Klutch Sports Group CEO Rich Paul returns to Cleveland with an opportunity to inspire youths — Andscape
CLEVELAND — Moments after the floor was opened for questions, a buzz swept over the audience as 12-year-old Derrick Smith Jr. left his seat from the rear of the auditorium and walked near the front of the stage.
Smith, wearing a black wide-brim fedora, stood tall and confident. He asked the two-person panel about steps to improve test scores in city schools, a subject important to Smith and his mother Chrishawndra Matthews, a literacy advocate.
“The [talk] is something I can relate to because I’m trying to get the best education that I can, while my mother is doing the best she can as a single parent,” Derrick said. “I really enjoyed this. I’m happy I came.”
So were the other 600 who attended for the free event at Cuyahoga Community College on Wednesday, led by sports agent and Cleveland native Rich Paul, and Cleveland mayor Justin Bibb. The event, titled Homecoming: Overcoming Struggle, Finding Success and Taking Pride in Cleveland, involved a discussion between Paul and Bibb about the challenges of growing up in Cleveland, including advice for young people. Paul also discussed his recently released book, Lucky Me: A Memoir of Changing the Odds, written by Andscape senior writer Jesse Washington.
All who attended received a free copy of the book.
Wednesday’s talk was Paul’s latest stop in his book tour, which included interviews on ESPN’s First Take, Good Morning America, 60 Minutes, CBS Mornings and The Breakfast Club.
Paul, who has appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker, is one of the most powerful figures in sports. His Klutch Sports Group agency represents nearly 200 players in several leagues including the LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Trae Young of the NBA and Jalen Hurts and Chase Young of the NFL. Klutch Sports Group reportedly finalized deals worth more than $4 billion and was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential companies in 2021.
Paul shared anecdotes from his memoir and used many of those examples to help inspire young people. Paul was inspired by Derrick, who created a reading program at his school.
“The fact that he inquired about reading at that age means he’s ahead of the curve for sure,” Paul said. “Youth in Cleveland need to follow his path instead of stealing Kias.”
Meeting and talking to Derrick was one of the evening’s highlights for Paul, but the young person he most wanted to influence wasn’t there. Paul lost a teenage cousin to gun violence a week before Wednesday’s event.
“He should’ve been here,” Paul said, “and even the guy who did that to him.”
Contrary to popular belief, Paul’s story didn’t begin with his chance meeting of LeBron James in an Akron airport in 2002. That meeting certainly helped propel him into his current status as a widely recognized “superagent.” But as Paul told the audience, his grit and savvy were shaped by his community and his father Richard Paul Sr., who owned a local convenience store. That’s where the younger Paul learned about discipline — he helped his father open at 6 a.m. daily — marketing, customer service and math.
“I also learned that everything that happens is not always about you, and that it’s important to be selfless,” Paul said. “A lot of times, you have to put yourself in other people’s shoes, or be OK with understanding that someone else may be going through something.”
Always a fan of fashion, and shortly after graduating from Benedictine High School, Paul made a deal with a vintage jerseys store in Atlanta that allowed him to sell jerseys in Cleveland for a huge profit. While wearing a throwback jersey at an airport in Akron, Paul captured the attention of high school phenom James. A relationship developed that would evolve into LRMR (LeBron, Randy Mims, Maverick Carter and Rich), a marketing company.
Paul later worked for the Creative Artists Agency in 2008, and that experience helped him create Klutch Sports in 2012 with James as his marquee client. Paul who helped steer James back to Cleveland in 2014 when James opted out of his deal with the Miami Heat. In 2019, United Talent Agency invested in Klutch Sports, which created UTA Sports. Paul is on UTA’s board of directors.
In April, Paul and New Balance partnered and launched Klutch Athletics. It’s separate from Klutch Sports with a new logo and sells performance training apparel. Paul, who has his own signature shoe, said he hopes to have a New Balance/Klutch Athletics service center in Cleveland.
“Cleveland is a city that continues to be poverty-stricken, and I’ll never forget my roots,” Paul said. “It’s important for me to have a presence here in anything I do. Cleveland shaped me. The trials and tribulations to the challenges molded me into somebody that’s resilient and driven.”
Although Bibb, 36, grew up on the South Side of Cleveland and Paul on the East Side, the two had similar upbringings. It was important for Bibb to relate that to the younger members of the audience.
“My story – and Rich’s story – is the embodiment of the story of many Black men in our city,” said Bibb, the city’s fourth Black mayor and second youngest. “We had similar struggles and challenges, but the continued hope, determination and persistence helped us to achieve our dreams. It’s so important for young people to see if Rich Paul can do it, and Mayor Justin Bibb can do it, they can do it, too.”
Matthews certainly wanted her son to hear and see Paul and the mayor. She nodded in agreement several times when Paul or Bibb emphasized a point about improving education or for youth doing the right thing. Matthews created Literacy in the HOOD (Helping Out Our Disenfranchised), which distributes books for those in need.
“I wanted [Derrick] to hear Rich Paul and how he grew up in Cleveland,” Matthews said. “His message came across very clearly about his experiences being raised here, and how he overcame in his journey.”
The message was loud and clear.
“Originally, I was going to my after-school program, but I decided to miss one day of it to come here with my mom,” said Derrick, who created the Boys Do Read program. “Rich made me feel like a true scholar when he said I had a good question and I looked sharp.”