From Working With Jay-Z to Kevin Durant, Rich Kleiman Mastered the Music and Sports Worlds

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Rich Kleiman has come a long way from sneaking into New York City nightclubs hoping to get Lyor Cohen’s phone number. 

It’s a picturesque May day in the Big Apple, but another Brooklyn Nets media frenzy arrives at Kleiman’s desk, with reports of Kevin Durant — NBA superstar and Kleiman’s marquee client — not talking to Nets management in the months since their season ended at the hands of the Boston Celtics. 

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It’s a sign of things to come, as KD reportedly demanded a trade from Brooklyn on June 30. Trade talks haven’t amounted to much, with the Boston Celtics and Nets reportedly exchanging proposals in recent days, and Durant’s basketball future in NYC looks murky heading deeper into the summer off-season.

The 45-year-old brushes off the outside noise for our 40-minute conversation inside his swanky Chelsea office where he and KD’s Thirty Five Ventures (35V) investment empire does business. Raised on NYC’s Upper West Side, where he still resides with his wife and two daughters today, Kleiman didn’t know how he’d eventually crack the sports or music industry, but quickly identified that as his North Star to chase. 

“The two things that influenced me and gave me that excitement and energy more so than anything at a young age was hip-hop and basketball,” he explains while leaning back in his office chair. “When I would go to Knick games, there was not one part of the experience that I did not love at MSG.”

He didn’t go to Duke University law school like renowned sports agent Drew Rosenhaus, or have a relative cutting deals at Universal Music, making his path to celebrity row at Madison Square Garden nearly unreplicable. 

“I would see all these corporate guys [courtside] and thought I couldn’t do that — I’m not going to college. Then seeing Clive Davis, Marty Van Deer and Puffy, Jimmy [Iovine] and music big wigs around the time I was hustling in that world was when I wanted the music industry energy,” he says of MSG’s Golden Age, with the Knicks and Rangers making runs well into June seemingly every year during the ‘90s. 

With hoop dreams of his own six feet under, Kleiman enrolled at Boston University, but his time there in the general studies program wouldn’t last long. Dropping out after a semester, which he now chalks up to not being “disciplined enough,” Kleiman remained in Beantown for two years working as a bookie. He even spent a year in Boca Raton, Florida — but contrary to the typical relaxing life of retirees in the Sunshine State, Kleiman grinded, working odd jobs but priding himself on continuing to build his interstate Rolodex.  

It wasn’t until 1998 when Kleiman got his first taste of the music industry, at – a hip-hop community commerce website – alongside a pair of Cornell University graduate friends. As a third partner, he solicited marketing opportunities, and built relationships for the site’s board that included Robert De Niro, Heavy D, and Q-Tip. Around this time, Kleiman also landed on a relatively unknown Mark Ronson’s radar. Ronson would run into him at star-studded high school basketball games around the Big Apple, where tastemakers from the city would link up for must-see matchups. 

“[Rich] always walked around with this aura — it wasn’t like he was scary, but he had a sense of purpose,” the British DJ-turned-producer tells Billboard. “He had a level of gravitas which I was curious about. At first, you’re like, ‘Who is this guy?'”

Following the release of Ronson’s 2003 debut album Here Comes the Fuzz , Elektra Records awarded him with his own label imprint because of his eye for emerging talent. With Ronson handling the creative side, there was only one person he thought of going into business with, and that was Rich Kleiman – his manager at the time. 

Together, they launched Allido Records and signed clients like Wale, Rhymefest, Entourage’s Saigon and Daniel Merriweather. Ronson credits Rich’s “immaculate music taste,” as they bonded over their love for ’90s hip-hop stalwarts Brand Nubian and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. 

They also opened a studio in NYC’s trendy SoHo neighborhood, where plenty of music magic was made, with artists from Amy Winehouse to J. Cole coming through to record. Kleiman even notched an executive producer credit on Cole’s 2011 debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story, a credit he says he’s unworthy of.

“I did not A&R it,” he says. “I was in the studio with him as a facilitator, but you can’t A&R J. Cole.”

