Around 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1986, reporters, TV crews and fans began gathering in a room at Fairfax High School in Hollywood, Calif. They were anxious to hear Sean Higgins, a high school forward as fine as any in the land, announce his choice for college. Kentucky, Michigan, UCLA, Texas and Louisville led the hundreds of contenders. It was also an important moment for Sean's family. His mother, Vickie Benson-Bey, had prepared a press release and invitations and mailed them to the media.
As Fairfax principal Warren Steinberg laid out coffee and doughnuts, those in attendance speculated on the future of the 6'8" high school All-America who had held his own in summer pickup games at UCLA against the likes of Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper.
But 7:30 came and went without the Higgins family. Soon it was 7:45, then 8:00, and still there was no sign of Higgins, his mother or his stepfather, Clifford Benson-Bey. Steinberg called the family three times, only to reach an answering machine. Finally, at 8:20, Steinberg's secretary handed him a note. Vickie Benson-Bey had called to say that something had come up and they would be unavailable. But, she said, Steinberg could make the announcement himself: Higgins had signed a national letter of intent to enroll at UCLA. Two hours later, Higgins's mother called Steinberg. "She said they'd been up most of the night." Steinberg recalls. "They were all pooped, so they weren't able to come. She indicated it had been a hard night."
As Sean Higgins now tells it, it had in fact been a very hard time generally. One hour before the press conference he had indeed signed the letter of intent. But he alleges he did so only under coercion by his stepfather and after being offered improper inducements. Higgins is now trying to withdraw that commitment, and the NCAA and Pac-10 are investigating his case.
The Higgins affair is a cause cèlèbre in Los Angeles, where newspaper stories have told of a tug-of-war in the player's family over his choice of schools. Sean's mother and stepfather pressed him to pick nearby UCLA, and his father. Earle Higgins, a former Eastern Michigan star who played briefly in the American Basketball Association and now lives in Southfield, Mich., favored the University of Michigan. Sean, who grew up in Ann Arbor, now says he preferred Michigan all along.
He also paints a sordid picture of how he came to sign the letter of intent. Although the NCAA and Pac-10 refuse to comment on their investigations, Higgins has told SI that a wealthy UCLA alumnus offered him a car and other enticements if he became a Bruin. He also gives his version of why he and his family were no-shows at the Nov. 18 press conference. Higgins, who now lives with a cousin, says his 6'9", 250-pound stepfather struck him during a quarrel early that morning, after he made clear his desire to attend Michigan. Higgins contends that he signed the letter against his will, only after Clifford Benson-Bey had menaced him with a baseball bat.
Up to the moment Higgins signed with UCLA, even some of the people closest to him were not sure which school he would choose. He had been sending conflicting signals for weeks. Claude Mills, whose son, Chris, is a teammate of Sean's at Fairfax, thought Higgins was headed for UCLA. But Pat Barrett, who coached Higgins in a summer league for two years, felt Sean was Michigan-bound. "It was his first love," Barrett says. "I think he was afraid to tell his mom because of [her] reaction. He waited as long as he could." Sean's father and his half-sister, Jamie, a student at Michigan, say he assured them he would play for the Wolverines.
The young man who is the subject of this cross-continent drama was born to Vickie Dempsey and Earle Higgins in Detroit on Dec. 30, 1968. The couple never married and eventually drifted apart. Vickie later married and divorced once before marrying Benson-Bey, a Los Angeles city bus driver, in 1985. Sean spent his first 11 years in Ann Arbor before his mother took him to Los Angeles. But he never quite detached himself from his Michigan roots. "Michigan is in here," he says, pointing to his heart. "By the time I was seven I knew the Michigan fight song by heart."
Higgins's mother, a computer analyst, is "a bright, able woman," according to Steinberg. After raising Sean, she was opposed to his returning to Michigan. "I'm an only child," Sean says. "She wanted me close to home. But I'm not her little boy anymore."
According to Higgins, after his one official visit to UCLA, but a few weeks before the early-signing period, he was driven to the Los Angeles estate of UCLA and Fairfax alumnus Steven Antebi by Marty Biegel, a former Fairfax basketball coach. One source alleges that Bruins coach Walt Hazzard helped arrange the visit. Biegel says that he took Higgins to Antebi's house at Antebi's request; he says he did not talk to Hazzard about the visit. He says that he and Higgins were joined at Antebi's home by Benson-Bey who drove his own car.
Antebi, a 43-year-old executive with the investment firm of Bear Stearns & Co., is an active UCLA supporter. Bruins senior star Reggie Miller lives in Antebi's chauffeur's quarters, and Biegel and Higgins say that during their visit Miller was present. They say that after a short while Biegel left alone. Higgins says, "[Antebi] didn't say much at first. Then he said I could stay there after Reggie [moved out]. He said he wanted to be my godfather; that he would look after me. He seemed like a nice guy, but I didn't need anyone to look after me.
"He said he could make me a certain amount of money in four years. He said I could work for him during the summer, and he would invest the money. He said he could take the money I made in the summer and turn it into more money. He said he would get me a car not long after I signed."
Miller's living arrangement is not against NCAA rules, provided he uses his room-and-board stipend from the university for rent. (Miller confirms that he lives on the Antebi estate and says, "My checkbook will indicate that I pay a fair rent.") But offering a car as an inducement to a recruit is a violation. As for a visit by Higgins to Antebi's house, the NCAA forbids off-campus contact between boosters and recruits. Asked about a Higgins visit to his house and offers he may have made to him, Antebi would say only, "I was not involved in the recruitment of Sean Higgins." Biegel says that while he was in Antebi's house he did not hear Antebi make Higgins any offers. "I had a glass of punch, exchanged pleasantries and then left. Sean went home with his stepfather."
