THE CLIMACTIC scene started with a knock on the door of an expansive suite at the W Hotel in Manhattan's Times Square. It was last Sept. 25, an unseasonably hot afternoon, and Christian Dawkins entered the suite prepared to talk business. Yet what he thought would be a routine meeting with investors for his fledgling sports management agency ended with him leaving the room in handcuffs, soon to emerge as the central figure in one of the most sensational scandals in the history of college basketball.
The culminating moment of a years-long investigation into corruption in the sport featured the requisite elements of a true crime drama. Agents flashing badges. At least eight FBI heavies storming the room with brandished guns. A defendant caught off-guard and so emotionally overheated—literally—that he stripped off his shirt. Yet one critical actor was missing. The lead FBI operative? He was mysteriously absent.
Following the sting Dawkins was charged with various federal crimes including wire fraud, bribery and money-laundering conspiracy. (He pleaded not guilty.) Within 24 hours charges were leveled against 10 men—four college assistant coaches, Adidas executives and an independent financial adviser. At 6 a.m. the morning after Dawkins's arrest, Munish Sood, the financial adviser, was showering in his Princeton, N.J., home when federal agents showed up. Sood's wife answered the door and led a team of armed operatives to her naked and unsuspecting husband. In Greenville, S.C., bureau trucks converged on the home of Merl Code Jr., an Adidas contractor and former Clemson basketball player. Agents seized Code's laptop before she led them upstairs to arrest her husband. In Portland, federal agents stormed the home of James Gatto, Adidas's head of global marketing for basketball. (These three also entered pleas of not guilty.)
The criminal cases stemming from this investigation will play out in New York's Southern District and are scheduled to go to trial this fall. They will raise the usual questions about the ethics of the NCAA, the unseemliness of recruiting, the fraught landscape of college sports. Should athletes who generate millions for their schools be paid? How can the government assert federal fraud charges against coaches when the "defrauded" parties are the very schools making vast sums of money from the work of unpaid athletes? Should NCAA violations also be considered federal crimes?
But the government's entire case may rest on a much more fundamental question: What happened to the lead agent?
For the first 18 years of his life, Christian Dawkins's connection to basketball was mostly indirect. His father, Lou, was Draymond Green's high school coach in Saginaw, Mich., and the patriarch of a prep dynasty that claimed consecutive state championships in 2007 and '08. Dawkins's younger brother Dorian, a five-star recruit, was poised to become a star before collapsing on the court in June 2009 and dying from a series of heart attacks. Christian's basketball bona fides were less impressive. A junior college dropout, he didn't have much game. But as a team organizer and proprietor of a recruiting rankings website, he made a name for himself on the AAU circuit through savvy, hustle and force of personality. By his early 20s Dawkins had joined the echelon of basketball "runners"—the boots-on-the-ground recruiters for large agencies—and, almost single-handedly, revitalized the floundering business of his boss, Andy Miller. Dawkins helped deliver 10 NBA first-round draft picks between '15 and '17 for Miller's ASM Sports.
Last summer Dawkins, then 24, was plump with connections but short of finances. Outside the auspices of Miller's business he had launched a fledgling sports management company, Live Out Your Dreams (LOYD). Around the time of the 2017 NBA Draft, he was introduced to Jeff DeAngelo. Marty Blazer, a Pittsburgh-based financial adviser, had introduced the men by way of Sood, Dawkins's partner in LOYD. DeAngelo, who claimed to have made his fortune in real estate, said he wanted to get into sports and was interested in bankrolling Dawkins and LOYD.
According to sources familiar with the FBI investigation, Dawkins met DeAngelo on a yacht docked in Lower Manhattan shortly before draft night. They were joined by Sood as well as by DeAngelo's associate, Jill, who said she had made her money in technology and was looking to insinuate herself into the world of NBA player management. DeAngelo expressed enthusiasm for aligning with a rising star in the agent world, nourishing Dawkins's ego and making it clear he was willing to spend liberally.
