In 2004, when prep star Malik Hairston stepped into a conference room at the Detroit Renaissance, he did the damnedest thing.
He picked the Oregon Ducks.
Hairston, a McDonald’s All-American who would later be an NBA Draft pick, snubbed Kansas, Michigan and Ohio State and decided to go to Pac 10 university that was coming off a 9-9 season and a NIT appearance. Then-coach Ernie Kent was understandably stoked. But nobody was more excited than William Wesley, a well-sourced basketball handler with Nike ties. He was a close confidant of Hairston.
“Worldwide Wes” explained to me one day that big-city kids were fearful of large markets in the wake of 9/11. He insisted that Hairston’s decision to pick Eugene was rooted in the woodsy campus feel, and not the deep relationship that Wesley enjoyed with Nike. But you know, I never could shake the notion that Wesley, who is now a consultant with Creative Artists Agency, kept popping up in strange places.
In the locker room of the 2005 NBA Finals series between the Pistons-Spurs, for example. He just walked into the room, and slapped backs with Chauncey Billups and others. During the game Wesley sat courtside with Scottie Pippen and Hairston, then a sophomore at Oregon. Also, I noticed that Wesley popped up just about anywhere his good college friend, Kenny Payne, seemed to be.
Payne was hired by Kent as an assistant in 2004. He had no prior college coaching experience. Hairston and Tajuan Porter, also of Detroit, showed up soon after. Payne stayed six seasons at Oregon before John Calipari hired him away at Kentucky for $1 million a year. Wesley was also sitting behind the Kentucky bench as the Wildcats not only won a pile of games, but had the No. 1-recruiting classes in the country in five of the last eight seasons.
Recruiting is not about wins. It’s not about sneakers. It’s about relationships, ones forged by deep investment in youth basketball. It’s trust bonded not by sneakers but by the money sneaker companies pour into it. Nike and Adidas long ago figured that out and they’re in an arms race. That they’re both headquartered in the state of Oregon makes this a much larger issue for us than it being just about the Oregon Ducks.
Still, lets suppose that Brian Bowen Sr. takes the stand again on Tuesday in United States District Court in Manhattan. Lets further suppose that his “I don’t recall,” testimony about the financial offer that was alleged to be made from Oregon for his son unravels under the three cross examinations he’ll face.
Bowen Sr. may cave. He may suddenly remember or be reminded. It may come out that he’s told others an entirely different story about the Ducks.
Think on that until the court is reconvened in the matter of The United States of America v. the Sham of Amateurism. Because there are too many issues with what comes next. And unless the middle-man Bowen Sr. is alleging arranged the offers, Christian Dawkins, takes the stand how in the world can anything of substance really be proved?
I believe Bowen Sr. sold the services of his son to a high bidder. I believe college programs are desperate for talent. I also believe Nike and Adidas and Under Armour would prefer to funnel the talent they find into their own system, where it can be best controlled. I further believe that the youth basketball system is so riddled with corruption and sneaker-influence that it makes complete sense that the coaches and runners on that level are driving the bus.
This is a broken system, and I’m not sure how much the public really cares. Nobody was much surprised, for example, when Bowen Sr. revealed that he was told that Arizona offered $50,000 for his son, Brian Jr., to play there. Nobody in court fell over when it was alleged that Creighton offered $100,000 or Oklahoma State offered $150,000.
Frankly, the surprise is that the figures were so low for top talent.
Five-star recruit Bol Bol chose Oregon. So did Louis King, also a five-star guy. They’re enrolled in Eugene and will suit up. That came a year after Troy Brown Jr., another five-star recruit, became Dana Altman’s first one-and-done player.
The whole thing reminds me of when Hairston picked Oregon all those years ago. Because you either have to believe that the top recruits in the country are now choosing the Ducks because, what? Altman’s X-and-O’s? Or because of some recent success and the deep UO relationship with Nike? The woodsy feel of campus? The fact that Oregon played in a recent Final Four?
What is it really about?
I’d argue that it’s relationship driven.
Bol played high school for four different programs. King played for three. Bol, 7-foot-2, played for “Cal Supreme” in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League. King, 6-foot-8, flipped from an Under Armour Association to finish his “grassroots” basketball career as a member of Pennsylvania-based “Team Final,” also in the Nike EYBL. Both ended up at a key Nike university.
This has a lot of people in college basketball unsettled. Maybe it’s jealousy. Maybe it’s merited. Regardless, it’s why I don’t think the focus is going to die-down for the Ducks after this trial ends. We’re at the epicenter of it — Oregonians. It may be happening in New York, but our state is the hub. Oregon has long had a cozy relationship with Nike. Adidas is headquartered in Portland. Under Armour has also moved in and planted a flag.
This is just beginning in a lot of ways.