An NBA scout relayed this story to me seven years ago. A potential NBA lottery pick was at the 2008 NBA combine, a freshman who had declared early for the draft. NBA super agent David Falk, best known for representing Michael Jordan, asked around about how to gain the player’s trust to represent him.
The universal response was: “You’re three years too late.”
The triangular trade involving agents/financial advisors, shoe companies and players has been well known by those who cover college basketball on a regular basis. It’s how recruiting works when dealing with certain elite players.
Third parties create plausible deniability for schools and coaches. Deals, some totaling as high as six-figures, get brokered with kids as young at 16 and 17 years old. Financial advisors and shoe companies connected with schools and coaches steer players to a program for financial gain down the road.
I’ll share some blame as a college basketball journalist that we grew numb to the process and didn’t do more to try to uncover the corruption and under-the-table dealings. The NCAA and its member institutions deserve blame too, for not effectively policing the sport.
The FBI did what we could not do when it revealed Tuesday that 10 people, including four assistant basketball coaches, were indicted on a fraud and corruption scheme in which alleged bribes were being offered to student athletes. Among those named were Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person, USC assistant Tony Bland, Arizona assistant Emmanuel Richardson and Oklahoma State assistant Phillip Evans. The shoe company Adidas also was named in the probe, while South Carolina, Louisville, Miami were indirectly named as “University 2”, “University 6” and “University 7”.
The dominoes are already starting to fall. Person was placed on unpaid leave at Auburn. Louisville coach Rick Pitino was placed on unpaid leave today, while athletic director Tom Jurich went on paid leave. Miami coach Jim Larranaga’s attorney, Stuart Grossman, claimed that Larranaga had no knowledge of any under the table dealings within his basketball program.
It would be naive to think the probe will only involve the above mentioned schools and players. Of the 10 charged, odds are probable that at least one will go Henry Hill and become a cooperating government witness. Unlike the NCAA, the FBI has subpoena power. In the coming months, a one-shining moment montage could be made with coaches in federal court on the witness stand.
This could be a positive for college basketball down the road, to weed out the bad actors and bad influences who have bastardized the recruiting process. But it will only work if it influences fundamental change within the sport.
How do we fix it? Here are some thoughts:
— Lower the NBA draft minimum age to 18. Let players who want to turn professional out of high school go pro. Expand the NBA draft to five rounds, 10 rounds, however long so that kids won’t get humiliated if they don’t hear their names called.
— Make G League a true minor league basketball system, with 30 affiliates to represent all 30 NBA teams. Let Adidas and other shoe companies fund the G League to improve salaries. An 18-year-old prospect who doesn’t make an NBA roster can develop in the G League, like a minor league baseball player would before being called up to the majors.
— Make players who sign college basketball scholarships commit for at least three years. Take away the one-and-done farce in which certain players who intend to turn pro after their freshman season mail it in academically.
Would that system water down the talent at the college basketball level? Yes. But it would also take the financial element out of the sport that’s stained the current model. It would also create more parity. College basketball was immensely popular in the 1980s and 1990s in part because you got to know the stars who stayed for three or four years. Teams were more cohesive. Florida’s back-to-back national title teams in 2006 and 2007 thrived because the same starting five stayed together for both seasons.
Fans would still flock to games because the brand names of schools in the power conferences remain powerful. March Madness would remain compelling because of its structure and one-game elimination format that lends itself to David occasionally slaying Goliath.
I’m all for allowing elite basketball players to try to make money off their names and their likeness as young as they can. Just don’t use college basketball as the vehicle to make that happen.