No Limit Sports: The Inside Story
Master P found success in music, movies, and fashion, but he could never quite figure out sports management.
Andy Curtin is a 68-year-old man who lives in Nashville and owns a No Limit chain. He's never worn it, but sometimes when he and his wife have company over he'll show it to friends—the glittering jewels that fill the iconic tank logo making for a hell of a conversation starter.
The story behind that shiny little pendant finding its way into Curtin's possession is long and absurd, but for him, it's a fun reminder of a short period in his life that still baffles him 15 long years later.
In 1996, Percy Miller, known to the world as Master P, released "Ice Cream Man," the lead single on his fifth studio album of the same name. Both the record and the album exploded, with the latter peaking at No. 3 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Albums list and No. 26 on the Billboard 200. Ice Cream Man went on to become P's first platinum album; its follow-ups, MP Da Last Don and Ghetto D, both hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
But P's real triumph came with No Limit, his record company, which churned out albums in the late 90s with assembly-line efficiency. The Baton Rouge-based No Limit Records put out 51 albums from 1997-2000, with a stable of rappers that included Silkk the Shocker, Mystikal, C-Murder, Mia X, and Snoop Dogg, amongst many others.
No Limit didn't stick to music. The company released movies, clothing, toys, even a phone-sex line—any and every financial opportunity was seized. Not all of it worked, but between the music and movies, dollars flowed in. Records regularly went gold and platinum strictly off brand strength, with little marketing at all; straight-to-VHS movies grossed millions. P reportedly made $56.6 million in 1998, while his company reportedly generated a whopping $400 million in revenue, per an ESPN Outside The Lines report. The business was a gold mine.
No Limit was seated firmly on top of the world as the respective cultures of hip-hop and sports crashed into each other in the late 90s.
"The fact is, there were a lot of these ballplayers who wanted to hang out with No Limit," says Edwin Hawkins, then an attorney working at the label. "They wanted to be around the Snoops, the [Master] Ps, the Silkk the Shockers, the C-Murders. Then one day P walks in and says, 'Man, we're gonna start a sports agency. These things go hand in hand.' I said, 'OK, I guess it does.' I looked around the room and those cats were around all the time."
P stocked what became known as No Limit Sports with faces from both within and outside his inner circle. Hawkins, who had initially joined No Limit as legal counsel when his client Mystikal signed on in 1996, became an agent. Tevester Scott, the chief operating officer of No Limit Records, became an agent, too.
No Limit Sports launched by signing NBA players Derek Anderson and Ron Mercer, who both defected from bigger agencies to join P's start-up. Anderson was such a big No Limit fan that years earlier he had the No Limit logo tattooed on his right bicep. (Anderson now says he only signed a marketing deal, never allowing No Limit Sports to fully represent him.)
Not long after the agency was formed, P found himself in a meeting with Maurice Compton, P's former junior college basketball coach at Merritt College in Oakland, California, and Miles McAfee, a sports agent who had previously represented a number of baseball players. The two were visiting P to ask if he'd fund Compton's basketball program, but in the meeting, P asked McAfee to come aboard No Limit Sports, to which McAfee agreed, asking if he could bring a former business partner of his into the operation with him. Sure, P responded. Whatever you need. (He hired Compton, too, outfitting both him and McAfee with slick Mercedes Benzes.)
McAfee and Andy Curtin ran a small agency years earlier, and though they hadn't had much success before parting ways—Curtin says their players kept leaving for bigger competitors—there was enough mutual respect between the two that Curtin was McAfee's first call. Curtin, who was living in Indianapolis at the time, had legitimate sports industry experience, working with Joe Montana and a number of football players in years prior, and he realized what dozens of other fearful agents at the time did, too: athletes wanted to find ways to slide into the world of entertainment, and an agency that could offer such a large doorway into that realm held a shitload of untapped potential. He agreed to join Hawkins, Scott, and McAfee as a No Limit Sports agent.
All of the aforementioned names then met up in Baton Rouge for a press conference announcing the signings of Anderson and Mercer. "They had me fly down there, and I get dropped off at the hotel," Curtin says, "and [P] and his whole entourage show up, and it was almost like a group, 'Woahhhh! A white guy!' It was the funniest thing, the look on their faces."
