To listen to Jeff Austin, you kind of get the idea he’s sort of the Forrest Gump of sports. He’s just a guy, sitting on a bench, not necessarily eating chocolates but still finding himself in the midst of some of the greatest sports figures of the last five decades.
At the age of 12, Austin became buddies with Jimmy Connors. The two would go on to be doubles partners at UCLA at a time when the Bruins ruled the NCAA tennis world. Connors then became one of the greatest tennis players of all time, winning eight grand slam singles titles.
Austin’s younger sister, Tracy, was a tennis phenom herself, winning the U.S. Open twice before the age of 20 and being ranked No. 1 in the world in 1980 — the only person to break what would be an 11-year hold on the top spot by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
His wife, the former Denise Katnich who he married in 1983, was a college gymnast who as Denise Austin would go on to develop a fitness empire that includes books, DVDs, exercise equipment and multiple TV shows.
And as an NBA agent, Austin got to know the son of one of his clients years ago, a kid named Stephen Curry. These days, as president of Octagon’s basketball division, Austin represents the two-time NBA most valuable player.
So how did he find himself in the middle of such athletic royalty?
“I don’t know,” Austin says, adding after a long pause, “I am just an honest, good guy, I guess. I don’t know.”
Denise Austin laughs, a long musical giggle, when she hears of her husband’s response. She’s not surprised. “He likes the backseat,” she says.
The reason Jeff Austin is a success may be a mystery to him, but not to her. He’s honest, intelligent and has a knack for truly listening to people.
“He’s a very open person that you can just be with without any judgement,” Denise said. “Everyone in our family — we have a big family on both sides — and everyone asks his personal and professional advice for everything. He is everyone’s rock.”
In the world of athlete representation, not a lot of agents — or team executives, for that matter — have nice things to say about other agents. Not so for Austin.
“I like him immensely,” said David Falk, the pioneering NBA agent who by his own admission does not feel that way about many rival agents. “There are not a lot of agents I have a great deal of respect for. … He’s a classy guy. He’s an old-school guy. I think he’s very honest. I think he’s very humble. He does a great job for his clients.”
Humility, a quality lacking in society in general these days and in the sports industry in particular, is something that people repeatedly mention when talking about Austin.
“Jeff is a unique blend of confidence and humility,” Bob Myers, Golden State Warriors general manager and himself a former NBA agent, said about Austin in a text. “He is the same person in every situation.”
Who's On Board?
A select list of Jeff Austin's NBA clients
* Former client, now retired from the league
** With agent Omar Wilkes
Added Octagon President Phil de Picciotto: “Jeff is one of the most modest people one would ever meet.”
Austin grew up in Palos Verdes, Calif., an affluent suburb of Los Angeles, the second oldest of five children with a father who was a nuclear physicist and a mother who worked at a tennis club. It was a tennis-playing family. Four of the five kids — Jeff, his older sister Pam, younger brother John and Tracy — played professionally, and all of them won Grand Slam matches. John and Tracy even teamed to win the Wimbledon mixed doubles title in 1980, the first brother and sister to win a Grand Slam title together. Younger brother Doug didn’t go pro but was a solid Division I college player.
Jeff played tennis on the UCLA team that won the 1970 and ’71 NCAA championships and was Connors’ doubles partner. “We won the NCAA championship, and that was like 1970,” Austin recalled. “And right at the end of the season, a coach wanted … to switch the teams and put me with a different partner, and Jimmy refused. … I still remember him standing up for me at the time.”
Austin played professionally after college and advanced to the third round of Wimbledon in 1973, the year he reached a high of No. 52 in the world. But after about four years as a pro — “I got worse every year,” he says — he decided tennis was not his future. Austin invested the money he won during his playing career in Southern California real estate, sold a house at a profit and used the proceeds to go to law school at UCLA, graduating in 1980.
There are not a lot of agents I have a great deal of respect for. … He’s a classy guy. He’s an old-school guy. I think he’s very honest. I think he’s very humble. He does a great job for his clients.
He was working as a litigation attorney in the early ’80s when one day, while playing tennis with Tracy at a Los Angeles-area tennis club, he met Denise. There weren’t a lot of aerobics studios in those days, just rooms, and she was trying to rent one to get an aerobics class going. She happened to see Jeff and Tracy hitting balls on the club’s tennis courts.
“I thought, ‘Damn, she’s good,’” Denise remembers thinking of Tracy.
