Age is just a number when it comes to success. So long as you have the passion and drive into what you do, you can surely make that work. For Daniel Poneman, starting his own sports agency at 26 was not a shot in the dark. It took him having to put into action his passion for basketball and going out of his way to meet people and build a business. Soon after, he became the youngest NBA agent. In this episode, Steve Farber sits down with Daniel to get to know him and his journey of starting his own sports agency and, above all, where love plays to his success. He talks about how he became a Partner in the Chicago-based sports industry called Beyond Athlete Management and became the founder of the Shot in the Dark Foundation where he helps hundreds of young men from Chicago’s inner city to play basketball at all levels. Join Daniel and Steve in this conversation as they get down into Daniel’s film with Dwyane Wade and Chance the Rapper and how the foundation is doing amidst the pandemic.
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Starting His Own Sports Agency At 26 Was Not A Shot In The Dark With Daniel Poneman
This show is brought to you by the Extreme Leadership Institute. You should check them out at ExtremeLeadership.com, and I think you’ll enjoy what you see there. I know that because it happens to be my company and my website, and you’ll find all examples of how to operationalize love in business. My guest is Daniel Poneman. I’m going to tell you a little bit about Daniel and we’re going to dive right in, and this is scratching the surface. I’ll start out by saying that Daniel is a sports agent. How old are you, Daniel?
He’s a partner in a sports agency based in Chicago called Beyond Athlete Management. He’s been profiled in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated among other places for a couple of unusual reasons. One of which is that his career started when he was in high school. He’s also the Founder of the Shot in the Dark Foundation, which has helped hundreds of young men from Chicago’s inner city earned college scholarships to play basketball at all levels, including the NBA. He has partnered with Dwayne Wade and Chance the Rapper to produce a great documentary film called Shot in the Dark. I’ve seen it, I highly recommend that. It’s amazing. It premiered on Fox and it was nominated for a Sports Emmy. Daniel, we’ve got a lot to talk about. I’m glad you’re here.
Thanks for having me. I’m excited. I’m happy we could finally make this happen.
I want to start with the present, work our way back to the past a little bit, and then look ahead to the future. Tell us a little bit about your agency and the nature of your business.
I started when I was a kid, and I tell the same story about my progression and let’s start and work backward. That makes us more fun off to think on my feet. What do I do now? Beyond Athlete Management is a full-service sports agency. We represent players in NBA, NFL and international professional leagues around the world. We’ve got 2 football agents, 5 basketball agents, and a bunch of support staff. We do everything from representing contracts on the court or the field, to negotiating endorsement deals to help them manage their nonprofits, their brands, their social media, and everything under the sun involved with being a professional athlete we manage. I’m a founder in the company. I’m also a sports agent and a basketball agent. I represent my own NBA players and international pros. That’s the main thing that consumes my life is my work with Beyond and the team that we’re building with our staff and athletes.
How many people on the extended team at Beyond?
We have our full-time staff and then our contractors that are part of our family too. It’s probably anywhere between 13 and 20.
Depending on the day and what projects have working. What is your portfolio of athletes that you’re representing? You focus on basketball, but your agency I’m assuming focuses on other sports as well?
I do basketball. Our agency does football and basketball. We represent players in the NFL and NBA. We have players playing in pro basketball and pro leagues around the world. We have guys in Australia, Korea, Italy, Germany, Israel, Spain and Poland. We’ve got guys all around the world playing professional basketball, NBA and then the NFL.
I’ll make a confession. I’m not much of a sports guy. I don’t have you on this show because I’m a sports fan and I want to get close to the guy who’s close to the guys. That’s not where I’m coming from.
The most common thing for me, people find out I’m a sports nut and they want to talk sports, but I don’t like to talk sports because that’s what I have to do all day. I’d spent a whole day on the phone with NBA teams talking sports. It’s nice to talk about something else.It is difficult to run a business and be an adult on your own. Click To Tweet
Your wish is granted. First of all, let me be clear so I don’t alienate anybody reading. I have nothing against sports. I’m not one of those guys that knows all the players, the stats and all of that but certainly a lot of people are. For the benefit of those people who are tuned in to the sports world, any of your clients that people would be aware of that would recognize?
