Sports

‘Deals are NOT done yet!’ Payments for Duke’s Zion Williamson discussed in Nike texts.

Three Nike executives discussed a plan to pay Zion Williamson and Romeo Langford in February 2017 in order to get them to play in the company’s grassroots summer league when both were in high school, according to copies of text messages entered into evidence in a New York federal court Friday.

The intra-company Nike correspondence became public in New York federal court documents entered into evidence as part of lawyer Michael Avenatti’s defense against federal extortion charges. He faces those charges for threatening to go public with his claims the shoe and apparel company was involved in college basketball recruiting corruption.

The copies of text messages and emails entered as hard evidence back up Avenatti’s claims earlier in the week that he could prove Nike officials Carlton DeBose, John Stovall and Jamal James were willing to arrange payments to players and their families in violation of NCAA amateurism rules.

Nowhere in the messages does it say Williamson or Langford received any payments or that they were aware of the planned payments.

The court documents, first reported by Yahoo, were obtained by the News & Observer on Friday night.

Texts about payments to Williamson, Langford

DeBose, director of Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, and James, Nike’s EYBL manager, and Stovall, Nike’s recruiting coordinator, discussed Williamson and Langford during a group text conversation on Feb. 11, 2017.

“Just remember that the Romeo and Zion deals are NOT done yet!,” Stovall wrote. “We are still in it. Just want you to remember that possible financial obligation also.”

James wrote, “Forgot about that” and two minutes later wrote, “I just told them we could do the 30K, too.”

Two hours later, DeBose responded with “We’re still in there for Zion and Langford?!?!?! I thought that ship had sailed.”

“Nope,” Stovall wrote. “Still at dock. Hoping to have news next week.”

“Ok got it,” DeBose wrote. “Let me know if I’m needed.”

Williamson, then a junior at Spartanburg Day School in South Carolina, had yet to commit to a college at the time. He was playing for the Adidas-sponsored S.C. Supreme summer-league team, coached by his stepfather, Lee Anderson.

On Feb. 12, the three Nike executives discussed paying more than $35,000 to Williamson, $20,000 to Langford and $15,000 to an unnamed player from Michigan. The unnamed player’s name was redacted because he was a minor at the time.

DeBose referenced that $70,000 when he wrote, “The other 70 listed I’m willing to spend to cripple Adidas.”

On Feb. 28, 2017, Stovall texted the other two saying “Langford went to Adidas!”

DeBose answered, “Wow. Ok. Update on Williamson?

Stovall responded “Nothing yet” and said an unidentified third-party man “had not directly talked to him in a couple of days. Still has not presented our new offer. Only hinted at it. He did not want to put it in print, which I agreed with.”

Williamson chooses Duke, a Nike team

Williamson chose Duke, a Nike-sponsored team, as his college choice Jan. 20, 2018 and was the ACC player of the year for the Blue Devils last season before entering the NBA. The New Orleans Pelicans drafted him No. 1 overall in June. He signed an endorsement deal with Nike’s Jordan Brand.

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Duke’s Zion Williamson, right, poses for photographs with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after being selected by the New Orleans Pelicans as the first pick during the NBA basketball draft Thursday, June 20, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) Julio Cortez AP

Williamson’s name came up in another conversation that became public last spring during the federal government’s corruption trial involving Adidas.

An FBI videotape of a Las Vegas hotel room in July 2017 showed Clemson assistant coach Steve Smith, who has since been fired, discussing Williamson’s recruitment with would-be agent Christian Dawkins and Jeff D’Angelo, an undercover FBI agent.

“Steve had just had a meeting with Zion Williamson’s stepfather,” testified government witness Marty Blazer, a financial advisor facing a maximum of 67 years in prison on various federal charges. “Steve was recruiting Zion. Steve was going to try and find out what Zion’s family needed.”

Clemson, Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky were all recruiting Williamson at the time.

‘Nike schools pay, too’

Dawkins was convicted on federal bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud following the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption.

On the videotape played in court during his trial in April, Dawkins says Williamson’s recruiting is “gonna be crazy. Duke is gonna have their resources. UNC is UNC. Kentucky, they have their resources.”

“If (it) comes to down (it) … we’ll be able to make sure everything’s good for the parent and everything like that,” Dawkins said.

Merl Code, a former Nike employee who became an Adidas consultant, was shown on a separate FBI video from June 2017 alleging Duke, UNC and other Nike-sponsored schools with making improper payments to players.

“Nike schools pay, too. … In some form or fashion, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Kentucky, all of the schools are doing something to help get kids,” Code said on the video tape. “That’s just part of the space.”

Duke officials have repeatedly pointed to the thorough examination of the Williamson family’s finances it completed before the NCAA Clearinghouse declared him eligible to play college basketball.

Avenatti makes claims about Nike payments

In April, when Avenatti used his Twitter account to make claims about Nike payments to Williamson’s family, Duke athletics director Kevin White said Duke would “look into” the allegations.

“We are aware of the allegation and, as we would with any compliance matter, are looking into it,” White said. “Duke is fully committed to compliance with all NCAA rules and regulations. Every student-athlete at Duke is reviewed to ensure their eligibility. With regard to men’s basketball: all recruits and their families are thoroughly vetted by Duke in collaboration with the NCAA through the Eligibility Center’s amateurism certification process.”

That same day, Nike released a statement that it “firmly believes in ethical and fair play, both in business and sports and won’t be commenting further beyond our statement.”

Though Williamson wound up entering a business deal with Nike after his Duke career, Langford went another direction. Named Mr. Basketball in the state of Indiana, Langford played for an Adidas-sponsored team coached by his father. He committed to Indiana, also an Adidas-sponsored school, April 30, 2018. After one season with the Hoosiers, he was selected by the Boston Celtics in the first round of June’s NBA Draft.

“What moved Langford?” DeBose wrote in the Feb. 28, 2017 text conversation.

“$$ is my guess,” Stovall wrote. “They claim `a chance to start a new path.’ I’m not buying it.”

Alleged Nike payment scheme

While the federal government won convictions against Code, Dawkins and Adidas executive James Gatto at trial, no Nike executives were charged with any crimes stemming from the FBI investigation.

Stovall, James and DeBose all remain employed by Nike.

Avenatti represents Gary Franklin, who coaches the Nike-funded California Supreme summer basketball team. According to the motion filed with the New York federal court, Franklin claims Nike threatened to end its funding of his team if he didn’t participate in a payment scheme to his top players. They included including DeAndre Ayton, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft after playing one season at Arizona, and Bol Bol, a second round pick in the 2019 NBA draft after playing one season at Oregon.

Franklin alleges DeBose, James and Stovall directed the payment scheme. Emails entered into evidence on Friday show dates and apparent payment amounts.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.
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