For the past four years, the New York Knicks may have circumvented NBA draft rules by conducting secret workouts of collegiate players throughout gymnasiums in suburban Atlanta, Yahoo! Sports has found.
Knicks director of East Coast scouting Rodney Heard coordinated and conducted the sessions, three players who were involved in some of the workouts told Yahoo! Sports – including one May 2007 session that resulted in a devastating knee injury to Kansas All-American Brandon Rush(notes). A tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in Rush's right knee forced him to withdraw from the 2007 draft and required surgery plus six months of rehabilitation.
[Photos: See Brandon Rush on the court]
In addition to the Rush session – which was an apparent violation of NBA bylaws forbidding teams from working out players before the annual predraft camp – Heard may have broken more rules by conducting predraft workouts with additional players during restricted time periods in 2007 and for excessive sessions in 2009 and 2010.
• League sources with knowledge of the workouts said Heard trained forward Wilson Chandler(notes) for multiple weeks before the 2007 predraft camp. The Knicks went on to draft Chandler with the 23rd overall pick that year.
[Photos: See forward Wilson Chandler in action]
• DePaul's Dar Tucker said Heard led two-a-day workouts for him and other players for multiple days before the 2009 draft. NBA rules limit teams to two total workouts spaced three days apart.
• Heard also helped oversee multiple workouts in 2010 for a group of players including Baylor's Ekpe Udoh(notes) and Notre Dame's Tory Jackson(notes), said Jackson and a college coach who was present at the sessions. The workouts also are an apparent violation of NBA rules limiting the time teams may spend with players before each draft.
"Rodney did most of the workouts," Jackson said of the sessions in which he was involved. "He never really put anybody else in charge of his workouts. He wanted to run all the workouts himself, which was good."
The NBA has previously fined teams and suspended team officials involved in improper workouts. None of those incidents, however, covered multiple seasons or involved an injury to a player who could have been a potential lottery pick.
Reached Monday, Heard denied being involved in any of the workouts. The NBA said Tuesday it will investigate the allegations.
Rush, now a member of the Indiana Pacers, said he was injured during a workout with Heard at a gymnasium connected to the former home of former NBA player Shareef Abdur-Rahim(notes) in Marietta, Ga. Rush had previously maintained that he sustained the injury in a pick-up game in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo. Multiple NBA executives, who researched Rush for the following draft in 2008, and sources in college basketball, the sneaker industry and those close to Rush and Heard said they were aware the injury happened in a workout with the Knicks.
"It was [during] drill work, doing a three-man weave," Rush said in a recent interview. "I went up for a dunk, came down and that was it. It was a quick pop in my knee."
When asked by Yahoo! Sports whether Heard was running the workout, Rush replied: "Yeah."
In a memo to NBA front offices dated April 3, 2007, league attorneys warned: "Teams are prohibited from conducting or attending any workout of any draft-eligible players before the conclusion of the predraft camp." Rush's workout occurred before the 2007 predraft evaluation camp, which ran from May 29 to June 1 in Orlando, Fla.
Rush said he planned to spend a week working out with the Knicks executive in suburban Atlanta prior to the camp. Rush wasn't the only impermissible player in the gymnasium, he told Yahoo! Sports.
Crawford was a University of Kentucky junior and hadn't declared for the 2007 draft. The NBA forbid team officials from having any contact with college underclassmen. When reached by Yahoo! Sports on Monday about the incident with Rush's knee, Crawford asked, "Did Brandon tell you about this?"
Crawford described how there was nothing awkward about the way Rush jumped or landed on his feet.
"You don't want to see that happen to anyone," Crawford said. "I knew that he could be a top-five pick and I was just hoping and praying he was going to recover."
When asked how Heard reacted to the injury, Crawford hesitated and said: "Can I call you back in a few minutes, sir?"
When Crawford called back several minutes later, he insisted the game was an open pick-up game and he didn't remember seeing Heard there. Crawford and Heard have a relationship going back to their days in Detroit together.
"There were so many people in and out of the gym there," Crawford said.
When reached on Monday, Heard denied he was present in suburban Atlanta when Rush suffered the knee injury.
"That's so far from the truth," Heard said. "Someone called me and told me he got hurt. I was in Florida at our staff meetings."
When told that Rush said he was running the workout, Heard responded: "I wasn't there. That's a lie."
