Even in person, and even with all of his 260 pounds taking up a good portion of a hotel lobby, there is rather less of Rob Johnson than there would appear to be. In his bright orange warmup suit he sticks out amid the gentlemanly gray pinstripes of the business day like a tiger on the moon. But upon contact, he partially vanishes. His voice is high and tremulous. His handshake is soft and watery. It is as if Rob Johnson weren't there.
"The people who will tell you they don't know me," he says, "they know me very well. They know me, and they know what they did."
Indeed, nobody knows him anymore—or so they all say. At one time Johnson greeted reporters with a sheaf of letters from coaches, written on the letterheads of some of America's most prestigious colleges, presenting his credentials as though he were some sort of ambassador to those places where the talent that fuels the college game resides. Not anymore. Over the past year Johnson's credentials have been canceled. He is without a portfolio. Any conversation with Johnson's old coaching friends now invariably begins "I haven't talked to him in [fill in the blank] years." They are conjuring on him now, trying to make him disappear.
"Look, I know coaches all over the country," Johnson says. "I know Rick Pitino [of Kentucky]. I know P.J. Carlesimo [of Seton Hall]. I know Wade Houston [of Tennessee]."
December 16, 1991
"When I knew him, 19 years ago, he was a harmless kid," says Pitino.
"I never saw Rob that much," says Carlesimo, "and we never had any dealings with him to my knowledge, and none of our kids did, either."
"It's been two or three years since I saw him, back when I was [an assistant] at Louisville," says Houston.
They are just three of the coaches who know Johnson, and like everyone else, they are distancing themselves from him because Johnson, 35, is now nothing if not the living manifestation of college basketball's most recent ethical convulsion—the street agent. He is widely reputed to have brokered players at almost every level of the game, taking them from the AAU youth-league teams in New York City to some of the nation's highest-profile college programs. In fact many or the charges that prompted the NCAA to hit Texas A&M with a two-year probation in October, even after the school forced coach Kermit Davis to resign for his involvement in the scandal, were sparked by Johnson's efforts to arrange the transfer of former Syracuse forward Tony Scott to A&M.
A similar fate might befall Syracuse, whose coach Jim Boeheim is awaiting the results of an NCAA investigation into charges stemming from accusations that came to light when the Syracuse Post-Standard followed Johnson's trail into the unexplored heart of Boeheim's basketball team. If the findings of the Syracuse investigation, due to be announced in 1992, are at all reminiscent of the events that transpired at Texas A&M, then one reality about college athletics will be abundantly clear: Small change can bring down big money.
According to Texas A&M's response to inquiries from the NCAA Committee on Infractions, Davis and members of his staff at various times paid for Johnson, Scott and Scott's father, Anthony Sr., to travel between New York and College Station. The university stated that on one recruiting trip to New York, Davis left Johnson with a rented Lincoln—complete with cellular phone—for 28 hours after Davis had returned to campus. During that time Johnson rang up 28 calls on the car's telephone. Also, the university stated that Johnson accompanied Davis and another A&M coach to Rochester, N.Y., and that on the return trip the three of them bunked together in one room at a Ramada Inn in Clarks Summit, Pa. Davis later lied about the trip to school officials, though he subsequently admitted that it had occurred.
"The first time I heard it, I didn't know what they were talking about," Johnson says. "I mean, 'street agent'—what does that mean? Then I found out. It's like the guy's on the street, like he's a street hustler. That's not me. I was a coach, and I have kids in college and I have kids in the pros. I'm not brokering deals. If I'm brokering deals, why am I still living in the projects [in Queens]?"
"You know what a street agent is?" asks Boeheim. "It's a term that was invented just to sell books and magazine articles, that's what." If Boeheim truly believes that, then he's naive or disingenuous, and in either case he's insufficiently versed in the sordid history of his sport.
