Late on a Friday night in the spring of 2013, Kyle Kuzma approached his high school coach, Vin Sparacio, with tears in his eyes. Kuzma’s mother had just received a call from an NCAA investigator, who informed her that her son’s prep school, Rise Academy in Philadelphia, was under investigation. Kuzma, a native of Flint, Michigan, who went to Rise to attempt to achieve minimum eligibility requirements for a college scholarship, was devastated by the news.
Sparacio was immediately suspicious. He’d dealt with the NCAA enough over the years to know that someone from the organization was unlikely to call a parent late on a Friday night. He called a few of his NCAA contacts, who denied the phone call ever happened.
Sparacio quickly pieced together the real story. Christian Dawkins, then a 20-year-old grassroots team director, had been attempting to get Kuzma on his roster that spring. Sparacio figured out that Dawkins arranged a call to Kuzma’s mother from a “fake Indiana number” pretending to be a representative from the Indianapolis-based NCAA. “He was trying to get control,” Sparacio said. “I was mad, because I don’t see how you take advantage of a family in that situation.”
Kuzma, who starred for three seasons at the University of Utah, is now a breakout rookie with the Los Angeles Lakers. He confirmed the interaction to Yahoo Sports last week. “I think he wanted me to play for his AAU team,” Kuzma said of Dawkins.
Through his lawyer, Steve Haney, Dawkins denied the accusation. Haney added: “The whole factual nature of what they’re suggesting sounds questionable.”
It wasn’t Sparacio’s first encounter with Dawkins. He recalls Dawkins as a precocious presence on the basketball scene, brandishing two iPhones, a flashy watch and always trying to cut a deal. He’d previously proposed to Sparacio that in exchange for allowing Kuzma to play grassroots basketball for him that spring, he’d send star recruit Jaylen Johnson to Rise Academy. He also dangled the possibility of arranging an Adidas deal for the school. The proposals encapsulated how Dawkins operated, using access to players and sneaker affiliations as leverage to broker deals. Sparacio refused, and the night he snuffed out the fake NCAA investigator call, he said he rang up Dawkins’ father, veteran basketball coach Lou Dawkins, at 1 a.m. “You have to take care of this,” Sparacio said. “Your son is a little-ass kid. You need to take care of him.”
It wouldn’t be the last time a Dawkins scam backfired. The FBI arrested Dawkins, now 24, and nine other men on Sept. 26 amid a sweeping federal probe into the underbelly of basketball. Federal wiretaps captured Dawkins and others brokering deals for nearly $250,000 as part of a plan to eventually steer players to his management company. He refers to bribe money as “bread” and brags of attending Arizona practices “like I’m on the team.” He even delivered a sales pitch that included the promise: “You can make millions off of one kid.”
Dawkins rose through the typical underworld career arc from grassroots program director to runner to attempting to form his own management company in record time. He arranged large-scale basketball events as a high school student, ran a summer basketball program in honor of his late brother and seamlessly navigated through the shadowy world of agents, sneaker companies and the financial backers who fuel basketball’s black market. Dawkins boasted of being in the NBA draft green room three of the past four years and signing 10 NBA players by the age of 24.
Dawkins’ rise straddled the line between fearless and careless, ambitious and reckless, slick and sloppy. He went from brazenly breaking NCAA rules to allegedly breaking federal laws, blurring the distinction between hustle and con. To the players, coaches, sneaker representatives, financial officials, agents and middle men who make up basketball’s intricate ecosystem, Dawkins was both a rare prodigy and a walking Ponzi scheme. How did a community college dropout with no formal credentials end up at the heart of the scandal that’s shaken the sport and cost Hall of Fame Louisville coach Rick Pitino his job? “It’s incomprehensible,” says former sneaker executive Sonny Vaccaro of the pace of Dawkins’ rise. “I can’t explain it.”
In dozens of interviews about Dawkins with people at all levels of basketball, he emerges as a portrait of flawed ambition. He was a teenager claiming to be a CEO, a runner presenting himself to players and peers as an agent and an entrepreneur who complained to friends he didn’t make any money. He spent his days sending texts and Facebook messages to connect with the next great player, big-fish investor or powerful executive. The most apt analogy, cited independently by Vaccaro and multiple people throughout the basketball world, compared Dawkins to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can.” That character successfully impersonates a pilot, doctor and prosecutor as he attempts to stay ahead of the FBI.
