- Before the federal college hoops trial hears closing arguments, new relevations involving Kansas and LSU came via exhibits the defense tried to enter into evidence, revelations that could matter more to the NCAA than the judicial system.
NEW YORK — If you wanted to hear the juiciest details at Tuesday’s session of the ongoing federal conspiracy trial against two former Adidas executives and an aspiring player agent, you would have had to get to Courtroom 26B before the jury. For some two hours this morning, while the jury was kept from the room, the trio of defense teams attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to enter an array of new exhibits into evidence. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan denied the admission of many of those, among them two revelations likely to resonate far beyond the U.S. judicial system: that Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend was caught on a wiretap expressing a willingness to provide money and other benefits in exchange for No. 4 overall 2018 recruit Zion Williamson (who is now a freshman at Duke), and that LSU coach Will Wade was similarly recorded expressing to a middleman a willingness to “fund” another recruit’s commitment.
Casey Donnelly, a defense attorney for former Adidas executive Jim Gatto, told the court that the government had recorded a conversation in which player liaison Christian Dawkins, when speaking to Wade, refers to a class of 2019 recruit whom “you would have funded.” After confirming the player’s identity as Balsa Koprivica, Wade told Dawkins “there’s other s--- involved in it,” then tells Dawkins he is shutting his door. “I can get you what you need,” Wade then continued, “but it's got to work."
Later, the defense attempted to enter into the record a transcript of a recorded conversation in which then-Adidas consultant Merl Code told Townsend that Williamson’s father was “asking for opportunities from an occupational prospective. He's asking for money in the pocket. And he's asking for housing for him and the family." According to Moore’s reading, Townsend responded, "I've got to just try to work and figure out a way. Because if that's what it takes to get him for 10 months, we're going to have to do it some way."
It was the trial’s first mention of Williamson, a 6’7”, 285-pound forward who is among a star-studded incoming freshman class at Duke and has not otherwise been implicated in any recruiting-related wrongdoing. Koprivica, a 7-footer born in Serbia who attends Montverde Academy in Florida, is considered a four-star prospect and is reportedly being pursued by Florida State, Baylor, UCLA and USC, among others.
Kaplan refused to admit the Code-Townsend conversation into evidence because it occurred just 12 days before Code was arrested in September 2017. Kaplan deemed this to mean that this conversation did not offer sufficient insight into Code’s state of mind at the time of his alleged fraud, which would have already occurred by then. The conversation between Dawkins and Wade was not admitted on grounds of relevance, because none of the defendants were being charged in relation to any activity connected to Wade, LSU or Koprivica.
Still the Wade conversation, and the ensuing argument between the government and defense attorneys over its relevance, encapsulated much of the confusion at the core of this case. The defense attorneys wished to enter it into evidence to show that the defendants thought they were acting in accordance with the wishes of the basketball coaches with whom they were working. In that argument, because university employees—among the schools’ highest-paid and most visible—were collaborating with them, the defendants were not defrauding the universities. (In the government’s case, the schools are assumed to be the victims of the fraud because they would be admitting and providing scholarships to players who would not actually be NCAA-eligible.)
But the government, even while stating that the exhibit should be not entered into evidence, argued that it lent credence to their case: Because Wade felt compelled to shut the door before continuing the conversation—going so far as to tell Dawkins he was doing so—then Dawkins and his alleged co-conspirators should have known that what they were doing was illicit and against the school’s interests.
All of which gets at a central question raised by the case: Should the interests of a university’s basketball staff and the university itself be considered one and the same? Put another way, when you cheat NCAA rules to help a basketball team land talented players, are you helping the school by boosting its chances of winning and generating attendant revenue, or are you hurting it because it would be punished if you are caught?
The conversation between Townsend and Code would be just the latest development tying Kansas to the case; over the previous week, the school’s recruitment of current forward Silvio de Sousa and former forward Billy Preston was also called into question after a government witness outlined benefits he had provided the players.
The Townsend and Wade revelations also suggest that we still do not know all that the government does about potential NCAA violations related to this case. The morning’s attempts to add evidence also included Dawkins’s lawyer citing an approval from NBA super agent Andy Miller—for whom Dawkins worked as a recruiter—for a payment to be made to Markelle Fultz, who was then a freshman at Washington and would go on to be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. (Kaplan denied this exhibit as well.) At another point, defense lawyers unsuccessfully tried to bring into evidence a discussion between Dawkins and Code, during which they discussed a player yet to be named in the trial, through the lens of whether providing him financial benefits would “be worth it for the school.”
The jury portion of the trial was lighter on newsworthy findings. In it, the government showed the jury texts between Dawkins and former Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who was fired last fall after the FBI’s investigation revealed that incoming freshman Brian Bowen was paid for his commitment to the Cardinals. Dawkins began his text by reminding Pitino, “I dealt with you on Jaylen Johnson,” who played for Louisville from 2014 to ’17 and now plays in the NBA’s G-League. Dawkins then asked if Pitino would be interested in Bowen.
“We would love to have him,” Pitino wrote back. The prosecution then displayed call logs showing that the two men spoke on the phone minutes later, which was followed by a web of calls and texts between Gatto, Code, and Dawkins in the following days, culminating in Bowen committing to Louisville a week later and his AAU program sending an invoice to Adidas for $25,000 later that week. In one phone call from July 2017 regarding payments to Bowen, Dawkins was recorded telling an undercover FBI agent, “I would never tell Rick [Pitino] anything like this because I don’t want to put him in jeopardy.” (Pitino has publicly denied knowledge of the payments to Bowen.)
Otherwise, the most interesting information entered to the record was what evidence was not there: According to one of Gatto’s attorneys, technical difficulties prevented the recording of a five-minute call between Gatto and Kansas head coach Bill Self in August 2017. It was a few weeks later that Townsend was recorded discussing with Code the recruitment of Williamson.
And so the trial wound down its final day of evidence. On Wednesday, the trial’s introduction of evidence having concluded, the prosecution and three teams of defense lawyers will begin their lengthy closing arguments, bringing the first of this scandal’s trials to a close. How the jury will weigh the questions over whether the actions of Code, Dawkins, and Gatto constituted criminal fraud is very much in question. Whatever they are prepared to deliberate in their jury room, it won’t include mention of Kurtis Townsend’s discussion of Zion Williamson, nor Will Wade’s claims to Dawkins. But thanks to the defense’s last-ditch and unsuccessful efforts to expand the pool of evidence, that conversation will find plenty of ears elsewhere.