For years there have been people willing to bring together young basketball talent and the college coaches who depend on that talent for their continued employment. Sometimes these conduits existed simply because coaches were reluctant to go into the neighborhoods where many talented players reside.
Today there are more and more people between coaches and prospective players—no matter where they live. Because of the deep talent pool in New York, the city has historically had a flourishing covey of such middlemen. There are also high school coaches like Chicago's Landon (Sonny) Cox, who from his post at Martin Luther King High School wields considerable influence over the best players in that city. And there are the free-lancers, like Johnson and Detroit's Vic Adams, whose involvement with Missouri helped land the Tigers on NCAA probation last year.
Ironically, newly tightened NCAA regulations regarding the number of contacts college coaches can have with prospective players could help make these and other middlemen even more indispensable. It is a shadowy world they inhabit. Altruism and greed come into uneasy proximity on the ragged edges of American society anyway, and that's where basketball coaches and their prey often meet. No arrangements are formal, of course. Business is conducted in a manner reminiscent of the words of an old Bostonian political boss: "Never write when you can speak, never speak when you can nod." Indeed, it's the very imprecision of Johnson's life that could become Boeheim's best defense.
Johnson's technique is a simple one. I le approaches players when they are very young—often well before they even enter high school. He gives them a taste of celebrity, playing to what is often their low self-esteem. Tickets here. An invitation to a basketball camp there. A visit to a big-time college locker room. Later, when the player is choosing a college, Johnson will advise him, he says, at no cost to the school.
"If I'm helping a kid," Johnson says, "I'm accused of being reimbursed by a college, which is not true. If I help him, it's because he needs help." Which does not explain why Nate (Tiny) Archibald has charged that Johnson once tried to shop a guard named Eric Leslie to Georgia, where Archibald was an assistant coach, for 510,000 to $15,000, at least some of which Archibald assumed would go to Johnson. "He pitched it, like, 'Hey, we're both native New Yorkers, man,' " Archibald recalls.
It was Johnson's being mentioned in Raw Recruits, a 1990 examination of college recruiting written by SI senior writer Alexander Wolff and ABC news's Armen Keteyian, that prompted the Post-Standard to launch its investigation of the Syracuse program. In addition to other alleged violations, the newspaper reported details surrounding Scott's transfer to Texas A&M, including Johnson's involvement with Davis.
For one who has created so much trouble for big-time programs, Johnson still has something about him that is irredeemably small-time, as though he's creating himself on the fly. He says he used to work at Kennedy Airport, but the A&M report comments drolly that "the university [was] unable to verify his employment." Now, he says, he works for the United Parcel Service in Maspeth, Long Island, but the UPS personnel office has never heard of him.
He drives a rented car, when he drives himself at all. He usually calls collect, and if you want an interview with him, you pay the cab fare both ways. He was once ordered by a small-claims court to pay the less-than-princely sum of $323.25 because the court determined that he had overcharged some players on their bus fare to a basketball camp. He has been accused by New York high school coaches of impersonating Syracuse assistant coach Wayne Morgan and Louisville assistant Larry Gay—charges he steadfastly denies. To Johnson, it seems, a ride in a school's private jet is as good as a paycheck. It may well be that for Johnson the worst thing about the past year is that his phone calls weren't being returned anymore.
"A lot of big-time coaches are pretending they don't know me now," he says. "They know me real well. You're talking about plane tickets, offers, all that stuff. They're all so worried. They think I'm going to rat them out. I told them that I'm not like that."
As far as anyone at the University of Connecticut could tell, none of the basketball players there knew anybody in Paris. Or Rome. Or in Daytona Beach, for that matter. Nevertheless, one day in 1988 the phone bills came in, and there were calls to those places and to several dozen more, all of them charged to a credit card that belonged to someone on the Husky basketball staff. The bill came to almost $5,000. An investigation was launched in the simplest way possible—school officials began dialing some of the numbers on the bill. One of them was in Queens, New York. According to sources at Connecticut, Johnson answered the phone.
