Former AAU basketball coach says those wrapped up in college basketball scandal will flip for feds

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

In April of 2000, Myron Piggie, a former convicted felon turned nationally prominent AAU basketball coach, was indicted on 11 counts of fraud by the United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

Piggie was charged with essentially the same crimes that rocked college basketball Tuesday. Ten men, including college assistants, a travel club coach, a financial planner, agents and shoe executives were arrested after a two-year FBI investigation, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan announced.

At the heart of both cases were payments to top high school players from shoe companies (then Nike, now Adidas) and agents that were designed to steer them to favorable colleges before later getting them to sign with the same shoe companies, agents and financial planners when they reached the NBA.

In 2000, the Kansas City-based Piggie had built the nation’s strongest AAU program, armed with star recruits from across the Midwest such as JaRon and Kareem Rush, Korleone Young, Corey Maggette, Earl Watson and Mike Miller.

Now he found himself seated, with a lawyer at his side, across a conference table from the FBI. The feds had him over a barrel thanks to a weapons charge that, because he was already a felon, carried an automatic nine-year sentence. To get that wiped out, prosecutors said he had to plead guilty to funneling money to the players, according to Piggie.

Yet there was a twist. Roll up on everyone else, Piggie said he was told, from college coaches to Nike officials, and the case would soften.

“They said they’d give me probation,” Piggie told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday.

How far will this NCAA scandal reach? (AP)

Piggie was a treasure trove of stories and dirt. His players were involved in wild recruiting wars by dozens of top college programs and their boosters. Agents hovered around at all times. And he enjoyed a tight and lucrative relationship with Nike. He could have clearly detailed how the underbelly of the sport works. He knew it all, big-name careers at his mercy.

“I could have talked about everyone,” Piggie said. “I could have put other people away. I could have put five, six schools on probation.”

Yet he didn’t. He refused to cooperate and wound up serving 37 months in federal prisons in Leavenworth, Kansas, and Forest City, Arkansas. He said the extended time was preferable to snitching, even if it was just about college basketball.

“That’s the street code,” Piggie said. “I couldn’t do that. Not where I was at that place; not how I was brought up.”

With that, college basketball avoided a far-reaching scandal that could have ripped the sport apart. Instead, all the blame was placed on Piggie, who was little more than a colorful middleman. After all, not even the government claimed it was his money that it said was getting doled out to the recruits. Maybe most importantly, many of his former players, to this day, still swear by him as a mentor and friend. That matters most.

So as the news of another scandal broke Tuesday he just laughed.

“See, it didn’t end when I got out, it just got bigger and bigger,” Piggie said.

College basketball sits on edge again, assistant coaches at four schools (Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and USC) arrested. So, too, was another big-time AAU coach (this one in Florida), agents, a financial planner and a shoe executive. Three more schools (Louisville, Miami and South Carolina) were mentioned in indictments, although the details suggest NCAA trouble and not formal charges.

The feds again are looking for people to flip on the sport, to tell tales, to point fingers, to bring evidence. Tuesday they asked witnesses and even perpetrators to come forward and earn leniency. Seventeen years ago a Kansas City street guy and one-time drug dealer rebuffed them. What about with these guys?

“They’ll talk,” Piggie said Tuesday with a laugh. “They’ve got no balls. These are basketball coaches; they’ll do whatever to save themselves.”

Perhaps. That’s certainly what prosecutors want. How much power U.S. attorneys have over the accused, though, remains to be seen.

While the three separate complaints are full of details and strong allegations, upon closer review the cases are neither overwhelming nor, in the scope of federal bribery cases, feature major monetary amounts. Many of the charges are applied under the “honest services fraud” statute (basically the assistant coaches steering players to certain agents, etc.). It usually covers public corruption.

While $100,000 for a basketball recruit may scream from the headlines, federal sentencing guidelines are set to handle far more major cases. That this is being used on college athletics is itself an unexpected stretch.

“In terms of federal criminal prosecution, the stakes are about as low as they get,” said Craig Mordock, a New Orleans-based criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.

While technically some of the defendants are facing up to 80 years for fraud, committing bribery through a federally funded educational program (in this case a basketball program at a school that receives more than $10,000 in federal funds), money laundering and violation of the Travel Act, Mordock said there is virtually no chance a sentence like that is possible.

“Amount of loss controls almost everything in fraud cases and compared to what these judges see on a day in, day out basis, it is the equivalent of a ticket for driving 75 in a 55,” Mordock said. “And since these are part of a common scheme, they would almost certainly be sentenced concurring as well.”

For some, or even all the defendants, that could mean a maximum of 27 to 33 months in prison, Mordock said. Even if found guilty, a judge is far more likely to hand down, at most, six months prison time, which could be turned into just probation.

“I don’t think that this is enough to flip anybody,” Mordock said.

For some, or even all the defendants, that could mean a maximum of 27-33 months in prison, Mordock said, but if found guilty it is far more likely to be as little six months maximum prison time, which could be turned into just probation.

Authorities tacitly acknowledged Tuesday that their work is incomplete by reminding this was just the beginning.

“Our investigation is ongoing,” FBI assistant director Bill Sweeney warned. “And we are conducting interviews as we speak.”

Still, in the end, all it might take is one defendant who doesn’t want to risk prosecution at all.

The fear inside college basketball is that the FBI may uncover plenty of things that don’t meet their level, but would be devastating in terms of NCAA violations. In an affidavit, an undercover FBI agent who spearheaded the case said the complaints “do not include all of the facts that I have learned during the course of the investigation.”

That could lead to the kind of avalanche that prosecutors sought, but couldn’t get, from Piggie way back when.

Now 56, Piggie lives in Kansas City but is no longer involved in grassroots basketball. He says after he was indicted, pretty much everyone in the sport “turned on me.” If in 2000, he had the perspective he has today, he probably would skip what proved to be one-sided loyalty and instead just unloaded on the system, naming names and letting them deal with the NCAA and its rules.

“But back then I couldn’t do it,” Piggie said. “I couldn’t. I just did my time. I know this. They pinned it all on me, hammered me, blamed me and here we are. Same thing. It’s the same people, coaches, agents, shoe companies.”

It’s the same sport.

“I guess it turned out that it wasn’t all my fault.”

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