To this day, Ronson still pokes fun at Kleiman for writing Amy Winehouse as “Amy Wineman” into their studio calendar. The British DJ is also quick to credit Kleiman with hooking him up with his first major producer credit when Rich connected him with Christina Aguilera and Ronson landed four placements on her 2006 Back to Basics album. 

Ronson continues to recall fond memories of his friendship with Kleiman, which took them to the Tuscany Hills of Italy’s countryside, where he DJ’d Tom Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes in 2006, and another time where the Grammy-winning producer tanked a meeting they had with Jay-Z at Baseline Studios because he was left star-struck. 

The two remain best friends, and Mark Ronson is actually the godfather to one of Kleiman’s daughters. He’s not surprised at the massive level of success Rich has had in building his business either, as the tea leaves were apparent during their time working side-by-side at Allido. 

“It’s his intelligence and creativity more than anything,” Ronson adds. “Even when we didn’t have a lot of money, I knew we’d be able to figure it out with him being inventive. He loves the art of the deal, and he sees things in a different way.”

Kleiman first infiltrated the Jay-Z matrix after developing a friendship with the legendary artist’s former consigliere, John Meneilly. Prior to joining Roc Nation in 2008, Rich went on to serve as a producer on Hov’s Fade To Black documentary in 2004, while still working as a music supervisor at Radical Media. 

Building up quite the entertainment network, Kleiman quickly delivered on his promise to introduce Wale and Jay-Z, which actually cemented Folarin’s trust in the Allido Records boss. “That was a big deal to me,” Wale tells Billboard of Kleiman facilitating a meeting between him and the Brooklyn mogul. “Rich is why I dropped out of school, but he’s also why I’m where I am today.”

Wale immediately connected with Rich, as he says they could seemingly debate sports, sneakers, and music all day. That relationship continued when Kleiman left for Roc Nation in 2008, where he managed a roster that included Wale, his Maybach Music Group partner Meek Mill, Solange, and more. 

Rich Kleiman
Rich Kleiman

Wale returned the favor when he introduced Kleiman to his fellow DMV native Kevin Durant at a Jay-Z concert at Madison Square Garden. KD was just a 19-year-old coming off winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2008 as a member of the then-Seattle Supersonics. At the time, Kleiman had no idea that his friendship with Durant would blossom into a life-changing experience on multiple fronts. 

“Before I met Rich, I had a lot of ideas about how I wanted to build my business and my foundation, but I didn’t have anyone around me really thinking in a long-term way,” Durant previously told the New York Post earlier this year. “Rich understood my goals from the start.”

Even though some of Rich’s music dreams were fulfilled, he still kept one eye on the sports industry, with clear aspirations of one day shaking the field. Kleiman jumped at the opportunity to play an integral role in the launch of Roc Nation Sports in 2013, where he served as vice president. 

“All my knowledge of music and culture really benefitted me,” Kleiman adds. “Athletes could take control of their enterprise and do what they wanted to do. That disruption is the very fabric of what [JAY-Z] built.”

Kleiman and Durant’s friendship continued to grow over the next four years until Rich came on board officially as KD’s agent/manager in 2012. The NBA superstar added legitimacy to the Roc Nation Sports roster when he inked a deal with the JAY-Z-led company the following summer. 

Throughout his career, Kleiman has made sure to align himself with greatness. And attaching himself at the hip with one of the deadliest scorers to ever pick up a basketball is no different. 

From the moment I met Rich, it was clear to me that he really understood the basketball world, really understood the business world, and also was just a very real and genuine person,” the 33-year-old baller explained to Forbes last year of his bond with Kleiman.

2016 proved to be a pivotal year on many fronts for both Rich and the future Hall-of-Famer, who launched their Thirty Five Ventures investment company, while Durant took his talents to the Bay Area’s Golden State Warriors, in one of the most polarizing free agency decisions of all-time. 

In the time since its inception, 35V has diversified its portfolio by investing in over 75 companies — including Coinbase, Postmates, Robinhood, and SeatGeek. They also have an ownership stake in Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union and the NWSL’s Gotham FC.