At the same time, officials at Villanova were making their own phone checks. A school credit card belonging to a Wildcat staff member had been charged for some $2,800 in calls. When Villanova investigators dialed some of the numbers, telephones rang in athletic dormitories all over the country.
One common denominator: Someone on each staff had recently talked to Johnson. He had called the basketball offices—collect, of course—and instead of simply accepting the charges, staff members put those charges on their institutional credit cards.
The Texas A&M report states that Johnson made 21 calls to various places in 1990 using telephone credit cards belonging to members of its staff. "According to Johnson," says the report, "he obtained the credit card numbers by hearing the coaches tell the operator what number to charge on those instances when Johnson called collect." Back then, there were a lot of coaches more than willing to accept telephone calls from Johnson.
The projects where Johnson grew up and still lives lie in the shadow of the Queensborough Bridge in Long Island City. He attended Bryant High School. By the early 1980s he was coaching a YMCA youth basketball team called the Suns. He saw some of the best young players in the area, virtually children. One of them was Vern Fleming, now a guard with the Indiana Pacers, who attended Georgia, and it was through Fleming that Johnson first got a taste of bigger things.
"Rob was very helpful," says Evelyn Fleming, Vern's mother.
Johnson fast became someone to see if you were trying to get players out of New York. But it wasn't until his friend Gene Waldron, also from Long Island City, went to Syracuse in 1980 that Johnson became truly wired. Johnson was soon a rabid Orange fan, attending a number of games and even becoming a regular at Boeheim's practice sessions. Before long, it seemed, most everybody in New York thought Johnson was Syracuse's man in the city. Syracuse assistants turned up at a banquet for his YMCA league. Today, Johnson denies that he is anything more than an unusually enthusiastic Syracuse fan, but very few people in New York believe that.
"I've never been one to go behind anyone's back," says Ken Gershon, the basketball coach at Hillcrest High in Queens. "I'll say to Rob, 'If you tell me that you had nothing to do with Syracuse coming into my building and looking at my kids, you're full of———.' " In fact, former Brooklyn Tech coach Mark Fest-berg admits that four years ago Johnson impersonated Morgan in order to talk to Conrad McRae, Tech's 6'10" center. One day after that conversation, McRae skipped practice and sat with Johnson as Syracuse played North Carolina in the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass. According to Johnson, the tickets were left for him by Boeheim. Two years ago, McRae enrolled at Syrcause. But on Nov. 19 the school ruled him ineligible to play while the NCAA investigated several charges, some of which involved contact between McRae and Johnson, whom they termed a representative of the school. On Thursday, the NCAA's eligibility committee denied McRae's appeal and ruled him ineligible to play at Syracuse, stating that the school had gained a substantial advantage in recruiting McRae when Johnson contacted the player during his junior year in high school, a violation of NCAA rules. (The next day New York Supreme Court Justice Parker Stone issued a restraining order allowing McRae to play until Dec. 23.)
"I just like Syracuse," says Johnson. "I like their program. It's ridiculous. Now, anytime any good player's walking around New York in an orange sweater, it's like, 'Rob Johnson got him that,' and it's not true. It's just that I like Syracuse. I like their program."
For the record, Boeheim describes Johnson only as "someone I know."
"I've known him for 15 years," the coach says. "He may or may not advise kids. Kids go wherever they feel they should go. I don't think they listen to that."
But they do, especially kids from dysfunctional families. The recruiting process can be overwhelming, even for a Wally Cleaver, let alone for a kid with little or no guidance in his daily life. Many coaches believe, with some justification, that the problem of street agents can't be solved until the underlying social conditions that allow them to flourish are at least addressed. "Until then," says one, "people like Rob are a symptom, but they're not the disease."
