Veronica Burton is a leader of the women’s basketball team’s vaunted “blizzard” defense. The two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year averaged better than four steals per game this season, tops in the nation. It’s something special for Burton to play the sport she loves for the University that has been home to her family for generations.
Editor’s Note: We interviewed Alex Saratsis for this story before the coronavirus outbreak. Saratsis recently updated us on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the impact of the crisis on the NBA and Saratis’ clients.
After a 4:30 a.m. workout hitting mitts with his trainer, Alex Saratsis ’02 is completely soaked in sweat. An amateur fighter with almost nine years of experience in muay thai, he finds that the intensity and focus of kickboxing prepare him for the day ahead. “I feel like I have to get into it,” Saratsis says.
His thoughts turn to the day’s itinerary. He’ll return home by 5:45. His kids wake at 6. After his wife, Amanda Muhs Saratsis ’02, an assistant professor of neurological surgery and biochemistry and molecular genetics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, departs for another day of pediatric neurosurgery at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Saratsis feeds Beckett, 6, and Eva, 3, and sends them off to school.
Finally, another day as perhaps the world’s premier international sports player agent, directing Octagon Worldwide’s global basketball operations, begins in earnest. With a pugilist’s intensity, Saratsis is ready to fight for each of his clients.
This summer Saratsis’ top client, Milwaukee Bucks superstar and reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, faces a potential contract extension that could make him the highest-paid player in league history. Should Saratsis and Antetokounmpo decline the deal, they would signal that such a revelatory talent would be open to departing Milwaukee and reaching free agency in 2021, possibly shifting the balance of the NBA for the next decade before these new roaring ’20s truly begin.
July’s NBA offseason will improbably orbit two Greek nationals, both born in Athens — the connection that sparked Saratsis’ fortuitous representation. “Honestly, to a certain degree, it was just right place, right time, right nationality,” he says. That modesty downplays an intercontinental upbringing and a foundational Northwestern education that readied him to represent one of the greatest international athletes to ever grace the NBA.
Saratsis’ skills have helped turn Octagon into an international basketball leader. “The company began focusing on international players in the decade before I was hired in 2009,” says Saratsis. “Once I joined the agency, however, there was almost a mandate from the NBA to continue to grow and expand its international business.”
“It really does take a village to represent a top athlete well,” says Phil de Picciotto, founder and president of Octagon Worldwide. “That village, especially in basketball, has become a global village. The fact that Alex is comfortable in multiple cultures, thinks of himself as a citizen of the world and can relate to people through his own background by extrapolating the similarities is, I think, very rare in this industry.”
When he’s not stateside, working out of Octagon’s Chicago office, Saratsis is scouring the world for the next great international prospect.
“When I go out and look at different clients that we’d like to add to our practice, I don’t always look at who’s the most talented or who’s the most marketable. I try to find guys whose priority is basketball, guys who want to be better,” Saratsis says. “I really like guys who have something to prove and who are humble and hungry and work hard.”
What makes the Greek phenom Antetokounmpo so exceptional — aside from his talent, measurements (6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and 12-inch hands) and skill level, says Saratsis, is that “he is one of the hungriest and most driven people I have ever met in my life.
“He came from an environment where, if he didn’t sell goods on the street, he couldn’t feed his family. Giannis told me several years ago the reason why he’s so determined is because he remembers what it was like to be on the streets in Sepolia [a neighborhood in Athens], selling things to survive. He can have as many endorsements as he wants, he can have a tremendous amount of off-court interests and partnerships — but his main focus is to be the best basketball player he can be.”
Generations of the Saratsis family called Greece home until Costas Saratsis’ managerial role in a pharmaceutical conglomerate changed and the company shipped him, his wife, Sandy, and their three kids, including a 7-year-old Alex, to the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City in 1987.
While Costas supervised his company’s burgeoning new office, Alex quickly grasped the intricacies of Spanish in addition to speaking English and his native tongue. “I was lucky,” he says. “I spoke three languages by the time I was 8.”
Crime rose in Mexico amid the political unrest of the mid-1990s. Saratsis’ home was robbed on three occasions, once while the family slept. The Saratsis children were warned against leaving the house by themselves. Two of Alex’s closest friends, a pair of brothers, were kidnapped but fortunately returned in time for school on Monday. That was Costas’ last straw. When the call came to relocate his family once more, he quickly relayed his options to his children: Czech Republic or Japan? His three teenagers unanimously chose Tokyo.
At school in Japan, Saratsis encountered classmates from across the globe. His friends were sons of diplomats from Nigeria, Italy and France. When visiting their houses, he ate and helped cook authentic udon or chin chin.
“Japan is such a magical place,” he says. “And living internationally you learn so much about people and different environments.”
