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Friday, May 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

Agent tries to avoid bright light of publicity

Reluctantly, Aaron Goodwin is talking about his least favorite subject — Aaron Goodwin.

He is a rarity in his business, a sports agent who dodges the spotlight; an agent who doesn't use the media as his free publicity machine; an agent who gives his players the stage and stands quietly in the wings.

"I'm like a bulldog," he says before boarding a flight from Oakland to Cleveland. "You keep me tied up in the backyard until you need me. Then you bring me in."

After 18 months of quiet, cautious but insistent recruiting, he landed the biggest prize in this year's NBA draft, high-school sensation LeBron James.

And now everybody wants to talk to Goodwin, wants him out of the shadows and onto SportsCenter.

Cameras are following him the way paparazzi follow Madonna. His face, the one he'd like to keep private, is on ESPN and inside Sports Illustrated. Suddenly he's finding it harder and harder to hide.

"I recruited LeBron James for more than a year without people realizing I was there," says Goodwin, 42. "There were people looking for me. Reporters were looking for me, but they didn't have a clue what I looked like. That's the way I like it. I like what I've established."

When we talked yesterday, I told him I wanted to tell people who he is and how he got started in the business. I wanted to write his micro-biography. He wasn't interested.

"Maybe people think I'm passive," he says. "But no team would tell you that. I'm that person who gets things done, then you don't see them anymore."

In Goodwin's perfect world, he does his business in private and only his client is on the podium after the deal is done. The next time you see him, he's sitting in the fourth row, midcourt, cheering his client.

"I want things to be about the player, not me," says Goodwin, whose Goodwin Sports Management, Inc., has offices in Oakland, Calif., and Seattle.

In Sports Illustrated's recent ranking of the 101 most influential minorities in sports, Goodwin was rated 39th. He was higher on the chart than Venus Williams, Allen Iverson, Isiah Thomas, Ichiro, Alex Rodriguez, Oscar De La Hoya and, get this, Magic Johnson. LeBron James was 101st.

"I've joked about that with Magic," Goodwin says. "It's a little hard to believe. I mean, if we both called the President, whose call do you think he'd take? It wouldn't be mine."

And while he was grateful for the magazine's designation, it makes him a little uncomfortable. His picture ran with the article, meaning his anonymity had further been compromised.

Goodwin is as private as Howard Hughes. He lives the lifestyle of the rich and famous, but he's not interested in talking with Robin Leach. He has built a small sports empire, but he doesn't need it advertised.

With the help of his twin brother, Eric, he has negotiated some of the largest contracts in basketball, but he never appeared on HBO's "Arli$$." You don't see him going one-on-one with Bob Costas. He hasn't given ESPN a "Sunday Conversation," even though the discussion would be fascinating.

"I'm fiercely protective of my privacy and fiercely protective to my players," says Goodwin, who has negotiated more than $700 million in contracts for his clients. "I don't want to use the media as a billboard. I'll talk to the families face-to-face. That's where they'll get to know me. And I'm going to continue to do it that way.

"I'm not going to do TV just to get my name out there. That's not sincere. Besides, we're about quality, not quantity. I'm not trying to represent a lot of guys."

If anybody was to get a guest shot on "Arli$$" it more likely would have been one of Goodwin's clients, maybe Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Goodwin would pass on Costas, but he might have tried to get Gary Payton the gig. He'd rather James have a "Sunday Conversation."

"Take me off the wall when you need me, then put me back up there," he says, almost like a motto. "I believe in what I do and the way I do it."

Goodwin earned James' trust by never publicizing the fact he was recruiting him. At a Portland Trail Blazers playoff game recently, I asked him if he was going to win the LeBron derby. He looked at me as if he didn't know LeBron James from Jesse James.

He won the derby by stressing the team-within-a-team nature of his clients. Payton spent time with James. So did Abdur-Rahim. Jamal Crawford, another Goodwin client, has become a close friend of James.

Now he has James and, all of a sudden, Aaron Goodwin is rising among the country's power brokers.

And although the NBA draft is more than a month away, the negotiating already is beginning. This weekend Goodwin and James will be at Nike's headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., cobbling a deal that will earn James more than $20 million before he's made his first NBA no-look pass.

"LeBron is the best I've ever seen at that age," said Goodwin, whose client list includes Payton, whose free-agent contract he will negotiate this summer, Abdur-Rahim, Derek Fisher, Todd MacCulloch, Vin Baker and Damon Stoudamire. "I could go out on a limb and even say he's the best I've ever seen, period.

"He's amazing. He's got the court vision of Magic and Jason Kidd. He has the same amount of talent as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. And he has the heart of Gary Payton. That's a scary combination. This kid is a phenom."

Agents are supposed to wax hyperbolic about their clients, but in this case, Goodwin is talking truthfully.

His diligence was rewarded this week. And now, if you don't mind, he'd like to go back on the wall.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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