“There are a few people in the world you can say you’ve known for over 50 years and Donald Dell is one of them.” says Our Town host Andy Ockershausen.
Arguably the most powerful man in his sport, Dell is a political animal. He was an advance man for Robert Kennedy in 1966 and in RFK’s presidential campaign in 1968, and in style and substance he remains a Kennedy man, equally idealistic and well-versed in practical politics. He has Establishment credentials – Landon School ’56, Yale ’60, Virginia Law ’64 – but can wear brass sknuckles with his Ivy League suit. He is polished, sometimes charming, but not bashful about using strong-arm tactics.
As a sports agent and founder of ProServ (now known as SFX), he’s represented some of the biggest names in sports such as Michael Jordan, Arthur Ashe, Moses Malone, Stan Smith, James Worthy, and John Lucas . . .In 1972, Jack Kramer and Donald Dell founded the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). The bylaws were written in Dell’s offices, and he was the first Executive Director. He ran the ATV and was the general counsel for eight year.
Donald Dell as a Tennis Player, Advance Man for RFK and Lawyer
As the youngest captain ever of the US Davis Cup Team, Donald talks about the early years and how he got started in tennis. He was fortunate to have lived across the street in Bethesda from Edgemoor Tennis Club. “I lived about 50 yards away from the club and I’d play all day long, all summer long.” Andy added that Edgemoor was a hotbed of good players like Fred McNair and Fred Kovaleski. One of the great things about Edgemoor was that they had a rule, if you were a good player – highly ranked, you could get right in without having to wait, so that great players wanted to play there and Donald got the benefit of playing with the best in the sport.
Playing championship tennis opened the world up to Donald to associate with movers and shakers which allowed him to take advantage of opportunities he wouldn’t have otherwise. He tells a funny story about his experiences as a player in Russia, over the course of 4 years, Donald went to Russia 8 times. He was approached by the CIA to help with the defection of two top Russian players. Just as he was about to close the deal to help one of the players defect, his Russian player came home to find his beautiful wife in bed with the gym teacher. The player pulled a gun out of the night stand and shot the teacher dead. The Russian was sentence to 8 years in jail.
The late Robert Kennedy was a very dear friend of Donald’s. Kennedy hired Donald as his advance man of his 1968 presidential campaign. Donald was responsible for hiring Rosie Greer and other football players as part of his security detail. Bobby and his wife Ethel loved tennis and Donald played with them on a regular basis and taught him how to hit a backhand.
Andy asked about Donald’s decision to go out on his own after his former law firm invited him to set up shop at Hogan & Hartson representing top tennis players. Donald said, “I decided to do my own thing with one other person.”
“I was really ironically the first tennis agent anywhere in the world January 1970, when I retired from the Davis Cup. . . what really helped me the most was having been a player, and being a winning captain on the Davis Cup Team.”
Gonzales v. Pasarell, Wooden Tennis Rackets
Andy and Donald swap stories about the two day, no tie breaker Wimbeldon match between 41 year old Pancho Gonzales and a much younger Charlie Pasarell. At the time it was the longest match in history of Wimbledon. Donald and Andy continue to discuss the way tennis has changed in the past 40 years. Donald remarked that the game was all different then – equipment, surface, and how the players play, are the difference. The matches were also much shorter. Andy and Dell talk about the first metal racket used by Jimmy Connors – he used a T2000 – a Wilson frame. It was a metal tube. It had a sling shot effect off the ball. It was so lethal- it was the flick of the racket. The whole industry now uses a composite. There are no wood racket being used today. Interesting fact, Jack Kramer had 12 different models of wood rackets with Wilson. Now there are no wood rackets.
Donald Dell recalls how Moses Malone went Pro
In the late 70s, Donald Dell and a partner established ProServ. As a sports agent Donald represented many of the big stars in basketball, and other sports, throughout the years. Donald recalls a specific story about his initial dealings with the late Moses Malone. Moses was one of the first players who played pro basketball without going to college first.