On the NFL side, our company represents Miles Sanders with the Philadelphia Eagles and Courtland Sutton with the Denver Broncos are probably our two biggest name guys, both Pro Bowl caliber guys. Courtland, unfortunately, got injured so he’s out for the year 2020. On the NBA side, one name people might recognize is Glenn Robinson III. He played for the Golden State Warriors and the Philadelphia 76ers in 2020. He’s our biggest name brand basketball player everyone knows.
You founded the company when?
We launched in 2018.
You were 25-ish?
When we launched the company, I was 26. It was before my 27th birthday.
In that industry, is that unusual or not unusual for somebody under 30 years old to be that active in the sports agency?
In our business, agents who represent NFL and NBA players, I would say less than 5% are under 30. There are a lot of aspiring agents or junior agents, but actual people who are agents who represent players at the highest level as a small percentage are under 30. A lot of guys are in their early 30s, mid-late 30s, 40s because it is a young man’s game. There’s a lot of energy and a lot of travel, long hours. I think a lot of people get burned out later on to try to find their exit. It is not common that someone representing players at the highest level in their twenties and certainly not common to have founded an agency at that age. When I got certified to be an NBA agent, I was only 24. At the time, I was probably the youngest certified NBA agent and a lot of my peers were probably still in college, and I was representing players.
Are you one of these people that from an early age you knew that this is what you’re going to be doing? Did this reveal itself to you over time?
Everything about my journey revealed itself over time. As we’ll get to my story, I started my basketball journey as a premier professional basketball when I was fourteen years old. I’m not thinking about a career when I was fourteen years old. I was thinking about girls, playing ball, riding bikes, going to parties and hanging out. I wasn’t thinking about my career and then my career path began to reveal itself to me. Even then I didn’t know that I was going to be an agent until the day before I decided to become an agent. If you keep your eyes and ears open, the opportunities present themselves and the path reveals itself.
Let’s start with that because I know your story and what you said makes perfect sense to me, but somebody who’s meeting for the first time when they hear fourteen years old doing related work to this, that’s a little bit of a double-take. This is your opportunity to tell the story that you’ve told many times. Take us back to the beginning with a perspective of where you are now. I like to go back to around those early teenage years and tell us what happened.
When I was a freshman in high school, this was 2005. I wasn’t thinking about becoming a basketball agent or a basketball scout. I was a kid. One day, I was in the computer lab in school and a friend of mine, a kid named Eric Dortch showed me a website. Eric was the best basketball player in our school. I went to Evanston Township High School, a big public school in Chicago was 4,000 kids. Eric was the best freshman basketball player at the school. I was maybe the fifteenth best freshmen. Good enough to be on the team, not good enough to get much playing time. Eric showed me a website in our computer lab in History class. We’re supposed to be doing work. It showed that he was ranked as the eighteenth best freshmen in the State of Illinois.
My mind was blown. I couldn’t believe that there was a website that adults wrote about who were the best 14 and 15-year-old basketball players in the State because that’s the stuff that we argue about on the playground and in the lunchroom. I didn’t know that there was a business behind it, a website called Chicago Hoops that ranked the players. I looked at the rankings and I see all these guys that we know that we played against growing up on the rankings. I see it has a message board. I jump on the message board and I start writing about it. This is before Twitter, Facebook, any of this stuff. A message board is where we communicated or information to share. I started writing about all the players I’d played against and seen.
Even at the time, I had the foresight. On the message boards, people always have different names like Basketball Fan 21, but I was dang upon them. I used my name. I wanted my opinions to be associated with me. I started writing about high school basketball. I got obsessed with this message board community that I started going into other people’s games on the weekends so I could write about the games that I was saying on this message board. Before long, I started my own website to compete with the website that had this message board. I got banned from the message board because I was a competitor at that point. I started making my own rankings. I said, “That guy, some grownup who’s never played against these guys. I know better than him. I played against him.”
I made my own website. I ranked all the best players in the state and every class, and I started doing interviews with the guys who were my friends. I ask them about their recruiting and their high school season. Before long, I had the most popular high school basketball website in Chicago as a fifteen-year-old sophomore at Evanston Township High School. I quit playing for the team. I realized I wasn’t ever good enough to play in college or anything. I found a love for writing about basketball. For me, it wasn’t even about the writing aspect, it was about the exchange of information. I love getting news before anybody else and spreading it to the world and having an opinion that mattered. I love that people took my opinion seriously.
