BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — One day last fall, a pair of strangers met for dinner in Los Angeles.
One, Anthony Edwards, had been a freshman phenom at the University of Georgia and was about to become the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft. Edwards’s first 19 years had been encircled by disappointment and death. He talked about this with his dining partner, and about how Edwards was weeks away from signing a contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves that would guarantee him $20 million. Such a windfall felt unbelievable, a seemingly bottomless tanker of cash. With the right decisions and guidance, Edwards and his family could be secure for generations.
Then again, he’d learned of the athletes — Michael Vick, Allen Iverson, Vince Young — who’d gone broke despite banking even more. Like Edwards, they were young and Black, a demographic group often victimized by the American wealth gap.
The man across from him mostly listened. He didn’t suggest stock tips or commission-based investments. Instead, he asked about Edwards’s family, his values, the things he hopes to do for his community back in Atlanta.
Nothing, the man told Edwards, is too far-fetched. Then he showed the young man a photo on his phone.
“Let me tell you my story,” he said.
Humble Lukanga is in his corner office, sunlight flooding through the windows. He’s again listening, this time during a conference call with star cornerback Marshon Lattimore and his NFL agent. Lukanga is Lattimore’s wealth manager and financial adviser, and though the New Orleans Saints restructured Lattimore’s current contract in June, soon the group will send its demands for a long-term extension.
“I don’t want nothing less,” Lattimore says, “than the highest-paid.”
Lukanga nods when Lattimore asks questions, and playfully glowers at Lennon, his 6-year-old son, when he repeatedly opens the door. There are books in here, out in the lobby, almost everywhere. A love of reading, Lukanga says, didn’t just help explain the world to a traumatized young man who’d been forced from his native Uganda. They now explain him.
It was a dozen years ago that Lukanga, now 35, went to the school library at the University of New Mexico in search of refuge. He’d just returned from Africa to bury his mother and father. Flipping through an issue of Sports Illustrated, he came across a 2009 article about a “financial pandemic” among professional athletes. The story suggested 78 percent of NFL players encountered financial distress just two years after retirement; six in 10 former NBA players were broke two years after their final game.
Salaries had skyrocketed, and didn’t many of these athletes employ financial advisers? Surrounded by friends and relatives, wasn’t someone willing to sound the alarm? Lukanga kept reading and researching, and he came to believe Black athletes have historically been kept in the shadows of financial literacy, often by the same people they’d hired to protect their assets.
“Because these were Black men, predominantly, it was easy to just talk bad about them and discard them,” Lukanga says now. “So in that moment, I realized: ‘Nah, they’re being taken advantage of.’ ”
A dozen years later, Lukanga’s LifeLine Financial Group manages a combined $500 million, he says, of 50 clients in sports and entertainment — almost all of whom are Black. This includes five members of July’s NBA draft, new clients who heard about Lukanga entirely through word-of-mouth.
Though the number of Black wealth managers is growing, according to the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, the industry remains overwhelmingly White. Lukanga, who’s among the 1.7 percent of wealth managers who identify as Black, says he doesn’t bother recruiting White athletes, largely because he suspects they wouldn’t employ him anyway.
“I’m here for these Black people,” Lukanga says. “I feel like this whole world is set up for the White families to win, and they have all the access to resources that they need in this lifetime. I’m here to fight for the oppressed, and I’m here to fight for my people.”
Doing so makes him a financial watchdog, reminding Lonzo Ball that he already owns a lot of jewelry and calling Charlamagne tha God to remind him that chartering a jet is a waste of money. But more than that, he teaches finance and money management to his clients — from opening a bank account to high-level investing — often because nobody else has bothered.
“Growing up in a Black community,” former NFL running back Arian Foster says, “we don’t talk about finances. It’s like this taboo.”
“A schooling,” Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner says. “I had a pen and paper, and he was walking me through everything: stocks, bonds, mutual funds, index funds, all the basic things.”
“Generational wealth,” actress and producer Issa Rae says, “is nonexistent in certain communities, in our communities, and he has made it his mission that we’re set.”
On this day, Lukanga listens as Lattimore’s agent does most of the talking. A few months ago, Lukanga began educating Lattimore about the way NFL contracts are structured — and how guaranteed money isn’t always guaranteed. It sounded foreign at first, Lukanga admits, but after enough time, Lattimore started understanding the nuances of salaries, bonuses and incentives.
The agent points out bonuses that Lattimore may be due late in a five- or six-year deal. Lukanga says nothing. By now, he no longer has to.
“That’s back-loaded, though,” Lattimore says. “The money was supposed to be upfront.”
“I’ve been prepping him,” he says. “We’re on a mission: generational freedom.”
In October 2018, Ball and his father, LaVar, received an email from Lukanga with an ominous subject line: “Urgent – $1.5 million Dollars Missing.”
Lukanga has full access to his clients’ financial holdings, he says, and charges an annual fee of 1 percent of the assets he manages, the industry standard. When he noticed a discrepancy while doing Ball’s accounting, Lukanga asked Alan Foster, a longtime Ball family friend and business associate, about it. Lonzo Ball says Foster refused to provide receipts for the missing amount and attempted to fire Lukanga.
Lukanga, who says only the client can fire him, continued monitoring Ball’s accounts and attempted to sound an alarm. Ball says now that Lukanga was “watching over me from a distance.”
“SO WHERE IS THE MONEY???” Lukanga wrote in the email, according to an ESPN story published in 2019. Lonzo Ball left his family’s Big Baller Brand, cut ties with Foster and sued him for $2 million.
