Before the FBI began its inquiry, before the Bernie Madoff comparisons arose, and even before the referee drove through the night to attempt to retrieve $27,000, the warning signs of the demise of the inaugural season of the Elevate Basketball Circuit were plentiful. Despite procuring appearances by some of the country’s elite young basketball players, the grassroots basketball league sputtered through its opening tournaments this spring. Workers claim they went months without pay, dozens of teams didn't show up for games, and tournament schedules, as one official put it, appeared to be constructed by a fourth grader.
So when Elevate president David Kelly abruptly shut down the multi-state circuit of tournaments on Saturday night amid a flood of bounced checks, irate parents and chronic disorganization, the league’s implosion shocked few. Kelly sent out a group text on Saturday night to his staff and associates that read, “Separate yourselves from me. This is going to be a storm that I can’t fix. Thank you for all of your help and trying to make this work, but I’m done. It’s over and I am as well.”
The most compelling twist came from Kelly’s actions in the aftermath. He went completely dark on everyone involved with Elevate, fueling speculation he had run off with a pile of money. Kelly claimed in Elevate literature that more than 525 teams signed up for the circuit made up of hundreds of players from more than a dozen states (erroneous reports surfaced speculating there were 800 teams). Elevate charged $1,600 per team to sign up, meaning hundreds of thousands of dollars were left unaccounted for. Kelly amplified that speculation when he shut off his phone. His e-mail bounced back as undeliverable. He shut down his Facebook page and the EBC’s website. Even his Twitter and Instagram accounts disappeared.
“It was something that you would see on Dateline, it wasn’t real,” said Lamont Taylor, who runs the service getmerecruited.com and partnered with Kelly.
There were two Elevate tournaments last weekend, in New Jersey and Atlanta, but when teams showed up they were greeted with locked gymnasium doors on Sunday morning. After playing all day on Saturday, the sudden shutdown left parents irate at wasted travel money, coaches perplexed and Elevate workers with no good explanation. “This is terrible,” said Rennie Alston, one of Elevate’s directors who recruited more than 30 teams to join the circuit. “He took so many people’s money and screwed over so many kids. No one who was involved with David knows what’s happening. He and his wife disappeared off the face of the earth. Literally there’s nothing.”
Late Monday, the EBC website was back up and featured a letter from Kelly apologizing for what happened and saying the business went broke. He claimed the “sobering news” of poor support, saying he had received payment from fewer than 300 teams. The limited income, including reduced fees for many teams, meant he couldn't cover all his expenses. “We simply did not run a very good business,” he wrote.
Whether that is true or just a desperate response to the tidal wave of anger from those affiliated with the league may end up being determined by law enforcement or in the courts. An FBI agent in Louisville reached out to Rodrick Hall and interviewed him for nearly a half-hour on Monday. Hall coaches the Tulsa-based Ballaholics and says he sent nearly $5,000 to Kelly for sign-up fees, uniforms and background checks for his one team. Hall is attempting to recruit all aggrieved parties from EBC; he said in less than a day 45 people have signed on to take legal action against Kelly. Hall is seeking a lawyer to represent them and summed up his belief of Kelly’s explanation of running a poor business poorly: “I think it’s crap.”
With the Elevate Basketball Circuit potentially shifting from the hardwood to a courtroom, we soon may be able to answer this vexing question: Is David Kelly simply an incompetent businessman or cold-blooded con man?
David Kelly’s allure to those on the fringes of the basketball world was the signs of legitimacy he offered. Kelly’s events were certified by the NCAA, and EBC was endorsed by the USSSA, a national sports organization. EBC had a snazzy website and Kelly’s ability to convince people to join the circuit and ignore his lack of experience appeared to be his real talent. When Lamont Taylor of getmerecruited.com checked around on Kelly, he saw they had 900 mutual coaching friends on Facebook. That gave him legitimacy in Taylor’s eyes.
Kelly also boasts what appears to be a strong resume on his LinkedIn page and claims he received a bachelor’s degree from UNLV in 1996. The National Student Clearinghouse, which verifies college degrees for UNLV, was unable to verify a degree for Kelly using his name and date of birth provided on his LinkedIn page.
Kelly claimed to be the marketing and program director of Ground Floor Marketing in Louisville for the past three years, but the number for the company online goes directly to Kelly’s cell phone. He claimed to be a “tournament director” for 10 months at Hoops Louisville, a facility that hosts tournaments. But Bobby Green, the general manager there, laughed when a reporter called about Kelly and said he never formally worked there. He said Kelly attempted to bring tournaments there for commission for about three months, but Green never allowed it because Kelly could never quite deliver. He said Kelly tried to borrow money from him against contracts he had yet to produce. “I would describe him as a promoter with nothing to promote,” Green said. “He's just a scam artist.”
SI.com could not independently verify any of six other places Kelly claimed to work on his LinkedIn page as of Tuesday afternoon. Kelly's résumé is vague enough that some of the organizations could not be located and a representative from at least one company matching the name of a previous employer he lists could not confirm his employment.
In basketball circles, Kelly even managed to hoodwink one of grassroots basketball's most notorious figures, Ro Russell, who once coached Canadian basketball stars such as Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph in his Grassroots Elite program. Russell has largely become a basketball afterthought since a Canadian news program did an exposé on him three years ago, showing how he lied and misled the parents of top Canadian prospects. (Russell has denied any wrongdoing.)
In the video extolling Kelly and the EBC, Russell states: “After more research and a lot of references to the EBC, I started to do my homework. Having done my homework and speaking to David Kelly, we are happy to be part of the EBC.” In a phone interview Monday night, Russell tried to distance himself from Kelly and EBC. After taking an “unpaid volunteer” position as international director of recruiting and calling around to pitch Kelly and his product, Russell sounded dazed and overwhelmed that, after all his years in the cutthroat basketball world, he had been played so badly. “We’re still stunned and shocked and trying to figure it out,” said Russell. “We lost money. We had to pay a lot of team fees. Obviously we’re one of how many hundreds of teams that got a raw deal out of this situation.”
