How N.C.A.A. Recruiting’s Illicit Spoils Ensnared a Young Star


The story line that emerged had a familiar setting for anyone who follows big-time college sports: the intersection of talented young athletes who can generate revenue for high schools, TV networks, shoe manufacturers and universities; voluminous N.C.A.A. rules that prohibit those athletes from being paid beyond scholarships and related costs; and the shadowy figures eager to bridge that gap.

Prosecutors did not charge Bowen or his family. He has not spoken publicly since the complaints were released, and he could not be reached for comment for this article.

Back in January, talking with the news media after that game, Bowen explained the appeal of each of the five colleges that remained on his shortlist.

North Carolina State, he said, “had a whole plan for me for when I go there.” A friend who had committed to Texas was texting almost daily to try to get him to join him in Austin. Arizona was “really a wing program,” perfect for a perimeter player like him, and Michigan State was pitching Bowen — a native of Saginaw, Mich. — on the allure of home. Creighton? “The atmosphere,” he said, drawing on his memory of the Bluejays’ home game versus Villanova the month before, “is amazing.”

“Once I take this visit to Michigan State at the end of the month,” Bowen told the reporters, “right after that is when I’ll be making my decision.”

But Bowen, whose nickname is Tugs, did not announce his college decision after visiting Michigan State in January. He did not announce it in February, either, or in March, when he was one of only six uncommitted players in the McDonald’s high school All-American game. April came and went, too, and so did May.

It was June 3 before Bowen revealed his college selection, and when he did, the winner was a late-arriving suitor that surprised nearly everyone: Louisville.

In one of the criminal complaints, prosecutors suggested that Bowen’s attraction to Louisville had not been stimulated by the university’s atmosphere, its pedigree or its penchant for developing players like him into N.B.A. pros. Bowen picked the Cardinals, according to the federal complaint, soon after an executive at Louisville’s equipment partner, Adidas, agreed to funnel $100,000 to Bowen’s family.

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Playing a nationally competitive schedule, Bowen’s high school went 29-1 his senior year. Coaches from many prominent college programs visited him in Indiana.

Credit
Gregory Payan/Associated Press

“This is the luckiest I’ve ever been,” Louisville Coach Rick Pitino told a radio interviewer after the news of Bowen’s signing broke.

He would hardly say that today. In the wake of the federal complaints — and their description of Bowen’s recruitment — Pitino was removed as Louisville’s coach. His boss, the athletic director Tom Jurich, was also relieved of his duties, and the university — punished by the N.C.A.A. in June for an earlier recruiting scandal — could face more sanctions.

Like Bowen, Louisville and Pitino were not named in the complaint. But the 10 men charged comprised nearly all the colors in the college sports corruption rainbow: coaches, sneaker company officials, an agent, a money manager, an A.A.U. coach and even a middleman whose main business is bespoke suits. Six major programs were implicated, and investigators hinted that others were up to similar endeavors, as was at least one of Adidas’s corporate rivals.

But nowhere was the cynics’ knowing intimations about the true nature of college basketball more clearly sketched than in the tale of Brian Bowen.

Moving to Indiana

Bowen was only the second freshman ever to start for Greg McMath, then the longtime varsity basketball coach at Arthur Hill High in Saginaw. During his sophomore year, Bowen helped the Lumberjacks to a runner-up finish in their state’s divisional championship, lifting his recruiting stock along with his team.

He then decided to transfer, McMath said in an interview, because of state rules that prohibited teams from traveling to play top-ranked national opponents. His destination was a formidable basketball power, La Lumiere School, just over the state line in Indiana. It offered both the basketball resources and academic challenges — the chief justice of the United States, John Roberts Jr., is a graduate — Bowen seemed to want.

“La Lumiere is a great school academically,” McMath said, adding: “Tugs has always been a high character. Really good at math.”

As a senior there, Bowen was named a finalist for the Naismith national player of the year award as he led La Lumiere to a 29-1 record and the No. 1 spot in USA Today’s expert rankings.

Under a bleached mushroom haircut, a homage to the N.F.L. star Odell Beckham Jr., he glided over the court, and scouts who watched him noted that his game — and his body — appeared to have plenty of room to grow. The fact that Bowen had yet to pick a college only made him more intriguing. As the season progressed, his recruiting process intensified. Top coaches like Texas’s Shaka Smart, Arizona’s Sean Miller and U.C.L.A.’s Steve Alford visited him, and he went to see them — and others — on their campuses.

But the smart money was on Michigan State. The Spartans’ coach, Tom Izzo, had visited Bowen in September 2016, and the university’s campus in East Lansing had been the destination for other Saginaw natives who had made it in the N.B.A.