Foster has since countersued the family, and Foster wrote in an email that a trial is scheduled for July 2022. He denied wrongdoing, claimed the attempt to fire Lukanga was because he’d failed to file tax returns on time, and described a “scheme” to attack Foster and sabotage Big Baller Brand.
“Any time you are the person fighting for the truth and fighting to protect these people,” Lukanga says, “the people who are the con artists are going to do everything in their power to get you out of their picture. Because you’re the person who is going to mess up their plans. … The mission stays the same, and that’s protecting Lonzo.”
Other than to confirm reporting about him by ESPN, Lukanga declined further comment. But extreme as this example may be, Lukanga says it’s common for him to point out spending irregularities or act as a buffer. He says the biggest threat to the financial legacy of an athlete — especially one who has gone from poverty to riches almost overnight — isn’t material luxuries. It’s generosity, he says, and persistent “survivor’s guilt.”
Not long ago, a pastor from an athlete’s hometown asked for $200,000 because the church needed a new roof. A different client’s uncle requested help paying his rent. Within every pro athlete’s orbit, Lukanga says, are hopeful entrepreneurs — and frequent pressure to fund projects and give back.
“There’s a pressure that comes with being the African American success story,” he says. “You are some community’s pride and joy. And that community has protected you. That community has given you free haircuts when you couldn’t afford it. That community has sponsored your football teams, your basketball team.”
Then again, even eight-figure salaries have limits. Years ago, when Allen Iverson squandered $150 million in career earnings, it was largely because he was bankrolling the living expenses of more than a dozen friends and relatives.
“You’ve got to teach boundaries,” Lukanga says. “ ‘This is my budget. These are my boundaries. This is what I can do.’ ”
As soft-spoken and nice as he seems, Lukanga says he has grown to enjoy being the bad guy.
“Then,” he says, “I say: ‘Hey, put me on the phone.’”
During every meeting with a prospective client, Lukanga opens the photos on his phone. He swipes until … there it is, faded and grainy, Ugandan kids smiling in front of their home. It’s a mud hut with no electricity or plumbing.
The two sons here are the survivors, remains of a family and nation cut down by disease, famine, and the residual cruelty of former president Idi Amin. One of Lukanga’s sisters died when she was maybe 6, he says; the other made it to 7 or 8.
He was 11 when the family was granted political asylum and moved to Denver, but that didn’t end the tragedies in his family. The older boy in the old photograph, Lukanga’s brother Chris, died in a car accident at age 32. While Lukanga was in high school, his mother suffered a stroke.
His father couldn’t care for her and keep his job as a janitor, so he asked young Humble to work instead. If the boy complained about a lack of sleep, or the smell of the restaurant toilets he cleaned each night, or that the other kids at school had nicer shoes, Humble’s father always had an answer. Back in Uganda, most of the boys had no shoes. In fact, some stricken with polio had no feet.
One day Humble noticed that the principal at his school, a Black man, drove a Mercedes. So he asked him something.
“How do I change the curse of poverty for my family?” he recalls saying, and because this had no simple answer, the principal laughed.
But he encouraged Lukanga to first learn how money works. He loaned him books by economists and investors, Napoleon Hill and Warren Buffett and Benjamin Graham, and the young man devoured their words. He taught himself the beginnings of a philosophy he’d someday share: principles of budgeting and positive habits; to plan for tomorrow by saving today.
Humble was in college when his mother slipped into a coma and died. During Humble’s flight to Uganda for her funeral, Humble’s father suffered a fatal heart attack. The young man landed at Entebbe International Airport to learn he’d be burying both his parents.
“I’ve never seen anybody grow old,” he says now.
With the services completed, and his parents at rest, Humble returned to the United States and the campus of the University of New Mexico. Still shocked and grieving, he went to the school library and went flipping through pages in search of peace.
It was that same day, he says, that he opened an issue of Sports Illustrated and started an article about famous athletes who’d lost everything.
Lukanga is finishing his story, coming up on the happy part — a house in the Hollywood Hills, a Maybach with a professional driver, a massive collection of rare wines — when his office door opens.
“Papa?” says his 6-year-old. It’s lunchtime, and the boy is asking for McDonald’s.
“Lennon,” Lukanga says with a smile, “I’m doing an interview.”
The boy rolls his eyes and retreats. Lukanga shakes his head and chuckles as the door closes. Among the downsides of success, no matter the back story, is that the experiences that made you strive can never be transferred. Lukanga can tell his sons about the mud hut, but they’ll never live in one. He can describe his fear of death — that this explains why he moves and talks so quickly — but neither Lennon nor newborn Honor can feel what their father does.
If safety and comfort inspire one generation, the same things threaten to pamper and impair the next. It is why, rather than tell his sons the story, Lukanga plans to show them. In a few years, he says, he’ll buy airplane tickets and take his boys to Uganda for the first time. He has thought about this often, and Lukanga says they’ll stop at Lake Victoria and then a local food market. He’ll point out the energy, the accents, the whir of sound.
Then they’ll go to Masaka, the village that made their father, and he’ll show them the mud hut and the graves.
“I’m Ugandan,” he says, “and I had to flee that country to make a way. It’s something that you get used to, but it’s not something that you forget. I left as a refugee, but I’m coming back as …”
The door again opens, and there’s Lennon poking his head in.
“I got you, big dog,” Lukanga tells him.
He stands and walks toward his elder son, and they walk together through a hallway, past bookshelves, an African proverb about humanity, a mural of four lion cubs on a grassland.
“There were four of us,” Lukanga says, though something else has Lennon’s attention. It’s a framed quotation attributed to Muhammad Ali: Impossible is nothing.
“Does it make you feel happy?” the boy asks.
Lukanga says it does, and he holds Lennon’s hand and walks.
“It means you can do anything,” he tells him.