Despite UCLA's interest in him, Higgins says that around 8 p.m. on Nov. 17, the day before the press conference, he told his mother he had decided on Michigan. "She didn't say anything," he says. About an hour later Higgins says he left the apartment and called his father from a pay phone in a nearby parking lot. Earle Higgins wasn't in, but Sean reached his half-sister Jamie in Ann Arbor. "He told her he was coming to Michigan," says Earle. "He was really saying that all along. He had me send him a Michigan jersey. He wanted to wear it at the press conference. Number 24. The same number I wore in college."
"I idolize my dad," Sean says. Yet he insists it was an affinity for the school and a desire to play in the Big Ten—not the lure of his father, now a scheduling coordinator at Chrysler—that steered him toward Michigan. "To me, the Pac-10 is soft, like Little Red Riding Hood," says Sean. "I'm more of a hard-core basketball player. I like to mix it up with the big brothers."
By the time he returned to the apartment after calling Ann Arbor, Sean says, his mother "had a different outlook on things [because of a] conversation she had with [her husband]. He changed her mind." Sean says he was watching TV in his room when his mother summoned him into her bedroom. "She said, 'Why don't you go back there [to Michigan] now,' " Sean says. "Basically...if I was going to Michigan, she wanted me to get out. I went back [to his bedroom]. I didn't care. I was getting out anyway."
Sean says the trouble with his stepfather began at dawn. He says Benson-Bey ordered him to stay put, then left the apartment. A neighbor says he witnessed subsequent events. He says that Benson-Bey told him he was going to a nearby store to buy cigarettes. Higgins says he then left and returned to the phone booth in the parking lot to call his father in Michigan. After Benson-Bey discovered that Sean had left, he went looking for him, picked him up in the parking lot and took him home.
According to Sean and the neighbor, Benson-Bey struck Sean on his shoulder outside the apartment. "Cliff went around and opened the car door for Sean," the neighbor says. "He told him, 'Get your ass in the house,' and kind of pushed him in. He said he was tired of 'you running over your mother.' "
Once inside the apartment, says Sean, Benson-Bey confronted him, demanding, "Are you going to UCLA or not?" Sean says he did not reply, and Benson-Bey slapped him in the face. How hard? Sean illustrates by delivering an open-hand roundhouse that cracks into a visitor's hand. "It was brutal force. I didn't just take it," Sean continues. "I slapped him back and pushed him away with my hands. He's a big guy, but I wasn't going to take that."
Higgins says he then went into his room, where he sat at his desk, and that his stepfather soon appeared brandishing a baseball bat. "He had it in his hand, standing over me.... I felt threatened. He'd just slapped me; what else was he going to do to me? He gave me the letter. He had a pen in his hand. He said to sign the letter. I didn't want to sign, but I didn't want to get hit, either. That's when I signed."
Sean says that for two days after his mother delivered the letter of intent to the UCLA basketball office he refused to take Hazzard's phone calls. He finally went to see the Bruin coach and asked out of his commitment. "He told me it wasn't in his hands anymore," Higgins says. "I left. He knew I didn't want to go to UCLA." Hazzard has refused to comment on any aspect of the Higgins case.
By then Earle Higgins had written UCLA athletic director Pete Dalis, alleging that Sean had been coerced into signing. Dalis passed the elder Higgins's letter on to the Pac-10, and the inquiries into his son's case followed.
Mills and Barrett say that Pac-10 and NCAA investigators have questioned them about, among other things, the financing of a new house in Inglewood that the Benson-Beys have just moved into. According to the developer's sales literature, the house cost about $176,000; the down payment and closing costs would have been about $23,000. Before Clifford Benson-Bey could close on the house he was required to pay $5,893.10 to cover two federal income tax liens dating back to 1980. According to Los Angeles County records, the liens were officially satisfied on Nov. 19, 1986—the day after Higgins signed with the Bruins. There is no evidence that the timing was anything other than a coincidence.
Clifford Benson-Bey declined to discuss Higgins's recruitment or the NCAA and Pac-10 investigations. But he said of Sean, "He's an 18-year-old kid. He's a confused child. Anything could come out of his mouth." Higgins's coach at Fairfax, Dave Kitani, said, "Sean will occasionally embellish a story. You know how kids are." Sean's mother said, "I have nothing to say about the story."
A ruling on Higgins's request to void the UCLA letter of intent is expected soon. If the National Letter of Intent Steering Committee determines that Sean was indeed coerced into signing the letter he would be free to enroll at another school and play for it next fall.
As he waits for a verdict, life for Sean Higgins goes on. He continues to play well—he shot 15 for 19 in Fairfax's 110-58 romp over Reseda High last Thursday—but he has been hurt by the experience. "Sean's been a happy-go-lucky kid until the last couple of months," says Steinberg. "He's been quiet and has kept to himself."
One thing is certain: Higgins won't be at UCLA in the fall. "I don't give a hoot about UCLA," he says. "And I never did, either. I didn't even read [the letter]. I knew it committed me to UCLA, but I didn't know I'd get all this hassle to get out of it. I just signed the thing so he would leave me alone. I had a game that night; that's all I was worried about."