Leon Rose’s path to Knicks prepared him for biggest task yet

Leon Rose built a sports agency powerhouse from the ground up.

An even more mammoth undertaking awaits him with the Knicks.

The rise of the franchise’s new president began in Cherry Hill, N.J., in 1995 as a lawyer with a single client who went undrafted. Twenty-five years later, after representing the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Allen Iverson and Joel Embiid, Rose has left a lucrative position for one that has become a graveyard for top executives.

The potential payoff? Being the architect who brings the Knicks from despair to glory — or at least from dysfunction to stability, given how things have gone lately.

On Day 1 of Rose’s tenure, the Knicks beat one of the top teams in the league. On Day 2, the organization escalated a petty feud with their most famous fan.

These are the challenges that come with Rose’s new job. Those close to him believe he’s up to the task of turning the Knicks around.

“Everywhere he went, every decision he made, it was successful,” said John Valore, Rose’s high school basketball coach at Cherry Hill East. “That experience is going to go a long way. He’s been an agent for a long time. He understands the players. He knows what a player is thinking 99 percent of the time.

“I think you’re going to see a noticeable difference — give it a little time, but you’ll notice a difference.”

Growing up in a basketball family in Camden and Cherry Hill, Rose’s Saturday nights included appointment viewing: Big 5 basketball, the staple of college hoops in Philadelphia.

Of course Rose played, too. He was a pesky 5-foot-10 point guard who made varsity at Cherry Hill East as a sophomore. He didn’t play much until his junior year, when an injury opened a spot in the starting lineup. Rose stepped in and never let go of the job, playing his way into the school’s Hall of Fame.

“He wasn’t the quickest person, he didn’t shoot with the best of them, but he was determined that nobody was better than him,” said Valore, who now coaches at Holy Cross Prep in New Jersey. “You gotta look at Leon and his height — he said to himself, ‘No. No. I’m going to be a better player. I’m going to play defense, I’m going to understand the offense, I’m going to get the ball where it has to go, I’m going to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.’ ”

leon rose yearbook photo knicks president cherry hill
Leon Rose at Cherry Hill East high school.Cherry Hill East yearbook

Rose was the kind of player who bugged opponents. He was heady and a grinder, creating an identity that Valore would tell future Cherry Hill East teams about.

“Leon’s heart and his work ethic — he didn’t care who it was, he wasn’t scared of anybody,” said Dave Wynn, Rose’s classmate and a center for the Cougars. “We’d go into Camden or whatever, he was just this little guy, that little pain in the butt, that hustler that everybody’s like, ‘Slow down, man.’ ”

By the time Rose was a senior, his work ethic and leadership had left such an impression on Valore that he asked Rose to be the godfather to his son, John Carl.

“Just by being associated with him and coaching him, he was everything you’d like to see in a player,” Valore said. “He exemplified that off the court as well as on the court. The way he handled himself was exceptionally mature as a high school senior.”

Rose graduated in 1979 and went on to play and study political science at Dickinson College, a Division III school in Carlisle, Pa. He once hoped to be a college basketball coach, but at the urging of his father, an attorney himself, he went on to law school at Temple to make sure he would at least have that to fall back on.

“Law school helps you think, teaches you how to think clearly, concisely,” Zev Rose, Leon’s father, told The Post recently. “Common sense he had on his own.”

While he was at Temple, he joined Valore’s staff at Cherry Hill East as an assistant coach for three years. After he graduated in 1986, he worked in the Camden County prosecutor’s office and coached as an assistant at Rutgers-Camden for two years.

But instead of continuing to pursue a career as a coach, Rose decided to focus on his job as a lawyer. It didn’t take long before he found a way back to basketball, though.

Rose joined his father’s law firm in south Jersey and was initially a litigator before getting into sports law by helping to form the Jerome Brown Foundation, named for the former Eagles defensive tackle who died in a car crash in 1992.

The first basketball player Rose worked with was Lionel Simmons, a former La Salle University star. Simmons’ uncle was his agent, but Rose negotiated Simmons’ contract in 1994.

A year later, he became the agent for his first client, Rick Brunson. The Temple product went undrafted in 1995 but played professionally in Australia before beginning a nine-year NBA career in 1997. He was known for being a team-first player, just like his agent.

While representing Brunson in Australia, Rose got connected with Chris Anstey, the 7-foot Australian center who became his first-ever first-round pick in 1997.

Rose was only just beginning. Slowly but surely, his client list grew. Next came another pair of former Temple standouts, Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie. And then the first big one: 76ers star Allen Iverson in 2002.

“Later, it all mushroomed,” Zev Rose said.

Becoming LeBron James’ agent will do that. Rose began representing James in 2005 and the next summer negotiated a three-year, $60 million extension for the 21-year-old superstar and the Cavaliers. He was later credited with helping to bring James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh together in Miami, with James signing a six-year, $110.1 million contract in 2010.

Before that, though, Rose took another big step in his own career. In 2007, his practice was bought by Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and Rose became the head of its basketball division.

As the high-profile players kept choosing Rose as their agent, he remained grounded. He even continued to coach South Jersey youth teams in the Maccabi Games, winning two gold and two silver medals along the way.

leon rose knicks president caa agent
Leon RoseCorey Sipkin

“You wouldn’t even know Leon was an agent,” Valore said. “He was a regular person with everybody he was associated with. He never brought anything up about being an agent and moving up the ladder or anything. He was what we saw in high school as he grew up through the ranks to today. Going to an airport, he might be wearing a Cherry Hill East sweatsuit. … That’s Leon. Regular, basic human being, someone you like to associate with.”

Rose is “a pillar in Cherry Hill,” said Dave Allen, the current coach at Cherry Hill East. He has remained close to his roots and is a regular at the Cougars’ games with his family. His low-key personality was never to be confused with a lack of dedication to his players, though.

Valore remembered a trip with Rose to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001 — the year Temple coach John Chaney was being inducted. In the car on the way to in Springfield, Mass., Rose was on his phone putting out fires for his clients. Eddie Jones needed something done for his family in one part of the country. Another player in another part of the country needed a suit for an event. Rose, “a workaholic,” Valore said, swiftly handled it all.

“I don’t know that many other agents, but nobody could be more caring and conscientious when it came to his players,” Zev Rose said.

More recently, Rose has been there for Embiid through various surgeries, right by his side whether the procedure was done in California or New York.

“Leon is my guy,’’ Embiid said at All-Star Weekend. “He’s like family to me. When I heard the news I was happy for him.”

Those close to Rose never imagined he would be running a team one day. He was happy and successful at CAA, 25 years after taking on his first client.

“Who would imagine their little kid from Cherry Hill who was born in Camden would wind up being president of the New York Knicks?” Zev Rose said.

“I’m looking at it as a Ripley’s believe it or not,” Valore said.

But the honeymoon didn’t last long. Tuesday, there was the Spike Lee saga. Soon, there will be a head coach to hire, plus new executives and scouts to surround him. The draft is fewer than four months away and free agency comes right after that.

Rebuilding the Knicks is an uphill battle and Rose is just the latest to try to conquer it. But the pride of Cherry Hill, who built a sports agency from scratch through relationships and hard work, is going to give it a shot.

“Not that he wasn’t talented [in high school], but Leon’s hustle is what got him over [the edge],” Wynn said. “Leon’s hustle is what made him a top agent. And Leon’s hustle is what got him the job as the president of the Knicks. It just goes all the way through.”

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