How Jim Tanner ’90 came to represent NBA stars
Tandem Sports + Entertainment founder and president Jim Tanner ’90 interviewed for the Morehead-Cain before the advent of email.
“It was all by letter,” he says. “In high school we could leave for our lunch break because we were seniors. I remember driving home to check the mailbox every day during lunch.”
One day, there was a letter. The letter he’d been waiting for. It was a thin envelope.
“I was sad, thinking if I had been chosen it would be a thick package,” Jim recalls.
“I will never forget the absolute joy and excitement of finding out that I had been accepted as a Morehead-Cain Scholar.”
Outdoor Leadership Summer—In His Own Words
“To this day, I still draw strength and perspective from my many Morehead experiences,” Jim says. “For example, I remember participating in Voyageur Outward Bound, which is a canoe expedition in Minnesota and Canada. We were told to always pack our raingear on top of our backpacks in case it rained. Of course, mine was packed at the bottom on one particular day since we hadn’t had any rain the entire time I was there. So we’re in the middle of this huge lake, and it suddenly starts to pour and I can’t get to any of my rain gear. I was getting drenched and I was freezing, jealous of everyone who had on their gear. I remember in this miserable moment taking a step back and mentally separating myself from my misery, and pushing forward. To this day, when I have an especially miserable experience, I think back to this moment and try to mentally block out whatever is bothering me, and move forward.”
Jim’s third Morehead-Cain summer, which he spent working for Procter & Gamble in Washington, D.C., was perhaps the most influential. After law school in Chicago, when Jim was deciding where to take the bar exam, he opted for D.C. in large part because of his positive summer experience there. He still lives in the area today.
“I’m one of the few people in the world who doesn’t like Chicago as a city,” he laughs. “Couldn’t get used to the weather.”
There were other reasons he chose D.C., of course. He was attracted to the District’s law firms. And he’s always been interested in politics.
In fact, he worked as a senior advisor on the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.
“It was a great experience. I really enjoyed it, and I’m so happy I did it,” Jim reflects. “But it solidified the fact that I didn’t want to devote my life to politics.”
He returned to his prior job in corporate finance law. But that didn’t feel right, either.
Then he got a call from a recruiter. Not to do the same work for a different firm, which is the typical goal of a recruiter. Instead, the offer was to be trained in sports management at a firm called Williams & Connolly.
Jim had friends from Carolina who’d pursued careers in athletics. He’d loved basketball as long as he’d been a Tar Heel.
He decided to take the leap.
Soon he was representing celebrity clients including Grant Hill and Tim Duncan. By 2002, he’d made partner at the firm.
Signing a Tar Heel—In His Own Words
“Signing Marvin Williams in 2005 changed my career,” Jim says. “Before 2005, we hadn’t signed any clients from UNC. I remember getting the opportunity to have lunch with Dean Smith and emphasizing my personal UNC ties and why I wanted to represent Tar Heels. It was my first time meeting him, and I’ll never forget how kind and gracious he was. Dean wasn’t coaching at this point, but was still involved with the program and gave me his blessing, which led to Coach Williams welcoming me into the UNC agent selection process. I met with Marvin, his family, and Coach Williams. If you’ve ever met Marvin or heard him speak, he’s the nicest, most engaging person. But in this meeting, Marvin and his parents were completely stone-faced. No one smiled and no one laughed at my jokes. I thought there was no way I was going to sign him. So when he called me later that week to let me know that he had picked me to be his agent, I was totally shocked. Marvin was the first client I signed on my own, and my first Carolina client. In many respects, I owe my career to him and his family for trusting me.”
In 2006, Washingtonian Magazine named Jim a top 40 lawyer under 40. Jim opened his own agency, Tandem Sports + Entertainment, in 2013.
“I wanted to hire the people I wanted to hire, grow the way I wanted to grow,” he says.
Through Tandem, Jim has added clients including ten-time NBA All-Star Ray Allen, nine-time WNBA All-Star Tamika Catchings, and global basketball sensation Jeremy Lin.
And Tandem has been named one of the best places to work in D.C. Jim says it’s because his company puts strong morals at the center of its work.
“Our industry is a dirty business,” he says. “The primary defining element of Tandem’s culture is ethics. We are intentional about not doing the nefarious things other agencies are willing to do to get clients.”
What is a day in the life of a sports agent? It’s dictated by the time of year, Jim says.
Before the NBA trade deadline, Jim holds conversations with general managers.
“I’m seeking a sense of which clients are in play, getting a handle on what certain teams are looking for,” he says. “Sometimes clients want to be moved. This year I don’t have that, so it’s more about monitoring and giving feedback.”
In the summer, he’s focused more on getting clients drafted as high as possible. And of course, he’s always focused on marketing, endorsements, and managing his clients’ public image. To that end, he spends a lot of time leveraging his law background in negotiating deals.
He likes to spend his free time with family—though his son is now a junior at Carolina, and his daughter will be joining him on campus in the fall. He often listens to career-oriented podcasts like WNYC’s How I Built This, The Tony Robbins Podcast, and Morehead-Cain’s podcast Catalyze. He also loves movies, especially Marvel productions like The Avengers.
“If I could go to the movie theater every day, I would,” he says.
And somehow, he still makes time to give back to the Foundation. Jim has been a member of the Morehead-Cain Scholarship Fund Board since 2013.
“I draw great pride from being a Morehead-Cain but now, more importantly, from staying involved with and doing my best to serve the Program,” Jim says. “I love hosting interns, formerly serving on the Central Selection Committee, supporting the Program financially, currently serving on the Fund board, and raising money for the fund from generous donors like Marvin Williams.
“It is very satisfying to me to stay connected to the Morehead-Cain and the University. I would encourage others to do all they can do be connected. There’s so much inspiration that comes from that.”
In honor of Black History Month, we’re publishing a series featuring four of our many remarkable black alumni. This is the first profile in the series.