In early July, at a rented beachside condo in San Clemente, California, Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox is bashing through John Legend’s “All of Me” on the unit’s pristine grand piano—an instrument that, until moments ago, had been hidden under a quilt.
“Quick thinks he can play…” says Chris Gaston, Fox’s agent, trainer and longtime friend. He leaves the second half of that statement open-ended.
After running through “All of Me,” Fox scans his mental library for another song he knows by heart, knocking out a few scales and chords. Ambient chatter from the TV broadcast of NBA Summer League wafts over the room as Fox decides what to perform.
He begins playing the chords of a song but keeps forgetting the left hand part. “That’s a good fit for Trey Lyles!” bursts out Fox, barely pausing on the keys but somehow homing in on a borderline-imperceptible TV conversation about the fellow former Kentucky Wildcat signing a deal with the San Antonio Spurs. At many points throughout my visit to San Clemente, Fox, Gaston or Fox’s childhood friend Reno Dupor will stop mid-sentence to watch Summer League action or to gasp at a new free-agency transaction, no matter how granular. Basketball is the language in this condo.
As the revenue generated by the NBA has grown in recent years—benefiting teams and players alike—renting an offseason condo in a prime Southern California location has become increasingly common for established players, whether you’re on a supermax deal or the veteran minimum. Over the past decade, NBA culture has moved west. Most of the league’s top players own primary residences in Los Angeles; the Drew League and the Summer League are in L.A. and Las Vegas, respectively; and LeBron James lives here now. The climate and culture are ideal for an offseason of regrouping and training after the long grind of the NBA calendar, and thanks to rising salaries, such an expense is no longer considered an indulgence.
What makes Fox and Gaston’s situation different, though, is that they didn’t choose to hole up in celeb-filled Calabasas, or in the Valley, like many of their peers. (“It’s hot as fuck in the Valley,” Fox says.) They’re in San Clemente, a sleepy beach town about 60 miles southeast of Los Angeles. He’s absolutely the only NBA star summering here, and the whole situation is representative of how Gaston’s management company, Family First Sports, does business.
As De’Aaron Fox embarks on his highest-stakes NBA season yet—one that might yield talk of a max contract extension and further speculation about whether Fox is the NBA’s next superstar—I drove down to San Clemente to hear the story of how Fox empowered his longtime friend and trainer to become his agent… and to catch a glimpse of the future of the league.
The day Chris Gaston met De’Aaron Fox, it didn’t seem like much.
Gaston had been living in his hometown, Houston, and working as a seventh-grade teacher after graduating with a communications degree from Missouri’s Park University, where he played NAIA basketball. Once he came home to Texas, a young point guard from his neighborhood, Tommy Mason-Griffin, asked Gaston to help him work on his game.
Gaston had known Mason-Griffin since Tommy was a third grader, so his ask didn’t feel like a big moment to Gaston. Mason-Griffin was just an ambitious young hooper trying to get some reps in with a local guy who had played college ball. But when Mason-Griffin blossomed into a McDonald’s All-American, all of a sudden Gaston had a success story—and a reputation.
Then the real hustle started.
“I started with Tommy, and the next thing you know, I was training every top player in Houston,” Gaston says. “Every top player came through my gym.”
The only problem was Gaston didn’t have a home gym.
“Sometimes I would pull up to a gym with a client and the door would be padlocked. So I’d sneak into a YMCA,” Gaston says. “It was a real grind.”
Gaston put together a website to showcase his work with young players, a DIY venture called Houston Preps. The site, which is no longer online, included rankings, scouting reports, pictures and camcorder clips taken and uploaded by Gaston. (This was around 2006, before the rise of social media.)
Eventually, Houston Preps became the city’s vital hoops destination, a source of information in a town where youth basketball was suddenly beginning to rival youth football. Soon enough, the community that Gaston built drew the attention of local investors who hoped Gaston would be interested in starting an AAU program with his players.
One of those investors was Clyde Drexler—the former Houston Rockets and University of Houston star and the face of Houston basketball—whose son, Adam, had followed Gaston’s site closely. The Houston Preps AAU team was founded shortly thereafter.
As Gaston built the program, he immediately attracted Division I talent. Gaston’s first team included Valentine Izundu, a center who would play at the University of Houston and San Diego State. One of Gaston’s mentors, Tony Harvey—who coached at Texas Southern University at the time—asked Gaston to quit his teaching job and become a graduate assistant on his bench. It would be a pay cut for a job with much less stability. After thinking it over, Gaston decided to take the leap. “You’re destined to be a college coach,” Gaston recalls Harvey telling him.
Then, on Gaston’s first day at Texas Southern, the athletic director called everyone together. Harvey was being fired, and everyone he’d brought in would be let go too.