The gift of a diamond-encrusted No Limit chain didn't exactly enthuse the then 53-year-old Curtin—who, it should be noted, knew absolutely nothing about hip-hop music or culture—but he was excited to put in work with some bigger-name clients after years of trying and mostly failing to gain some footing as an independent agent. "[No Limit] wanted me to help them do the contracts, because you needed to be licensed," he says. "I was licensed with the NFL, and I was licensed with baseball and I was licensed with basketball."
Things ran pretty smoothly for the remainder of 1998. Anderson was featured in a couple of music videos and a movie, while the agency as a whole kept adding names: NBA players Ricky Davis, Tyrone Nesby, Jason Terry, and Bonzi Wells, and a number of NFL players and prospects, including Paul Miranda, Kelvin Eafon, and Lamont Green.
"I was a fan of [Master P's] music," Nesby says now. "That most definitely influenced my decision [to sign with him]. And also just being young and not having anyone over you telling you, 'Hey, you should try this and you should try this.' Not having a mentor, so the decisions that I made, they came from me."
"I was 20 at the time, so I was looking at it, like, 'Hey, this guy is a big artist. Why not?'" Miranda says. "That had a lot to do with it."
The agency also represented Master P himself, of course. Back when P was simply Percy Miller, he was on his way to play college basketball at the University of Houston, where he had been offered an athletic scholarship, when a knee injury—and, a little later, millions of rap dollars—derailed his athletic ambitions. (He'd later play for Compton at Merritt, where he also studied business.) But the old ambitions had returned, and one of the first things P had Curtin do was see if he could get him a tryout with an NBA team.
Curtin called Donnie Walsh, then the president of the Indiana Pacers, who was unimpressed with P's basketball abilities but pointed out that a few franchises looking for a PR boost might be interested.
"I faxed out a bunch of stuff to teams, and I get a call from Don Nelson, who was the Mavericks' coach then," Curtin says. Nelson presented Master P the opportunity to come try-out—this was during the 98-99 NBA lockout season, when the not-good Mavs weren't going anywhere, anyway. Curtin later learned there were other reasons P was given a shot. "[Don's son] Donnie Nelson told me later, Don Nelson, when he was the Knicks coach, he had a run-in with Patrick Ewing, then he had a run-in with Chris Webber when he was with the Warriors. They would say things about him, their opinion and everything, but it got to be where it was like, 'Black guys don't want to play for Don Nelson.' And with free agency, that's a big deal. So Donnie told me, if they could get Master P on the roster, it would be a target for guys to want to come and sign. Guys would say, 'Well, this Don Nelson must not be that bad a guy.'"
What's more, Curtin was also told that then-Mavs owner Ross Perot Jr. needed funding to build a stadium in downtown Dallas, and the addition of a famous rapper to the squad's roster was somehow seen as a way to get the votes needed to raise some public money."[The Mavericks] wanted to build favor among the local blacks, because they were the voting block in Dallas that would get the arena downtown," Curtin says.
So, uhhh, they almost signed Master P.
Just almost, though. P went through a training session in Dallas on a Friday afternoon—and was given a tour of the team's facility by none other than a young point guard named Steve Nash—then told the group of No Limit employees he traveled with that they'd all be returning to Louisiana Friday night, because they weren't needed back in Dallas until Monday. But that Saturday, Curtin received a call from the team asking where P was—the rapper was supposedly told he'd have to be at a practice that morning, though Curtin had no idea that was the case. Curtin rushed to get P back to Texas, but the Mavs turned him away, thus ending his future with the organization.
(P would later get a tryout with the Charlotte Hornets and a preseason look with the Toronto Raptors, though he never played in a regular season NBA game.)
The company did bring in real talent, though. Heisman-winning running back Ricky Williams had already signed with agent Andrew Brandt and his employer, Woolf Associates, but left them to join No Limit Sports as he entered the 1999 NFL draft.
"I noticed these guys hanging around and finally confronted Ricky about it, and he told me about Master P starting a sports agency and he was going to be the flagship guy," Brandt says. "He was going to be their watershed client. I understood, for a young guy—especially a guy like Ricky who had a lot of interests beyond football—I understood that they wanted something bigger than a football agent, someone that can help open more doors, create more avenues beyond the sport they play."
"[Master P] went from rags to riches and that's what I'm about to do," Williams said in an ESPN Outside The Lines report that year. "I wouldn't say we grew up in similar backgrounds, but the fact [is] he started from nothing and now he has everything."
