NEW YORK – The transcript that was read in federal court here Tuesday could be considered a proffer, or an opening bid, or just a feeler to see just how quickly the other side would blink – and they wouldn’t.
Adidas consultant and longtime basketball figure Merl Code was on one line. Kurtis Townsend, veteran assistant coach of Kansas basketball, was on the other. The topic: the impending recruitment of top-five prospect Zion Williamson, who, like Code, hails from South Carolina. Little did either Code or Townsend know, the FBI was taping the entire thing.
“Hey,” said Townsend, according to a reading by Code’s attorney, Mark Moore. “Between me and you, you know, he asked about some stuff. You know?”
Who is “he?” Zion Williamson’s father, per Moore’s courtroom account.
“I know what he’s asking for,” Code responded. “He’s asking for opportunities from an occupational perspective, he’s asking for cash in the pocket and he’s asking for housing for him and his family.”
If this was to follow the basics that played out over the past 2½ weeks here as the underground economy of college athletics was laid bare in a federal fraud trial, that meant a job (lucrative with little to no work), a lot of cash (six figures, minimum) and an apartment or house (rent-free, of course). If you’ve seen Zion play, you’d know that isn’t a bad deal.
Which might be why Townsend sounded unfazed.
“I’ve got to just try to work and figure out a way because if that’s what it takes to get him here for 10 months, we’re going to have to do it some way,” Townsend said.
So, what you have here allegedly is a Kansas assistant bringing up that a top prospect’s father is asking for extra benefits to a consultant backed by Adidas money and then answering affirmatively when that consultant provides more detail about those demands – every one of which is a dead-red NCAA violation.
While that isn’t good for Kansas, it also begs a question: If K.U. was indeed willing to do this and Zion Williamson actually signed not with K.U. but instead with Duke, then what were the Blue Devils, or their interests (boosters, affiliated agents, Nike), willing to do?
And while the emergence of the Code-Townsend conversation should have sent a chill through Lawrence, the Duke factor may prove to be the Jayhawks’ get-out-of-jail-free card.
Does anyone out there believe the NCAA is really, truly going to investigate Duke? And not some cursory, rubber-stamp, we-found-nothing-now-please-enjoy-the-NCAA-tournament-starring-Zion-Williamson attempt, presented by all of the commercials starring Mike Krzyzewski.
If you go after Townsend for this phone call, then it leads you to Zion Williamson and that leads you to, well, what exactly?
If history is any indication, the NCAA wants no part of finding out, no part of finding anything – if there is anything – at Duke. In their minds, this entire operation needs white hats and black hats and there is none more unstained than Krzyzewski’s.
Yet common sense can’t be so common that anyone believes, as Coach K tried to claim Monday, that what has been revealed in federal court isn’t really how recruiting works and kids just pick a school because of how the quad looks on a sun-splashed fall day.
“It’s a blip,” Krzyzewski said Monday about the details emerging from New York. “It’s not what’s happening.”
Less than 24 hours later, the blip went boom because this is what is happening.
No one is suggesting Krzyzewski is out there dropping bags of cash. And no one is saying he’s really this evil cheater or anything like that. A guy that powerful, no one even dares to make demands to his face. Code wasn’t even making it to Bill Self; he was going with the assistant.
Coach K can be the best guy in the world. This is still college hoops, though.
To believe nothing ever happens at Duke is to believe Williamson either couldn’t find anyone to meet his demands so he chose Duke, or that Duke is just so fantastic of a place that it outweighed all the cash and cars and jobs and houses everyone else was willing to provide.
Kansas got a visit, but couldn’t get the player. Most of the recruiting experts following the chase thought Williamson would go to nearby Clemson, where Code played, coincidentally or not.
Instead it was Duke.
Does the NCAA want to know why? Does it want to look into everything? Does it overturn the rock? The probable cause to do so is as clear as what Code was telling Townsend, who, don’t forget, works for a Hall of Fame coach at a storied program, not some outlier or upstart.
Duke signed three of the top five players in America last year, an impressive haul even by Krzyzewski’s standards. It signed three of the top seven the year before and four of the top 12 in 2016. The point? No one recruits better than Duke. It’s a NBA factory there.
There are many reasons for that, Coach K topping the list. Yet is that the only reason?
Maybe every commitment to Durham was as clean as a whistle and Nike doesn’t do what Adidas does and all these All-Americans just come to pursue their education and play in Cameron. Maybe. It would be nice if that was the case.
To find out, though, the NCAA has to risk really finding out.
And this isn’t an organization that traditionally risks anything, which might mean that as bad as the Code-Townsend conversation sounded at first, it could easily just flutter off into history too.
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