As recruiting scandal heads to court, defendants realize gravity of situation

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

NEW YORK – They shared a defense table here on the fifth floor of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse. They were each surrounded by lawyers they never dreamed of needing, read a list of crimes they never imagined could come. They were each freed on $100,000 bonds and ordered back for a Nov. 9 preliminary hearing. A sketch artist, the same one who famously and comically butchered Tom Brady’s look during deflate-gate, scribbled their images.

Their careers in tatters, their long-term freedom uncertain and the sport of college basketball hanging in the balance, Emanuel “Book” Richardson and Tony Bland stood and, with grim looks on their faces, gave each other a long, tight bear hug.

For years they competed against each other, Richardson as an assistant coach at Arizona, Bland at USC. They fought for wins and recruits and Pac-12 titles.

Now they were co-defendants and alleged co-conspirators, a slew of fraud charges laid out by Judge Katherine Parker on Tuesday afternoon that made their current reality crystal clear.

“You are both charged with conspiracy to commit bribery in violation of Title 18 of the U.S. Code,” Parker said, at the start of the reading of the charges.

Across a couple hours here college basketball’s day of reckoning was staged, the first in a long process of legal maneuvering and potential backstabbing that has the sport on edge.

The FBI ran an extensive, three-year investigation into how college basketball coaches work with sports agents, financial planners, sneaker company executives and recruits to steer talent through the system – from high school prospect, to college star, to NBA millionaire. There were hidden cameras and undercover agents and wire taps and all the resources of the federal government. The sport has always been a virtual open secret of payouts and side deals. It was always scandalous, but it never felt like a federal case.

Until it was.

Richardson, 44, and Bland, 37, came here Tuesday. So did Auburn assistant and former NBA star Chuck Person, facing similar accusations of accepting money from agents and shoe companies to steer players to them. Former Nike and Adidas executive Merl Code was present, too, as was Rashan Michel, an Atlanta suit-dealer and former NBA referee. Two more will come on Thursday, including top Adidas executive James Gatto. Three others, including an AAU coach, were processed last week.

Chuck Person, 53, exits the Federal Courthouse in Manhattan on October 10, 2017 in New York City. Several people associated with NCAA Basketball have been charged as part of a corruption ring. (Getty)

Ten men, from all levels of the game, from all corners of the country, had to appear in Lower Manahattan to answer for their acts, answer for their sport. They share an unlikely bond, their lives uprooted on Sept. 26 when the FBI pounced – Richardson rustled from bed at 5:50 a.m. in Arizona, Bland brought in at 9:20 a.m. while on a recruiting trip in Florida.

Now college hoops sits and wonders who will flip for the feds, who will tell tales and point fingers and cause this already expansive scandal to widen even further. It’s already rolled up six schools and ended the career at Louisville of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino.

“You can easily imagine that each of these individuals will give rise to a line of an investigation that will produce new threads that will be pursued by agents and prosecutors that will have an interest in looking at the activities of others,” said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York who now teaches at Columbia Law School.

Maybe every story doesn’t result in federal charges (Pitino faces no legal issues), but will devastate programs in the eyes of the NCAA rulebook.

“You solicited and received cash and things of benefit from co-defendants designed to enrich yourself,” Parker said of Richardson, Bland and Person.

This was a surreal scene, men who knew each other from the recruiting trail now standing in huddled groups in the marble-walled spaces outside courtroom 5A. They shook hands and shared shrugs. They kissed each other’s wives on the cheek. They were supported by family and friends, including New York area high school coaches.

The coaching world is a family of sorts; a family of rivals, a family of rollicking disputes over talent and late-game calls, but it is a family. About 1,000-strong of head and assistant coaches run the sport and they travel together, compete against each other, complain about each other and even support each other. It’s a tough business. A glory-filled one, but a tough one.

Everyone knows everyone and now everyone wants to know who is willing to tell the feds everything to save themselves even the specter of prison. These aren’t hardened criminals. This isn’t the mob.

“It’s a dark day for anybody who has been charged with a crime,” said Bland’s attorney Jeffrey Lichtman. “He’s a good man and anybody who has ever met him knows that.”

“Book Richardson is a family man and proud of his career in college basketball,” said Richardson’s attorney Craig Mordock. “Criminal trials are not about press conferences or allegations made in sworn complaints. They are about evidence. Book Richardson is not guilty and will remain not guilty.”

This may be true, but it didn’t decrease the tension in the air or the dread of what comes next. Are these guys, most well-paid, well-adjusted 30- and 40-something professionals really going to fight and risk a trial? While the DOJ laid out prison terms of as much as 200 years, the reality is more likely to be counted in months.

Still, who wants that? Who expected this? In a sport long ago built on under-the-table payments and working every available angle to land the players needed for victory, this was a harsh slap. And it’s not some toothless NCAA infractions committee but a no-nonsense judge and an unrelenting team of prosecutors.

“You pressured and persuaded student-athletes and their families to retain the services of a co-defendant,” Parker read to Person, once the heralded “Rifleman” of the NBA, now just wondering how to get out from underneath all of this.

Eventually everyone went before the judge, everyone was handed bail and told their travel was restricted and ordered to forfeit their passports and told in clear and certain terms that this was the start of some serious business. One after the next, after the next, a parade of regret.

Soon after hugging Bland at the defense table, Richardson, his wife Erin and four supporters left the courtroom and gathered in a circle in front of the elevators.

They held hands, bowed their heads and did about the only thing left to do on this first day in the process for them and college athletics.

They prayed.

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