Williams was No Limit Sports' first huge splash in the industry, a warning shot to all other agents that they could snag the best talent available, and Williams' rookie deal—he was selected No. 5 overall by the New Orleans Saints in the 99 draft—was set to be the group's first big negotiation. (At the time, the NFL's CBA didn't tightly regulate rookie contracts the way it does now.) Curtin was told he'd be handling the negotiation of Williams' contract, but then P hired a man named Leland Hardy, and Curtin was told to stick with his other projects—Hardy would be Williams' primary agent.
Leland Hardy: Where to begin? According to a Sports Illustrated feature, he speaks five languages; once traveled the world with Muhammad Ali, acting as Ali's personal translator and sparring with him in public; boxed professionally in the 80s, reportedly finishing with a record of 8-3-1; earned two master's degrees from the University of Pennsylvania; worked at investment bank Bear Stearns as an account executive; worked as the business adviser to Venus and Serena Williams; and owns the domain newyork.com, a site reportedly worth millions based on name alone. In that same feature, Hardy is referred to as "like Forrest Gump," and this is all before he began to work on the infamous Ricky Williams contract.
That contract, of course, was a disaster. The main principle behind the deal was that it was incentive-based, with Williams earning a minimum salary of $175,000 and the opportunity to make a lot more based on statistical production. The negotiations came in the wake of Terrell Davis's contract—Davis had previously set a number of rushing records, stats Williams would have to mirror for the escalator clauses of his contract to kick in.
"I kept a copy of [Williams' contract]," Curtin says. "It is the worst deal, this contract. What they did is they took Terrell Davis's running back contract from the Broncos, and they used a lot of the clauses in his contract in [Ricky's]. They actually copy and pasted this thing together. In some of the areas, the contract would say, 'Paragraph 2,' and then it would have A, B, C, D, E, F under it, and like 2-D would say, 'See Paragraph 2-G.' There would be no 2-G in that one, because they'd taken it out of somebody else's contract, and they didn't bother to confirm the numbers and letters on the thing. It was an absolute mess."
"The problem was that the Saints used their entire draft in a trade for Ricky Williams, and they were not a great team to begin with," says Leigh Steinberg, a big-time agent Williams would later sign with. "So the very tools he might need to become this running back were missing. Moreover, when a team gets behind, as the Saints almost certainly would, they're not going to be running the ball to catch up. They're going to be passing. So evaluating that specific situation, it would be nearly impossible that he would make the incentives."
Along with the Williams contract, Hardy ran into trouble when he reportedly failed a take-home test to become NFL certified. "They don't tell you the numbers, but I had a source in the NFLPA, and this person told me [Hardy] got about a 50," Curtin says. "This came out right after he had negotiated that contract for Ricky. It was a double blow. You did this terrible thing and then you flunk the test."
(Hardy's been mostly out of the public spotlight since he represented Williams, though as of 2010 he was still sitting onnewyork.com. Via phone, Hardy declined to comment for this story. He only said this: "I'm working on some major, major things that are about to shock the world. I'm about to shock the world from multiple perspectives, in sports, technology, and business.")
Williams' rookie year was as muddled as his contract. He suffered a high-ankle sprain early in the season, leaving him unable to utilize the athleticism he displayed at the University of Texas. The New Orleans media hounded him, and he responded by doing entire interviews wearing a facemask. He turned inward, staying in his home, alone, for hours and days at a time, and left No Limit Sports for Steinberg in March of 2000. He'd play two more seasons in New Orleans before being traded to Miami, where he'd go on to play the best football of his life. "When he got traded to Miami, we renegotiated his contract instantly," Steinberg says. "There's different rules now because of the 2011 salary cap, but essentially a contract at that time could be renegotiated at any time, as long as it wasn't done within the same calendar year."
Williams' defection was the beginning of the end of Master P's sports management career. Construction of a reportedly $12 million No Limit Sports complex in Baton Rouge—complete with a plethora of workout facilities, a recording studio, and dormitories—was called off. A number of the agency's other fed-up clients left, too, realizing things were just a little off within the agency. "I just thought the dudes didn't know what they were talking about," Nesby says. "I had a conversation with Tevester, and I'm trying to ask him questions, like, 'What's the next step? What's going on?' Nobody knows nothing. I was just trying to find out what's next. Nobody had answers.