Lefty called me and said Moses – who was planning to go to Maryland – had been approached by the Utah Stars of the ABA and had offered him a contract. Lefty called me and said ‘would you mind coming down meeting with Moses and evaluating the contract I think it’s a lousy contract and I just want to have you meet him and talk to him.’ It was a big deal so Donald went and met him at a hotel in Virginia. He said “I was wearing dark glasses and a hat which I never wear because I want to have it quiet.”
So Dell sat down with Moses, his mother Mary, John Lucas (a former Dell client) and Lefty. As they talked, Moses is
looking at the ground and I’m trying to talk to him – he’s 6’9″ or something and doesn’t talk much he’s very shy and he’s looking down I’m getting nowhere – and I finally said Moses ‘have you ever heard of slavery?’ and boy when I said slavery his head popped up and I said ‘Well this contract really is slavery.’ and that got his attention and he said ‘What do you mean?’ and I said ‘Well it’s a 16 year contract.’ I said ‘The contract is guaranteed for four years and then there are 12 one-year options in favor of the club so if they sign you now they lock you up for 16 years. Four years guaranteed and then 12 years on an option. If you play well they can own you forever if you don’t play well they’re gonna fire you after four years.’ He understood that. We talked for maybe an hour. Moses was really intelligent much smarter he was shy about talking he didn’t think he spoke well but he was smart and he said ‘Look Donald I gotta meet these guys tomorrow Petersburg’ and I said ‘Moses no problem if you sign something don’t bother to call me because I can’t help you. I can’t do anything . . . I can’t help you if you sign it’s over but if you don’t sign and I can be of help call me.’
The next day on my word of honor Moses Malone called me 13 times collect because I said to him ‘Call me collect.’so he called me 13 times and the first time he called me he says – out of the blue –‘What about what about the taxes?’ and I just never and never expected and I said ‘What you had to pay probably fifty percent’ he said ‘Well you know the guy from the Utah Stars came in here this morning and put a basket on the table on my dining room table of $50,000 in cash. and I said ‘Moses take that basket push it right back and give it to him back if you want to stay amateur.’ Lefty wanted him to go to Maryland for one thing and I said I don’t like the contract 16 years is a terrible contract.
So we talked back and forth and as I say called 13 times. I mean it was one hell of a day. You gotta remember Moses was in a home there – they had no running water yet outside facilities or bathroom you know he didn’t live in a great place – and so $50,000 all cash right on the table so I got a little bit angry at that I thought that was ridiculous and I tried to block for him a little bit.
Anyway he then called said he wanted to come up and see me about a week later and so I said well I’m gonna have Lefty come over and see it because he was trying to sign and need he had agreed to go to Maryland oh yeah and so he came up to the office and I remember he brought Mary with him and Moses said he wanted to talk to me first – alone. So I said okay. He said ‘I want to turn pro well you know my Mom is in agreement. . .’ What had happened and was very smart on their part they had made an offer to his mother who was a nurse at a hospital there and work night hours and they had offered her a job and a home if Moses went pro. Mary Malone was very involved with Moses and that really got Moses thinking differently. I said ‘Well Moses you can do whatever you want but you’re going to sit down with Lefty and talk to him you gotta explain to Lefty.’ and he said “oh no no no I don’t know” I said ‘well Lefty’s here and he’s going to see you because I’m not gonna let that happen’ so I called Lefty in and I sat in on the first five minutes and I heard Moses say something like ‘Lefty you’ve been jiving me you’ve been jiving me.’ I remember that I got up and left I said ‘You guys talk it over’ I went to my office – I had a conference room off my office which is where they were – so they talked for a few minutes and Lefty comes out and says you know “Dammit you know he’s going to turn pro the money is too big on this is ridiculous.”
And he left and he was really mad when he left the office so Moses sits there in the conference room with his mother. . . . Suddenly – about 20 minutes into it – the door bursts open and it’s Lefty and he comes back in and he says ‘Listen Moses’ and he attacks me he said ‘Listen Moses you know this guy is going to represent you he just wants a lot of money he’s gonna be your agent he’s going to tell you all these things and you’ll make a hell of a lot of money I just want you to know that when you try to evaluate it.’