Despite Kelly’s shortcomings, those who spoke to SI.com unanimously and begrudgingly applauded the idea of the EBC. Russell pointed out that legitimate organizations like the USSSA, some fringe recruiting media and dozens of prominent programs backed Kelly. “The concept was good,” Russell said. “They got a lot of people. You wanted it to work to provide teams [that] weren’t in [the] shoe company circuit [the opportunity to] be part of a league, too.”
So when Kelly failed to come through on small promises to Taylor—paying for his gas, hotels and food in exchange for covering the tournaments—he overlooked it because everything appeared fine. There was a glossy magazine and Kelly even hosted league officials in a hotel suite at the Norfolk tournament. “This was something that ‘sucked in’ a lot of respectable people,” said Spencer Pulliam, who runs theprepinsiders.com and had a similar expenses-for-coverage deal. “I’ve never seen anything like in this. I’ve seen tournaments have bad weekends. To no-show was a new one. You have occurrences like this cast a dark shadow over the whole industry.”
Rennie Alston, 24, said that Kelly promised him $500 for every team that he signed up. Alston runs the New Jersey-based Play Hard Squad and opened up his Rolodex. When he signed up more than 30 teams, he said that Kelly owed him more than $40,000, including bonuses. But he only received around $4,000, just enough to keep him involved. “The thing that makes this worse is the fact that if he really did go into this knowing what he was going to do ... that he played every single person,” Alston said. “They’re hurt. Everyone was gung-ho about the idea. We were all on board. For him to basically pull out and not say a word and not let anyone know, it’s tough.”
Alston’s connections helped Kelly land an affiliation with the most tantalizing prospect—top-ranked eighth grader Scottie Lewis. Lewis plays for coach Brian Klatsky, who runs one of the country’s top-ranked eighth grade teams, Team Rio. (It also includes Greg Anthony’s son, Cole.) Klatsky got flooded with recruiting calls from Kelly. Klatsky joined the EBC after Kelly waived the $1,600 entry fee and allowed him to only play in two events. The circuit was supposed to culminate in a national championship for the best teams in each of the four geographic divisions that spanned more than a dozen states from New York to Oklahoma. The new circuit also appealed to Klatsky because he said new Amateur Athletic Union rules passed in October classified junior high teams by age instead of grade. Klatsky’s team has older eighth graders who would have been split up, so the lack of that specific regulation in the EBC appealed to him. The other allure came from the league’s regional travel, a logical and cost effective part of the organization hailed unanimously by those involved. “I can play two weekends, it’s not going to cost us,” he said. “Our guys can go win the national championship and it’s not going to cost us a penny. How do I turn that down? Like everything else too good to be true, it was.”
Klatsky said Kelly used his team playing in the league as a recruiting tool to attract other teams. Team Rio’s presence gave EBC legitimacy. “I feel like a victim like everyone else,” Klatsky said. “He used our name to help lure others.”
Last week, before the league shut down, Melvin Williams got in his Dodge Charger with a friend at 2 a.m. and began driving from Charlotte to Louisville to confront Kelly. Williams is a referee booker for some of the biggest tournaments in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic region, a job he’s done since retiring from the military. Kelly owed Williams $34,000 for getting him officials for two tournaments, which encompassed hundreds of games. Kelly paid Williams more than $6,000 in cash at the Norfolk tournament but kept making excuses for a check for $27,729 that bounced. “I was on my way to whoop his ass,” Williams said. “I was so pissed off.”
Around 4:30 a.m., when Williams and his friend were nearing Knoxville, Kelly sent Williams a text: “It won’t do you no good to come here. It won’t make it no faster.” Williams turned around and now worries that he’ll never see the money. He said he owes more than 40 officials, and that Kelly’s failure to come up with the money has compromised the reputation he built booking officials the past eight years. “They may try to sue me,” Williams said. “A lot of the officials who got screwed were from Virginia. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. They probably won’t work with me again.”
There are plenty of other debts, including $11,000 owed to tournament organizers in Atlanta for the gym fees last weekend and thousands more to Georgia-based referee booker Kevin Self, who provided officials for that tournament (Self declined to comment on the specific amount). That’s not to mention the thousands that teams spent on entry fees, wasted on uniforms with EBC logos and background checks the coaches were required to pay for but received no formal confirmation were ever processed.
No one is sure what will happen next. Mike Russo, a spokesman for the FBI office in Louisville, said in a statement on Tuesday: "The FBI is looking into the Elevate Basketball Circuit allegations and asks team managers to contact [the] office at Louisville.LS@ic.fbi.gov with any information." Allison Gardner Martin, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Attorney General, said the state’s Consumer Protection Division had not yet received a complaint about Elevate Basketball Circuit or Kelly as of Monday afternoon. As for Kelly, his email no longer bounces back and he’s turned his phone back on. But he declined multiple requests from SI.com to comment, other than mentioning via text message the letter on his website.
Green, the director of Hoops Louisville, didn’t know about the EBC debacle when SI.com contacted him on Monday, but it didn't surprise him. About a year after Kelly stopped trying to bring tournaments to Green’s gym, a few people from Atlanta showed up unannounced claiming Kelly left town abruptly and they wanted some answers. Green spent a few minutes talking to the visitors, who left unsatisfied and confused. “That’s pretty much his [modus operandi],” Green said. “He was in trouble in Atlanta and came to Kentucky. He always tries to stay one step ahead. The only thing I can see, he could talk the talk but wouldn’t walk the walk.”