DiCaprio’s character ends up assisting the federal government after he’s caught. Few of the 10 men arrested could know more than Dawkins about the backroom deals that for decades have shaped the sport. Dawkins faces up to 200 years for charges that include bribery, wire fraud and money laundering. And as we wait to see if Dawkins cooperates with federal authorities, the question lingers: Is his career the embodiment of the ills of basketball or is he simply a product of a flawed system that has operated unregulated for decades?
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In the spring of 2008, veteran Boston-area AAU coach Leo Papile received a correspondence from a young player in Michigan. Christian Vaughn-Dawkins, as he went by at the time, informed Papile that he’d be playing high school basketball that fall at St. Mark’s School, a Rockwellian prep school 35 miles outside Boston. The note decreed Dawkins had narrowed down his choices of AAU teams to Papile’s powerhouse BABC club and another of the region’s powers, The New England Playaz.
The note irked Papile, as he’d never heard of the kid and had already assembled a roster filled with Division I prospects. “The tone of it was self-laudatory,” he said. “It was clear that in his estimation of himself, he was an elite player.”
Dawkins ended up with a cameo appearance for the Playaz, which flew him out for a practice. Dawkins had billed himself as one of the top young players in Michigan, later labeling himself on his own scouting service as “standout camper” at his father’s camp. It took just one AAU practice to find out that the player didn’t match the promotion. “He was a nice kid and everyone liked him, but he was a terrible basketball player,” said a person who recalls the Playaz practice. “We got hoodwinked.”
Former St. Mark’s coach David Lubick, who still works in admissions at the school, said he recruited Dawkins more as a student than a player. At the University of Michigan’s Elite Camp that summer, Lubick had met Lou Dawkins, who was amid a successful run as head basketball coach at Saginaw High School, where he won two state titles and coached Draymond Green.
Lubick saw Christian Vaughn-Dawkins, who is African-American, as a player of modest ability who was more attractive as a student who could broaden the school’s geographic and diversity profile. Dawkins had strong grades and his mother, Tish, worked as a principal. “His play had nothing to do with him coming here,” Lubick said.
Dawkins entered the school as a 15-year-old repeating his freshman year. He struggled academically, the rigid discipline proving a difficult adjustment. He was popular socially, liked by the faculty and student body and deeply religious. Dawkins’ charm showed, too, as part of his lore at the school was that soon after arriving he’d arranged for a drama teacher to bring him Golden Grahams for breakfast if Dawkins came to class on time. During a rigorous conditioning session that year, Dawkins left to go to bathroom, appearing ill. Teammates found him on the bathroom floor, saying, “Jesus, is that you? Are you calling me?”
At the time, St. Mark’s boasted one of the country’s most powerful programs. Lubick’s son, Nate, went on to Georgetown and the Murphy brothers, Alex and Erik, eventually signed with Duke and Florida. They’d hold open gyms with more than 80 college coaches. Local coaches admired Dawkins’ networking ability, as he befriended and communicated with all the top talent in the area at the time, players like Ricky Ledo, Khem Birch and Wayne Selden.
Dawkins showed an affinity for the scene more than the game, as he spent more time writing his scouting service – Best of the Best Prep Basketball Scouting – than working on his game. “He was more interested in who was ranked where and all that stuff,” Dave Lubick said. “He wasn’t doing anything to improve himself as a player. He liked to argue and talk about basketball. He didn’t like to play.”
Dawkins was unlikely to return to St. Mark’s because of his academic issues and poor basketball fit. Then tragedy struck in June of 2009, as his younger brother, Dorian Dawkins, died while participating at Michigan State’s team camp. Christian Dawkins transferred home to be with his family, but he also stayed in touch with his old friends at St. Mark’s and stopped by to visit the next year. When asked if he needed a ride on his return trip, Dawkins told friends not to worry. His driver in a Lincoln Town Car was idling outside.