“So now I’m stuck in the matrix,” Gaston recalls. “I’m like, what do I do now? Those were some rough years. But that’s what made me a man.”
Gaston had no choice but to double down on coaching and training high school players. The basketball scene had taken notice of his work with Izundu, a player who, despite standing 6-foot-10, had never played varsity basketball before pairing up with Gaston. Through that experience, Gaston became tight with Izundu’s high school coach, Emmanuel Olatunbosun, known throughout Houston as Coach O. Coach O trusted Gaston and began sending his players to Gaston’s AAU program.
One day, Coach O called and told Gaston he had an eighth grader in his high school’s pipeline that he wanted Gaston to see. Gaston thought, An eighth grader? Houston Preps had a team that included under-17 players, but the youngest athletes on those teams were 15 or 16. Coach O’s player was 13.
“There was a buzz around this kid,” Olatunbosun tells me over the phone from the Las Vegas airport. “Someone said, ‘There’s a kid down at the junior high who’s already dunking it.’” Olatunbosun knew he had to go see for himself. It didn’t take long for Coach O to know something special was going on.
“His dad was actually coaching the team, which is just not the norm. That doesn’t happen in our school district,” Olatunbosun says. “I thought, If they’re somehow letting this dad sit on the bench, this kid must be pretty damn good.”
Coach O was sold, but he still had to convince Gaston, who was feeling somewhat self-conscious about Houston Preps’ scrappy reputation in a landscape full of blue-blood Nike- and Adidas-funded AAU programs. Eventually, Gaston finally gave in. “What did I have to lose?” Gaston remembers thinking.
Gaston had a team in a tournament at The Gym in Humble, Texas, a sprawling suburban hoops complex. His new charge peeled himself out of his parents’ car, revealing his scrawny, skinny frame. This can’t be the kid, Gaston thought.
That kid’s name was De’Aaron Fox.
In Fox’s first game, Gaston put the eighth grader on the wing, thinking that would be a good way to assess his game. It didn’t work. Fox kept getting his shots blocked by the bigger, stronger, older players.
Before the team’s second game, Coach O told Gaston, “Put the kid at the point. Put the ball in his hands.”
What happened next changed Fox, Gaston and Olatunbosun’s lives.
“It was special,” Gaston says. “He was 13 years old, out there dominating juniors and seniors in high school.” This scene brings to mind the decades-old legends of Stephon Marbury and LeBron James schooling older players at Adidas ABCD Camp. “It was like something I had never seen,” Gaston adds. “I thought, This kid is probably the best player I’ve ever had the chance to work with.”
“He got to all the spots he wanted to,” Coach O says. “He was a man amongst boys out there, but he didn’t look like a man.”
Coach O remembers how the crowd reacted to Fox’s play, in particular one AAU dad in the crowd.
“I remember the guy next to me said out loud, ‘Who the hell is that?’ referring to De’Aaron. And the dad said, ‘That’s Duke! That’s North Carolina! That’s what a Kentucky kid looks like!’”
“And I thought to myself, Is it?” says Olatunbosun. “I had never coached a kid like that before.”
And that’s just the beginning.
When De’Aaron Fox declared for the NBA draft after a stellar single season at Kentucky, he signed with Happy Walters, a dual-sport agent who had handled the early careers of stars like Amar’e Stoudemire, Jimmy Butler and the NFL’s Larry Fitzgerald. Walters was one of Gaston’s connections. Gaston had become involved with Catalyst, Walters’s firm, through his work with Catalyst client Eric Moreland, a Houston Preps alum and former Oregon State center who worked his way into the NBA. In 2013, Gaston had even moved up to Corvallis, Oregon, to be near the university’s campus while helping Moreland develop into a pro prospect. After Moreland declared for the draft, Catalyst officially hired Gaston.
At first, Gaston felt nervous about approaching Fox—by that point a longtime friend—with agency business. But to the Fox family, it was a nonissue. “Why wouldn’t we do this?” asked Fox’s father, Aaron. The trust between Gaston and the Foxes ran deep. Because Gaston wasn’t registered as an agent, though, Walters became the lead agent.
After a year with Walters, it became clear to Fox and Gaston that they could manage De’Aaron’s career without outside help. After all, Gaston had formal agency experience, and he had already started studying for his agent certification, with the goal of getting registered and representing Fox himself.
Gaston thought of LeBron James and Rich Paul, the most powerful player/agent partnership in pro basketball. (Paul recently landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first basketball agent to nab the honor.) Paul wasn’t LeBron’s agent when LeBron entered the NBA. Initially, James signed with Leon Rose, a veteran CAA agent, only to bring his childhood friend and business manager, Paul, into the fold in 2012. (Incidentally, in the weeks that followed my visit to San Clemente, the NBA created a new rule preventing these kinds of arrangements. Among the players and their agents, it’s being referred to as “The Rich Paul Rule.”)
