How Kevin Durant’s unlikely friendship with Rich Kleiman spawned a billion dollar business

Rich Kleiman was on the phone with the top Knicks’ decision-makers pitching his case for the team’s point guard rotation.

He was 13.

Kleiman, the Thirty Five Ventures co-founder, was pranking the team and pretending to be Leigh Steinberg, the agent for Greg Anthony, out of fear that the decision to draft the UNLV star would take away from the playing time of Mark Jackson, his favorite player.

Kleiman said he managed to get on the phone with former Knicks president Dave Checketts, Knicks alum Ernie Grunfeld and former player-turned-coach Dick McGuire.

“I was trying make my voice sound different, but obviously, I was 13 years old,” Kleiman told The Post while discussing his love for New York sports inside the trendy Thirty Five Ventures offices in Chelsea.

“So like halfway through the conversation, I hung up. And then about a week later, I got a phone call from Garden security and my mother answered and they busted me.”

Rich Kleiman and Kevin Durant in 2019
Getty Images

Kleiman has gone from a devoted Knicks fan to a business partner with one of their biggest foes.

Kleiman co-founded Thirty Five Ventures, a media and entertainment company with Nets superstar Kevin Durant. Kleiman describes himself as a “hustler” from a young age. The outgoing Kleiman grew up on the Upper West Side with dreams of working in sports in the city that birthed him.

Kleiman, 45, and Durant are not only business partners, but they’re also close confidants with a unique bond. The pair met not long after Durant’s 2007 Rookie of the Year campaign, and became fast friends.

“I was managing this artist, Wale from DC and Wale and Kevin had grown up together and Kevin was going to a Jay-Z concert at the Garden,” Kleiman said about his time as vice president of Roc Nation. “He had just won Rookie of the Year and I’m a big hoop fan, so I obviously knew who KD was. I think Kevin recognized that I knew basketball, and I think everyone knows that if you want to talk basketball with Kevin, he’ll talk to you.

“So I met him and we did hit it off that night. He was really mild mannered. We spoke basketball. And then the coolest thing was that Jay-Z knew that Kevin was there and had like sent word for me to bring Kevin back to the dressing room. And Kevin was like, ‘Nah, I’m good. Like Jay-Z, I’m not ready to meet Jay-Z,’ and I couldn’t believe it.”

Durant, at the time, was a quiet teenager, navigating the early stages of fame. He would later sign with Roc Nation that summer.

Over the next nine years they would stay in touch, link up in different cities during Durant’s busy NBA schedule and bond over a shared love for storytelling, basketball and business.

In 2016, Thirty Five Ventures was born.

Kleiman and Durant had launched a multi-faceted sports, media and entertainment company that today has invested in more than 75 early stage companies across cryptocurrency, health and wellness and media. Their investment portfolio includes Coinbase, Postmates, SeatGeek and Therabody.

Rich Kleiman with Stephen A. Smith
Rich Kleiman with Stephen A. Smith
NBAE/Getty Images

Thirty Five Ventures announced its partnership with Coinbase in December — expanding on its prior investment when Coinbase was reportedly valued at $1.6 billion.

It went public at an estimated $100 billion valuation last April, an increase of 61.5x since Kleiman and Durant invested, according to Bitcoin reporter Joe Pompliano.

As of August 2021, Thirty Five Ventures was valued at $3.6 billion, Afrotech reported.

“Kevin was at a kind of crossroads in his career, and that’s how great partnerships are formed,” Kleiman said, adding that luck also played a factor. “Kevin was the first call we made because I knew him, and Kevin was looking for an opportunity. And I think that trust we have built up over the last five or six years and obviously his admiration for Jay-Z and what we were building at Roc Nation was really attractive.

“Kevin is less the face of our business — he really is the force of our business. He’s the muscle behind everything we do.”

Durant knew Kleiman was the right partner in business and basketball when he discovered they had a similar way of thinking.

“Before I met Rich, I had a lot of ideas about how I wanted to build my business and my foundation, but I didn’t have anyone around me really thinking in a long-term way. Rich understood my goals from the start,” Durant told The Post.

The pair also launched Boardroom, an extension of Thirty Five Ventures that has its own editorial team and produces podcasts.

Kleiman sat on a couch in the common room of his Manhattan offices — a well-decorated, swanky loft with an outdoor patio overlooking the Chelsea neighborhood. He interacts calmly with colleagues in a light atmosphere.

Rich Kleiman at the "Swagger" premiere in 2021.
Rich Kleiman at the “Swagger” premiere in 2021.
Ron Adar / M10s /

Kleiman is six months removed from becoming an Academy Award winner. Last April, Kleiman and Durant won an Oscar for their work as executive producers on the short film “Two Distant Strangers.” Jazz guard Mike Conley was an executive producer on the film. Durant and Conley joined the late Kobe Bryant as the only Oscar winners in NBA history.

