Skip to content
Sports
January 9, 2024

The Queen in King Kyrie’s Court

Written by:

As one of the greatest basketball players of all time, the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving could pretty much have asked any of the best sports agents out there to take him on as a client and they would probably have jumped at the chance. Instead, he chose someone with no experience—his stepmom.
In taking on such a key role for one of the sport’s most colorful characters, Shetellia Riley Irving has her work cut out for her. But in making history by becoming the first Black woman to represent an active NBA talent she draws on both an impressive professional resume and an insider’s knowledge of her client.
Now vice president of ad sales for BET Network, she previously spent more than a decade working in radio. For her first-ever interview in her new NBA agent role, Riley Irving spoke with WayMaker founder and WayMaker Journal publisher Louis Carr. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
WJ: Has this new role sunk in yet?
SRI: Not a hundred percent. Not until I’m really in those active conversations and I’m like, “I’m really standing here and I’m really having this conversation.” But I still pinch myself a little bit.
WJ: Was being involved in sports always an underlying dream?
SRI: God always directs your path. I have been in and around sports for a long time, and it started with Floyd Mayweather. Back in radio, one of my biggest clients was HBO pay-per-view boxing.. With Floyd, we had a big mix-up where we did an interview and somebody forgot to push the record button and I had to call… and finally got [his agent] to agree to do this interview all over again. Floyd was really transparent and open and sat me down and just… really introduced me to the dynamics of sports from a boxing point of view. Everything—the family, the business of it, the training of it. I was not a big sports person, but he sort of introduced me to it and allowed me to be a fly on the wall.
WJ: You don’t represent just any player but one of the best ever. Is that a pressure?
SRI: It is a pressure cooker, because he is so different than any other NBA player. He marches to the beat of his own drum. He has sincere convictions; he really is on this journey and it doesn’t always align with what you see. “Just go out and dribble. Just go out and play. Take the money and run.” You’re not supposed to care about the community. You’re not supposed to lean in and care about female athletes. You’re just supposed to dribble your ball, make your millions and go. And so because he is so committed to making this place a better place, it causes him a few issues and a few problems. So, it’s bigger than basketball, almost.
WJ: How were you able to believe you could do something you had never done before?
SRI: I sat at the knees of masters and you’re one of them. When you think about vision, it’s always about doing something that no one has ever seen or heard done before, and I remember when I first started working at BET [where Louis Carr is president of media sales]. You talked about purpose and you talked about vision and talked about your commitment to the Black audience and how everybody else saw us as non-existent—a suspect instead of a prospect—and how we had to go out and change that narrative and speak and speak and speak and speak and speak until somebody finally sees that it’s the reality.
And so for me, the vision was understanding that this is different, but also really leaning into the purpose of what it was. And it really was to make sure that Kyrie was protected and that he had somebody that he could trust.
“It is a pressure cooker because he is so different… He marches to the beat of his own drum.”
So, that’s how I leaned into it, because I think that it wasn’t about seeing that there was no one who looked like me; I knew that there was no one who had the heart that I had for him out there. That was really what kind of propelled me forward.
WJ: Were you ready to step into such a male-dominated environment?
SRI: I honestly do not have a choice. There are often times I’m sort of treated like a girl, right?
WJ: Is that good or bad?
SRI: Oh, it’s horrible. But I understand that there’s a game and I understand that people are comfortable with those objects that have always been a part of their game. And so for me, it’s more about, “You are going to take me where I need to get to whether you like it or not.” And so I’m going to lean in, I’m going to push, I’m going to have as many conversations as humanly possible, because I think that there’s a real opportunity with what Kyrie has done to change the trajectory for so many other athletes.
WJ: How has your past experience prepared you for this new role?
SRI: I’ve spent 13 years at BET. It is the best business degree I could have ever had, because what you did was allow me to be exposed in all kinds of situations, no matter what. It was one of the best learning [experiences] because I had the BET brand, which is an amazing brand, behind me and I had you and Ray [Raymond Goulbourne, executive vice president] really guiding me: “No, we’re not going to do that. No, this is what we’re going to do.”… being taught to have capacity, being taught to be creative, being taught to be unapologetic for who we are, what we represent.
“I knew that there was no one who had the heart that I had for him out there.”
I kind of take a little bit of you in each meeting… being in that male-dominated environment you talked about, I got to take that; I’m not going to apologize. I’m going to come in, I’m going to have the capacity, I’m going to push forward and I’m going to be determined. And I learned that at the knee of you and of Ray and for that I’m eternally grateful.
WJ: You’re a media executive, an agent, and you have a family. Can a woman “have it all”?
SRI: Yes, yes, yes. You’re going to be tired, but you can, you really, really can.
WJ: What advice would you give to women who are trying to balance careers and family and time for themselves?
SRI: You have to really understand what you’re doing it for. There has to be a directional purpose and then everybody around you has to buy in. From there, you’re able to really do it all. But if you’re just all over the place and you’re not really directed and you’re not really focused, it’s not going to work out. And lean into people that are going to support you.
WJ: What does being an agent actually involve?
SRI: Negotiate his deals, engage with his team, engage with the front office, make sure that everything is good, but my added responsibility is to protect and be authentically honest. He has spent about 11 years in the league and we all know he’s had some issues.
So my job is to protect him, but also to say, “Ky, this is how you have to look at it,” because I think a lot of time with a lot of athletes, they have a lot of enablers who tell them, “Oh, it’s OK, you’re a superstar,” and they don’t really understand the business side of it.
[With] many other people in that business world, you are one of 40, you are one of five, and so you represent a number and not an emotion, not an attachment. For me, it’s really making sure that he’s good and that he understands and that he is able to play his best basketball, knowing that he has a team of people, he has a tribe, behind him.
Shetellia Riley Irving: My WayMakers
There’s my mom. She really is a prayer warrior, but most importantly she really taught me about faith and being resilient—you know, raising me as a single parent. My dad: he’s had his issues with alcoholism and he’s a recovering alcoholic, but he really taught me about instinct and following your instinct. And Kyrie, because that’s a hell of a gamble, to bet on somebody that you love to come in and really manage your hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars career. So, I follow his conviction, I follow what he’s trying to do and I believe in it.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.