Gaston thought, What if they replicated that model earlier in a star player’s career? So Gaston decided to officially pursue his certification as an agent.
That was the easy part. Gaston and Coach O, who had decided to form their own management company, still had to convince Fox in the middle of his breakout sophomore season.
“Coach O and I went to Denver, and I was so nervous,” Gaston says. “We had a sit-down talk. I told De’Aaron, ‘I’m getting my license—what you think about doing it on our own?’ He was like, ‘Shit, what’s the problem? Let’s do it.’”
Fox’s family was fully supportive as well, which emboldened Gaston even further. “[Aaron said], ‘Hey, man, why wouldn’t we do this? As long as it helps you and it helps us, as long as it’s the right thing for De’Aaron, why wouldn’t we do it? We trust you. This just makes sense,” Gaston recalls.
At the All-Star break in Charlotte, North Carolina, Gaston decided it was time to move. While staying at the NBA’s host hotel, Gaston downloaded a PDF of the NBA’s player-agent agreement and printed it out in the hotel’s office center. “I was cradling that thing like it was a million bucks,” Gaston says. Hoping to move undetected, Gaston weaved his way through the lobby attempting to keep a low profile among a group of NBA players and their reps and agents.
Immediately, a friend—Omar Wilkes, currently Trae Young’s agent—noticed Gaston.
“What’s up, Gaston? How you doing?” Wilkes shouted out. His cover blown, Gaston quickly found Fox and got him to sign the paperwork, which Fox did without a second thought.
The next moment was awkward but climactic.
“We took a whiskey shot, and it was disgusting,” says Fox, who doesn’t drink. He took a quick sip before passing it off.
“I’m like, ‘Oh shit, that just happened,’” says Gaston.
Fox still had to submit the paperwork to the National Basketball Players Association and Walters. The next two weeks were tense—the NBPA requires a 15-day waiting period for arrangements to become official, during which time Walters would have a chance to react to the filing. Gaston couldn’t sleep till it was over.
“Shit was quiet for about… 12 hours,” says Fox.
Walters made a last-ditch effort to visit Fox in San Diego, where he was spending the remainder of the All-Star break. By then, however, Fox had moved on. Gaston encouraged him to keep a cool head about the situation.
Those 15 days were the longest of Gaston’s life. But on the fifteenth day—when the paperwork went through—Fox’s Kings faced the Knicks, a team that included Gaston’s only other Family First client at the time, Gaston’s cousin Damyean Dotson. It felt like fate was validating their partnership.
“The kids need to have a parent or guardian or mentor, somebody who reads every contract they sign,” Gaston says. “[Walters] lost out on a player because [he] didn’t want to put us on the e-mails. That’s stupid.”
The NBA and traditional sports management agencies are monitoring the rise of agents like Gaston, who pose a threat to the established power agents. Even though the NCAA has moved to curtail the pool of agents available to a given player, Gaston isn’t worried, irritated as he is by the motion, which is designed to govern the decision making of bubble prospects who want to go through the NBA draft process to “test the waters.”
“The rule is meant to discourage and suffocate ‘boutique’ guys and smaller guys and newer guys who are coming into the business,” says Gaston. “Rich Paul isn’t going to be dealing with players who ‘test the waters.’
“So [a prospective agent] is good enough to represent a guy who’s going to make $200 million, but you’re not good enough to represent a guy who makes $200,000? NBA teams don’t care about NCAA. They don’t care if a player got paid,” says Gaston.
As long as players seek to empower themselves and explore the best possible situations for themselves and the people around them, they will find creative ways to adjust. This ruling might not end up making a dent, but it sends a message: The basketball powers that be are watching organizations like Family First.
De’Aaron Fox is easy to be around. He’s gracious in sharing his shoe collection, and he downplays a recent wide-release sneaker he consulted on—the Nike “Swipa” Air Max 1—as not a big deal. He’s funny, he makes great eye contact and he’s a good sport when our photographer asks if we can migrate down to the beach, despite the Family First group’s homebody inclinations. “We’ve only been to the beach three times,” says Fox. It’s July, and they’ve been in San Clemente since early May.
For Gaston and Fox, the Rich Paul/LeBron James partnership example is less of a platonic ideal and more of a structure that ensures familial trust and keeps the decision-making circle tight. “I feel like if you’re scared you’re going to be gone based on what you might say, you can’t be around,” says Dupor.
