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How Vegas helped bring down college basketball

“Everyone’s dirty – some are just

dirtier than others.”

That’s the line from an industry veteran that

struck me. Everyone’s dirty? Everyone?

It was the early 2000s and I was in Las Vegas

watching the next generation of basketball talent

sweat it out in high school gymnasiums scattered

around the desert.

At each gym – Chaparral over here, Cimarron

Memorial over there, Desert Pines and Durango –

were a dozen teams playing a half-dozen games.

Every day in Las Vegas for a full week, the best of

the best high school talent played against each

other, first in round-robin games and then in a

mock tournament.

At each gym, the people-watching was fantastic.

AAU coaches, shoe company executives from

Nike, Reebok and Adidas, former NBA players,

current NBA players and scores of high-level

college coaches mingled together on high school

bleachers.

Imagine the absurdity of seeing Roy Williams,

Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim sitting just a few feet

from each other on wooden bleachers watching

the same game in a tiny, blistering hot gymnasium.

And yet, there they were.

The Atlanta Celtics were the main draw with

superstar center Dwight Howard (NBA) playing

alongside 6-foot-11 bruiser Randolph Morris

(Kentucky) and 6-8, high-flying wing Josh Smith

(NBA). There were stars from California like Arron

Afflalo and Jordan Farmar (UCLA), an incredible

wing from Maryland named Rudy Gay (UConn)

and some amazing guards: Chicago-area shooter

Shaun Livingston (NBA), Detroit’s Joe Crawford

(Kentucky), Louisville’s Rajon Rondo (Kentucky)

and New York’s Sebastian Telfair (NBA).

Many of the top stars in the 2005 class were

in Vegas at the same time, future stars like Greg

Paulus (Duke), Chris Douglas-Roberts (Memphis),

Gerald Green (NBA), Andrew Bynum (NBA) and

Tyler Hansbrough (UNC). The Seattle teams held

future Louisville Cardinals Terrence Williams

and Peyton Siva and a Southern California team

was led by a young guard named Andre McGee.

I remember asking one of the veteran recruiting

writers how this whole system worked. How do

the coaches know who to watch? How do the

tournaments keep the coaches and the high schoolers separated?

And how in the world can thousands of

youngsters afford to fly to Las Vegas and stay in

hotels for a week, not to mention the new shoes,

new socks, new jerseys and new gym bags?

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” an

assistant coach said with a smirk.

Turns out it doesn’t.

Fast forward to 2016, the FBI arrested 10

people, four of them assistant basketball coaches,

thanks, in part, to conversations recorded in

a Las Vegas hotel room during the summer

recruiting bonanza.

The FBI uncovered a scheme by agents and

shoe company employees to funnel money to

the parents of high school recruits and to pay

assistants to use their influence to steer prospects

toward future agents.

Those arrests, and the mention of a high

school phenom named Brian Bowen being

enticed to come to Louisville, broke open what

could go down as the biggest scandal in college

basketball history.

On the day of the arrests, Joon Kim, the U.S.

Attorney for the Southern District of New York,

put college basketball coaches and the high

school basketball recruiting complex on notice.

Kim vowed to expose “the dark underbelly of

college basketball.”

FBI agent Bill Sweeney said, “Today’s arrests

should serve as a warning to others choosing

to conduct business in this way in the world of

college athletes: We know your playbook. Our

investigation is ongoing, and we are conducting

additional interviews as I speak.”

After that day, Louisville suspended Rick Pitino,

two assistant coaches and athletic director Tom

Jurich. Since then, they’ve all been fired. Assistant

coaches at Auburn, Arizona, Oklahoma State and

USC were all suspended and then later fired.

Over that next week, hundreds of articles

were written calling the arrests the “tip of the

iceberg.” We were all told that more arrests were

imminent and the college basketball world would

be rocked to its core.

Then there was a four-month period of relative

calm. Fans and media started to wonder if the

FBI’s tough talk of having college basketball’s

“playbook” was just bluster.

Then, in early February, all hell broke loose.

Yahoo Sports writers Pete Thamel and Pat

Forde got ahold of some of the FBI’s uncovered

documents.

Thamel and Forde wrote, “While three criminal

cases tied to the investigation may take years

to play out, the documents viewed by Yahoo

revealed the extent of the potential NCAA

ramifications from the case. The documents

show an underground recruiting operation that

could create NCAA rules issues – both current and

retroactive – for at least 20 Division I basketball

programs and more than 25 players.”

One of the documents was a spreadsheet

snagged during a raid of a sports agency with

names, dates and amounts of money “loaned”

to high school and college players, including

Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo, NC State’s Dennis

Smith Jr. and Yahoo also uncovered emails that

seemed to indicate assistant coaches at Michigan

State, Indiana and others bidding on Bowen, the

recruit that ended up at Louisville.

ESPN’s Mark Schlabach cited sources that

indicated Arizona coach Sean Miller was recorded

on a FBI wiretap arranging $100,000 for recruit

DeAndre Ayton.

The scandal has already brought down Pitino

and Miller and is threatening to bring down

Michigan State’s Tom Izzo as well. And who else?

Veteran writer Dan Wetzel told Fox Sports he

believes 20 Power-5 head coaches will lose their

jobs before the scandal is done.

If that’s true, the entire system of college

basketball recruiting will have to change. All of

it. From the summer tournaments in Las Vegas

to the high school gyms across the country, if the

NCAA is serious about cleaning up its mess, the

whole lot will have to change.

And the scary thing for the NCAA? The

information that has leaked out so far has all

been from one agent’s office. What about the

other 15 agencies doing business in much the

same manner?

Mark Emmert was on CBS and was asked about

the mess in college basketball. He said change

is on the way. “Following the Southern District

of New York’s indictments last year, the NCAA

Board of Governors and I formed the independent

Commission on College Basketball, chaired by

Condoleezza Rice, to provide recommendations

on how to clean up the sport. With these latest

allegations, it’s clear this work is more important

now than ever. The Board and I are completely

committed to making transformational changes

to the game and ensuring all involved in

college basketball do so with integrity. We also

will continue to cooperate with the efforts of

federal prosecutors to identify and punish the

unscrupulous parties seeking to exploit the system

through criminal acts.”

As a longtime observer of the recruiting process

each summer, I have a few notes for Emmert

and Rice:

The NCAA must remove the shoe companies

from the recruiting process. Removing shoe

company sponsorships from AAU and high school

teams would be a good place to start.

The NCAA must remove parents and assistant

coaches from the pockets of agents. Getting the

NBA to modify its one-and-done rule would

help this issue.

CBS’ Gary Parrish believes the NCAA should

allow college athletes to sign with agents above

board: “The fix really is simple. What the NCAA

should do is eliminate the black market by allowing

student-athletes to secure representation and

accept fair-market value in this billion-dollar

industry where just about everybody connected

to the biggest sports in the biggest conferences

are legally getting rich but them.”

The NCAA must figure out a way to let the elite

talent head to the pros while keeping enough

talent to make college basketball fun to watch.

None of that will be easy, especially considering

public perception casts the NCAA’s favorability

rating somewhere between the NRA and Congress.

And over the next two years as these cases

unfold, the NCAA must deal with the fall out of

multiple elite coaches losing their jobs thanks to

the investigation headed by the FBI.

College basketball won’t be the same after this

is all done. And that’s probably a good thing.

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” an assistant

coach said with a smirk.

Turns out it doesn’t.

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