I said ;Hey Lefty I’m not trying to choose sides I didn’t tell him to go pro you’re the one that got me into this anyway.’ but Lefty was very clever the way did all that and so he left and a day or two later we decided to represent Moses and to this day because of that I never charged Moses a penny for that contract not a penny and because I liked Lefty and I got a lot of Maryland players got at you know . . . and so I didn’t want to ruin the relationship with Lefty so very deliberately to send a message to the Lefty we never charged Moses for his first contract with the Stars and we renegotiated the whole thing but it was interesting because somehow Sports Illustrated got wind of not charging they had a little block thing in there about Moses Malone signed to go pro and the agent Donald Dell didn’t charge him any money for it and then I got three or four phone calls from my tennis clients wondering why I couldn’t do it for them for free!
Drugs and the Bias Case, Not Driesell’s Fault
Donald Dell: “I think Lefty was very underrated as a coach and a recruiter. He was a hell of a guy and he got into a terrible bind at Maryland over the Bias case which really was not his fault. . . He took the burden for that I mean he really took the fall.”
I had a really good relationship with Lefty for about 10 years and then we saw some things happening where you he’d make his players available and people around the players would be saying things to me like ‘Can you give me a ticket to I want to go to Italy can you get me’ and they always wanted some side deals so I called Lefty and I had lunch with him at the University Club. I said ‘Lefty you gotta pay more attention to your program, to the kids’ he said ‘What do you mean what do you mean?’ I said well now the game is getting bigger the money is getting bigger and you give me your kids to talk to interview and the entourage is starting to form around them and they always want something and they’re not there for anything but for a free handout that’s what they want.’ He said ‘You really think that?’ I gave him two or three examples and that was about three years before the Bias thing blew up and he just was in terrible bad luck because he had nothing to do with the drugs he had nothing to do with Bias and he just was he got the brunt of that bad publicity.
Players Entourage, Posse to Blame
it was the people around the players not necessarily the players themselves. It’s always the guys around the players. They make it harder for the coaches, the owners the players.
“I once said to David Stern about 10 years ago ‘David the biggest problem you have in the NBA is the entourage the posse. they create numerous problems for the coaches the owners and the players because they always want something. he said what do you expect he said a lot of these kids come out that the prospects you know come out of the hard core areas in the city they have no money suddenly they signed a pro contract and they get a couple of million dollars that’s a ton of money to them and they right away look to have friends with them that they grew up with they went to high school with or college with and they were invite those guys into their life to travel with them or live in their house and he said it’s a very natural thing I said yeah maybe but you gotta damn well do something about it you know why is that’s creating problems and the NBA is tried very hard to do things about it amazing.
ATP 500 Series Tournament and the Citi Open
Andy and Donald wrap up the interview discussing tennis life in Our Town. Donald Dell and John Harris established the Washington Star International and venue and ran it for a number of years. They gave the sanction – or the week on the tour – to the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation back in 1969 so in 2018 coming up will be our 50th anniversary of running the tournament for the WTEF. They actually own the sanction. We [ATP] have a 500 series tournament which is Two Million Dollars for the men players and it’s about Four Hundred Thousand for the women players. We’ve got a coed tournament now and the stadium seats about 7,800 people. It’s now the Citi Open – Citibank is the sponsor of both men and women and as they say in but in the old days we’ve come a long way. The WTEF is the only charitable organization that owns a Pro Tournament on the tour and we’re the only ones that own a 500 in America there are 500 elsewhere and that’s been a great fundraiser for the charity. They discuss the need for improvements of the stadium and the need to use it more.
We hope you have enjoyed this all new episode of Our Town with Andy Ockershausen and Donald Dell. We invite you to listen to each new episode of Our Town as they roll out over the next several months. You can subscribe to the Our Town podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or if you complete the subscription form in the sidebar to the right, you will be notified by email when the next episode appears here on the website.