People always say credit me for my hard work or determination. I got lucky because I was growing up in the age of the advent of social media. I was lucky that I got to ride the wave of social media, each platform getting invented at a time that I was ascending. When I was a freshman, Facebook came out. I was able to use Facebook to connect with high school basketball players all over the country.
When you were a freshman in college?
In high school. The same year, 2006 was when I got Facebook. This is at a time where if you’re a newspaper reporter trying to get a scoop from a high school star, you got to call their home phone, get their parents to put them on the phone and interview. I could just message them on Facebook. I was getting all the scoops by using Facebook because the kids were on it and the grownups weren’t on Facebook yet. There was five years where it was the kids before you guys jumped in there, took over, and then we left. For a while there, I had every high school basketball player. I was able to get all the info. Around my junior year of high school, YouTube came out.
I was the first person in the high school basketball space to say, “After I go to a tournament, it takes me a day to write an article and two days to write two articles. If I film the games and film these interviews, I can upload them directly to my website.” The next day, I’m getting all the hits. I was able to ride the YouTube wave. I got lucky with the social media stuff. The end of the story is all along the way, college basketball coaches who were interested in recruiting high school basketball players in Chicago began to use me as a resource. They used my website and then they started to reach out to me. I became a central point of the recruiting universe in Chicago.
What I’m hearing so far is you started this thing because you dug basketball. You started going up, watch other players on other teams, and write about them because you enjoyed it. You were starting to provide a valuable resource to the point where recruiters recognized you as a resource. My question is did you ever had the thought when you first started doing this? When you first started talking to these guys on Facebook, did you ever had a thought that said, “I’m building an asset that recruiters are going to want at some point?”
It’s funny, I didn’t know that I was going to be an agent until the day before that I became an agent. I didn’t know that I was going to be an asset to college recruiters and college coaches until the first college coach approached me and gave me his business card. It didn’t occur to me I have this information as valuable to colleges. To me, it was a hobby that was fun to write about this sport that I liked. I was at a tournament one day and a coach approached me and said, “You’re the kid. You’ve got that website. I read your website. Here’s my card. We should talk about players.” I said, “I have valuable information.” Before long, I started printing out business cards. I would go to the college coach section in every high school game where they’d all be sitting together in their polos with their school logo on it and hand out all the business cards and say, “If you need to know anything about the players, I’m the guy to talk to.” Only the one coach igniting that, “I have valuable information,” before I ran wild with it.
You were pursuing this because it was fun and you loved doing it. It was a way to hang out with your friends and all of that. When you got that first indication that there was something valuable here, you ran with it. You didn’t “engineer it” in order to be that asset. It was something you loved doing. You acknowledged that there’s a bit of luck involved in what you’ve done as well. We could philosophically debate that all day long. Where does drive end and luck begin? What you’re describing, Daniel, is to me, is where those two things come together? Without your innovative thinking, your passion and your drive to get this stuff done, you wouldn’t have created this to begin with. There was also something in you that when you got to the first indicator that there’s something of value here, you ran right at it, printed up business cards, and started handing them out. Is that luck? Maybe it’s luck that it happened that what you were passionate about filled the need somewhere, but it wasn’t luck that printed the business cards. It wasn’t luck that started handing them out.
Both things are true. There’s luck that gave me the opportunity to have the drive. I was born in Fairfield, Iowa but raised in Chicago. My parents had stayed in Fairfield, Iowa. There would be no basketball players to write about. If I had not gone to Evanston Township High School where there were all these great players that I grew up playing with, I wouldn’t have known who the good players were to write about. There were all of these lucky breaks I got along the way. It got me to the point where other people in that position might’ve not followed through with it or given up on it. For me, the money aspect of it has never even come into.
A lot of people, you want to switch it to the monetary value versus value in general. When I reach that point, all these college coaches, “They’re asking you for information, you should charge them money.” At that point I’m like, “I’m sixteen years old. What do I need money for? It’s not about money, this is fun. This is cool. I’m adding value. If I start charging money, half of them will pay and half of them won’t. I’m cutting off half of the guys who I want to talk to. This LA, this is cool.” I’m watching this game on TV and that coach who’s coaching that team is calling me after the game to ask how the high school game went that I went to. This is cool, “Why in the world would I cut off half of these people for monetary reasons?” I was going with the flow.Every great success story has those moments where you feel like crap and given up. Click To Tweet
I was having fun with it. It wasn’t like, “I got a strategy on how to execute.” I was freestyling. I was having fun. When I started writing, I’m fifteen years old, people care about what I’m writing. This is cool. Other kids are writing stuff for their teachers to grade it. I’m writing stuff and getting real-time feedback from my audience who’s commenting on my articles. Other people are watching TV and telling their friends, “That player is good. That player is bad,” while I’m getting real-time feedback because if I think a player is good, he’s going to be playing on TV. It was fun. I went in the direction that excited me and it worked out.