Sources tell SI that in the course of conversation DeAngelo made a number of strange requests. At one point he expressed his ambition for landing as many as 10 first-round NBA draft picks. Dawkins gently explained that even the most prominent agents are especially lucky to land four or five such picks in a single class. Sources tell SI that DeAngelo also forcefully suggested that LOYD funnel funds to college coaches in hopes of winning favor with NBA-bound players who were potential clients.
Dawkins and his investor met again the following month at the Adidas Gauntlet in Las Vegas, a premier summer AAU event. They met in a luxury suite at the Cosmopolitan hotel on July 29, continuing their discussions about how DeAngelo would underwrite Dawkins's agency. Jill was present too. Weeks later Dawkins was again to meet with his investors, in Los Angeles. However, before the meeting Jill explained that DeAngelo had abruptly left to take care of his ailing mother in Italy. Jill would now be the point person. She wanted to get together in New York.
The fourth meeting marked the endgame. At the W, "Jill" revealed that she was not a tech entrepreneur, but an undercover FBI agent. Jeff DeAngelo was not a real estate magnate, but the case's lead investigator. Dawkins was told his phone had been tapped for months, and hundreds of hours of calls were recorded. Blazer was not a benevolent networker. According to the charging documents, since 2014 he had been cooperating with federal agents in exchange for a reduced sentence in an unrelated case, and he'd tipped off the FBI to Dawkins as a window into the world of college basketball corruption. Days prior to Dawkins's sting, Blazer pleaded guilty to securities fraud, aggravated identity theft, making false statements and documents and two counts of wire fraud.
It was in Las Vegas that Dawkins, using cash provided by DeAngelo and Jill, had allegedly paid coaches, including USC assistant Tony Bland, who received an envelope containing $13,000—a transaction later detailed in the criminal complaint. The charging U.S. attorneys alleged that Dawkins, in handing over what was actually the government's cash to coaches, had violated NCAA rules and committed a series of federal crimes.
While the various cases have yet to go to trial, the scandal has already endured its share of convulsive and strange twists. After allegations that Adidas brokered payments to a Louisville recruit, coach Rick Pitino was fired by the school and then filed suit against the university. A slate of college hoops stars were implicated in the scandal and accused of receiving impermissible payments. Miller, Dawkins's ex-employer, renounced his NBA agent certification, but, curiously, has not yet been charged.
Strangest of all: Under the so-called Brady rule, prosecutors are required to disclose to the defense materially exculpatory evidence—that is, evidence favorable to the accused. In this case, when defense lawyers for some of the accused parties received the government's Brady disclosures, the document contained reference to the man who went by Jeff DeAngelo. Referring to the agent by his true name, the government conceded that the operation's central figure stood accused of misappropriating investigative funds earmarked for the operation and spending the money on gambling, food and beverages during the probe. Reverse engineering the dates, this alleged misconduct occurred during the July 2017 trip to Las Vegas. Later, "DeAngelo" had not flown to visit his ill mother. The undercover agent had actually been removed from the case due to accusations about his own allegedly illegal activity.
According to public documents, the lawyer for Gatto filed a motion requesting specifics on this agent and his alleged corruption. "We asked the government for additional information regarding the circumstances of that misappropriation," lawyer Michael Schachter complained during a March pretrial oral argument. "The government declined to provide us with that information, rather standing on their initial disclosure." (Schachter's request is pending with the court. The U.S. Attorneys declined to comment to SI.)
The FBI also declined to comment. The extent to which a potentially corrupt FBI agent may undercut the government's case will be borne out in the months to come. The irony is unmistakable: Might a case predicated on the seduction of easy money and of misappropriated funds, be undone by a rogue federal operative who, himself, could not resist the same lure he was tasked with exposing?
"WHILE THE VARIOUS CASES HAVE YET TO GO TO TRIAL, THE SCANDAL HAS ALREADY ENDURED ITS SHARE OF CONVULSIVE AND STRANGE TWISTS."
A LIFE REMEMBERED
FACES IN THE CROWD