In the middle of the night on July 1 last summer, an unassuming Embassy Suites hotel in Washington, D.C., became one of the capitals of the NBA.
Greg Monroe was a rare kind of free agent: a young big man who was both unrestricted and already certain he was going to leave his previous team, the Detroit Pistons. This made him the target of multiple organizations looking for new centers, and the deal was going to go down fast.
While midnight on July 1 starts one of the busiest times in the NBA, meetings in the wee hours on the East Coast have become unusual. Most free-agent action now takes place in Los Angeles, where free agency starts at 9 p.m. on June 30, and many face-to-face pitches are set up during the day on July 1.
But that's not how Monroe's agent, David Falk, conducts business. Falk has a honed set of principles -- that "free agency is a game of musical chairs," and that makes time valuable. Waiting until the next morning might have meant one of Monroe's options had a deal with another player.
This was how the Milwaukee Bucks found themselves getting ready to pitch Monroe at 2 a.m. That the Bucks were there at all was a bit of a surprise. Milwaukee had never been a free-agent destination.
The Bucks had retained their own free agents over the years -- they kept Michael Redd in 2005 when he was the target of a bidding war, for example -- but going for bigger names on the open market hadn't been part of their repertoire. Their recent free-agent signings -- second- or third-tier free agents like O.J. Mayo or Drew Gooden -- had resulted in overpaying and underperforming.
But all of that meant nothing to Marc Lasry, the billionaire hedge fund manager who'd flown in to lead the Bucks' pitch. Lasry and co-owners Wes Edens and Jamie Dinan had been erasing supposed truths ever since they bought the Bucks.
No way they could steal the up-and-coming Jason Kidd, a sitting coach, from the Brooklyn Nets. They did. No way to go from the worst team in the league to the playoffs the following season. They did. No way to navigate the challenging political scene and get a new arena built in Milwaukee. They are.
So telling Lasry he couldn't beat the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers on a free agent was useless. That was the way he walked into that hotel room in the middle of the night, and that was how the Bucks walked away with one of the more stunning free-agent coups of the last decade.
"That meeting is something I will never forget," Monroe said. "They made a great presentation to me."
The Bucks showed off drawings of the arena. They talked about their coming practice facility. They showed off their new uniforms. They had a video made with comedian Marlon Wayans for the moment.
"He was cracking jokes about why I should come to Milwaukee and talking about the new arena," Monroe said about the video. "He had some stuff on Jason Kidd and the owners, there were a lot of laughs."
But none of that made the real difference. It was Lasry, the veteran deal-maker and renowned high-stakes poker player, who made the sell with his confidence. Despite never having done a free-agent pitch before, Lasry showed why he's become a strong asset to the Bucks.
Kidd discussed how he'd use Monroe. General manager John Hammond went over plans and discussed the franchise's projected moves -- the Bucks were closing in on a deal to re-sign Khris Middleton to a new contract that night. But it was Lasry who made the biggest push.
Like he successfully lobbied reluctant legislators to get the arena deal, Lasry got Monroe to buy into the optimism surrounding the team and their young core of Middleton, Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
"[Marc Lasry] was very down-to-earth, but also passionate, and he connected with Greg. We didn't need parades or balloons; this was a business decision. Marc treated it that way. What they had already put in place was strong, and he sold that."David Falk
That night, owner Paul Allen and general manager Neil Olshey pitched the Portland Trail Blazers to Monroe. Falk nearly sent free agent Roy Hibbert to Allen in Portland three years earlier, and he has a strong working relationship with them. Mitch Kupchak came to try to get Monroe to the Lakers. Falk's relationship with the GM goes back to Kupchak's playing days.
Phil Jackson came in to try to bring Monroe to New York. The Knicks were seen by some as the frontrunners and, of course, Falk has deep roots with Jackson -- Falk was Michael Jordan's agent when Jackson was the coach for six championships.
Falk had never met Lasry.
"He was very down-to-earth, but also passionate, and he connected with Greg," Falk said. "We didn't need parades or balloons; this was a business decision. Marc treated it that way. What they had already put in place was strong, and he sold that."
Specifically, Lasry talked about his relationship with Kidd -- they have been friends and business partners for years -- and how that meant stability on the sidelines. After playing for five coaches in five years in Detroit, Monroe was swayed by that connection.
"I was paying very close attention to everything he said," Monroe said. "After the meeting, I thought I would fit there. I had been in the same organization my whole career."
The Bucks left the meeting, Lasry returned to New York, and Kidd and Hammond departed for Dulles Airport, where they were scheduled for a dawn flight to Los Angeles. They had another meeting scheduled with free agent Robin Lopez later in the day. Truth be told, some in the Bucks organization thought Lopez was a more attainable target than Monroe, who was a prime target on the coasts.
On the way, Hammond's phone rang. It was Falk. He said that whatever the Bucks did, they shouldn't spend their cap space. He had to wait for the other meetings, but the Bucks had become the frontrunner. They had a great chance to land Monroe.
"If I do my job well, the client will be offered the same amount from every team," Falk said. "So you can take money out of the equation. So Greg made a list of intangible factors. We did our homework, and Milwaukee was appealing before we even met with them. After the meeting, Greg only felt stronger about it."
The Bucks had offered the max, so the money was clear. As Monroe considered things, he got a call from an old friend. Middleton had wrapped up a new four-year deal to stay in Milwaukee, and he made his own pitch. The two had become close when Middleton played for the Pistons.
By July 2, the decision had been made: Monroe was picking the Bucks on a three-year max contract. Many in the league were stunned. No one could remember the Lakers or Knicks losing out on such a high-profile unrestricted free agent to a low-profile team like the Bucks.
"I knew what they had going on here," Monroe said. "I enjoyed all my free-agent meetings, but after hearing what they told me, I knew this was my best option."