At the center of most of the apparent violations is Heard's close relationship with player agent Chris Luchey, who represents Chandler, Udoh, Tucker and Jackson. Heard and Luchey founded and coached rival AAU basketball programs in Detroit, and both eventually relocated to the Atlanta area.
Heard denied working out any Luchey clients during predraft processes in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
"That's not true," Heard said.
Luchey acknowledged that Heard had relationships with several of his clients from their shared Detroit days – including Chandler – but said, "No, Rodney never worked out Wilson before the draft. … What you're asking … that Rodney works my players out? That's not a true statement."
Former Knicks president Isiah Thomas hired Heard from the Atlanta Hawks in 2006 and still enjoys a close relationship with him. Through a school spokesman, Thomas, now the coach at Florida International University, declined to speak to Yahoo! Sports on Monday.
Donnie Walsh, who succeeded Thomas as president of the Knicks, kept Heard and ultimately gave him a new contract. Walsh said he was unaware of Heard's workouts under his watch in 2009 and '10.
"I don't know anything about this," Walsh said. "I didn't know any of our scouts worked out people like this. They know they're not supposed to."
By holding the workouts, Heard could gain valuable information on young prospects who may have had small samples of work on the college level. Teams can scout college games, practices and sanctioned predraft evaluation camps. Prior to 2009, team officials weren't allowed to conduct or attend workouts before the annual predraft camp.
The NBA altered that rule in 2009, allowing teams to run limited workouts with draft-eligible players prior to the combine. The league office reiterated in a April 6, 2010 memo: "Teams are prohibited from conducting more than two team visits per draft-eligible player prior to the draft. A 'team visit' includes any contact between a team representative and a draft-eligible player that is arranged for the purpose of recruiting or working out the draft-eligible player, including for the purpose of having the player tested, interviewed or otherwise evaluated by a team representative."
Walsh said he's never sanctioned a formal workout with a player outside of the Knicks practice facility, and if he did, the workout would've included several members of the organization.
Rival team officials said such workouts could give a team a competitive advantage.
The NBA has publicly fined teams and suspended team officials a handful of times for violating the league’s draft rules over the past decade.
July 7, 2000: The NBA fined the Milwaukee Bucks and Dallas Mavericks $ 50,000 each for violating league rules concerning players entering the NBA draft. The rules prohibit teams from having more than four draft- eligible players competing on the court at the same time during workouts and from having those players compete against veteran NBA players.
May 28, 2002: The NBA fined the Cleveland Cavaliers $150,000 and suspended coach John Lucas(notes) for the first two games of the 2003-04 season for including high school junior LeBron James(notes) and other draft-ineligible players in a Cavaliers team workout.
Oct. 18, 2002: The NBA fined Dallas $150,000 and suspended Don Nelson and Donnie Nelson for the first two games of the 2002-03 season for contact with players who were ineligible for the NBA Draft. The Nelsons had attended private workouts in Yugoslavia in June of 2002.
June 3, 2005: The NBA fined the Denver Nuggets $200,000 and suspended George Karl for three games for attending workouts at Marquette University in May 2005 that included his son Coby. The league has rules against contact between NBA teams and players not yet eligible for the NBA draft.
"The more information that you can get on a player, the better off you are in this business," one Western Conference executive said. "If we could bring in underclassmen for two weeks and get to know them even better, we would all do it.
"Say we played Player 'X' from watching him play in college for a year. And then, we bring him in for a couple of weeks and he acts like a complete whack job – or he can't do what we thought on the floor, or he's late every day.
"That tells you a lot."
When it comes to underclassmen who have a decision to make about staying in the draft or returning to school, one Eastern Conference executive said: "That kind of access can really influence a kid to stay in the draft, and it also gives the team an ability to hide him from the rest of us before the draft."
Prior to Rush's injury in late May 2007, league executives, coaches, players and trainers with knowledge of the workouts said Heard used his relationship with Luchey to gain access to Chandler, a DePaul sophomore, who had been considered a likely second-round draft pick based on his inconsistency in college. The sources spoke anonymously because they were not authorized by their respective teams to comment publicly. When Chandler left DePaul to enter the '07 daft, he signed with Luchey, his childhood AAU coach from Michigan, who had become an agent.
Chandler trained for several weeks in May and June 2007 in suburban Atlanta with Heard, sources with direct knowledge of the workouts told Yahoo! Sports. Luchey later canceled planned trips to several teams – including Chicago, Portland and San Antonio – who wanted to conduct permissible workouts in those cities.