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Just out of high school, in early 2011, Christian Dawkins sent a text message to a business associate looking for financial backing to start his own agency. Dawkins claimed he could immediately deliver a half-dozen clients, including one NFL player. One of the NBA players, he claimed, was on the cusp of a $35 million deal. That would mean nearly $1 million in commission. All Dawkins was looking for to start was $75,000 in seed money, which he needed immediately to get a jumpstart on the 2012 NBA draft class. He promised in the text messages, which were shared with Yahoo Sports: “The money would come in fast, this could be huge.”
He was 18.
Dawkins grew up with a front-row seat to the basketball world and underworld, as his dad’s successful program at Saginaw gave him access to a network of players and coaches and planted the seeds of possibility in his mind. During Dawkins’ senior year of high school, he started the Dorian Dawkins Show Your Heart Memorial Classic, a four-game, two-day slate to honor his brother. A fawning MaxPreps article about the event from February of 2010 called Christian Vaughn-Dawkins a “basketball prodigy” and led by declaring: “Get ready to be impressed.”
The games played out under the umbrella of Dawkins’ company, Living Out Your Dreams Enterprises. He named himself CEO. With no chance of becoming a player on the floor, he returned to Saginaw to become one off it.
The event business transitioned organically to the grassroots basketball scene, where his ability to recruit talented local players – including many of his younger brother’s peers – helped him build Dorian’s Pride into a noted name on the grassroots scene. Affiliations with Under Armour, Reebok and Adidas followed. So did the players, as a Dawkins roster from a 2013 grassroots tournament included future No. 4 NBA draft pick Josh Jackson, Louisville-bound Jaylen Johnson, Kuzma and future blue-chip football recruit Malik McDowell, who the Seattle Seahawks picked out of Michigan State in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft.
Dawkins’ affable personality allowed him to navigate seamlessly through the scene, as he was known for telling associates he was “grinding,” a remark that elicited giggles when he was still living with his parents and struggling to complete community college credits at Kishwaukee College. Around that time, Dawkins realized the power that comes with controlling top players. Dawkins brokered a meeting with one of the top AAU coaches in the Midwest around that time, seeking advice on how to parlay his relationship with Jackson into more power on the scene. Dawkins came away disappointed with the meeting, in which the AAU don offered this advice: “Don’t sell your soul, don’t sell your players.”
Dawkins ended up losing Jackson after his mother, Apples Jones, realized she could manage her son’s recruitment. (Under Armour gave her a contract for her own AAU program). But the grassroots scene provided a roadmap through every level of basketball. He loved negotiating with event promoters over entry fees and hotel rooms. He leveraged his affiliation with players like Johnson, who ended up at Louisville, to interact with college coaches. One college assistant told Yahoo Sports that Dawkins talked “to everyone” in college basketball, and multiple assistant coaches realized in retrospect they had no idea Dawkins was a teenager when he reached out to them about players. Soon enough, he began networking with agents and seeking out financial benefactors, asking for five- and six-figure fronts with his access to players in return.
Dawkins understood the short distance between high school and the NBA, as he ran the recruitment of a talented wing from the 2017 class named Brian Bowen. He helped place Bowen at La Lumiere School in 2015, and became the main point of contact in his recruitment. He eventually brokered an alleged $100,000 deal for Bowen to attend Louisville that ended in Pitino’s firing. But at the school’s open gym for nearly 100 college coaches last fall, Dawkins never went inside. He waited in his rental Chevy Impala in the parking lot, lingering to connect without wanting to be noticed. “One of the hardest things is to understand how all the layers of basketball work,” said a source who has known Dawkins for years. “There’s shoe layers, the financial layers and the agent layers. All that stuff. People’s heads spin when you tell people who don’t get it. He was like a savant in figuring this out and always ahead of the curve with the next hustle.”
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By the summer of 2017, Dawkins was a 24-year-old jaded veteran of the scene. He complained that there weren’t enough talented players in the Class of 2018, and he was focusing on the top targets in the 2019 class. He grumbled about spending more money than he’d made, and he’d burned bridges around the underworld. “What did him in was he was trying to do too much too fast,” said a friend of Dawkins. “He was trying to recruit every single player. The reason he got caught is that he was sloppy and reckless.”