Jeff and Denise married about a year later and enjoyed life in Los Angeles, even double-dating with Connors and his wife. But Jeff decided he didn’t like being a litigation attorney and they moved to Washington, D.C., where he had received an offer to become a sports agent in 1983.
At the time, 35 years ago, there were not a lot of former athletes working as agents.
“He was known in the tennis community,” de Picciotto said. “He was a good player — he will probably tell you he wasn’t, but he was. He came out of the sports world and had a legal education and had very high integrity, which at the time was a perfect combination for success in the early years of our industry.”
Austin was first hired by ProServ, which had begun in the 1970s primarily as a tennis agency but had branched into other areas, particularly basketball with Falk. He was hired because he was Tracy’s brother and Connors’ best friend, Denise says. The plan was for him to be a tennis agent, but a few weeks after he started the firm broke up.
Jeff ended up going with Lee Fentress and some of the other partners to their new company called Advantage International, which later became Octagon.
Falk went with the other firm. That left Advantage in need of a basketball agent. So Austin, hired to be a tennis agent in the world he knew so well, became an NBA agent as well.
Even back then, the representation business was tough. Nice guys often finished last. But Austin studied the business and tried to figure out a way to succeed while maintaining his integrity.
“The one thing I learned early on is that it’s a business, but it is also a personal business,” he said. “To me that means finding people I want to work with, the people that I like and have high character. Those are the people I like to recruit.”
Clients over the years have included basketball hall of famer David Robinson and Dell Curry, father of current players Steph and Seth Curry, who are also both clients. Last year Austin negotiated the NBA’s first $200 million contract, Steph Curry’s five-year, $201 million deal with the Warriors.
“I always tell everybody at Octagon and on my staff, there are no shortcuts,” Austin said. “If you take the long view and put the client first you may forgo some short-term gains, but you are going to be better off and better served.”
One of the people who Austin hired at Octagon is Alex Saratsis, the agent to Milwaukee Bucks breakout star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Austin has given Saratsis valuable advice on how to manage the rising superstar, but he doesn’t give orders. “He’s been wonderful with me,” Saratsis said.
Saratsis was only working at Octagon a few months when his boss invited him and his then girlfriend to dinner at his home. Later, Saratsis was at the drugstore standing in line when he saw a promotion for exercise equipment with Denise Austin’s face plastered all over it.
“It was a real ‘Ah-ha!’ moment,” Saratsis said. Jeff and Denise had never mentioned her fame.
Like a lot of people, Saratsis said the Austin marriage works because Jeff and Denise are so different.
“She is always on the go,” he said. “And Jeff is more laid-back and is watching. He is like the yin to her yang. He is the calming presence in the chaotic Austin household.”
It’s only fitting that Jeff and Denise’s two daughters are very successful — and very different.
Kelly Austin was the No. 1-ranked female high school lacrosse player in the country in 2008. She played collegiately at Virginia and is now pursuing a career in the music industry. Like Denise, their other daughter, Katie, is pursuing a career as a fitness instructor but doing it in the social media age. “Get Fit With Katie” is her business and she has a mobile app, workout program and is in the process of launching a clothing line.
“My mom helps me with all on-camera and TV personality things, while my dad is the business side of it,” said Katie, who also played college lacrosse at Southern Cal. “He looks over my contracts, tells me the right thing to do in business situations, looks over my important emails and helps me know my worth. It’s funny because sometimes when I get emails from top companies, I’ll say, ‘My agent will call you,’ and it will be my dad.”
Jeff, 66, has been Denise’s agent and manager throughout her career and also is serving that role for Katie, although he’s considering bringing in someone who better understands social media and the digital space. Whether for his wife or daughters, Austin is comfortable in a supporting role.
“Growing up, I became, of course, Tracy’s brother,” he says. “And then I became Denise Austin’s husband. And my oldest daughter Kelly was the top lacrosse player in the country in high school — and I was Kelly’s father. I just bask in the reflected glory of the women in my life. It’s terrific.”
One thing Austin admits he is able to do is see potential greatness in others. He knew Steph Curry was different and was going to make it in the NBA when a lot of people doubted his ability. He knew his sister was going to be a great player when she was 10 years old. He knew Connors had something other players didn’t when he was 12. And he saw something in his wife the first day he met her.
“I tell my kids all the time, ‘You never know when an opportunity will come along,’” Austin says. “‘Make sure you are paying attention because they don’t come around again.’”
Of course, like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, there’s also luck involved. Asked if he’s been lucky, Austin doesn’t hesitate.
“Oh my God, I am so lucky.”