Luchey told the teams that Chandler had an ankle injury.
"I've heard these accusations before," Luchey told Yahoo! Sports. "It was a big deal when Wilson canceled all the workouts and people were asking, 'Why would the Knicks take him?' The truth is that me and Isiah [Thomas] sat down, talked about [Chandler], and he told me to sell him on Wilson. Two hours later, he said, 'I think I'll take him, but I'll get back to you.'
"When he was drafted, I heard this story 100 times. I'm surprised to hear this again now. Listen, Rodney and me are cool. We're homeboys. I don't actively hire Rodney to work out my guys, but I don't step between his relationship with them. They're all Michigan guys.
"It's probably a positive for me that we have a decent relationship," Luchey said. "It doesn't hurt me."
Chandler turned into one of the finds of the draft for the Knicks, and became a productive starter for them. He previously denied to Yahoo! Sports that the Knicks ran illegal workouts for him prior to the '07 draft.
DePaul's Dar Tucker and Syracuse's Eric Devendorf were two Luchey clients eligible for the '09 draft, and Tucker told Yahoo! Sports that both worked extensively with Heard in suburban Atlanta during parts of May and June 2009. Teams aren't allowed to have more than two such encounters with a player – with a gap of three days between them. Heard conducted the workouts on an almost daily basis, Tucker told Yahoo! Sports.
"Twice a day," Tucker said. "Once in the morning and once in the afternoon. … [Heard's] tough when you work out with him. It's kind of like the army. It helps you because he's there already. It gives you the upper hand. He's the one that [the Knicks] send looking at guys. To have him give you pointers on what you need to do was real helpful for me and the other guys."
Besides Devendorf and another Luchey client, Anthony Roberson(notes), who played with the Knicks in 2008, Tucker said there were some "small college players" in the workouts that "I didn't know." NBA bylaws would have prohibited Roberson, as a current pro player, from joining draft-eligible players in such workout sessions. Walsh signed Roberson to a two-year free-agent contract in the summer of 2008, and he played 23 games with New York before the team traded him to Chicago in February of '09.
Tucker worked out for several NBA teams, including Milwaukee and Golden State, but went undrafted in 2009. He played the 2009-10 season for the Los Angeles Defenders of the NBA Developmental League.
In the spring of 2010, Bill Firnbach, assistant basketball coach and associate athletics director at Life University in Marietta, Ga., received a phone call from CGL Sports, the Atlanta-based agency owned and operated by Luchey. Luchey wanted to use the gym to work out several draft prospects, including Udoh, a Baylor University standout who would be picked sixth overall by the Golden State Warriors.
"They came to us and said, 'Well, we're going to have someone with the Knicks training some of our players,' " Firnbach told Yahoo! Sports in his campus office recently. "And [I thought], 'Well, that's always good to have exposure when NBA teams are involved in your school.' "
The promise of a Knicks official running the workouts became the primary reason that Firnbach suggested to Luchey that the agent allow several of Life University's graduating senior players to participate in the workouts.
Firnbach said he first met Heard and Luchey when they arrived on his campus in mid-May to begin workouts. Firnbach said he typically opened the gymnasium for the workouts in the morning, and occasionally checked on how his Life University players were conducting themselves in the sessions. The workouts stretched, he said, "from mid-May to mid-June."
Tory Jackson, a three-year starter for Notre Dame, signed Luchey as his agent and took part in the workouts in Marietta this past spring. He knew Heard from the Detroit AAU scene and had a long-standing relationship with Udoh. Jackson told Yahoo! Sports that Heard spent several weeks running the workouts with the players, another apparent violation of NBA rules which limit the number of workouts conducted by teams to two.
"He did everything himself," Jackson said of Heard. "He knew it was his line of work. Everything was run his way. He never really put anybody [else] there. I think that really helped Ekpe and myself … it showed at the next level what they expect, what they want, the little things that matter the most.
"We did a two-a-days most of the time. We'd do conditioning in the morning, and we'd come back and play in the afternoon, do individual stuff. We'd mix it up sometimes. We'd work out hard in the morning and then shoot in the afternoon. It worked out well for us."
Jackson wasn't selected in the June draft but did earn an invite to the Milwaukee Bucks training camp. Jackson didn't make the team but expects to play in the NBA Developmental League this season. He credits the work that Heard did with him at Life University as instrumental in his pro development.
