The dirt surrounding college basketball recruiting and popular shoe and apparel companies continues to pile up.
On Friday evening, Pat Forde, Pete Thamel, and Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports released yet another bombshell report, filled with the various exhibitions submitted to federal court by controversial lawyer Michael Avenatti.
His goal? To support his claims from earlier in the week that Nike has engaged in corruption and illegal payments to high-level basketball recruits.
As we’ve seen in some of the past breaking news stories over the last year or so, multiple big-name athletes and schools were included in Friday’s report.
And as we discussed on the site last night, Kentucky was one of the schools named in the documents, sparking a sense of uneasiness throughout the Big Blue Nation.
But what does it all mean, specifically for the Kentucky program? Do UK fans have any reason to be worried?
Let’s take a look.
Deandre Ayton, Zion Williamson, and Romeo Langford
While Kentucky fans were most interested in UK’s involvement, the biggest aspect of the story had to do with former Arizona center Deandre Ayton, among with fellow former prized recruits Zion Williamson (Duke) and Romeo Langford (Indiana).
For Ayton, the evidence was rather damning. According to the official court documents, Nike EYBL director Carlton DeBose received an email on his official Nike corporate account from Mel McDonald, a known middleman and handler for Ayton and former five-star big man Bol Bol, along with other associates.
The email had a subject line of “Numbers,” with in-depth details on the money spent on Ayton and those close to him.
The expenses revealed in the report covered travel, cell phone, and immigration costs, among other things, totaling $65,840.
In the same email, a long list of payouts were listed, including:
- Nov. 3rd – $5K
- Nov. 24th – $5K
- Dec. 2nd – $5K
- Dec. 12th – 5K in Kentucky (3 cells 2K cash)
- Dec. 15th – $5K Xmas Gifts
- Dec. 15th – $4K (loan) (Met mom about Larnelle)
- Jan. 8th – $2940 mom $600 auntie
- Feb. 9th – $5,000 for March to mom $3,500 for Bahamas to dad.
As far as the “Kentucky” line is concerned, this is likely in reference to the location of the payment, not the UK basketball program. Hillcrest Prep (AZ), Ayton’s high school, played in Lexington back on Dec. 12 and Dec. 13, 2015 for a tournament called the Bluegrass Showcase. While the document doesn’t clarify what the money was used for in Kentucky, the timeline certainly adds up.
Back in April, Avenatti accused Nike of making $83,000 worth of payments to those close to Ayton, providing documents to back up his accusations, as well.
On February 25, 2018, ESPN’s Mark Schlabach also reported that FBI wiretaps showed that Arizona head coach Sean Miller discussed a $100,000 payment to secure a commitment from Ayton.
Outside of Ayton, Avenatti also provided a series of text messages from February 2017 between DeBose, Nike recruiting coordinator John Stovall, and Nike EYBL manager Jamal James, where the trio discussed a plan to pay Williamson, Langford, and another undisclosed player from Michigan.
In one of the exhibits, James wrote to DeBose in a group text message trying to figure out what they would be able to swing financially for all three players.
“Remember that the Romeo and Zion deals are NOT done yet! We are still in it. Just want u to remember that possible financial obligation also,” James said in a text on February 11.
“We’re still in there for Zion and Langford?!?! I thought that ship had sailed,” DeBose later responded.
“Are we willing to do the additional 30K for this (California) [kid] along with whatever may be needed for the Zion/Romeo situations as well as the money we’re not going to do for the kid in Michigan?” James wrote back.
In one group text, James wrote to DeBose seeking to find out if they would be “willing to do … whatever may be needed for the Zion/Romeo situations as well as the money we’re now going to do for the [minor] kid in Michigan.”
“Langford — 20 (thousand), Zion — 35-plus (thousand), [Michigan kid] – 15 (thousand),” Stovall responded.
Later, DeBose added that he was okay with spending “70” if it meant they could “cripple adidas,” saying that those involved needed to “stay aggressive.”
“The other 70 listed I’m willing to spend to cripple adidas,” he said. “The amount of work that you guys are doing is more than worth me spinning the approximate 100K to support the efforts. I will have to get creative elsewhere in the budget but I’m encouraging you all to stay aggressive and I will figure out the money part.”
On February 28, Stovall then said a “new offer” for Williamson had not been presented, but they “hinted at it.”
“[No update on Williamson] yet,” he said. “[A third party] had not talked to them directly in a couple of days. Still has not presented our new offer. Only hinted at it. He did not want to put it in print which I agreed with.”
“What moved Langford?” DeBose responded.
“$$ is my guess,” Stovall said. “They claim “a chance to start a new path.” I’m not buying it. They admitted [Indiana] will stink and said “it’s not about wins and losses” lol.”
