinary people we’re dealing with either,” Andrews said. “Our service is not off-the-rack. It’s custom made.”
The Andrews brothers and Tucker share the same philosophy in the length of the contracts they write. They believe in security and the idea of providing income long after their clients are no longer playing.
Johnson, for instance, will receive $150,000 a year for 15 years beginning in 1994. Thomas will get a total of $2.52 million between 1994 and 2009.
“Most agents don’t like deferred money in contracts, because once the players’ playing days are over, they’re done with them,” Andrews said. “We all have the same long-term values, goals and interests.”
Andrews admits, though, that he doesn’t have the relationship with the players that Tucker has.
“Tuck has got that basketball background,” he said. “He’s such a master.
“Earvin, Isiah, Mark and Tuck are really good friends.”
Johnson agreed, saying that his relationship with Tucker is more of a “buddy-type thing” than a business deal, although that’s part of it.
“Most guys have an agent who tries to do everything,” Johnson said. “He might not have the expertise in something so he’s going to have to get a lawyer anyway. Now, we have somebody who we trust and is our friend and who knows pro basketball at the same time.”
Thomas said he is able to concentrate on basketball and not on where his money is going, although each of the players Tucker advises ultimately decides how his income is to be spent.
“With Tuck, I don’t want to do anything but play basketball, eat and sleep,” Thomas said. “Nobody can move my money but me, but I take his advice on just about everything. If he told me to go jump off a cliff, I wouldn’t. But nine and a half times out of 10, he’s right.”
Like Thomas, Aguirre met Tucker through Johnson. And like Thomas and Johnson, Aguirre has grown to trust Tucker implicitly.
“He’s just a guy who has been associated with basketball and knows what he’s talking about,” Aguirre said. “He a sane person in a business where you sometimes meet people who aren’t.”
Said Johnson: “If you don’t know him, you’d think ‘Who is this little short guy running around?’ He’s a nice guy, but he likes to be reserved. He sits back and observes. Some people don’t like to deal with him because he’s a hard businessman, too.”
Norm Sonju, general manager of the Mavericks, said he has always left his dealings with Tucker with added measures of respect.
“What I’ve found about him is that he has such good common sense and common decency,” Sonju said. “When he tells his players something, it’s like he’s E.F. Hutton. They listen.
“I think Magic is the key guy of all his players. Tuck has such an influence, but it’s a positive one, not a negative. A person who has that much control, it could go either way. But with him, it goes the right way.”
Tucker said that he doesn’t need income from advising players to live. Calling himself a workaholic, Tucker said his income was $80,000 when Johnson was still in high school.
Besides working in the Lansing school district, Tucker also has a private practice and earns additional money as a free-lance psychological consultant.
“A lot of people think I got too much power over these guys,” Tucker said. “That’s just because I work twice as hard as those people. No one controls these guys. People who can’t think can’t be thankful for what they’ve got.
“Me, I know what I’ve got and who I am. You don’t see me walking around trying to impress people. Most people don’t even know who I am. I don’t ask any favors and don’t try no power moves. I’m not concerned with that.
“If I were doing what I do for money, I could have as much money as Jerry Buss by now. Jerry Buss doesn’t like attorneys. No one will tell him what to do with his money. He’s kind enough. He’s not out there there trying to beat people and neither am I.
“These guys are all young guys and they need someone to talk to. There has to be someone out there, who isn’t a parent, who can tell them when they’re doing wrong. Somebody they can talk to about the real stuff of everyday life.
“Basketball doesn’t last forever, but if we all work together, we can try to make sure the money does.”