But Izzo could not close the deal, and Bowen’s spring of indecision began. He promised a commitment at an event in Brooklyn in April, but it never came. In early May, he visited Oregon. Then, on Memorial Day, he took a trip to Louisville.

Four days later, Bowen announced Louisville was his leading candidate, and the day after that, he committed, posting on Twitter and Instagram an image of himself in a Cardinals jersey.

His choice, according to federal officials, involved much more than basketball.

In May, according to the federal complaint, a Louisville coach whom investigators did not name had requested that several men come together to help secure Bowen’s commitment. They agreed to funnel $100,000 in four installments to Bowen’s family in exchange for Bowen’s commitment to the team — one of the most prominent in the stable of college basketball programs that Adidas sponsors.

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Rick Pitino lost his job as Louisville’s basketball coach a day after federal criminal complaints were unsealed. He was not named or charged, but some allegations in the complaints involved Louisville’s program.

Credit
Michael Clevenger/The Courier-Journal, via Associated Press

The men were Jim Gatto, global director of marketing for Adidas Basketball; Merl Code, who works with Adidas’s grass-roots basketball program; Christian Dawkins, an employee of a sports management company who had ties to Saginaw and to Bowen through a youth program; and Munish Sood, a money manager.

Two days before Bowen’s visit to Louisville, according to the complaint, Gatto and a second, unnamed Louisville coach — Pitino, according to someone familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity — had two phone conversations, and three days later they had another. Pitino told The Courier-Journal of Louisville that he and Gatto had been discussing Adidas’s sponsorship deal with Terry Rozier, a former Louisville player.

Gatto’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Whatever was said, within days Bowen was a Cardinal.

Transferring the Money

What followed, however, is a fit of bureaucratic frustration. On a July phone call, the complaint said, Code told Dawkins it was difficult for him and Gatto to come up with the money from Adidas, since it required the creation of a phony purchase order to conceal the payment’s true destination. (As Code would later explain, in a phone conversation recorded by the government, “it’s on the books, it’s not on the books for what it’s actually for.”)

Code asked Dawkins to front the first $25,000 payment since, as Code said in a subsequent call, Bowen’s father had expected the first installment in June. Through a backdoor account, Adidas later reimbursed him, the complaint said. This is “how stuff happens with kids and getting into particular schools,” Code said, according to the complaint.

On July 11, an undercover F.B.I. agent drove from New York City to Sood’s office in Princeton, N.J., and gave him $25,000 in cash on Dawkins’s behalf, according to the complaint. A couple of days later, Sood met with Bowen’s father and gave him most of the money, with Dawkins saying he would take care of the rest.

Neither Bowen’s father, Brian Bowen Sr., nor his mother, Carrie Melecke, responded to requests for comment. Last week, Melecke denied knowledge of the allegations to The Courier-Journal.

Later that month, in a Las Vegas hotel room, Dawkins discussed Bowen’s situation with the undercover agent; a Florida-based youth coach named Jonathan Brad Augustine; and a cooperating witness later identified by court documents as the money manager Martin Blazer. Their conversation was videotaped by the F.B.I. and recorded by Blazer.

In the discussion, Dawkins warned of a problem: A university endorsed by a rival apparel company was “coming in with a higher number” for Bowen. The concern seemed to have been that Bowen could still change his mind — he never signed a binding agreement with Louisville, according to news reports. Dawkins said he had spoken with the second Louisville coach — Pitino — about getting more money from Gatto.

The worries proved to be unfounded. Bowen eventually enrolled at Louisville, and its basketball team began practice under an interim coach last week, shortly after Louisville announced that it had removed Bowen from team activities (it did not identify him).

It is unclear what is next for Bowen. He has hired a lawyer, Jason Setchen, who specializes in N.C.A.A. reinstatement cases. (Setchen did not respond to requests for comment.) If the scheme with Adidas jeopardizes his N.C.A.A. eligibility, another program is unlikely to accept him. He could choose to try to play overseas or in the N.B.A.’s development league, or he could sit out and enter next June’s N.B.A. draft.

For all the trouble, Bowen’s family most likely received little more than $25,000 in the scheme, according to the complaint.

In fact, the second $25,000 his family was to have received was the subject of a phone call just last month — less than two weeks before the charges were announced — between Gatto and Code. Gatto joked about another inevitable delay resulting from Adidas bureaucracy, and suggested they begin processing the payment soon.

Regarding the rest of the money — $50,000 — Gatto was not worried. He said they could “figure out the other 50 in ’18.”

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