Did you find yourself in a situation when the players got to know who you were and saw that you were becoming the go-to person for recruiters and coaches? Did any of them start sucking up to you to try to get you to write favorably about them?
It still happens to this day in different ways, not only the players but the parents. A lot of times the players 14 to 17 years old, they aren’t savvy enough to pursue that. A lot of their parents smelled blood. They could see, “If that kid writes about my kid, my kid can go to college for free.” The parents are more into the rankings. I always used to joke about I put out a top 50 rankings, 49 sets of parents that are mad at me because they all think that their kids should have been number one. I would get my phone to be filled with voicemails of parents calling me, telling me about how great their kids are, but the kids generally have a better feel for it because they play in the games. They’re like, “That guy is better than me. I’ve got to get better to improve to be better than that guy.” I always got guys that want players that know how to market themselves. What’s interesting is a lot of the players when we were in high school who were good at marketing themselves to me are now coaches, agents, recruiters themselves, because they’re good at marketing themselves to the players.
They discovered their real talent like you did.
It’s like one of my partners at Beyond, EJ Kusnyer. He represented himself when he was a player. He played internationally and he was his own agent. He said it clicked that you could become an agent. He said, “I’m not very good. I can get played five years professional representing me. Imagine if I represented good players where I could take this as the same thing.”
I’m trying to imagine you as a sixteen-year-old kid and every time you write something, you’ve got parents all over you. Is there any particular example that you can remember, one for the record books in terms of parents’ behavior around that whole thing?
There’s one parent that sticks out to me, a good friend of mine who passed away a couple of years ago tragically. Greg Tucker and his dad, Greg Sr. Greg was a teammate of mine in middle school and he became a good player in high school and his dad felt close to me. It felt that because we were former teammates, I should rank Greg high on every list. He would call me after every single game and leave long voicemails, recapping everything that happened in the game. I would listen to him sometimes, but on one hand, it was annoying because it’s blowing up my phone on the other hand. It’s like, “You appreciate how involved a guy like that is in his kid’s life in a city where many kids don’t have present fathers in their lives.” You have to give kudos to the dads who take the time to call the reporter’s phone after every single game to hype up their kid.
What was the next phase of your journey? At this point, you’re still in high school?
I plan to go to school at Northwestern University. I had a friend who was coaching there, Tavaras Hardy, who was I think the first college coach to start to reach out to me, to start utilizing me for information. He gave me an invitation to be a team manager at Northwestern so he could help me get into school. I could be on the bench with them and it seemed like a cool thing. It seemed like the obvious path. It occurred to me one day in October of my senior year. I said, “Am I doing this because this is the best path for the career that I want? Am I doing it because it seems cool, Northwestern, whatever? I don’t think I need to go to school and take out a bunch of loans. This whole education thing and get into debt then limit what I could do professionally because I have school when I have what I like to do already. I’d like to see if I could give it a go doing it professionally.”
I convinced my parents to let me take some time off and give it a shot. If it didn’t work, I could go to school. Everyone thought I was crazy, “You turn down a school at Northwestern. You live in Evanston, you dream of getting into Northwestern.” I gave it a go as being a professional scout. From there, it was all uphill but it was a difficult journey. I learned the universe sent me tons of obstacles and tons of challenges along the way. Those first 3, 4 years was all smooth sailing. It was like the universe convincing me, “You’ve got this. You can ride the bike.” As soon as I was on my own, I started falling off the bike and realizing how difficult it is to run a business on your own, be an adult and then on your own. There were some ups and downs, but it was a fun journey that prepared me for the spot I’m in now.
What was the first wall that you hit?
