From Basketball Courts to Sand Courts, Sports Powerhouse Leonard Armato Knows Potential When He Sees It
The star maker.
- Written byQuinn Roberts
- Photographed byJeff Berting
NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal has more nicknames than even he can likely count. The favorite one of his former agent and South Bay native Leonard Armato is easy: The Big Aristotle.
ABOVE: Leonard with one of his clients Shaquille O’Neal. (Photographed by Andrew Bernstein)
When Shaq won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2000 while playing for the Lakers, he asked Leonard what to say to the media about winning the award. Leonard told him about his favorite quote from the philosopher Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Shaq decided to use that quote when the interview took place. The rest is history.
It was with Shaq that Leonard began to hone in on building a brand—something unheard of at the time but that has now become commonplace, in large part because of social media. Shaq was in television commercials, made four rap albums and played the lead in the movie Kazaam.
“I saw this opening and wanted to transform how athletes were marketed so they can own and control the narrative,” Leonard says. “We combined music, movies, TV and technology.”
At a marketing conference at the end of 2019, Shaq spoke about the significance Leonard has had on his life. “I listened to you as a 17-year-old, and you taught me about business and marketing. I realized how to maximize my potential.”
Not only was Leonard Shaq’s agent, but you could also jokingly say that he was Shaq’s landlord. When he first signed as a free agent with the Lakers in 1996, Shaq lived in Leonard’s guesthouse on The Strand. Leonard said people saw Shaq come in and out of that house, so everyone would knock on the door asking for him.
With client Hakeem Olajuwon. (Photographed by Andrew Bernstein)
“We’d show up at local schoolyards and play with whoever was there,” Leonard says. “I also had a bicycle made for him, so we would go for bike rides down The Strand. He’d even try playing volleyball and touch football on the sand. That’s why people love him.”
Leonard, who’s lived in the South Bay since he was 11 years old and currently resides in Manhattan Beach, has represented some of the world’s most recognizable athletes. He’s been the agent for the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Oscar De La Hoya.
His first client was NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. To have Ronnie sign with him, it took persuasion, perseverance and hard work. Without any clients, Leonard made a pitch to Ronnie that he would be available to him 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It took a few months for Ronnie to get a new contract with the San Francisco 49ers and for Leonard to make any money as an agent.
“During that time, I had no money,” Leonard says. “If he fired me, I’d probably be in another profession right now.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the best NBA players ever and the league’s all-time leading scorer, was Leonard’s first basketball client. During Kareem’s last season, he worked with former NBA commissioner David Stern to create a farewell tour where Kareem was honored with presentations and gifts in every city the Lakers visited during the 1989 season. It was another great example of how Leonard thought outside the box.
ABOVE: With client Oscar De La Hoya. (Photographed by Andrew Bernstein)
It’s no mistake that many of his clients were basketball players. Leonard was a walk-on at USC and the University of the Pacific for head coach and mentor Stan Morrison. After graduating, Leonard decided to go to law school at the University of San Diego and soon after passing the bar exam became a trial attorney. However, he didn’t have any passion for it. When he spoke to Stan, his mentor mentioned that with his background he should think about becoming a sports attorney.
“He is one of the brightest players and people I have ever been around,” Stan says. “He has such an ability to learn and understand.”
In a conversation with Stan, former Lakers general manager and Hall of Famer Jerry West said Leonard was one of the finest agents he’d come across in the business.
Leonard’s impact on sports reaches far beyond the basketball gym or football field. It made its way to the sand and beach volleyball. He was the CEO and commissioner of the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour from 2002 to 2009 after it went into bankruptcy.
“I saw a lot of purity in the game, in the lifestyle, and I tried to build a movement of not just competition but a healthy, active lifestyle in line with what we want to promote in our culture,” Leonard says. “This sport is a vehicle for change to better our culture and society.”
One of his proudest moments while commissioner of the AVP was making sure that men and women had equal prize money and TV time. He also began having tournaments outside the usual coastal cities to make the game more than just a regional sport.
Even after his tenure as AVP commissioner ended, Leonard’s passion for beach volleyball never faded. Part of that is due to his wife, Holly McPeak, a former Olympic bronze medalist and standout on the AVP tour. In 2013 he got back into beach volleyball, forming the World Series of Beach Volleyball, which takes place in Long Beach.
“Pro volleyball is embedded in the South Bay community but also at the grassroots level,” Leonard says. “Young girls and women are wanting to play beach. You have such an explosion of girls interested, and it has taken over.”
After the AVP, Leonard worked for Skechers as its chief marketing officer and president of Skechers Fitness for two years. He is currently the founder and CEO of Management Plus, which focuses on brand building, management and marketing.
“I’ve always had to be passionate about what I’m doing,” Leonard says. “Because of that, I’ve moved around a lot but stayed in the same realm. I want to do things that impact our culture in a positive way.”