“It was a big change,” Kleiman admits. “It was overwhelming at times, but we just became sponges and asked questions and were curious and met with people to put the work in. This is my passion, and Kevin gave me a platform to take all my experiences and network to build something that we both were really proud of.”

Boardroom, an emerging sports media company, serves as the storytelling branch of their operation. The digital website embodies a lot of what KD and Kleiman are passionate about, while meeting at the intersection of pop culture, sports, business, entertainment, and music. Both of the co-founders host their own podcast on the sister platform, which combined with 35V boasts 31 total employees.

“We’re gonna continue to tell great stories in different mediums,” he adds. “The idea is to give people the access, information and accessibility and the entertainment of what this whole world has become. Enterprise has become mainstream conversation, and how hip-hop and sports are rooted in it is incredible.”

Next on the agenda for Boardroom is their anticipated NYC POINT GODS documentary, which arrives on July 29. The Showtime doc will tell the story of several legendary floor generals hailing from the Big Apple, who Kleiman refers to as “cultural superheroes.” 

“The thing is — it’s so hard to fathom now — but so much of the show, the swag, the culture around the NBA, and its style came from these guys,” he proclaims.

NYC basketball deities such as Rafer Alston, Kenny Anderson, Mark Jackson, Stephon Marbury, God Shammgod, Kenny Smith, Rod Strickland and Dwayne “Pearl” Washington are all spotlighted throughout POINT GODS, along with cameos from Chuck D, Fat Joe, and Cam’ron. “This really came from my love and obsession with that era,” Kleiman gushes. “Some of the first people that came from the marriage of hip-hop and basketball, and had more pizazz and bravado than anyone.”

“Enterprise” is a word that Kleiman repeatedly throws around throughout our conversation. With he and Durant looking to grow their business off the floor in rapid fashion following in the footsteps of trailblazer LeBron James — who become basketball’s first billionaire earlier this year, per Forbes — Kleiman believes that the NBA needs to embrace players and their brands more while testing the limits of the player empowerment era. 

“I think the NBA is going to have to embrace it a bit more,” he says, while acknowledging it’s a tricky situation. “You’re talking about a select group of men and women who could be perceived as partnering with owners and leagues — and I think that’s a testament to the businesses they’ve built, and I think that’s sometimes the best thing for everyone, rather than an unfair advantage — but it’s a slippery slope.”

While Kevin Durant’s future with the Nets remains in flux following a turbulent three seasons in the Big Apple, Kleiman assures that the two-time NBA Finals MVP’s reported trade request doesn’t change what’s ahead for Boardroom and 35V. “I’ll always operate out of NYC,” he adds. “I’m from here.”

Durant, who Kleiman maintains is criminally underappreciated by the NBA masses, has major plans off the court to continue invading the e-sports industry through his investment in New York’s premier e-sports organization Andbox, which boasts one of the largest communities in the gaming community.

For its latest investment endeavor, according to Bloomberg, 35V is financially backing the Premier Lacrosse League, which is seeking an expansion tournament following a TV deal with ESPN earlier this year. Expect KD and Kleiman’s company to throw their support behind even more underserved sports teams and leagues where they see fit.

Durant and Nike have enjoyed a fruitful partnership, crafting one of the premier basketball sneaker lines of the 21st century. After revealing the KD15 model in June, Kleiman hints at releasing previous fan-favorite models in the future. He confirmed that the iconic KD IV model will be making a return at some point as well.

Even with all of the success he’s enjoyed, Kleiman remains as hungry as ever, with the goal to continue to build out the infrastructure of both 35V and Boardroom into industry-defining staples. However, he does name one childhood goal he’d like to bring to life in the coming years – to become part of an NBA organization. 

“I want to definitely be part of an NBA organization at one point in my life,” he asserts. “Whether that’s in ownership or being the president of a team or doing it with KD after he retires. What [New York Knicks President] Leon Rose and [Golden State Warriors General Manager] Bob Myers have done, those are incredible jobs. Would I want to run a prestigious organization? Why not?”

Kevin Durant was not made available to comment on this story.

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