Zion Williamson's Kansas recruitment comes up in hoops scandal trial

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Dan Wetzel
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Zion Williamson was among the top high school recruits in the country. He ultimately picked Duke. (AP)
Zion Williamson was among the top high school recruits in the country. He ultimately picked Duke. (AP)

NEW YORK — Judge Lewis A. Kaplan denied repeated attempts by defense attorneys Tuesday to enter into evidence the kind of FBI intercepted phone calls featuring prominent basketball coaches that had stirred public interest in the federal college basketball fraud trial.

These were supposed to be some of the brightest fireworks of the case. Instead, they remain still under seal as Kaplan mostly ruled they lacked relevance to the case being tried.

However, details of at least two such conversations were introduced into the public domain during attorney arguments.

Both could cause significant NCAA problems for the coaches involved – LSU head coach Will Wade and Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend – and perhaps even one player, current Duke freshman Zion Williamson.

In a September phone call between Townsend and Adidas consultant Merl Code, the discussion turned to KU’s recruitment of Williamson, a top-five national recruit out of South Carolina. Mark Moore, one of the attorneys for Code, read a transcript of the call.

Townsend: “Hey, but between me and you, you know, he asked about some stuff. You know? And I said, ‘Well, we’ll talk about that, you decide.’ ”

Code: “I know what he’s asking for. 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.”

Townsend: “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.”

Whether the “he” that Code was discussing was Williamson or a family member was a bit unclear – presumably the player would not be seeking “opportunities from an occupational perspective.” By denying it be played for the jury, Judge Kaplan prevented the full context to be heard and even argued by attorneys. Who knows when more details might come out.

The defense sought to have it entered into evidence because it proved that college coaches sought the recruiting help, including the violation of NCAA rules, from the defendants, Code, Gatto and would-be agent and middleman Christian Dawkins.

The three men are charged with fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud against four universities (Kansas, Louisville, Miami and North Carolina State). Each argue they were trying to help, not harm, the schools by delivering the talented recruits the schools coveted. Both the prosecution and defense rested Tuesday. Closing arguments begin Wednesday afternoon.

Kaplan noted that anything involving Williamson was not relevant to the charges in this trial and the conversation, which occurred in late September, took place after the crimes in which Code is accused.

Williamson took a recruiting visit to Kansas but eventually signed with Duke over Kentucky, South Carolina and Clemson.

As for Wade, the LSU head coach is on a phone call with Dawkins discussing the possible recruitment of Balsa Koprivica, a center who plays in Florida and is one of the top players in the Class of 2019.

“[Wade] is communicating to Christian Dawkins that he can get him what he needs – meaning money – if a player in Florida, Balsa Koprivica, agrees to play for LSU,” said Casey Donnelly, one of Gatto’s attorneys. Donnelly then read a portion of the transcript of the call.

“Would you want Balsa?” Dawkins asked.

“Oh, the big kid?” Wade responded.

Dawkins confirms.

“OK, but there is other [expletive] involved in it,” Wade said. “Wait, I’ve got to shut the door … I can get you what you need but it’s got to work.”

Kurtis Townsend, right, has been on head coach Bill Self’s staff at Kansas since 2004. (Getty)
Kurtis Townsend, right, has been on head coach Bill Self’s staff at Kansas since 2004. (Getty)

There was also a text exchange between Louisville head coach Rick Pitino and assistant Kenny Johnson that did not get permitted to be used as evidence. In that one, Johnson texted to Pitino: “Coach, DePaul is trying to pay [Brian “Tugs”] Bowen $200,000 to come there. Crazy world. Oregon, DePaul … desperate times.”

“Yep,” Pitino responded. “We are going to be OK.”

What Pitino meant by that is anyone’s guess, but the $200,000 rumored payoff from DePaul is the highest number heard during the trial for any one player.

Whether the NCAA pursues either of these bits of information, or cares at all about the proceedings here in Lower Manhattan, remains unknown.

For numerous college programs, the conclusion of testimony Tuesday brought a considerable sigh of relief.

Arizona, Oregon, DePaul, Creighton, Oklahoma State and others were battered throughout the trial by allegations of wrongdoing, but definitive proof of NCAA violations never materialized. Despite the existence of hours of taped conversations, no coaches’ voices (from any school) were ever played. There were text exchanges, but even many of those could be defended as nebulous.

There was plenty of smoke and even fire during the eight and a half days of testimony. Cash exchanges reaching as high as $40,000 were discussed. Recruits were bartered about like commodities down on Wall Street. College coaches courted and encouraged the aid, unspecified, but still, of basketball characters operating on the fringe, such as so-called Adidas “bag man” T.J. Gassnola.

Tuesday even included an Aug. 12, 2016, approval of a payment of $1,200 to the handler of Markelle Fultz, then at the University of Washington and the future No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. It, however, was not explored in detail. That’s how this case went, huge claims and allegations just laid out and then forgotten.

Other items showed that at times college basketball could remain relatively pure. Well, sort of. Brian Bowen Sr. testified that Michigan State never offered he or his son, Tugs, anything to sign there. Yet even as late as mid-May, Bowen Sr. was supportive of Tugs signing with the Spartans.

“I’m for MSU,” Bowen Sr. texted Dawkins, but added it was his son’s choice and “… he is just not feeling them.”

That was mid-May. A few weeks later Tugs signed with Louisville and Dawkins got Bowen Sr. $100,000 from Adidas in exchange. If Tugs Bowen had just followed Jason Richardson and Draymond Green from Saginaw to MSU, there may not even be a trial.

Whether the taped conversations ever become public is unknown. They have been under seal by the judge. It’s possible the NCAA may eventually get access to them and could use them to pursue cases against dozens of programs mentioned. What has been presented at trial is likely just some of the evidence available, as this case wasn’t about proving various schools committed NCAA violations.

There also still remains two additional trials – one this winter and one in the spring where additional evidence should emerge and prominent coaches can be called to testify.

No one in college basketball should feel too good about anything at this point.

After all, just Monday Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he wasn’t really following the trial and that it didn’t affect his program. Less than a day later, a top player’s name was ringing out in the courtroom.

Maybe there is something there. Or maybe, like so much of this case, there are just bits and pieces as federal law and procedure clashes with the interests of a forever scandal-hungry public.

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