Howard Slusher has a Ph.D. in physical education from Ohio State. He has a law degree from USC. But the most effective teacher Slusher ever knew was a guy named Haggerty. He met Haggerty when he was a kid growing up in the dilapidated Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. What Haggerty taught little Howard was fear. “He was after me,” says Slusher, 48, “because I’d made fun of his girlfriend’s hair. So, for about a year I hid after school in the library. I figured while I was there I might as well read.”
Now it’s Howard’s turn to be feared. So poisonous is his reputation among some of America’s wealthiest sports-franchise holders that the unyielding L.A. attorney is almost better known by his pseudonym, Agent Orange. Slusher has become famous—in some circles, infamous—for having his player-clients hold out and keep holding out until they are offered the serious-money contracts they seek. His all-star stable has included the likes of San Diego Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts, who held out more than half the season in 1977 before receiving $1 million a year for six years, and basketball star Joe Barry Carroll, who left the Golden State Warriors to spend last season in Italy before being lured home with a five-year contract calling for at least $5 million, plus a $2 million signing bonus. Most Slusher clients do sign eventually, but of course there’s a first time for everything. The Chicago Bears are heading for the NFL playoffs this season without the services of defensive back Todd Bell, who wants an estimated $600,000 a year. The Bears have offered $400,000 a year for four years, and Slusher describes Bell as “maybe a martyr.”
Yes, but a martyr to whom? Ask Slusher’s critics. “Howard Slusher’s not an agent, he’s a terrorist,” snorted New York Giants General Manager George Young at a recent NFL meeting. Witnesses say he was only half kidding, and Howard’s fellow agents aren’t much more charitable. “A robber baron…irresponsible…a destroyer of good faith,” they call him. And those are his colleagues. As for the fans, Slusher sampled their opinion firsthand when he was introduced at a San Diego Clippers basketball game in 1982, not long after his Seattle Super-Sonic client Gus Williams had held out for the entire 1980-81 season. “A chorus of loud, loud boos sprang up,” Slusher recalls. “Suddenly I was in fear for my life…I guess,” he adds with a mock sigh, “it’s like being an antihero.”
Here’s Howard, tooling down the San Diego Freeway in his Mercedes 450 SL. He’s on his way to see a client, an executive at Lorimar, who wants to cut a sweeter deal with the studio. The Mercedes is a gift from former NBA guard Paul Westphal, who, with Slusher’s assistance, signed a lucrative contract with the Phoenix Suns in 1975. At home in the garage of Slusher’s 27-room house is a White Silver Shadow Rolls-Royce, a token of appreciation from Gus Williams. Only about a third of Slusher’s clients are high-profile sports figures, but they attract other heavy hitters who are eager to pay Howard’s $300 hourly fee. All of them are looking for a Terminator-tough negotiator. And Slusher, haunted by the ghost of Haggerty, is obviously the man for the job. “In Williamsburg,” he says, “I was a gang member. A street fighter. And what you learned on the streets was that if you’re a wimp, someone whips you across the head with a bicycle chain.”
If there were a TV show called That’s Paradoxical, Slusher would be a plausible guest. Consider the following: Though obsessed with bicycle chains and the like, Slusher is the author of Man, Sport and Existence: A Critical Analysis. He is one of the few self-styled street fighters who can discuss Kierkegaard without embarrassing himself. And though he is portrayed as overreaching and avaricious, he could probably get richer quicker. Most agents charge a flat 10 percent for their services. Slusher’s hourly rate nets him much less. Explains Howard: “I’m an idealist.” In fact, he says, he first got into the business of representing athletes purely as a favor. In 1968, when Slusher was an associate professor of sports psychology at USC, one of his students was drafted by the New Orleans Saints. “He trusted me and my ability to be honest,” says Howard.
Interestingly, Slusher is embraced by many of his adversaries—and not in the way the mongoose embraces the cobra. Take Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, who once called Howard “the number one thorn” in pro football’s side. Modell vowed never to draft one of Slusher’s clients, simply to avoid the anguish of dealing with him. “Personally,” says Modell, “I like Howard.” Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen—who once regaled party guests with “Flush the Slush” lapel pins—agrees. “Howard’s tough but fair,” says Bowlen. “He’s the best in the business. He’s also a hell of a sweet guy.”