The first wall was money. It was figuring out I’ve got something that’s cool. Everyone reads my stuff. Everyone watches my videos and it’s fine when I’m living with my parents. I’m in high school and I’m making a few thousand dollars a month. I got more money. You’re a high school, you’re making a few thousand bucks a month. That’s more money than you could ever imagine. Every time I went out to eat with my friends is on me, but then when you become an adult and you’ve got to pay rent, you’ve got to figure out how to live. I hired an assistant and I’m like, “How do I turn this thing into a real business? This isn’t a cool kid blog anymore. I’ve got to scale it.”
I had these big plans, “I want to create the same website I created in Illinois in every single state.” It was a cool idea but then it was also like, “As a 17, 18-year-old kid on my own, I know how to make videos, write blogs and scout players. Do I know how to run a business? Do I know how to scale? I want to be a CEO. Do I know how to hire?” Along that way, my dad went to Harvard Business School. He’s a brilliant guy. He would often try and offer his help. It’s like, “Dad, I’m successful. I’m the wonder kid. I made it here on my own. I got this.” Little did I know, I didn’t have it but trial by fire, you learn on the job.
Tell us a little bit about the showcases that you used to run. Was that when you were still in high school?
I started those when I was in high school.
First of all, tell us what a showcase is for basketball players.
It was a concept I came up with in high school. There’s a showcase for basketball is where you get a bunch of good players in a gym and you bring in college basketball coaches or scouts to scout those players. You help make matches where the scout likes to play or they offer him a scholarship to their school. The way that showcases work, players will pay an entry fee, $50, $100 to play any event. College coaches will come and scout the players who pay it. I thought this is great. It’s a way for me to make money. I had to run one. My first event was when I was a sophomore in high school. I ran an eighth-grade all-star game, which a lot of those players went on to play D1 basketball.
This was my senior year. I ran my first senior showcase. It was for high school seniors who had finished their senior season, who wanted to play college basketball but hadn’t been offered a scholarship yet. I invited all the top high school seniors to play in the showcase and invited a bunch of college coaches. I was charging $75. What I found was most of the top players who are good enough to play in college couldn’t afford $75 to play in a showcase or couldn’t get a ride to the suburbs where I was holding the event.
I realized that there’s a reason a lot of these kids didn’t have scholarship offers yet, and they didn’t have the resources to get their name out there to get recruited, to go to camps like this. I started to waive the fees for every kid who couldn’t pay for it. I invited them. I had a successful first event, but I lost money on it because I had to pay the gym fees, the reps, the jerseys, and insurance. I let many kids play for free out of losing money but that first year, 10 or 15 kids got scholarships to college who came in with no scholarships.
From inner-city Chicago, they had this incredible talent. You recognize the talent. They didn’t have the resources to participate in a typical showcase. You said, “Come on along.”
A lot of these kids, if you don’t get a college scholarship and you’re on the West Side of Chicago through basketball, what are your options? You can apply for the local community college and will get on a waiting list. A lot of these kids don’t have options. If you look at the numbers on the showcase, say I lost $3,000, but if I got ten kids’ scholarships, each of those scholarships are probably worth $100,000. I lost $3,000 in my pocket, but I created $1 million in value for those kids that are going to college for free. Even though I lost money, it was a great thing. I started to shift my mentality. This was around the time that my entrepreneurial scouting stuff maybe wasn’t going as I planned, but I started to get more interested in this philanthropic side of things.
I have this huge platform. I know all these college coaches and there are all these players in Chicago who need scholarships and don’t have them at the end of every year. If I can use my platform to not only help the future NBA players but help these other kids, I’m doing this great thing. I started to shift the focus of it from being a for-profit event to a nonprofit about raising money from donations, online, finding sponsors. That was how the showcase was born. Many years later, it’s still happening. That first year we probably got ten guys scholarships. This past year 2019, it got canceled due to COVID. In the previous years, the last time we had it, there were 270 participants, 130 college coaches came, and over 50 players got college scholarships through the two-day event.
When you look back over the history of the showcases, what would you estimate is the dollar amount of scholarships that players got from these?
