Jason Gardner was sitting at his desk last year when he was handed a printout of a Bloomberg article.
Gardner, the CEO of burgeoning fintech startup Marqeta, read the note scrawled across the front: It contained the phone number and email address of Rudy Cline-Thomas, who was known for connecting athletes like Andre Iguodala and Steph Curry with Silicon Valley startups looking for investors.
The old-school, snail-mail approach intrigued Gardner. He decided to reach out.
One year later, Marqeta is a $4.3 billion startup backed by the likes of Iguodala and former Major League Baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez, and it’s reportedly headed for an initial public offering.
“[Cline-Thomas] is my connection to that world, the world of athletes that want to invest,” Gardner told Insider. “They trust Rudy’s forethought. He is the trusted confidant, the trusted connection to Silicon Valley.”
Marqeta is now one of dozens of Silicon Valley startups backed by athlete investors, particularly those who play for the National Basketball Association. And that number is steadily ticking up: In the last two months alone, a broad range of startups have received investments from NBA all-stars like Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant, Nets shooting guard James Harden, and Washington Wizards point guard Russell Westbrook.
These investments reflect the thriving business culture that has been cultivated in the league by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and LeBron James, as well the hard work behind the scenes by people like Cline-Thomas and Rich Kleiman, Durant’s manager as well as the cofounder of their investment firm, Thirty Five Ventures, and their multimedia platform, Boardroom.
“[Athletes] make more money than they’ll be able to spend, most of them,” Cline-Thomas told Insider. “There’s a responsibility for them to be educated in what’s going on around them. They obviously have a keen interest in this and learning something new, but it’s the education to the broader public — I think that there’s just so much we can do in having that microphone.”
Putting in the work
For Cline-Thomas and Iguodala, who currently plays for the Miami Heat, it was their move to Silicon Valley in 2013 when Iguodala was traded to the Golden State Warriors that jumpstarted their investing career.
Soon after, the pair invested in Walker & Company, a company that makes personal care products with people of color in mind. Cline-Thomas said that deal eased them into startup investing because they could both understand the need for those types of products in the market, and it turned out to be a smart move: In 2018, Proctor & Gamble acquired the company for an unknown sum, reported to be between $20 million and $40 million.
Cline-Thomas said their investment philosophy has shifted in the years since, and he cited Zoom as an example: They decided to invest over two years ago because they trust CEO Eric Yuan’s vision and were emboldened by the fact that he had worked at the networking giant Cisco before building Zoom.
For Kleiman and Durant, being closer to America’s tech capital also propelled their investment career. Their first investment came in 2016 when they poured money into food-delivery app Postmates, another startup that has since had an exit — it was acquired by Uber last year for $2.65 billion.
When Durant joined the Warriors shortly after, Kleiman said the region’s tech elite welcomed them with open arms: Andreessen Horowitz founder Ben Horowitz hosted a birthday dinner for Durant at his house soon after the athlete arrived in the Bay Area. Kleiman said luminaries like famed investor Ron Conway and YouTube’s Chief Product Officer, Neil Mohan, were in attendance.
“In that room, I just started creating relationships,” Kleiman told Insider. “And I said to these people, ‘Listen, I don’t know anything about this. Like, I don’t even know what that term is that you just said, but I do know that I’m a sponge for information, and so is Kevin, and we want to just learn.'”
Kleiman said that was their whole business plan at first, to simply learn what Silicon Valley was all about and the best ways to get involved. He didn’t want Durant just to be a celebrity investor, but rather a strategic partner who really knows his stuff.
“The idea that there’s not an education to it and that the work that has to go into it, at least to be good at it, is skipped because KD’s KD,” Kleiman said. “KD will be the first person to tell you, he put the work in too. He went to so many dinners with me in the Bay. We went to conferences that he looked at me with the dirtiest look until we went on stage, like, ‘Why am I here on my g—— off day,’ but you can’t skip the process.”
Durant and Kleiman’s Thirty Five Ventures has since invested in fitness-tracking company Whoop and fintech firm Brigit, and recently backed trading card company Goldin Auctions and Therabody, the company behind the popular Theragun personal massager.