Durant’s “The Etcs” podcast and Kleiman’s “The Boardroom: Out of Office” podcast are in their second season. The sports drama series “Swagger” premiered last October on Apple TV+, starring O’Shea Jackson Jr. The series is about a young basketball prodigy and is loosely based on Durant’s life.

“I think everyone who watches ‘Swagger’ will take away something personal to them because there are so many different characters and great storylines in the show that are relatable,” Durant said.

Kleiman is also Durant’s manager and serves as executive director of the Kevin Durant Charity Foundation — started in 2013, with a mission to “enrich the lives of at-risk youth from low-income backgrounds through educational, athletic and social programs.”

“In the beginning with Kevin, people look at him and see him being shy,” Kleiman said. “At 19, 20, 21 years old, six-foot-10. That’s not a very approachable person for a lot of people. You know, people get scared off by that, and that’s never been who I am.

“So I think Kevin fed off my energy like that, and I was just enamored with him because of how great he is at what he does. A relationship like that was sacred to me, but I never knew we were going to end up working together.”

His work relationship and friendship with Durant are interchangeable, and based on a foundation of trust, respect and honesty.

“We really had no plan. Going on my own with Kevin, I guess was somewhat risky, even though I had confidence,” Kleiman said. “Kevin wanted to build something that was his, and I know that was a really big responsibility and one that even though I had accomplished some pretty cool things in my career, I didn’t necessarily think I was like the perfect candidate. But, I was the perfect candidate for Kevin.”

Kleiman previously worked under Jay-Z at Roc Nation, managing artists, DJs and producers including Mark Ronson, Wale, Meek Mill, Solange and D Nice.

“Kevin has challenged me a lot. I think we both have helped each other to push and challenge the norm on certain things. In the beginning, I would say to Kevin, ‘We can’t do this,’ you know, just whatever it may be, and he’d be like, ‘Why?’ Then I started to think differently, and realizing we can do things differently,” Kleiman said.

“I think I’ve also pushed him to do things that he was reticent to do… and I think holding each other accountable comes in the form of like making sure that your partner is saying no for the right reasons or saying yes for the right reasons, you know, and I think that’s been really cool. The trust is there.

“There’s been times, when he said to me, ‘You know, I think I should go to the Bay (sign with the Warriors) and then ‘I want to be in Brooklyn,’ and Kevin is steadfast on what he wants to do. And he was right. You know, I think he was right both times, and I think we both had those moments where we’ve been like, ‘Are you sure? Like, Is that really it? Like, is that what we’re doing?’ And you know, when you trust the other person and you’re accountable, and vice versa. That’s good pressure to have.”

Durant’s move to the Nets in 2019 changed the dynamic at Thirty Five Ventures. Kleiman doesn’t have to take a cross-country flight to have an in-person meeting with Durant in Oakland, where he won two championships with the Warriors in 2017 and 2018.

Now, Durant is a quick drive (pending New York City traffic) from Barclays Center, where the Nets play home games, to the Thirty Five Ventures offices in Chelsea.

“I mean, this is everything we talked about. We talked about this,” Kleiman said. “He lives down the block. We talked about the feeling of being in New York, having him play here and our business being here. And, you know, I don’t think we thought it was going to happen to be honest with you — because the Bay was amazing. It really was.

“But this is everything to have the balance and not to be on the road the way I was. I wasn’t going to be able to travel the way I used to travel anymore because I was building this business and I have two daughters that I want to be around all the time. For it to work out this way and be able to be at the arena, be at the office every day, travel like a regular human when I need to and not be on the road so much is incredible. For Kevin and I, now there’s some things that you have to do in person one way or the other, and that used to be a trip. Now it’s like a lunch break to walk down the block.”

Kleiman didn’t find himself conflicted when his best friend and business partner didn’t choose to sign with his beloved Knicks as many speculated he would.

“The Knicks, though, I had this insane emotional connection and I felt that way about that team. My love for the Knicks is not the way it was when I was a kid,” Kleiman said. I will always look at the Knicks, and it will bring back this like feeling that I had as a kid. But you know, I’m a Nets fan now.

“Everything has to take a backseat now because just like I was a Warriors fan, a Thunder fan — I’m a Nets fan now. I was raised in Madison Square Garden, but the best seat I’ve ever had has been at the Barclays. So for now, I’m just chilling at Barclays. And Kevin obviously is happy there, and it’s different energy. It’s cool because as a New Yorker, I really grew up on the Garden energy and to see this new energy and to be a part of it, and it’s been electric. I’m really excited about the team they have. That organization is incredible. Joe Tsai is incredible. Kevin is happy there, and it’s different energy.

“You know, I’ll healthily root for both of them when Kevin’s long gone, but obviously when my man’s here in Brooklyn, that’s my team.”

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