It’s hard to say because we only started tracking data in the last few years. It was a fly by the seat of my pants operation those first two years because I invite the coaches and the players. They go on with their lives and it’s great. I hear the success stories over the last few years. As we built out, it had more funding and built out a real team. We’ve got to track the numbers. Each of the last few years that we did track the numbers, it was probably 50 kids a year. It’s probably say if a scholarship’s worth $100,000, that’s $5 million a year. There’s $20 million in those years alone. Maybe close to $40 million, $50 million over the years you’ve been doing it and scholarship dollars that have been accepted.You can make the largest impact by leveraging the platform that professional athletes provide their modern-day superheroes. Click To Tweet
I want to stop and acknowledge something, Daniel, because you like everybody else is close to their own story. Sometimes hearing a perspective from another person, in this case me, who’s hearing your story for the first time. This is what I noticed. Way back when you ran that showcase, the first thing is you realize that some of the best players wouldn’t be able to come because they didn’t have the resources, so decision number one is, “I’ll make it free.” The next thing that happened is you lost money on it, but it was a great value. At that point, it would have been easy for a lot of people to say, “That’s nice but it doesn’t make any sense because I lost money on it.” You didn’t do that. You recognized the value in other people’s lives. That goes way beyond a simple balance sheet approach to something like this. I want to acknowledge that you had that perspective at any age is a beautiful thing. Particularly, at an age where most teenagers are not focused in that way on the world around them.
I think you’re right, and I credit my parents for instilling the appetite for helping others. That was something that I was taught, but also I have to recognize my privilege in that I had the privilege of not having to worry about my own survival. I came from a good family. I know I have something to fall back on if I wasn’t making money. I had that privilege to say I’m not worried about the $3,000 I lost. I can help people, that’s way better. Through that attitude, I’ve been able to make do well for myself over the years. I have to acknowledge how lucky I was to be at a point throughout my life where I could always focus on the cool, innovative, fun thing to do and not have to worry about my own survival. If I was one of those kids fighting for their life, maybe you can’t always be thinking about, “How do I help others? I can lose money and do some great.” They’re trying to get to school so they could make something of themselves. I appreciate the position I was in to be able to make those decisions.
At what point did the movie, Shot in the Dark, come into focus?
I take it back to the story. I finished high school and I’ve got this booming business and I fall on my face. I think every great success story has those moments where you’re like crap, I screwed this up. It’s those moments that you can give up. I could have packed it in and gone back to college, could have gone to school and given up but I pivoted and found other things I was interested in. I looked at it as an opportunity. I was maybe twenty years old and burnt out. I had been 6 to 8 years of basketball all the time scouting, writing and interviewing. I was like, “What’s the next thing? I’ve done this.”
I had two filmmakers from New York reached out to me right at that time when I was stalled out. I had two filmmakers who went to Evanston Township High School with me, who I didn’t know well. They reached out to me, “We want to make a film about basketball in Chicago. Can you help us pick the subject?” This was the time when Chicago was in the news a lot for the wrong things, the murder rate was high, the killings were at an all-time high in the summer of 2012. They wanted to tell a true story about Chicago, not the sensationalized headlines that you saw about the murders, but tell a true story about someone living in that proverbial war zone and show the human side of it. I sent them a list of players that we could film. Within the top of the list was a kid named Tyquone Greer. He went to high school in the west aide, a good basketball player and rough home circumstances.
His house had burned down. His mother had a stroke. He was living with friends, but he was a positive happy young man and had a chance to play college basketball in the future. It was supposed to be a ten-minute short film, but through the course of filming, we realized that it was more than a short film. We ended up filming for three years. Keep in mind at this time, we had no funding for the film. It was three of us funding it out of pocket, sleeping together in a hotel room, beds doubling up head to toe, sharing falafel sandwiches, funding it ourselves, bootstrapping it to make this film. People thought we were crazy. “Here I am, this kid who I had this. I was in Sports Illustrated, I had this big business and I’m going to the West Side of Chicago every day with two film school nerds filming something that isn’t coming out for five more years.”
People are used to me filming something and it comes right out on YouTube the next day. I’m like, “Why don’t you keep going to the same school? Nothing’s coming out on YouTube. What are you doing?” I knew we were going to tell this seminal Chicago story. It started out. They asked me to pick the player, but you can’t tell two filmmakers from New York like, “Here’s where the hood is, drive there, show up, start filming and you’ll be good.” I had to go and help them get acclimated and before long, I became the producer. I was setting up the shoots. I was helping with the budget. I’m doing all these things and for long, a film producer. Flash forward to 2018, the film got premiered on Fox. Later, we got nominated for a Sports Emmy.
You ended up partnering up with some heavy hitters with that movie.
