A deal undone?

As New Era Sports & Entertainment's efforts to recruit Reggie Bush as a client fizzled, Michael Michaels and Lloyd Lake were left feeling betrayed.

By Jason Cole and Charles Robinson, Yahoo! Sports September 14, 2006
EL CAJON, Calif. – On the living room wall of Michael Michaels' ranch-style home is a framed copy of Sports Illustrated's 2004 USC national championship commemorative issue, featuring Reggie Bush in full stride.

Etched on the cover is a message from Bush and his signature.

"To Michael, thank you for all your support! Reggie Bush."

For Michaels, it's a constant reminder of a how his relationship with Bush and Bush's family went sour. It's a relationship that Michaels says went far beyond a financial arrangement.

"I look at that picture every day and I'm still trying to figure out how (he) and his family are trying to leave me out to the wolves like they did," Michaels said. "The truth will come out someday."

Shortly after Bush won the Heisman last December, the bond broke. Michaels' bid to land Bush as a client for New Era Sports & Entertainment, his sports marketing company, crashed. What has followed are investigations by the FBI, NCAA and Pac-10. The premature wooing from New Era could play a part in retroactively costing Bush his college eligibility, the Heisman and the University of Southern California the national title.

Michaels and New Era partner Lloyd Lake are left feeling deceived and betrayed.

During an interview with Yahoo! Sports on Aug. 16, Michaels talked with unusual calm and a sense of forgiveness toward Bush, the standout running back from USC, who received a $26.3 million guaranteed contract from the New Orleans Saints in July.

Bush walked away from New Era after:

• Michaels bought a house in which Bush's family lived rent free for a year, according to sources;

• New Era advanced him approximately $13,000 for a car, sources said;

• And Michaels paid for the running back to stay at a pair of posh hotels during March 2005, according to documents obtained by Yahoo! Sports.

Michaels, a member of the Sycuan Indian Tribe, said he plans to sue Bush to attempt to recover the money he spent. He said he was surprised that settlement talks have failed to progress because he and Bush seemed to have an agreement.

Michaels said he was saddened by how the relationship deteriorated, but open to trying to mend it.

"It can never be the way it was," said Michaels, who had no known experience as an agent. "When we talked, he had a lot of dreams, a lot of ambitions and goals and we were going to help him realize some of those dreams.

"I think what happened is that as that superstar aspect of his football career started to materialize, I think he got sucked into the wrong group. I think I can help him in that regard, without the Cornwells and without the Ornsteins, and help him realize his dreams on a bigger level, untainted."

Michaels was referring to Bush attorney David Cornwell and Bush marketing agent Mike Ornstein.

HOW IT ALL STARTED

According to attorney Brian Watkins, who at one time represented both Michaels and Lake, Bush's stepfather – LaMar Griffin – approached Lake in 2004 about founding a sports marketing company with Bush as its centerpiece. In October 2004 – during USC's undefeated championship season – Griffin and Lake approached Michaels in his luxury box at Qualcomm Stadium after a San Diego Chargers game. There, Michaels was asked to become a part of the marketing venture.

The plan was to have the Sycuan Tribe back the marketing firm. Griffin, Michaels and Lake visited the tribal council and pitched the idea. The tribe declined, leaving Michaels and Lake to fund New Era Sports.

Watkins told Yahoo! Sports in April that Griffin complained about debts he needed to pay off so he could "focus" on the New Era venture.

At that point, Michaels began doling out cash to Bush's family, starting with $28,000 in November 2004.

Lake, speaking on Aug. 27 from the South Detention Center in Chula Vista, Calif., where he is being held on a domestic violence charge, said he felt the entire episode with Bush was part of a scheme.

"I felt it was a low thing to do," said Lake, who has a long criminal history, including a conviction in a federal drug probe. "It was a plan of (Bush's) from the beginning. I'm really more disappointed in myself. I usually can judge someone's character and I couldn't do that in this situation."

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

Last January, Bush announced he would forgo his final season of college eligibility. Instead of allowing Michaels and Lake to handle his marketing, Bush selected Ornstein, a long-time sports marketing representative, for whom Bush had worked for as an intern the previous summer.

The decision stung Michaels and Lake, who thought they had bonded with the Bush family.

The group gathered for dinners at each others' homes. Bush's family invited Michaels and Lake's family to their storefront church in San Diego. At one point, Michaels donated several thousand dollars to the church and Lake's family also made a donation.

Michaels even served as a mediator when Bush's mother, Denise Griffin, and his stepfather were having marital difficulties in 2005. Michaels took the couple on a helicopter ride, hoping to help them work out their issues.

Michaels also helped patch up a disagreement between Bush and LaMar Griffin related to the marital strife. Bush and LaMar Griffin had an argument in the USC locker room after a game in September.

For his part, Lake said he felt like he was "played" in the relationship.

"This was all my own decision and I have to deal with the repercussions of what happened," Lake said. "It just upsets me that I couldn't figure out the game (Bush) was playing."

In April, after Yahoo! Sports reported the family had been living in the house owned by Michaels, Ornstein indicated that Bush had no direct relationship with Michaels.

Three days later, while talking with reporters in New York before the NFL draft, Bush said: "I'm confident and I know what the truth is. I know for a fact that everything is fine and this is all blown out of proportion and there's more to the story than is being told right now."

Watkins sent a letter, in which he threatened to sue Bush. Cornwell claimed the letter amounted to extortion and talked to the FBI, NFL and NFL Players Association about it.

Lake believes it was an attempt by Bush to divert attention.

"He ran to the FBI and told a bunch of lies," Lake said. "That's a low-down thing to do. I understand how someone can snitch and help yourself out of a situation, but don't tell lies about the situation."

BEYOND REPAIR?

Michaels, who also owns a home in Las Vegas and has multiple land holdings in addition to his income from the Sycuan's casino, resort and golf club, stopped short of saying he held a grudge against Bush. Michaels was dismissed from his role as a business development officer with the Sycuan tribe, largely due to his involvement with Bush's family.

"He went through a lot of things. We shared stories about his real dad, all that situation, LaMar, his mom," Michaels said. "I think he really has a lot of pain inside of him and now he can be his own self and say, ‘(expletive) it.' But I think he's going about it the wrong way because he's turning that pain into the bad side of their character."

Bush has earned praise in New Orleans for his charity work in helping the city rebuild from Hurricane Katrina. Bush donated $50,000 to a troubled high school.

Michaels said he thinks much of that is a front concocted by Ornstein to improve Bush's image.

"Ornstein, I'm pretty sure, orchestrated most of that to make him look good," Michaels said. "They probably said to him, ‘There's this dark side of your character, you have to do some things to offset that.' I think if you're a naturally good person, then some of the good and righteous things will compel you to do things right. So I kind of don't blame him. It's kind of weird, I don't know what to think of him."

Jason Cole and Charles Robinson are national NFL writers for Yahoo! Sports.

Send Jason a question or comment or send Charles a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Thursday, Sep 14, 2006 7:58 pm, EDT

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