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Father testifies on pay for play at NCAA basketball programs

October 4, 2018

The father of a top-rated college basketball prospect testified Thursday that his son was offered thousands of dollars on the sly to play at major NCAA programs before a corruption scandal derailed the promising player's collegiate career.

At a federal trial over allegations about dirty money in college hoops, Brian Bowen Sr. said that an aspiring agent, Christian Dawkins, told the father he could pocket $50,000 if his son played at the University of Arizona, $150,000 at Oklahoma State or $100,000 at Creighton. Bowen said there was some interest from Oregon but didn't recall a cash offer.

Bowen told a Manhattan jury it was his understanding the offers were being made by assistant coaches at the schools, though he never spoke to them directly about money. He said the Oklahoma State offer, which included an additional $8,000 for a car, came from then-assistant coach Lamont Evans, a defendant in the investigation who's pleaded not guilty.

Dawkins, former amateur coach Merl Code and former Adidas executive James Gatto, have pleaded not guilty to charges they committed fraud by secretly funneling money from Adidas to families of prospects to get them to attend colleges sponsored by the athletic wear company. The son, Brian Bowen Jr., eventually landed at the University of Louisville, an Adidas school, after the defendants engineered a promise of $100,000 for his family.

Bowen ultimately transferred to South Carolina, but was never cleared to play college basketball before opting to pursue a professional career.

Gatto's attorney and a taped conversation in evidence at the trial have suggested the deal to sign with Louisville had to compete with an undisclosed offer to lure Brian Bowen Jr. to Oregon, which is sponsored by Nike. Oregon has denied it knew of any deal.

The criminal case announced last year charging the three men with fraud resulted in the school announcing that Bowen wouldn't play for the Cardinals, though he could remain on scholarship if he chose to stay. It also led to the firing of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino—who was never named in prosecutors' criminal complaints—as the investigation became public amid the Louisville's appeal of NCAA sanctions from its embarrassing escort scandal.

Before his testimony about the alleged offers, the elder Bowen grew emotional when a prosecutor first brought up his son, who goes by the nickname "Tugs."

"Is Tugs in college?" asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Diskant.

"No, he's not," Bowen responded.

When the prosecutor asked why not, Bowen dropped his head into his hands and wept, prompting the judge to call a recess.

Brian Bowen Jr. now plays professionally in Australia.

On Wednesday, a New Jersey financial adviser-turned-bag man in testified about a clandestine mission last year to deliver an envelope with $19,400 in cash to Brian Bowen Sr.

As Munish Sood testified in federal court in Manhattan, prosecutors played a wiretap of him telling his business partner, Dawkins, about his misgivings over the money drop he was making at an office building parking lot.

This "makes me nervous," Sood said, using profanity. "I just don't to want this to be a habit."

Sood, who has pleaded guilty to bribery and agreed to cooperate, testified that the payment was made in cash rather than check because "it was clean."

The case has cast a harsh light on an underground economy where middlemen used money from Adidas and other big athletic wear companies competed with one another to ply the families of hot prospects with money and gear, sometimes called "shoe wars." In return, the young players were expected to attend programs sponsored by the companies and, if they went pro, hire the middlemen as agents or financial managers.

The defense hasn't challenged the government's claim that the payments violated NCAA rules protecting players' amateur status. But they have disputed claims that major universities were defrauded, since the effort to steer blue-chip prospects translated into big money for their programs.

In a secretly recorded hotel room meeting from 2017 that the jury heard on Wednesday, Code could be heard explaining that the payments, which reach $100,000 or more, ran risks, since the middlemen have no recourse if the young players wash out or simply walk away from an agreement to go to a particular school.

"We're not supposed to be giving them $100,000 anyway," he said on tape.

Sood, 46, testified that after he met Dawkins, he agreed to use money from his business to front money that would be doled out to recruits' families. In return, he hoped, he would win enough favor that the players would hire him to manage fortunes from signing NBA contracts.

Despite the guilty plea, Sood said he's still running a financial firm in Princeton, New Jersey, while he awaits sentencing. He also said he still advises pro-athlete clients, including Kyle Kuzma, of the Los Angeles Lakers.

On cross-examination, defense attorney Steven Haney peppered Sood about the plea deal, expected to help him avoid a prison sentence of up to 35 years behind bars.

"You would say anything to stay out of prison for 35 years, wouldn't you?" the lawyer asked.

"No," Sood responded, "I'd tell the truth."

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