Representing the Interests of 'Jerry Maguire'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Now that "Jerry Maguire" is a critical and box-office hit, will it be every kid's dream to grow up to be a sports agent? If so, Orange County youngsters don't have to look far to see a couple of real-life, major-league examples of the profession in Leigh Steinberg and Dwight Manley.

The film, starring Tom Cruise as a sports agent who is stricken with a conscience, is more than loosely based on the lifestyle of sports lawyer-agent Steinberg, right down to the contents of his wallet. Steinberg's office-window view of Newport Center can be seen in the movie (along with footage shot at John Wayne Airport), and he is credited as a technical consultant.

Then there's Manley, who works two buildings away from Steinberg. He has no such official connection to the film but reflects Maguire in at least one significant respect: He has only one client, and that athlete--even more so than Maguire's lone charge--is as temperamental as he is talented.

Steinberg and Manley have different opinions about where sports-agency fact ends and Hollywood fiction begins in "Jerry Maguire." And neither is shy about offering those opinions to the media.

In the movie, Maguire writes a stirring mission statement that comes to the idealistic conclusion that the company he works for should focus on caring for fewer clients--quality rather than quantity. He's fired, of course, and his glorious client roster is reduced to Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), a second-tier wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, who has a hard time capturing the public and media attention he thinks he deserves.

That may be the most obvious point at which the fictional Maguire and the real Manley part company. Because there's no ignoring Manley's client--the tattooed, sherbet-headed, Chicago Bulls bad-boy Dennis Rodman, who earlier this month was suspended for two games without pay for using profane language in an after-game interview. (He's since made the dubious highlights reel for an on-court tussle during which teammates Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen wrestled him to the floor to keep him from tangling with Laker Shaquille O'Neal.)

Manley was Rodman's friend before he was his agent. Until last year, Manley was primarily a coin expert.

"Not anymore," Manley, 30, said. "How could I do that with all that's going on [with Rodman]? It's full time--five people full time!"

According to Manley, scheduling conflicts forced Rodman to decline a cameo role in the film, a snippet in a video played at Maguire's bachelor party.

Manley watched a recent matinee performance of "Jerry Maguire" with his girlfriend and a Times reporter in tow. In the theater lobby afterward, he said that several aspects of the film rang true for him, especially material about juggling relationships.

"It's definitely very trying and difficult" to carry on a personal relationship and a sports relationship, Manley said, not to mention several sports relationships. "It's like having more than one wife. You have to be on call and be there for that person all the time."

Despite (or because of) his limited experience, Manley said he had trouble with the film's portrayals of agents as sharks with egos.

"There's definitely low levels of anything in any business, [but] if an agent tried to focus attention on himself, with that bravado--'I'm the reason you got the money, I'm the reason that you are who you are'--like those corporate people did, they wouldn't have any clients. . . . Nobody is going to stick around for something like that."

Manley says agent attrition is due more to poor performance than to the type of corporate backstabbing seen in the movie; he also thinks there's no taboo in changing agents.

"Just because you have a God-given talent at a sport doesn't mean at a young age out of college you also know exactly what [you need] in an agent," he said. "You can have a go-round and decide, 'Was I satisfied or was I not?' . . . If a client leaves an agent, that agent must not have been doing a good enough job. If the quality is there, people stay put."

Manley agrees strongly with Maguire's mission statement that people, not money, are what count.

The movie, he said, "showed a different side, something I'm not used to, that image where the athlete is a piece of meat, and it's just numbers. I'll never have 20 or 30 clients," though Manley says he was recently retained by an unannounced second client. "You don't just represent the guy while he's playing; you want to be taking care of him after he's playing, be his friend. You can't have a stable of 30 or 40 people and do that . . .

"There are scenes where Tom Cruise is with two of his clients at the same time, and one is not getting as much attention. If you ever did that in real life, you'd probably be fired immediately. It would be like taking your wife or girlfriend out and paying no attention to her all night. You can't do that. No matter how big or small a client they are, you have to give them 110% at all times."

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Steinberg and Manley share an accountant, but where numbers of clients are concerned, they represent a kind of before-and-after picture of Jerry Maguire.

Like Maguire before drafting his mission statement, Steinberg has a marquee portfolio (of about 100) that includes NFL quarterbacks such as Drew Bledsoe, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon--all of whom appear briefly in the film, as does Steinberg--as well as heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield and Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug.

Beyond that, though Maguire is clearly a fictitious composite character created by director Cameron Crowe, Steinberg's lifestyle apparently had more than a little influence on the film.

(According to a TriStar spokesperson, Crowe was on a road trip this week and could not be reached for comment. That spokesperson said that Miami-based agent Drew Rosenhaus also contributed to Crowe's research, "though not as much as Steinberg.")

In a recent phone interview, Steinberg described his contributions:

"Cameron watched pre-draft machinations [concerning Bledsoe]; he came to NFL games with me; he came to a pro scouting day at USC to see the way that process works," Steinberg recalled. "But the most time he spent with me, probably the equivalent of a couple of weeks, was in the office listening to phone calls, listening to meetings. Essentially he trailed me and watched what I did, then would interview me every day. 'Why did you have this conversation? What was your rationale?' "

During pre-production, Steinberg went over the script for authenticity. Crowe also sent a "flotilla of costume designers, a prop director and a cinematographer down here to Newport," Steinberg said. "They took photos off my walls, including one used at the start of the film of Drew Bledsoe signing with the Patriots. . . . In some cases, Cruise is inserted as an extra party. In some he replaces me.

"They went through my wardrobe. They went through my T-shirt collection and copied about 30 of them. They shot photos off our roof and out our windows. . . . They made copies of my yellow legal pads, noted the type of pen I use. . . . They even got into my wallet--they went through the [credit cards and business cards] to see how they looked."

Steinberg worked with all of the key cast members.

He said he spent several days providing Cruise with insights into the mind-set of a sports lawyer or sports agent--what, for instance, Maguire might be thinking when he went to the draft.

He showed Jerry O'Connell, who plays quarterback Frank "Cush" Cushman, "how to lick his hand before throwing a pass so it would look authentic, even to an NFL quarterback."

He spent time with Regina King, who plays Tidwell's wife, exploring how she might react to her husband's contract unhappiness, or to seeing her husband injured on the field.

Steinberg, 47, knows many of the film's scenarios all too well.

"At a game in Arizona during Troy [Aikman's] rookie years, he was knocked flat, literally didn't move for what seemed like an hour but really was three or four minutes," he recalled. "I used a portable phone to call his people. It was a moment of real terror." Aikman had a concussion.

Another: "During my honeymoon in 1985, a lawyer left our firm and . . . attempted to take our clients. There was this frenetic period of dual calling. . . . "

(Where Cruise's character goes on a drinking jag, Steinberg also has some real-life experience: He was arrested in Newport Beach after a minor traffic accident in September and charged with misdemeanor drunk driving; he pleaded guilty and is performing community service.)

But when Crowe asked Steinberg what his greatest nightmare would be, he didn't have to have lived it to have a ready answer:

"To sign as a client the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, a quarterback from a state like Texas or California, to go back to the draft, pre-negotiate a contract and to find out midstream that the guy has hired another agent to complete the deal . . . You'll see that scene too."

Whatever liberties Hollywood might have taken, Steinberg noted that public perception of sports agents is less grounded in reality.

"All men over 15 know they have a very marginal chance of making it [as an athlete] in the professional world of sports," Steinberg said. "But large numbers of people are sure they can do what I do."

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