Having Johnson as an adviser can be a mixed blessing. Certainly it did no harm to Fleming, who was Johnson's protègè beginning in junior high school. Waldron graduated from Syracuse in 1984 and is playing in Europe. But Johnson's dizzying world has proved confusing for young players on more than one occasion, and it has at times overwhelmed them. Such was likely the case with Tony Scott.
In the summer of 1987, before his senior year at East High in Rochester, Scott played in the Youth East tournament in Syracuse. He played well and was one of the surprise stars of the tournament. The trappings of the game hadn't yet caught up to his talent, however, and Scott was wearing boxers under his basketball shorts. He went back to the bench after one game, and Johnson was waiting for him. "He says to me," Scott recalls, " 'You know, that's not too classy for a guy with your talent.' "
The college recruiting began in earnest that fall. At about that time Johnson began going to practices at East High, much to the dismay of coach Sal Rizzo. "I thought the guy was bad news," Rizzo says. For a long time Scott seemed to be ready to attend Connecticut. To everyone's surprise, he changed his mind just before the signing date. He would go to Syracuse instead.
He spent two years there, but found that playing time was sparse. He decided to transfer at the end of the 1989-90 season. "I talked with Rob," Scott says. "I told him I wanted to go to Fordham, but Rob didn't like that. He said he'd spread the word."
They heard about Scott all the way down in College Station. Seeking to rebuild its dormant basketball program, Texas A&M had fired longtime coach Shelby Metcalf and brought in Davis, a tyro who had done wonders at Idaho. Seeking to build quickly, Davis went trolling for transfers. Davis connected with Johnson, who promised to deliver Scott as well as David Edwards, a Brooklyn guard who had dropped out of Georgetown and is now at A&M.
According to the A&M report, in May 1990 Davis, who refused to be interviewed for this story, paid for Johnson and Scott to fly to A&M for a visit. They flew the last leg of the journey, from Houston to College Station, in the university's private jet. Davis paid for Johnson's lodging in College Station as well as for his meals and entertainment. The fig leaf for Johnson's presence during Scott's visit was that Johnson was interviewing for a graduate assistant's job on Davis's staff, something of a neat trick inasmuch as Johnson concedes that he has never graduated from college.
Johnson went back to A&M in June 1990, according to the report, to work at Davis's summer camp. Davis paid $435 to fly Johnson to Texas, and he paid $195 for Johnson's room and board. None of the other counselors was reimbursed for any transportation costs.
In July, Johnson accompanied Aggie assistant Fletcher Cockrell to a summer league game in New York City, and then he went with Davis and Cockrell to Rochester, where they courted a young player named Arthur Long, a star at East High, Scott's alma mater. By September, Davis had left his rented Lincoln in New York with Johnson, who found the cellular phone eminently convenient.
Scott, however, was just a bit lost in College Station. At one point during the summer he claimed to have overheard one of the A&M coaches say, "Tony Scott's just not that———good." Bewildered, he left A&M in early 1991, feeling betrayed by those he trusted. He went home to Rochester. The Post-Standard had published his story. Davis was forced to resign. Johnson got a little more famous. Last August, Scott got busted in New York and was charged with cocaine possession. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge—disorderly conduct—and was sentenced to community service.
"I'd tell kids to listen to their families," Scott says. "I made my own decisions in basketball because my parents left it up to me. I wish I never transferred."
Johnson is not there now. He is the invisible man. "I don't know what he does," Boeheim says.
Johnson claims to be confused by all of this. "I don't go out and get kids," he says. "They come to me. It's not like I go to games and say I can do this or that. People right now are thinking, 'Rob Johnson, you know, scum,' because they don't know my story. They were asking me to go on ABC, on Nightline. My attorney told me not to. I can't wait until everybody knows my side."
His voice is fading again, unsure and distrustful, lost amid the hubbub of the lobby bar. Rob Johnson—penny-ante operator or high-rent flesh peddler, whom not even Ted Koppel could corner—can barely be heard. He's asking for cab fare home.