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Tuesday, March 28
Looking for that special agent

By Michelle Smith
Special to ESPN.com

The barely-a-year-old WNBA Players Association has spent much of the offseason setting up shop, the hard work of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement behind them.

But beyond establishing who gets what office and how to implement pension and dental plans, the WNBAPA performed another very important function just a few weeks ago -- the process of certifying agents.

Any agent who wants to represent a WNBA player must now be certified by the players association.

The WNBPA held an agents' seminar a couple of weeks ago, a mandatory gathering for any agents wanting to represent WNBA players. It covered the basics of the collective bargaining agreement, the league's salary structure and the fundamentals of player representation. The WNBAPA has also established a list of regulations agents must follow.

"We think this is an important step," said WNBAPA director Pam Wheeler. "It's important that our players have good representation."

It has been a rocky road for some players and their agents, mostly a by-product of inexperience on both sides. Players, mostly those coming out of college, have never dealt with agents before and some have been taken advantage of. There are stories of players being charged exorbitant commissions or following the misguided advice of agents who didn't know what they were doing or assumed the player they were representing wouldn't know the difference.

The maximum percentage an agent can take is five percent, which Wheeler admits is a bit above the going rate for the NBA Players. The fact is that five percent of a WNBA salary isn't a lot of money, but two or three percent of a few million is a different matter.

"The players wanted it. They wanted their agents to be compensated," Wheeler said. Agents are also being charged a $500 fee for certification, a fee that many players will likely have to pay.

Wheeler acknowledged that some player agents are new to the business, looking at the women as an avenue to break in. The lack of money to be made has kept many of the biggest-name agents -- who also happen to be the most experienced -- out of the fray.

Jennifer Azzi, who played with the Detroit Shock last season, is a veteran professional, having played overseas for years before she joined the U.S. National team and then the American Basketball League before signing last season with the WNBA. Even she wasn't immune.

Azzi's former agent, Ron Allen, was sentenced to 21 months in prison this week for fraud charges that included cashing a $36,000 check with Azzi's name on it.

"He had a lot of people suckered," Azzi said. "I guess it was one big lie after another."

Azzi thought Allen always seems thoughtful and organized. He helped to get her a national advertising spot with Pert Shampoo and represented her in negotiations with the ABL.

"He was always saying 'Whatever you need,' and he even talked to my dad," Azzi said. "He was just like the guy next door. He even knew a friend of mine in high school, so I thought it was all alright."

But clearly it wasn't. The experience has made Azzi very cautious.

"I have a new manager now. She also represents Gabrielle Reece. It took me forever to sign with her," Azzi said. "I must have read the contract 90 times. She's so good, but I was still really slow to do anything. That's what the experience did, it made me really skeptical of people and their intentions."

Azzi is supportive of the idea of certification, but she can't help but remain somewhat reserved.

"I don't know if it would have stopped somebody like him," Azzi said. "He had everything covered all the time."

Azzi said she is not angry at Allen, that she actually feels sorry for him.

"Some of these things are really conflicting for me," Azzi said. "I just think there had to be some truth in there somewhere."

Around the WNBA
Houston Comets point guard Jennifer Rizzotti is apparently still planning to return to the league, but her full-time offseason gig has gotten a whole lot more permanent.

Rizzotti recently signed a four-year contract extension to remain the head coach at the University of Hartford. Rizzotti, the former Connecticut star, is the youngest head coach in Division I. She has led the Hawks, a team picked to finish last in the America East Conference to a 14-13 record, 9-9 in conference play.

Attendance has nearly tripled at Hartford this season for a program which has had just two winning seasons in the past 20 years.

"I only think it's going to get better," said Hartford freshman point guard Angie Pezzetta to the New York Daily News. Hopefully, the same can be said for Rizzotti's WNBA career, where with the trade of Sonja Henning to Seattle, Rizzotti might be able to get some more playing time for Houston.

Michelle Smith of the San Francisco Examiner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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