Unlike Ayton’s situation, the text messages did not indicate any money explicitly exchanged hands or whether or not any offers were officially presented.
Nonetheless, if you believe the documents, the discussions happened.
Kenny Payne’s “involvement”
As you guys read last night, Kenny Payne participated in a text message exchange with Carlton DeBose in the early hours of July 6, 2017.
According to the official exhibits in Avenatti’s case, Payne – listed by his initials and nickname of “KP” in the messages – had a conversation with DeBose, who told the Kentucky assistant which Nike EYBL coaches he supplied money to in order to help families of players on the popular shoe circuit.
“Do [you] help people like Webster and speedy every year and how many more people asked you to help them,” Payne asked DeBose. “They both are happy [you] are helping them. How many more are [there?]”
“Those two [Nike coaches]. And about 10 other brothers,” DeBose responded, adding nine more names to the list. “About 10 coaches who are helping families to the total of about [$200,000] annually and I still have to meet budget.”
“Wow,” Payne responded.
“You’re the only one that knows about it [because] so many of these dudes are selfish and would want more [because] they would argue that someone else don’t deserve the help more than they do,” DeBose said. “It’s a stressful balancing act.”
“Damn man, can it come back [and] hurt you?” Payne responded.
“Not really. Have to do it cleanly and with a process. I’m good, but it’s enough to where Lynn [Merritt, Nike’s global vice president for sports marketing and basketball] and Nico [Harrison, Nike’s vice president of North American Basketball Operations] don’t want to know the intimate details to cover their asses,” DeBose said. “So it’s a risk but my every day job is a damn risk so I’m used to it now.”
“Watch your back bro,” Payne responded, his final message in the exhibits.
Should Kentucky fans be worried?
Now that you know who DeBose is and what Payne said to him in the text exchange, is there any reason to sweat if you’re a Kentucky basketball fan?
In short, not really.
While it’s never a “good” thing to have your name associated with any scandal, Payne’s text exchange seemed to indicate he and the Kentucky program had seemingly minimal involvement in the entire process and that he was simply telling an individual he had known for quite some time to be careful.
Diving into the assistant’s quotes alone, while it’s obvious he’s not ignorant to the shadiness going on in the world of AAU basketball – he did acknowledge “Webster” and “Speedy” by name and was aware that they appreciated DeBose’s help – he was admittedly surprised at the number of EYBL coaches involved, the dollar figure attached to the process, and seemed to be unaware of the logistics of it all.
Looking at Kentucky’s recruiting track record, especially as of late, with players of questionable backgrounds and those rumored to be looking for handouts, John Calipari and his staff have backed off on multiple occasions.
Ayton, a player who publicly listed Kentucky as one of his favorite schools and was the first in the class of 2016 to receive a scholarship offer from UK, was outspoken about how his recruitment hadn’t gone the way he had hoped and wanted more schools to reach out. For a player who was deemed the most dominant and NBA-ready big man in his class, why would Kentucky randomly cut off all communication during the home stretch of his recruitment, especially when they likely could have reeled him in?
And with Langford, you may recall, Kentucky’s interest and communication dropped off almost completely in the spring of 2018. At the time, Langford’s father, Tim, told the Courier Journal about his disagreements with John Calipari during his time coaching the former five-star prospect with USA Basketball at the U19 FIBA World Cup in Egypt. He also added that Langford called Calipari in hopes of taking an official visit to Lexington in hopes of potentially solving their issues and rebuild burnt bridges.
Bol Bol’s contact dropped off, Terrance Ferguson essentially begged for an offer, Dennis Smith Jr. wasn’t prioritized, Josh Jackson’s recruitment drew red flags, Anthony Bennett went from Kentucky lean to minimal interest, etc.
You go down the list, and it’s no secret that Kentucky has mostly stayed away from the prospects – especially late in their respective recruitments – that could have caused them potential headaches with the NCAA. This case only seems to be more of the same.
Going back to Payne’s text messages, there’s always the possibility – a very real one – that the Kentucky assistant used DeBose to find out which AAU programs, coaches, and prospects to avoid on the recruiting trail, not who to go after. If you need a safety blanket to know who will get you in trouble and who will keep you out of it, why not go to the direct source?
Considering the program’s recent track record and the fact that the NCAA has been watching Calipari like a hawk from the day he arrived in Lexington, it’d be far-fetched to think that Payne was using DeBose to find out which prospects were looking for handouts and use that information for more bad than good, to say the least. National analysts and rival fans may jump on this and assume guilt based on name recognition alone, but there is little-to-no substance here that should make Kentucky fans sweat.
Friday’s report didn’t completely clear Payne or the Kentucky basketball program of any wrongdoing, but it certainly didn’t implicate them in any way, either.