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Representing the Interests of 'Jerry Maguire'

Hollywood: Two real-life sports agents working in O.C. differ on where fact ends and fiction begins in the current hit movie.

December 28, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — 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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