We self-produced it and self-funded it for the first few years, but we knew we needed finishing funds to get it over the finishing line. We didn’t have enough money to go to the school every day, not enough for sound design, score, soundtrack and all these things. We linked up with a group called Los Angeles Media Fund founded by Jeffrey Soros and Simon Horsman. They provided financing for us to finish the film and then we linked up with two people. A person that I knew from Chicago, Chance the Rapper, became the executive producer and then Dwayne Wade, another Chicagoan, became another executive producer to lend some credibility and exposure to the film. Between Los Angeles Media Fund and those guys, we got the financing and the credibility and then Fox came and it all came together.
Three guys driving a beat-up Honda Pilot to the West Side of Chicago every day to a national TV premiere. When we were in the editing process, I got to fly to Miami and go to Dwayne Wade’s house where we watched a screening of the film at his movie theater. He gave us editing notes. His chef served us cookies and fruit. It was surreal knowing where we came from when we started that film. To take it back to my story, it was gratifying when people are calling you crazy for giving up this business to work on a passion project. Sometimes you start to internalize it. It’s like, “Did I do something stupid here?” When it all comes full circle and when you see the vision through, it’s gratifying.
I want to encourage people to watch Shot in the Dark. Where would they find it nowadays?
It airs on Fox Sports every couple of weeks so that you can find it in your local TV listings. Search for Shot in the Dark, it’s streaming on the Fox website.
Can you give a high-level synopsis, a little teaser of what is about?
We followed a high school basketball team on the West Side of Chicago for their sophomore year of high school through college. It’s the roughest area of Chicago, an underfunded school with kids who are facing all types of obstacles in the midst of the most violent years in Chicago’s recent history. You’re watching these kids try and fight for a state championship while trying to overcome gang violence so serious that certain players on the team couldn’t go to each other’s neighborhoods because the war is going on. This is beyond innocent kids who are like any other high school kids, but living in extraordinary circumstances. Ultimately, they get to two state finals during the course of our filming. You had to watch it to see what other craziness ensues but one of our star players in the film got shot in the leg during senior year playoffs, their chase of the state championship and returned to the court. You’ve got to watch the movie to see what happens when he returns.
Thus, the title of the movie, Shot in the Dark. You also have a foundation under the same name. What is that all about?
The foundation is what we run the showcases under. We weren’t 501(c)(3) qualified until a few years ago. We named the foundation after the movie.
During COVID, the showcases are not going on, we’re all living at the time that we’re having this discussion in unusual times as changing every industry. We’ve got the story of your past and what led you to where you are now. Look ahead to the future, what is it that you want to create next? Is it simply expanding, growing and scaling your current business? Is there something else that you’re thinking of?
All the things that I want to do I can do through my business. What I’ve found through my nonprofit and my film is that you can make the largest impact by leveraging the platform that professional athletes provide. They’re modern-day superheroes. It’s one thing if you’re making a film, it’s another thing if you’re making a film that Dwayne Wade produced. When I started my showcases, it got to the next level when a player named Evan Turner, who’s also from the West Side of Chicago, began sponsoring the showcase in the Evan Turner showcase. The kids were excited to come to play for the Evan Turner showcase. He was a kid from their neighborhood who went out and made $100 million and became an NBA star. That was part of my motivation for becoming an agent was I never wanted to be the super-agent who makes the most money and show me the money, I’m wearing the fancy suits, the watches and the cars. I want to change the world through basketball, create an impact and do cool things.
I want to make great movies and start creating non-profits in organizations. I know that through the platforms that professional athletes provide, we can do all of that. I also know that I love working with athletes and helping them fulfill their goals and their dreams, not only on the court and financially, but in their communities and whatever they’re passionate about. Through Beyond Athlete Management, we’re going to continue to grow into one of the top views agencies in sports, but we’re going to do it in a different way. It’s not about signing the best players. It’s about signing the right players. We are already doing that and signing great guys who care. We released a newsletter. One of our rookies, Tyrrell Terry, is going to be picked in an NBA draft coming up. He has put out his first line of Tyrell Terry merchandise, it’s clothing, we’re selling it and giving a portion of the proceeds to a nonprofit in Minnesota that works with youth homelessness. That’s a cause that Tyrrell, who’s 20 years old himself, cares about. We’re finding athletes that care about the right things and helping them use their platform for good. I want to keep doing that because I’m having a lot of fun with it.
