Slavko Duric answered the phone, and away we went. Down memory lane, and down dark alleys to where basketball business gets done.
“We should write a book,” Duric said at one point in a long, winding conversation.
If we did write a book, the title would be this: They Never Go Away.
“They” meaning the hustlers and opportunists who populate the basketball player procurement market. The business of hovering around promising young talent and finding ways to cash in has been robust for decades, and there are always new grifters crawling out of the woodwork—but also a remarkably hardy cast of usual suspects.
The money is there. The deterring rules are widely scoffed at—and when they are enforced, it’s often only a temporary setback. A scam artist embroiled in a basketball scandal or controversy rarely seems to leave the game; he just goes underground for a while and re-emerges later.
Which brings us to Duric. Last week, the Canadian’s name (re)surfaced as part of the increasingly bizarre Zion Williamson vs. Gina Ford lawsuit. Ford’s lawyers produced an affidavit from a man who claimed he loaned money to Duric as part of a plan to represent Williamson, who allegedly received $400,000 and signed an agreement with Duric in October 2018—before Zion became a mega-star at Duke. Williamson’s legal team wasted no time firing back, saying that the agreement included in the court filing was a forgery and alleging that Duric had tried a similar scheme two years ago with current NBA star Luka Doncic.
So, my man Slavko very quickly made a sketchy name for himself in the American sporting consciousness. But not for the first time.
“I was involved in some stuff 20 years ago,” Duric acknowledged.
If you’ve been around the black market long enough, you may remember Duric from a different controversy. He had his first (brief) star turn, as a broker of sorts for a group of Nigerian basketball players who wanted to come to the United States.
Among them were Muhammad Lasege, Benjamin Eze, Olumide Oyedeji and Uche Okafor, and their route out of Nigeria and to the United States in the late 1990s was torturous. It involved an involuntary stay in Russia, where the players felt tricked into signing pro contracts that ultimately would imperil (or end) their NCAA eligibility.
Lasege found a way out when he received an invitation to visit the University of Buffalo through a Canadian sister institution, the College of Halifax. He obtained a Canadian visa and flew to Toronto in late 1998—but instead of traveling to Buffalo, he was met by Duric, who had worked with other athletes trying to find their way to the United States.
Lasege never made it to Buffalo. Instead, Duric stepped in as the players’ de facto recruiting middlemen. Duric told me he did his best to help the players land in good situations and never took money to steer them anywhere—but he did accept NCAA Final Four tickets from coaches. In bulk.
“Several coaches furnishing me with a lot Final Four tickets,” Duric said. “Like, a lot. There were more than a dozen coaches who handed me less than a bunch and more than a few [tickets]. And you can imagine what I did with them.”
Duric wouldn’t name the coaches or their schools. He also didn’t say whether the Nigerians wound up at any of the schools that provided him the kickbacks.
Lasege and Eze signed with Louisville; Okafor signed with Miami; and Oyedeji committed to Rutgers but reportedly encountered visa problems that kept him from ever getting to the U.S. Eze and Okafor wound up at the College of Southern Idaho, a junior college—Eze turned pro after his stay there and Okafor matriculated to Missouri but never gained NCAA eligibility. Lasege played 21 games for Louisville in the 2000–01 season, then had his eligibility terminated.
None played a day in the NBA. Lasege, a gifted and diligent student, graduated from Louisville and then earned an MBA from the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. His LinkedIn bio says he is an assistant treasurer at Ecolab in Minneapolis.
Here’s the point: 20 years after that Nigerian drama, Slavko Duric is still out there looking for the next hustle. But the head of Maximum Management insists he was the one being hustled in the Zion situation.
Duric said that in 2018 he was contacted by someone he wouldn’t name, acting as an intermediary between Williamson’s family and their friend, James “Chubby” Wells, who was going to be Zion’s agent until he flunked the NBA certification test. Duric said he was asked if he wanted a piece of the Zion action once he turned pro, in exchange for a $100,000 payment to the family.
“I tried to do something I would characterize as outside the lines,” Duric said. “I allegedly was involved early. I was at the front of the line through a person who said he knew the family. Somebody who said he was [Williamson's stepdad] Lee Anderson spoke with me. Someone who said they were Chubby Wells spoke with me a dozen times.”
Duric said he received a signed agreement from the Williamsons, and a copy of Zion’s driver’s license. He said he sent the money to a family representative without ever having met them face-to-face—a dubious claim for someone with his street savvy.
“I got intoxicated by the opportunity,” Duric explained.
Then, he alleges, everything dried up. Duric said every phone number he had for those around Williamson was disconnected.
“I’ve been the victim of a con job by somebody acting like they were in the inner circle [with Williamson],” Duric said. “I have never spoken to Zion Williamson, and anybody who purported themselves as being a member of Zion’s inner circle was an impostor.
“Honestly, I am in a fog. I do know that I’m out 100 grand.”
Williamson’s attorney asserts that the con job is all Duric’s, saying he is the one who forged the agreement and included a bogus driver’s license photo. (The license lists Williamson’s incorrect hometown, and has his height where his weight is supposed to be, and vice-versa.) He also aimed directly at the Luka Doncic family allegations against Duric.
Take Slavko Duric’s greatest hits and you have an idea of what happens on the periphery of basketball, where players are commoditized early and families can be manipulated from all angles. And the hustlers just hang around, waiting for the next opportunity—because until the feds got into the act in late 2017, what were the deterrents?
T.J. Gassnola, bag man extraordinaire at Kansas and North Carolina State, had his AAU team decertified by the NCAA in 2012 for helping agent Andy Miller pay players. Did that run Gassnola (or Miller, for that matter) out of the picture? Not at all.
AAU coach Pat Barrett, outed in the seminal 1990 book Raw Recruits for trying to cash in on a relationship with a recruit, was labeled “the biggest whore I ever met” by none other than Jerry Tarkanian. Two decades later, he was implicated by Yahoo Sports for receiving $250,000 from a sports agency in exchange for access to Kevin Love while he was at UCLA. And as recently as last year, concerns were raised about Barrett potentially meddling with young college players.
Houston businessman Martin Fox was a basketball gadfly who knew everyone in the sport and got into event promotion, helping put on high-profile college basketball games. He also was affiliated with Houston Hoops, a high-powered AAU team. Then Fox was cited in court by Gassnola as the guy who supplied him with $40,000 to pay the family of North Carolina State recruit Dennis Smith Jr. And then after that, Fox was arrested as a key part of the “Operation Varsity Blues” sting, charged with being the man who helped facilitate fraudulent standardized tests.
Sometimes, the periphery characters become the establishment. William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley, a Hall of Fame hustler who needs no introduction, is a freshly minted executive with the New York Knicks. That speaks volumes about staying power, and the utility of knowing how the system works—and who works it.
Even the Southern District of New York’s attempt at blowing open college basketball is unlikely to send every scammer running for permanent cover. Criminal charges can have a chilling effect—but not for everyone.
The guy at the centerpiece of that sting operation, Christian Dawkins, is a convicted felon who is appealing his conviction and prison sentence. If you think he’s done with hoops, think again.
Multiple sources told Sports Illustrated this summer that Dawkins is plotting a comeback—he would provide the contacts and street savvy to a basketball and music agency he’s building behind the scenes. A close associate of Dawkins acknowledged the plan and said he is working hard to talk the young impresario into staying in the music lane.
“He needs to leave basketball behind,” the associate said.
But here’s the thing: the hustlers never leave it behind, and they never go away.