"[A different agent] came to me and said there were some other people who were very interested in me, but the guy who was representing me didn't do his part," he continues. "I was like, 'What?' I thought the agent was lying, then the GM from that team had e-mailed me and said, 'Yeah, we were interested in you, but we went a different route because you were not available.' I was like, 'Wow.' It was the GM of the Timberwolves [Kevin McHale]."
"I'm trying to figure out how to say this," Miranda says. "If someone doesn't understand what someone is trying to do—their angle—the first thing [people think] about a rap group is it's something bad. Some of the coaches may have thought of it that way—like, 'Oh, this might be a problem,' or, 'He's gonna have problems with some guys.' I actually had a coach ask me, 'Why'd you [sign with No Limit]? That's what made you drop in the draft.' I was like, 'Oh, shoot.'"
In early 1999, No Limit Sports looked like it was about to take off. The agency had established itself with a small stable of solid, on-the-rise athletes, one primed megastar-to-be, and an affiliation with one of the most famous entertainers on the planet. And by mid-2000, it had completely fallen apart.
Ultimately, the biggest complaint about No Limit Sports from those I spoke with was simple: the assembled staff was unable to succeed in sports the way they had in music and entertainment. They just didn't have the experience needed to navigate the field, a point both Scott and Hawkins admitted was probably true.
Curtin is quick to state that his presence should've changed that: "I had answers that they wouldn't listen to," he says. "I'd say, 'No, you don't want to do that.' Now they're saying, 'Oh, they should've listened to somebody.' Well, I was the insider-outsider, or the outsider-insider. They kept me away from their decisions."
"We were employing the business model that had worked for us before," Hawkins says. "Put a little something into it, work it really hard, and then as it grows, build it. That's the model we employed. And it worked. It worked [in the music world] and in the film world, too. It worked in the clothing world. The only place it didn't work was sports. But it would've worked, had not the media backlashed the Ricky Williams contract. Ricky was the big fish. Had that gone well, No Limit Sports could possibly still be going now."
(Worth noting: earlier this year, Williams took full responsibility for his contract. "It's a misconception that P came up with the terms ... it was my idea," he told TMZ. Williams didn't respond to a request for an interview for this story.)
"I almost hang my head when I think about this particular thing, because we should've succeeded at this," Hawkins continues. "I'm speaking in terms of actually being successful, getting a great clientele and actually powering through the initial football contract, Ricky Williams'. Had we made it through that contract and made it through two or three football contracts, even if [No Limit Sports] shriveled out, I would've called it a success because we would've beat down the naysayers, we would've proven it could be done. I think we still proved it can be done—it can still be done today, just with the right components."
In 2013, Jay Z announced that he was founding Roc Nation Sports, the sports wing of his already thriving music empire. Conceptually, it sounded familiar: a world-famous rapper enters the fray of sports management, signing some big names—Roc Nation Sports' first client was MLB second baseman Robinson Cano, though the agency has since picked up reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant, NFL wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, and hockey prospect Seth Jones. But Roc Nation Sports was formed as a partnership with CAA, a major talent agency. Even if Jay does decide he wants those closest to him performing the actual contract negotiations, his employees will have the best in the business available for any consulting they'd like.
Meanwhile, everyone involved in the infamous No Limit Sports has moved on. Master P gladly closed up shop, moved to Los Angeles, and continued making music and movies, the areas where he netted the majority of his money, anyway. (P didn't respond to an interview request for this story.) Tevester Scott now runs a marketing and political consulting company in Atlanta. Miles McAfee passed away in 2009 at the age of 76. Edwin Hawkins is an attorney in New Orleans. Leland Hardy is gearing up to shock the world.
Andy Curtin now runs The Legends Poll, a college football ranking system based on a weekly roundtable with a series of former NCAA coaches, guys like Bobby Bowden, Frank Broyles, and Terry Donahue. Curtin actually reached out to singer Toby Keith's manager a few years back, seeing if Keith would have interest in doing a sort of country music version of No Limit Sports; Keith's people never got back to him.
Curtin doesn't have many positive memories of his professional life in the late 90s and early 2000s, though he does have stories upon stories of instances he claims would've been paid off had his voice just been heeded.
And he still has that chain.