Saratsis developed a natural malleability, his worldly upbringing presenting nothing but new situations with foreign figures. He always assumed he’d someday return to Greece and thus chose to attend college in the United States. He landed in Evanston as a political science major, with dreams of becoming a Greek diplomat.
It turned out, however, that his political science and international relations classes were the ideal setup for his future as a sports agent. “My political science major taught me to understand different cultures, how to do business in different countries and that decisions made in the past can shape what happens in the future.”
While his Northwestern education prepared him well for his career, the University also led him to his life partner. During Senior Week he met Amanda Muhs, the woman who would become his wife. Because a diplomatic career in Greece first required two years of mandatory military service, Saratsis opted to remain in Chicago with Amanda after she completed a triple-major program in physiology, biological sciences and psychology in five years. He had interned at a local basketball agency throughout college, which provided a starting ground that helped him forge his career.
Through his increasing connections with the city’s hoops scene, Saratsis soon joined CSMG, a Chicago-based sports management and marketing firm.
“My first eight years in the business, I made more mistakes than I can count,” Saratsis says.
However, he scored some early success. The European market was an instinctive starting point for a multilingual agent. Within the first six months of his career in sports management, Saratsis signed a splashy Real Madrid basketball prospect from Poland — Maciej Lampe. His first client got drafted by the New York Knicks in 2003.
Some recruiting trips spanned a month in Europe, pit-stopping across eight different countries in 10 days, allowing Saratsis to expand his Rolodex as much as possible. “In the beginning I had nothing to sell,” he says. “I was trying to sell what I thought I could potentially be.”
Stateside, he followed Amanda to Washington, D.C., during her residency at Georgetown University Hospital and, through a contact, met with Octagon Basketball’s senior vice president Jeff Austin in the agency’s D.C. office. Austin had agreed to the sit-down as a courtesy interview. Saratsis arrived late to the meeting after struggling to find the building’s parking garage. Thirty minutes later he had detailed how the NBA was about to explode with overseas prospects and how Octagon could take advantage of the groundswell of young talent looking to play among America’s best.
“I remember his presence and the way he handled himself and his knowledge of European basketball and what he had done,” Austin recalls. “I got a good gut feeling that this was a guy I needed to have with me.”
Instead of paying international agents to essentially broker contracts for their clients with foreign teams, Octagon was employing European-based agents of its own. Saratsis soon partnered with Giorgos Dimitropoulos, a Greek industry veteran, to help direct Octagon’s European division.
The Dimitropoulos partnership quickly proved valuable. He knew former Greek national team assistant coach Giorgos Panou — whom they’d later employ at Octagon Basketball Europe. It was Panou who had spotted a young, gangly Giannis Antetokounmpo in a local Athens gym and referred the phenom to Octagon for representation.
With Saratsis’ assistance, Antetokounmpo became the 15th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, landing in Milwaukee.
“Alex has been there since day one,” says Antetokounmpo.
“I think I’ve become a better basketball player, and he’s become a better agent,” he adds. “One of the things that I love about Alex, he never hypes me up. You know how agents say, ‘Oh you’re the best. You’re gonna make this amount of money. You’re gonna get this amount of endorsements.’ I don’t like that. And he respects that. He never does that to me.”
Saratsis has connected deeply with players’ families and team executives alike. While attempting to recruit Brazilian prospect Bruno Caboclo to play for the Toronto Raptors, Saratsis cemented a true friendship with Raptors lead executive Masai Ujiri. They spent two full days together in São Paolo, at one point finding their way into a dinner at the Brazilian president of basketball’s palatial estate. “They’re moments you remember all your life in terms of experience and growing,” Ujiri says.
Milwaukee Bucks’ co-owner Marc Lasry has also developed a kinship with Saratsis.
“It is a big deal when I say that he’s a good guy,” says Lasry. “When he calls me up to talk about something, I take him at his word, which is very important.”
Saratsis’ transparency also greatly benefits his clients.
“If you don’t have a connection with your agent, you don’t have an agent. You just have somebody working for you,” says Miami Heat forward Bam Adebayo, a budding All-Star who frequently gets earnest feedback from Saratsis by phone.
“He’s really down to earth and honest,” Adebayo adds. “He’s not one of those yes-man types.”
Saratsis would agree.
“I’m extremely blunt with people, which isn’t always the best way to be, but I think, if you work for your client and not for yourself, honesty is paramount to being a good agent,” he says. “And in an environment now where basketball is global, you have to get outside your comfort zone to understand how people think.”
Looking to the future of basketball, Saratsis says that the NBA is doing a great job of growing its fan base internationally, recently adding streaming services in India, for example, and new development camps in Bangladesh.
“I’m continuing to see the growth of basketball globally — new sources of revenue, new ways that the game can touch the world.
“I’m excited to be a part of that.”
Jake Fischer is a former Sports Illustrated reporter.