"He taught me a lot," Jackson said. "I think the things that he taught me were the things that helped me get through tough times. He taught me a lot of ways to score and get easy baskets at my size. Knocking down a jump shot is very important; he preaches that as a guard.
"He was hands-on to teach us everything to help us get through it. He knew what we had to do. Like him with any other trainer out there, he's not going to half-step anything. He's going to do it hard."
Asked if Heard had been in the gym to work out or evaluate Udoh and the rest of the players more than twice, Firnbach said: "That would be accurate. More than twice, but I don't think I saw him more than five times during the month."
Heard and Luchey maintain that the Knicks executive was never in the gymnasium.
The Knicks had already traded their 2010 first-round pick, and the top prospect in the workouts, Udoh, was considered certain to be among the first players drafted. As one Atlanta-based source who has witnessed Heard's workouts of college underclassmen at the Georgia house said: "Rodney's a gym rat. He works out a lot of guys with no shot at the league. I don't think there's always intent when he does it."
It would be unusual for NBA organizations to do formal workouts and evaluations in the predraft process without their ultimate decision-makers present. And in almost all cases, teams will fly the draft prospects into their practice facility. As an exception, the Portland Trail Blazers held a legal workout in the Los Angeles area for 2010 prospect Eliot Williams of Memphis. The Blazers sent a general manager, assistant GMs, coaches, trainers and a video crew to beam the session back to owner Paul Allen on his private yacht.
For more than two years, the story of Rush's workout injury percolated within league front offices. After Rush helped Kansas win an NCAA title in his junior year, he re-entered the draft in '08 and told at least two teams a different version of his public stance that the injury occurred in a pickup game in Kansas City. Rush says no one with the Knicks, including Heard, encouraged him to cover up the story.
"He told us Atlanta," one front-office executive said. "We knew it was with the Knicks and Heard, but we didn't push the issue with him. We were just more concerned with how the knee was."
Rush was vague when asked about why he originally said the injury had happened in Kansas City, as well as the circumstances around his traveling to Atlanta to work out for Heard at Abdur-Rahim's house. Before the trip to Atlanta, Rush said he had been in North Carolina to play at his old prep school, Mount Zion Academy.
"I heard some guys were down there [in Atlanta] working out, and I thought it would be best for me to go down and try some stuff out," Rush said.
"I went down to Atlanta and I was supposed to be there for a week," he added. "It happened the first day … in the first 15 minutes."
Heard had the players start the workout with a traditional three-man weave drill, Rush said before describing himself going up for a dunk and feeling the pop in his right knee.
"I went down, but then I got back up and was running down the court," he told Yahoo! Sports. "And I couldn't get stable on it. It was really wobbly. I went to the hospital and they said they didn't know what to do. They couldn't run an MRI on me. Then I had to fly back to Kansas City the next day.
"The seat they had [on the plane] was too small, so [the knee] was getting real cramped and it started blowing up real fat," he said.
Rush flew home to Kansas City, he said, informed Kansas coach Bill Self of the injury and underwent surgery on June 5, 2007.
When reached on Monday night, Self told Yahoo! Sports: "Brandon initially told us he hurt his knee in Kansas City," Self said. "And later, he told us that was inaccurate and that it happened the day prior, while he was in North Carolina. We heard about the workouts in Atlanta, and we asked Brandon if he had worked out there and he said, 'No,' that he was injured when he got there."
Rush told Yahoo! Sports that the Knicks never asked him to change his story about the injury happening in Atlanta with Heard, but multiple sources said his family and advisers worried about his college eligibility and believed he needed to keep the story quiet until he left Kansas for the NBA.
The NCAA's rules extend to a player's predraft workouts, but sources said any issue with Rush's eligibility upon his return to Kansas would likely center around whether an agent paid for his travel to Atlanta. The NCAA declined comment on Monday.
Rush withdrew his name from the 2007 draft and started an arduous six-month rehabilitation process. After Kansas won the national title, Rush was chosen with the 13th pick in the 2008 draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers then traded his rights on draft night to the Pacers. Rush has been inconsistent in his first two seasons with Indiana, averaging 8.8 points. He is suspended for the first five games of the 2010-11 season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
"After that injury, he was never the same player," said one Western Conference executive.