That notion is echoed in legal documents and complaints that detail his downfall. In May of 2016, Dawkins ended up in the middle of a lawsuit between prominent NBA financial adviser Kurt Schoeppler and long-time NBA agent Andy Miller. It included allegations that Dawkins was steering players toward Miller’s agency instead of Schoeppler’s and accused Dawkins of $61,700 in improper expenditures. The sides eventually settled.
Once Dawkins formally joined Miller’s payroll, he flourished. With robust financial backing, he kept delivering players. Miller was once a dominant NBA agent, but appeared to be entering his twilight with the retirement of wheelhouse clients like Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups. Dawkins went a long way toward reviving Miller’s business, as he’s associated with helping Miller land clients Jarell Martin, KJ McDaniels, Justin Patton, Malik Beasley, Fred VanVleet, Jawun Evans, Edmond Sumner and Jaron Blossomgame. To an inquiry from Yahoo Sports, Martin responded via text: “I have no knowledge on what’s going on with Dawkins nor his case, but he’s a great guy.” He declined further comment. (Patton and VanVleet did not immediately return messages seeking comment). Sumner and Patton have fired Miller, according to ESPN. Bloomberg reported the FBI’s Newark office raided Miller’s New Jersey office and seized his computer.
To many, the rise of an unlicensed hustler like Dawkins speaks to the vulnerabilities of the system: “The fact that he could get that close [to everyone] is mind-boggling,” said Papile, who worked in the Boston Celtics front office for years and has coached BABC for 41 seasons. “It shows the overall intellect of that community. When a guy of zero means can deeply penetrate that level.”
Dawkins often bragged to coaches and friends how much money Miller fronted him, but few knew Dawkins wasn’t certified as an NBA Players Association agent. He simply ran for Miller, serviced players and brokered introductions. Dawkins’ sloppiness cost him publicly in May of 2017, when the NBPA found he’d spent $42,000 in unauthorized Uber charges on the credit card of NBA star Elfrid Payton. (Dawkins had built a relationship with Payton at Louisiana Lafayette.)
Miller went to great lengths to publicly distance himself from Dawkins, as reports that he fired him emerged in May of 2017. But Dawkins was spotted around Miller’s clients at the NBA draft combine, as he was publicly jettisoned but still valued behind the scenes by Miller because he’d formed the relationships with the players. “The whole thing is corrupt,” said Haney, Dawkins’ lawyer. “The whole system is broken. Don’t pick a 24-year-old and make him the fall guy. It’s not going to happen. Not on my watch. It’s going to be a fight.”
Dawkins moved on to bigger plans, as he moved to form his own management company to handle the business and marketing for NBA players. Part of his downfall, according to multiple sources, came from burning relationships with multiple financial managers who typically work in the NBA space. “He’s a 24-year-old stupid kid and came in like a bull,” said one NBA industry source. “He did not completely understand what he’s doing.”
That showed by affiliating himself with Louis Martin Blazer, a Pittsburgh-based financial adviser who’d been accused of taking $2.4 million from clients. A simple Internet search may have raised a red flag for Dawkins in dealing with Blazer, who had issues with the Security and Exchange Commission that were public. That led him to becoming a cooperating witness, giving the federal investigators access to wiretaps and phone taps and of Dawkins planning to pay assistant coaches at top programs to steer top players to both Dawkins’ management company and financial adviser Munish Sood.
The comments of USC associate coach Tony Bland, who is accused of taking at least $13,000 in bribes, shows the depth of belief in Dawkins. He is caught on wiretap complimenting the payment scheme Dawkins orchestrated: “It’s not been this clean from a guy that I trust.” Bland added: “We got us a goldmine over here.”
The promise of a goldmine ended up with Bland, Dawkins, Sood and seven others getting arrested by federal authorities on the morning of Sept. 26. All 10 have since appeared in federal court in the Southern District of New York. If Dawkins cooperates with the feds, there are few other defendants with more information over a wider swath of contacts.
As Kuzma exited a Lakers preseason game on Friday night, he declined to comment specifically on Dawkins. He deferred comment to his old prep school coach, who could only think back to the fake phone call four years ago, an early sign of a hustler willing to push the limits. “This has been in the making for years,” Sparacio said.
Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg contributed reporting from Los Angeles.
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