BUILDING A BRAND
By Kyle Goon
email@example.com @kylegoon on Twitter
By the time the black, SWAT-style van pulled into the lot on Fairfax Avenue, hundreds of people had queued up around the block with the promise of a picture, an autograph, free T-shirts and tacos, or some combination of those things.
They baked in the Southern California afternoon sunshine as Kyle Kuzma unfolded himself from his seat and stepped onto the pavement, flanked by a small cadre of associates including his agent, his manager, Puma representatives and, naturally, his mom. Karri Kuzma was close at hand as her 24-year-old son spent the next hour pressing flesh.
“The first two years it was weird to me that people would line up like this, because to me he’s just Kyle,” she said. “Now, it’s pretty normal.”
Two years into his NBA career, Kuzma has reached a fascinating juncture — he’s proved himself as a player in the league, but he still harbors grander ambitions on and off the court. The T-shirt and taco giveaway celebrated a five-year deal with Puma, reportedly worth $20 million, plus possible incentives. Next year, he’ll be eligible
KUZMA >> PAGE 8
Two years into his NBA career, the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma has reached a fascinating level — he’s a proven player but harbors grander ambitions.
SCOTT VARLEY — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
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to negotiate with the Lakers for a rookie contract extension — which could be worth a lot depending on how he performs this coming season.
It’s more likely than ever that you’ve seen Kuzma on a billboard this offseason: maybe for Puma in the last week, or maybe for Gatorade in the last month. He’s conspicuously worked on his game this offseason — which has included refining his shooting form and suiting up for USA Basketball — but his visibility is on the rise, too.
Though sidelined as he rehabilitates a foot injury from the summer, Kuzma is well aware of it all — the upshift in expectations entering his third season; his rising public profile and bank account; the uptick in ventures and opportunities that will come into his orbit. It’s an exciting time for Kuzma and the small business team that has become an integral part of his life, but this — maybe more than ever — is a time for patience and discretion. The deeper he’s gotten into his NBA career, the more he’s realized that having a long-term vision is the most important thing. “As a young player, you kind of want things right away, and I was so thirsty to get a whole bunch of stuff,” he said. “It’s all getting into fruition right now, to the point where things are getting laid out, making different decisions in my life — just growing.”
A curious mind
Tim Harris has a standing invitation for incoming Lakers rookies to join him for a meal. The team’s COO and president of business operations figures he can offer a few pieces of advice from three decades with the organization — or at least a free dinner.
The members of the 2017 class, which was particularly robust, met Harris at Petros in Manhattan Beach. He was taken with Kuzma, the late first-round pick out of Utah who peppered him with questions. Over the next two years, Kuzma would frequently approach Harris for advice, particularly about developing his brand.
“He’s super inquisitive,” Harris said of Kuzma. “That’s something that’s rare in young people. Young people aren’t so comfortable in their skin that they’re willing to admit to an adult that they don’t know things.”
His curiosity manifests in diverse off-court interests: showcasing his expanding wine palette; popping to the other coast for New York Fashion Week; trying new dietary adventures, including briefly going vegan. These are also traits of the kinds of investments and deals he wants to make: Beyond some residential properties, one of Kuzma’s investments, for example, is in a “superfood.” He also expects to make an announcement later this fall about one of his fashion investments.
The key, business manager Vin Sparacio said, is finding the products and brands that are consistent with the image he wants to present. Sparacio tries to only assemble deals he knows will pique Kuzma’s interest.
“To be special, it has to really have him involved, and have his input and his touch,” Sparacio said. “Even though he may not be a big businessman, him being organic, real and authentic. We want to position it that way so he’s able to be a part of those things.”
This approach took time to evolve. Kuzma was one of the draft’s older prospects coming out of college, and although his stock rose quickly after the NBA Draft Combine, his draft position (No. 28) landed him a smaller rookie contract than Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, his lotteryselected peers. Kuzma will make just under $2 million this season, while Ball ($8.7 million) and Ingram ($7.2 million) are due considerably more. So it was more of a jolt when Kuzma began selling “Kuzmania” T-shirts online after taking Summer League by storm in 2017.
“Going through that right away kind of puts you into a different perspective or mindset, like, ‘Oh damn, I’m making this amount of money for T-shirts,’ he said. “‘What can I do with some real product or something real for a consumer?’ So ever since then, that kind of really sparked my brain to think outside of the box for everything.”
Part of the plan now is not trying to do everything. Kristina Kozica, who handles Kuzma’s marketing for Creative Artists Agency, says as Kuzma’s image has risen in the public eye, he’s been able to be more selective about how he does business. That means fewer in-person meetings to sign autographs and fewer short term-focused hustles, and finding more control in the endorsements he does sign.
Take Puma, which officially signed Kuzma away from Nike earlier this month. Kuzma told ESPN he still felt bonds to Nike products and would miss wearing Kobe Bryant’s signature shoes. But he and his team also felt Puma was more invested in exploring and using his personality to creatively market the company, as opposed to being just another athlete on the client roster.
The deal is a two-way street, as the shoe company gets a player it sees as a charismatic up-andcomer to spearhead its campaign to get back into pro basketball. Puma global director of brand and marketing Adam Petrick said in a statement that adding Kuzma was “a huge step for our brand.”
