James Wiseman entered the University of Memphis this year as the Tigers’ highest-rated basketball recruit since Derrick Rose a dozen years earlier — and as the heart of a promised revival of the school’s once-great program.
Before he could even take the court for the Tigers, though, Wiseman became tangled in an eligibility case that could have lasting repercussions for the NCAA or Memphis, or both.
Here's everything you need to know about Wiseman’s eligibility fight — and what it means for all parties going forward.
Why is James Wiseman’s eligibility in question?
In 2017, Hardaway — according to the University of Memphis — provided $11,500 to Wiseman’s mother, apparently to assist in her family’s move from Nashville to Memphis. Once there, James enrolled at East High, where Hardaway was the head coach until the spring of 2018, when he left to become the Tigers' head coach.
According to the university, Wiseman was unaware of the payment.
The NCAA informed Memphis on Oct. 31 that this exchange of money was considered a violation of the organization’s recruiting rules, and that Wiseman would not be eligible to compete for the Tigers.
Isn’t that kind of obvious? One might think, but according to the lawsuit filed by Wiseman’s attorneys last week, this information was available to the NCAA between January and May. The lawsuit claims the organization in late May approved Wiseman to compete for the Tigers.
One member of Wiseman’s legal team, attorney Blake Ballin, told reporters from the Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) that Wiseman would have had other options for competition this winter if it were known that he would be ineligible with the Tigers. (It’s even possible he could have been free to play at another NCAA school).
Instead, Ballin said, Wiseman relied on the initial approval and enrolled at Memphis with the intention to play in the 2019-20 season.
In the latest development on Nov. 14, Memphis and Wiseman's legal team announced the withdrawal of the lawsuit pending the NCAA's resolution on his eligibility. As a result, Wiseman was declared ineligible and will not plan while awaiting reinstatement from the NCAA.
"It has become clear to Mr. Wiseman that the lawsuit he filed last week has become an impediment to the University of Memphis in its efforts to reach a fair and equitable resolution with the NCAA concerning his eligibility status," Wiseman's lawyers wrote in a statement. "Therefore, Mr. Wiseman advised his legal team that he wished to withdraw his lawsuit."
What was Penny Hardaway’s role?
For the purpose of this action, the NCAA deemed Hardaway a booster of Memphis Tigers athletics because he had presented a $1 million donation to the school in 2008 to aid in the establishment of an athletics hall of fame. Many critical of the NCAA’s position have seized upon this designation as specious, given that his donation occurred over a decade ago.
However, the NCAA considers a donor to an athletics department to be a representative of the school’s athletic interest in perpetuity.
No one seems to be talking about the fact Hardaway is now the Tigers’ coach. He was not when he made the donation, or when he made the payment to Wiseman’s family. But, accepting the university’s stipulation that the payment occurred, he knew when he recruited the player that the payment had been made. That alone would seem to make Wiseman’s recruitment problematic.
Why did the NCAA initially approve James Wiseman’s eligibility?
This is the trickiest question, and probably the strongest item working in Wiseman’s favor to regain eligibility.
The NCAA does not publicly comment on such matters, so we’d have to trust the word of the university and Wiseman’s attorneys on this. There is no reason not to believe this contention, though, because if Wiseman had been ruled ineligible months in advance of fall enrollment, he would have had many lucrative professional opportunities and could have argued for eligibility at a school other than Memphis.
As a projected top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Wiseman will spend (at most) only one season in NCAA basketball. So it figures he'd want to spend it on the court, not in one.
Why was James Wiseman allowed to play after NCAA ruling?
Upon learning of the NCAA’s ruling, Wiseman’s attorney’s went to court requesting a temporary order allowing him to play. A Tennessee court issued a temporary restraining order on the NCAA's ruling. Wiseman appeared for 25 minutes in an easy victory over Illinois-Chicago; he scored 17 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked five shots.
After learning of Memphis’ intention to play Wiseman, the NCAA issued a statement that read: “The University of Memphis was notified that James Wiseman is likely ineligible. The university chose to play him and ultimately is responsible for ensuring its student-athletes are eligible to play.”
If the NCAA ultimately finds Wiseman ineligible to play, it's possible whatever achievements the Tigers manage with him in the lineup will be retroactively vacated. It was also possible that any action by the NCAA’s enforcement division could be escalated because the university knew of the ruling against Wiseman and put him on the floor, anyway.
This all likely factored into Wiseman's decision to withdraw his lawsuit. As an ineligible player, he is now sidelined indefinitely while petitioning for reinstatement this season.
Who are James Wiseman’s attorneys?
The firm of Ballin, Ballin & Fishman is a nationally prominent defense firm. It was founded over a half-century ago in Memphis by the late Marvin Ballin, and his son Leslie is in charge now. Blake Ballin, who spoke to the media Friday on Wiseman’s behalf, is Leslie’s son.
Leslie Ballin was part of the defense team representing Mary Winkler, after she was charged in 2006 with murdering her husband, a preacher in Selmer, Tenn., by shooting him in the back with a shotgun. Winkler was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter after her legal team successfully argued she had been abused by her husband and that the shooting, as she said on the stand, happened “accidentally.” She was sentenced to time served plus 210 days in prison, in addition to a subsequent probation and stay at a mental health facility.
The Mississippi firm of Farese, Farese & Farese were also essential to the Winkler defense. They, too, are part of Wiseman’s legal team.