The name of this show is Love is Just Damn Good Business. What my point of view is about the value of love in a business context, not as a sentiment but as a business practice. If you look at your life and career so far and you’re still at the beginning of it, what’s love got to do with it? Is that a lens that makes sense to you when you look back and reflect on that question? What does that make you think of?
Love is everything. I love what I do and not the concept of why I love what I do every day. I do the things that I love to do and then good comes from that. I love the people that I work with so I enjoy going to work. I love my clients and they appreciate that so they believe in me and stick with me. I love the game of basketball and it’s been good to me, so I know that I have to be good to it. I don’t hate on someone who works a 9:00 to 5:00 and does something they don’t love because I know not everyone has the option to not do that. I wish everybody did, but I don’t know what my life would be. I never had a 9:00 to 5:00.
I’ve never done something that I don’t love so I don’t know what that’s like, but I do know that I followed my heart through every step and it’s led me to do things that I’m proud of and that I enjoy. My only hope in life is that I can live a long time and continue to do what I love every day. What I love might change. It might not be basketball at some point. I might change from basketball to filmmaking for a period and then it came full circle. As long as I can wake up and do what I love every day with people who I love then I know I’ll be successful and I’ll be content.
You gave a beautiful illustration of these parts. We sometimes refer to it as the Extreme Leadership credo, which is do what you love in the service of people who love what you do. That’s what you described. You’re doing what you love. You’re serving people that you love in an industry that you love. As a result, it’s reciprocated, they love you in return. Your clients love you back. I imagine that working on your team is an exciting proposition for everybody as well.
It’s exciting and usually fun unless you’re our chief of staff when I flipped out because the headbands wouldn’t be done in time to go to market. You love what you do but there are still going to be days that you don’t love doing it. Even when you love somebody, it’s still going to be times that you can’t always lead with love, but it always comes back to that.Good comes from doing the things that you love to do. Click To Tweet
You can always lead with love, but sometimes you’re not perfect. There is such a thing as tough love. Sometimes we get pissed off and this is the way of the world. It’s a messy thing. It’s not a hearts and flowers every day. It’s about holding ourselves to high standards, having an impact on the world, and loving the process. I’m fond of saying, “Oftentimes there are things that we don’t love doing, but we have to do in order to do the work that we love.” The technical term for that is called being an adult.
That’s a great point. Not in those words, but I say it all the time. I have people all the time that complain about, “I have this job, but I don’t like doing this part or I don’t like doing that part.” It’s like, “If I could pick anything in the world to do, I would do this.” There are still some days that everything goes wrong. I don’t want to pick up the phone. I still look forward to my days off. Even when you love what you do, the days don’t feel like doing it. People don’t understand. A lot of people expect that when you do what you love, you’re going to be in bliss all the time.
If God came down and said, “Daniel, choose your life,” I would say this one, “I’m doing exactly what I want to do,” but I almost lost my cool and threw my hat at the wall twice. It’s not perfect. That’s one thing that gets lost on people that I wish more young people in particular would understand. Even as it pertains to 9:00 to 5:00, sometimes I see young people like, “You didn’t go to college. I shouldn’t go to college either or I’m going to quit my job so I can follow my passion.” It’s like, “Before you do that, you better have a good plan. You’ve got to know what you’re going to do and how you’re going to survive.” Sometimes you need that 9:00 to 5:00 to support yourself while you pursue your passion until it’s ready to become your full-time or maybe you do need college so you can learn the things and make the connections and build those relationships until you’re ready to break off. I do see it a lot when I mentor young people that they don’t get how many challenges come with even doing the things that you love.
From the outside, looking at it all looks like smooth sailing. You get in the boat and hit the choppy waters to drive the metaphor into the ground. Daniel, what a great conversation. Thank you for your wisdom and for your great story. Where can people best get in touch with you and learn more about what you’re doing? What’s the best way to reach out to you?
Thanks for reading. Until next time, do what you love in the service of people who love what you do. See you next time.
- Beyond Athlete Management
- Shot in the Dark Foundation
- @DanielPoneman – Twitter
About Daniel Poneman
The Shot in the Dark Foundation carries on the legacy of film producer, basketball scout, and community organizer Daniel Poneman’s work in the Chicago basketball community over the past decade.
The Foundation’s mission is to help showcase kids from urban communities to be seen by college scouts offering athletic scholarships. The Foundation also helps these young men and women utilize the opportunities that the scholarships have provided so that they can create better lives and futures for themselves, their families and their community members.