“His performance on the court speaks for itself,” he said, “but his personality and style off the court fits perfectly with our team.”
Surviving a scare
Early on the morning of June 16, Kuzma was asleep on the last night of his tour through Shanghai with Nike. He was jarred awake by the sound of his door opening and knocking over his luggage, flooding his dark hotel room with light from the hallway.
Still stuck in the fog of jet lag and unconsciousness, Kuzma was spooked. One of his first panicked thoughts was he might be under assault from the ghostly specter of China’s famed terracotta warriors.
It was Sparacio, rushing in to tell Kuzma news that had splashed across his phone. He had seen ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweet that the Lakers had traded for Anthony Davis — and kept Kuzma in the process.
“This dude literally jumped out of his bed — I was in tears,” Sparacio said, shaking with laughter at the memory months later. “I told him, ‘Bro, we good. We got A.D.’” It was a huge step for the Lakers in creating what they hope is a contender this season, but it was just as critical for Kuzma, who has enjoyed the trappings that come with being a Laker. He believes he could have proved he was an NBA-caliber player anywhere — but it’s just easier to do business as a member of one of the league’s most famous franchises.
He doesn’t think a trade would have “killed” the rise of his brand and commercial visibility, but “it just would’ve stunted it.”
Sparacio was painfully aware of how much harm he thought a trade would have done to Kuzma, calling the Lakers’ brand “the biggest piece” of why millions of fans can readily recognize Kuzma and know his game. Back in January, when the Lakers were first rumored to be weighing a trade for Davis, he acknowledged there was some anxiety within Kuzma’s camp in the early days and near the trade deadline.
But they also felt that Kuzma had done a lot of outreach to Lakers leadership, developing relationships not only with General Manager Rob Pelinka (who shares Michigan ties) but also Harris, team owner Jeanie Buss and advisors Kurt and Linda Rambis. While they could never be sure the Lakers would keep Kuzma out of any potential trade, he had done what he could to cement ties within the franchise.
“We knew we had done everything possible, and we felt good about it,” he said. “And we said, ‘(expletive), if we turn around any day now and the Lakers turn around and we’re not a Laker no more, we know we’ve done everything possible.”
In the end, Kuzma remained with the Lakers, which Pelinka recently described on a Sirius XM interview as “an objective that we’re proud of because we think he’s a key part of this team.” Harris wasn’t involved in the trade talks, so he couldn’t speak to how Kuzma’s personability might have affected the Lakers’ unwillingness to trade him. But he also acknowledged that a number of people on the second floor, which houses the brain trust of the franchise, are happy to still see him down on the practice court.
“He has a lot of the traits we look for, not just in players, but co-workers and colleagues,” Harris said. “He has this integrity and this authenticity and this honesty. That’s not just what we seek down there, but up here too.”
Building his brand
Sparacio, a squat, near-constant presence by Kuzma’s side with a thick, New York accent, didn’t start out as a true believer.
He met Kuzma as a scrawny teenager when he came to Philadelphia to play for him at Rise Academy. Kuzma wasn’t particularly hard-working and asked constantly about getting a college scholarship that Sparacio initially figured would never come. But over time as Kuzma’s habits changed, Sparacio softened, and became one of Kuzma’s closest confidantes — even when he lived two time zones away, they spoke often by phone. After Kuzma was drafted by the Lakers, Sparacio felt strongly enough about their bond that he moved out to help him with his affairs.
“If he played overseas, I’d be overseas with him right now,” Sparacio said. “It was a nobrainer. He’s family. I love him.”
The idea is to make more fans feel that way about Kuzma. As Harris puts it, someone’s brand is how they talk about a person once they’ve left the room. How does Kuzma build that?
One step he saw fit to take in the offseason was to change agencies: After starting his career with Priority Sports, Kuzma made the switch to CAA this summer. Kuzma’s new agent, Leon Rose, represents NBA luminaries including Chris Paul, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns. If it seems intriguing that one of Rose’s most famous past clients is LeBron James, Kuzma said that’s incidental — he sees the move to CAA as expanding his horizons in several off-court arenas.
“For me, I want to get into film, motion pictures,” he said. “I want to produce things. I want to make sure my foundation does well, and (CAA) has a great foundation department. So it’s just a whole bunch of resources my team can use to get themselves better, but also help me out along the way too.”
Much of the past two years, Sparacio said, has been spent “planting seeds” with potential corporate partners and forming relationships. There’s been far more speculation and blueprinting than actual action, but that could change in the next few years as Kuzma’s Puma endorsement and a possible contract extension give him more money to work with.
“I’m just trying to gauge, when he signs his next contract — Godwilling — and he has more money and liquidity, then we’re gonna have some more money to really have some fun and do some really cool business stuff,” Sparacio said. “I’m sure his branding and marketing is gonna go to another level.”
Kuzma tries to let his team handle his contract and other money concerns. One thing he considers a key to preserving what made him a fan favorite in the first place is maintaining a sense of joy. That applies in equal measures to his basketball and his business ventures: It needs to be real.
“Honestly, I still haven’t thought about a contract extension or anything: I would literally always play this game for free,” he said. “That’s my mindset. I’m kind of just a businessman by default. I do things because I like it, and it keeps my mind working and moving.”
Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma has been working hard with a small team to build his brand in off-court enterprises.
SCOTT VARLEY — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER