In passing, I noticed that Phoenix’s Bismack Biyombo just turned 30 years old. This gave me a little reminder to revisit the legal saga between him and his former European agent Igor Crespo. In 2015, we did a deep dive on the lawsuit, which was filed in New York State in 2014. At the time, the litigation was in its early stages and I summed it up thusly: “Did Crespo take advantage of Biyombo? Did Biyombo screw over Crespo? Without all the facts, it is hard to really know.” I hadn’t looked into the case since then. With the trigger of Bismack’s birthday, I reentered the fray to see what more we could learn. Here goes….
Summary of the Dispute
To recap, Crespo sued Biyombo and his NBA agent Wasserman Media Group, LLC, alleging that Biyombo and Biyombo’s father signed a contract agreeing to give Crespo 10% of all future basketball earnings and 20% of any advertisement/sponsorships. Specifically, Crespo claimed he discovered Biyombo, who was playing in Yemen, and invested about $164,000 to train Biyombo. Crespo, ultimately, did get Biyombo a contract in Spain and Crespo got his 10%.
Biyombo was then drafted by Charlotte and Crespo, who was not a certified NBA agent, claims to have negotiated a contract with Charlotte but was terminated by Biyombo and never got a piece of that revenue. Crespo’s complaint sued for breach of contract and for unjust enrichment and tortious interference by Wasserman with the Crespo/Biyombo contract.
When Biyombo moved to dismiss the complaint, things got interesting. Crespo alleged that, because he wasn’t an NBA agent, he referred Biyombo to Leon Rose of CAA (now a Knicks executive) and that Rose had already agreed to split his share with Crespo (4% was the maximum agent share permitted under NBA rules). Biyombo, instead, hired a different agent and terminated his contract with Crespo. The contract with Crespo permitted termination on 90 days notice but the termination came after Biyombo signed his rookie contract with Charlotte that was worth (according to Crespo) a guaranteed $5 million plus option years worth a total of $6.2 million.
In 2015, the New York court dismissed the breach of contract claim to the extent it sought a percentage of his NBA earnings. The court found the 10% figure was illegal under NBPA rules. Alternatively, Crespo argued that he should get 2% (which represents the share that Rose agreed to give him). Interestingly, Rose never signed a formal agreement with Crespo so this argument was rejected as well. The court did permit Crespo to proceed on his claim for 20% of ad revenue.
The court also let Crespo proceed on the unjust enrichment claim to the extent that Crespo paid to develop and promote Biyombo. Crespo had argued that he invested at least $164,000 in Biyombo and that Biyombo wrote an email to Crespo’s colleague, terminating the agreement but acknowledging he owed Crespo some money: “[i]t has been hard to make that decision, but I hope you understand it. Although you do not have your money today, you will have it tomorrow.”
Subsequently, Wasserman moved to dismiss the action noting that Crespo was not an NBA agent and thus could not interfere with Crespo’s non-NBA rights. Shortly after the filing of the motion, Crespo discontinued the case against Wasserman. It is possible Wasserman settled for cash but it seems more likely based on the strength of the Wasserman’s motion and the swiftness of the discontinuance that Crespo just punted because the claim was weak.
This left Crespo to litigate with Biyombo over a much smaller scope of 20% of ad revenues and a recovery of the funds invested in Biyombo’s career (at least $164,000). Had Crespo been permitted to recover NBA earnings, the case would be a good deal bigger. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Biyombo made $12.5 million on his rookie deal.
It’s not clear how damages should’ve been calculated but if one assumes that the deal validly cancelled in 2011, Crespo’s damages would’ve been capped to the rookie deal, which comes to, at best, 10% of that income or, at least 2% that Rose would’ve given him (which comes to about $250,000). (Note that New York law usually provides for 9% interest on a claim, so the delay in the case would accrue to Crespo’s benefit). As for ad revenue, Crespo did get Biyombo a deal with Nike, though I haven’t noticed many giant Bismack ad campaigns.
Once the parties went through discovery, we received a treasure trove of inside testimony and documents that are worth reviewing. Here’s the condensed version of the new interesting facts:
-Crespo said he got Biyombo into the Nike Hoops Summit in Portland, where Bismack shined (he had the first triple-double in the event history) and got NBA draft buzz. Crespo claimed he paid for the trip and ancillary costs totaling at least $200,000.
-Biyombo’s affidavit complained that Crespo negotiated a contract with his Spanish team (Fuenlabrada) that was heavily backloaded and had an NBA buyout worth $1.5 million plus making Biyombo responsible for VAT (essentially, the tax costs of the transaction). Crespo allegedly told Biyombo that the club would never want a substantial sum for the buyout and not to worry about it. In the end, Biyombo had to pay about $1,000,000 of the buyout and he felt that cost should, at least, offset the money paid by Crespo.
-Biyombo’s Nike contract was 27,500 euros, limiting Crespo’s recovery to about $5,500 (plus interest).
Crespo also annexed Biyombo’s deposition transcript, which was a fun read. Most NBA players do not sit for 200-page interviews and we get some real background on Bismack’s life. He speaks French, English, Spanish, Swahili, and Lingala. In the Congo, he was a great soccer player but transitioned to basketball at age-14. At age-16, Biyombo got his first pro contract but was playing in the real boondocks (Yemen) making $600 per month before he was discovered by Crespo.
Biyombo’s father, an IT specialist, worked with Crespo on a contract in Spain. The contract was not particularly generous and Biyombo said he had virtually no spending cash, though his team would pay for food and lodgings. Without cash, he did borrow from Crespo for some living needs and he admitted that Crespo helped with the transition the United States and with finding agents.
Crespo brought Biyombo to Rose. Interestingly, Crespo became angry when Biyombo asked Rose questions: “that’s when Igor called me back and said I was crazy for asking those questions to Leon, and what kind of power did I have.” It was at that point that Biyombo became disenchanted with Rose and terminated the CAA deal.
Biyombo had strong command of all the facts of his career, including the exact amount of his buyout he was responsible for. A funny yet revealing exchange came when Crespo’s attorney asked Biyombo about the recent big contract he signed with Orlando:
Q: What are the terms of that [Orlando] contract?
A: It’s a four-year contract.
Q: What is the compensation per year?
A: 17 million.
Q: Per year?
Q: Times – does it increase each year, or [its] flat 17 per year.
A: Times four.
Q: Is that a guaranteed contract, or is it—
A: It is guaranteed.
Q: You have good agents.
A: They are. That’s why I love them.
During the rest of the deposition, Biyombo tried to cast Crespo’s costs as minimal while Crespo’s attorney juxtaposed Biyombo’s current huge salary to Crespo’s relatively more modest claim.
Summary judgment and settlement
In 2019, Biyombo moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint (this is different from the earlier motion to dismiss the complaint as a matter of law). Biyombo argued that Crespo could not show any endorsements existed that were covered by Crespo’s agreement and that any earnings were more than offset by the huge buyout that Biyombo had to pay to get to the NBA.
Crespo countered that he had tangible out-of-pocket expenses, including hotels, trainers, and meals and made an alternative exotic argument regarding a “mistake of fact” that voided the agreement and entitled Crespo to additional expenses through 2015. The court swatted away the odd “mistake” argument but found that Biyombo had to go to trial on the 20% of the 2011 Nike deal for 27,500 Euros.
As for expenses incurred by Crespo, the court dismissed any costs incurred while Crespo was already receiving commission for salary but NOT for expenses incurred when no commissions were being paid In another twist, Fuenlabrada paid Crespo 58,200 euros for Biyombo’s services but Crespo had to sue the team to obtain a money judgment to enforce the deal (who said getting paid was easy?). Since the record did not delineate these facts, the court held that these could be determined at trial.
Shortly after the court’s decision, the case settled for undisclosed terms. It’s clear that the court made an easy roadmap for the settlement terms (ie 20% of the Nike deal plus any expenses incurred in years where Crespo wasn’t paid a commission by anyone).
Are there any good guys?
There are sharply different stories presented by Crespo and Biyombo. Crespo’s version is that he discovered and invested in Biyombo, only to be jilted the second Bismack hit the big time. Bismack’s story is that he was an indentured servant and Crespo demands were burdensome and he was not acting in good faith. Based on the available documents, here’s what I found happened:
-Biyombo was toiling in Yemen for $150 per week as a teenager when Crespo helped him get to Europe
-Devoid of leverage, a teenage Biyombo signed an onerous deal with Crespo
-Biyombo made it to Spain but was essentially playing for cost-of-living
-Crespo made huge efforts to get Biyombo to the NBA only for Bismack to abruptly fire Crespo when it looked like the deal with CAA was shady
-Crespo might’ve screwed up Biyombo’s buyout (we don’t have any info on Crespo’s leverage on the deal with Fuenlabrada, so it is possible the buyout was standard and not negotiable)
-Crespo paid at least $165,000 to prop up Biyombo and was paid about $60,000 from Fuenlabrada.
-Bismack has made about $89 million in his NBA career (that Orlando contract was a bit crazy to be honest) and he could easily pay Crespo to go away, regardless of the merits of the case
-We don’t know what Crespo settled for but probably barely broke even on his investment
-Biyombo is a smart and thoughtful guy who seemed very aware of where he came from and where he might be going. Once he had the leverage, he dumped those he considered bad actors
The entire situation is distasteful. Crespo did help Biyombo but the lack of rules to protect young African players permitted this entire dispute to simmer. To be fair, there are plenty of agents and pseudo-agents who try to get their hooks in young American players too. It also appears that the NBA and FIBA are trying to make African player development less haphazard. In the end, Biyombo was sympathetic on the merits in his dispute with Crespo. The real story that stuck with me, however, is that Biyombo has gone from Yemen to $89 million in about 12 years. That’s amazing and he does have reason to love BJ Armstrong.