A thrill ride
While Iguodala and Durant may have become some of the best-known athlete tech investors, and James may have built a multifaceted empire, they’re among countless investors whose day job is NBA player:
- Russell Westbrook recently led a $63 million investment in Varo Bank, a digital bank that aims to alleviate income inequality, and invested in alkaline water company Flow
- James Harden backed home fragrance company Pura and invested in Therabody
- Steph Curry, who plays for the Warriors, recently backed fitness startup Tonal and book subscription service Literati, and reportedly invested in Pinterest
- Kevin Love, a forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, backed therapy app Coa and previously invested in smart blender company Vejo
- Draymond Green, who plays for the Warriors, invested in Smile Direct Club, Rumble Boxing, and James’ Uninterrupted media brand
- Harrison Barnes, a forward for the Sacramento Kings, has backed Beyond Meat and sneaker marketplace Goat
- Carmelo Anthony, who plays for the Portland Trail Blazers, invested in Lyft and Casper, among others
Pau Gasol, who won two championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and currently plays for Barcelona’s basketball team, is another Therabody backer, as well as an investor in BetterUp, a professional coaching platform. He told Insider by email that he’s interested in investing in later-stage startups that share his values, and that he was inspired by Lakers owner Magic Johnson’s business acumen, as well as Kobe Bryant’s.
“More recently, my beloved friend Kobe Bryant was an inspiration to me, and I could see how he was able to channel some of his passion from the basketball court into partnering with certain companies,” Gasol said. “He had some major successes — like Body Armor — because he always aimed to understand the product and what made it unique, understand the strategy of the company, and figure out what he could do to help the company achieve its goals.”
Gasol said he thinks athletes are attracted to the “thrill ride” of investing — the competition to get in on a deal, the possibility that a startup could become a unicorn, and the “promised land” of an exit.
But retirement is a factor, too.
“They want to find something that excites them and where they can apply the skills they have learned along the way,” Gasol said. “Investing in startups, as long as you know what you are doing and you have the right advisors to help you make the right decisions, can be one of those areas.”
‘We want to create our own table’
But the investment culture that NBA players have cultivated goes deeper than just returns, says Kyle Lowry, who plays for the Toronto Raptors.
Lowry has been in the league for 14 years and said he began realizing as he got older that he had the time to educate himself on what was going on in the tech industry. Lowry said he’s most interested right now in putting money into healthcare, cryptocurrencies, and renewable energy, and he invested in healthcare firm Spring Health’s Series B last November.
He told Insider that investing for him is about building generational wealth and breaking down systemic barriers for people of color.
“Getting the African-American, the Black person into those types of positions, it changes the outlook of the culture, right?” Lowry said. “It changes the thought processes of who these people are.”
Lowry cited Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and LeBron James as athletes who were ahead of the curve, as well as Junior Bridgeman, who created a fast-food empire after retiring from the NBA and recently bought Ebony magazine for $14 million. That’s the culture that athletes are trying to grow, Lowry said.
“We don’t want to just be sitting at the table with everybody else — we want to create our own table and bring people that we want to be in there, to have people of our color at the table with us,” he said.
Cline-Thomas, Iguodala’s business partner, said that’s what drives him to help athletes invest in startups, beyond the financial gain. While corporate America has come to recognize the importance of diversity inside their companies — spending money on racial equality initiatives, diversifying their leadership, and coming out in support of movements like Black Lives Matter — it hasn’t done enough to open doors for the Black community.
But giving more people of color the opportunity to invest in high-growth startups will, Cline-Thomas said.
“We hear about all the companies that are going public and all the different people that are investing in them, and unfortunately, not too many — hardly any, if any — African-Americans are on the cap table,” he said. “They’re creating billions of dollars of value, but it’s going into the same pockets.”
Now, after making dozens of investments over the past six years or so, Cline-Thomas said things are slowly starting to change.
“There is a gap that was created; I think the athletes are helping tighten the gap,” he said. “And that’s the seat that I’m sitting in right now — we opened the door, but how to keep the door open for the broader culture.”