Their setup in San Clemente is spartan. Both Dupor and Fox packed just a couple suitcases of clothes and shoes, and Fox has converted the dining-room table into an elaborate gaming setup, one that he says pales in comparison to the game room at his new house in Sacramento. A toy hoop and plastic basketball arcade game are out in the living room, owing to a recent visit from Fox’s toddler son, Kai. It seems as though Gaston owns nothing but AirPods—which are always in—a laptop and gym clothes.
They spend their mornings training at a brand-new facility owned by Stance Socks about five minutes from the condo. A chef drops off prepared meals for Fox every morning, and the others fend for themselves. During my visit, Dupor is preparing himself spaghetti, and Gaston hauled in Subway. Coach O, who now manages Fox, still has his coaching job at Cypress Lakes High School in Katy, Texas. When I talk to him in early August, he is preparing to get back to work. The point is to keep it simple and get their work done. That’s how First Family operates.
“We don’t have this great big philosophy and this great plan,” Gaston says. “Somebody asked me one time in an interview, ‘What is [De’Aaron] into?’ He’s 21 years old. He doesn’t have to have his whole life mapped out ahead of him right now. His first thing is basketball. He’s up for an extension next summer.”
I remember something Gaston told me when I first reached out. He said, “This isn’t rocket science,” a sentiment that Coach O repeats, verbatim, during our conversation. But there’s an immense amount of pressure to get it right.
“Your biggest thing is to be doing a good job,” Coach O says, “so we don’t look like guys who are just his homeboys or his friends, that he’s just hooking us up.” The feedback loop has to stay tight, and the trust between the management group and Fox—as well as Fox’s family—has to be ironclad.
If there’s anything Gaston and Fox take away from the pioneering LeBron James/Rich Paul partnership, it’s that increased visibility in the sport can lead to increasingly incredible opportunities. LeBron used his basketball prowess and work ethic as a platform to build a business and philanthropic legacy that extends far beyond the NBA, including a public school, Space Jam 2 and a diverse investment portfolio that includes a share of Liverpool FC.
As LeBron’s star ascended, he and Paul created a level of ubiquity where consumers and sports fans wondered what else LeBron was into. As the NBA becomes an increasingly personality-driven league, its players will be able to explore more opportunities outside of pro basketball.
“With players now, you kind of start seeing them trying to reach out to a different group,” Fox says. “Everybody knows you in your sport. You’re a basketball player. But what else do you do? What else do you like? LeBron noticed that.”
Right now, the focus is basketball and building on last year’s success in pursuit of a long-term deal. (Fox finished in third place in the NBA’s “Most Improved” player voting, a remarkable result for a second-year player already coming off a promising rookie season.) But he’s starting to get a feel for his other interests, and he knows he’ll be supported by his family and Gaston.
“For Chris to be my agent… he’s known me forever,” Fox says. “As far as marketing and stuff, he doesn’t bring me anything that I feel like I wouldn’t want to do. There’s no wasted time.”
Fox has his own YouTube channel where he hosts a talk show called Foxin’ Around and streams games like Call of Duty. More NBA players are entering the YouTube arena with their own channels, but Fox got into the space early, and he has a feel for streaming and broadcasting. Twitch is a big whitespace right now, and Fox knows he could invest time into building a more active channel there. Thanks to his Dragon Ball FighterZ obsession, people who watch his streams reach out to him without realizing he’s an NBA player.
“It’s an audience I’ve never reached before,” Fox says. “I definitely see myself getting a lot more into gaming in the near future.”
Even as a younger player making his name in one of the world’s most exclusive sports leagues, Fox senses a generational change in terms of how players market themselves. Gen-Z players see things differently from some of their older colleagues, which has caused tension within the game and among its many fan bases.
“You have guys who come into the league and one of their main selling points with a team or a brand is that they know how to use social media,” Fox says. “They know how to get their image out there.”
Fox’s presence in San Clemente is emblematic of his approach to opportunity in the sport and outside it. San Clemente is laid-back and near San Diego, which Fox prefers to Los Angeles. With all the movement in the NBA this offseason toward larger markets—Los Angeles and NYC/Brooklyn, in particular—Fox’s feelings on being in a big market are dampened by knowing he can find an audience anywhere.
“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”
As we walk down the boardwalk, a group of teens approach Fox en masse for a selfie. He obliges, smiling, even though he’s long overdue for a nap. For most of the afternoon, though, he is unbothered by pedestrians; a cover band down the pier is drawing most of the attention. Gaston is on the phone—Russell Westbrook has just been traded to Houston, so he wants to find out who’s going where, what roster spots might still be open. Fox is on the brink of NBA superstardom and he’s surrounded by people he trusts.
“I just want the business to grow,” Fox says. “That’s why we started it.”