Sweet? That’s not how his fellow agents see it. They love to trash Howard behind his back. One, in fact, offers an explanation for Howard’s aggressiveness: “Being short and fat [5’7″ and 240-plus] with a high squeaky voice, it’s his way of being macho. Proving his manhood.” Slusher the psychologist just laughs off the theory. “I hope for the sake of college football players,” says the good doctor, “that this guy is a better agent than he is an analyst.”
Far from glorying in his reputation for drawing blood at the bargaining table, the so-called “king of the holdout” firmly denies any claim to the title. “I don’t hold players out,” Slusher says. “The clubs do, and I’m not being cute.” But he is being cute. He may not have invented the holdout, but he certainly turned it into an art form. “He’s always looking to exert the most possible leverage,” says Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In particular, says Rooney, Slusher is a master of managing news to turn up the pressure. “A lot of agents leak everything that goes on in negotiations,” he explains. “Howard picks his spots and waits for the most opportune moment.” And that’s not all. “What makes a Slusher holdout so aggravating,” says Pat Bowlen, “is that he only represents the better players—the type that are very close to an owner’s heart.” The type, in other words, that wins championships.
During the emotional sturm und drang of a holdout, Slusher’s “greatest enemies,” he says, are not the team owners or general managers but “the people who care for an athlete most. His mom, his dad, his wife, his high school coach. When the heat gets turned up in the newspapers, they’re liable to say, ‘What if they never sign you?’ Worse, they might worry the athlete with questions of greed vs. his public image.” In that event Slusher acts as a counterweight. “I spend most of my time not negotiating but placating and relaxing my client,” he says. “Telling him everything is all right.”
Sometimes he devises clever stratagems to keep the heat off a player. Take the Izaak Walton Maneuver he used with Randy White, the fearsome defensive tackle of the Dallas Cowboys. “I knew he couldn’t stand up to the pressure of the negotiation,” says Slusher. “I knew Tex Schramm, the Dallas general manager, would call Randy saying, ‘Son, Howard’s an outsider. Let’s settle this Cowboy to Cowboy.’ ” To spare White the agony of friendly persuasion, Slusher sent him fishing for three months, with instructions to keep moving and stay away from the telephone. “After two months of fishing he signed,” says Howard. White’s salary jumped 300 percent to nearly $3 million over four years.
There are times, however, when Slusher’s up-against-the-wall style proves too much, even for his clients. Take the case of tackle John Dutton. With Slusher as his attorney, Dutton held out for the entire 1979 season, thereby forcing the Baltimore Colts to trade him to Dallas. In the process, he signed a new contract for about $200,000. But when the contract ended, Dutton dropped Slusher to negotiate with the Cowboys on his own. “He called me to apologize,” says Slusher. “He didn’t want to go through it again. He just didn’t want another war.”
Back in the Mercedes, Slusher wheels through the exclusive Flats section of Beverly Hills. Though he moved to L.A. 21 years ago, he still drives tentatively, like someone who’s more at home on the subway. “Look at that house!—$3 million!” When he and his wife, Nancy, were living on his salary as an academic, they used to dress up in their Sunday best and head over to Beverly Hills posing as home buyers. “We figured it was the only way we could ever get inside houses like that,” says Slusher. He and Nancy were divorced five years ago. “Maybe that’s the price you pay for working 7 a.m. to midnight,” says Slusher, with a shrug. The divorce was bitter. “Unbelievable,” he says. “A war.” The bloodiest battle, which Slusher won, was over custody of his 17-year-old son, John, a gifted high school running back with S.A.T.s high enough for the Ivy League. (His wife retained custody of daughter Jennifer, 15.)
Tonight is John’s birthday, so Slusher takes him to the Honda, his favorite sushi restaurant, in Torrance. Over the miso soup, John needles the old man. “I kill him on allowance,” he brags.
“Not really,” says Howard into his rice bowl.
“He always gives in to me,” says the kid.
Agent Orange blushes. “One time I took him to Williamsburg,” says Slusher, changing the subject. “Howard Cosell lent us a big white limo.” John didn’t much care for the journey down memory lane, but the trip had a purpose. Now, driving back to his home in luxurious Rolling Hills, Slusher explains. His son, he says, is deprived of only one thing. “He doesn’t have the anxieties I have. I worry about that. I want him to be more of a fighter.” As the car pulls up in front of Slusher’s door, the moon gently illuminates the pool and the tennis court. Off in the distance the Pacific Ocean shimmers. At the door Howard Slusher pauses, staring off into the darkness—half expecting to see Haggerty’s bicycle chain come whipping toward his head.