As the summer was coming to an end, the recruiting battle for five-star recruit Nassir Little had begun to heat up.
Little, 17, who had been quickly rising in the basketball rankings, took an official visit to Georgia Tech on Aug. 26, followed by a visit to North Carolina on Sept. 8. Then, during a four day period, from Sept. 17 to Sept. 20, Little received visits at his Orange Park, Fla., home from some of the country’s top coaches: Miami’s Jim Larrañaga, Arizona’s Sean Miller and UNC’s Roy Williams.
Duke was also in the mix, and everything was looking up for the 6-6, 215-pound small forward.
But the intense recruiting battle for one of the Class of 2018’s top recruits came to an abrupt stop when Little temporarily halted his recruitment on Sept. 26, after the FBI announced a bombshell:
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The country’s top law enforcement agency had arrested 10 people connected to college basketball for their roles in bribery and corruption schemes. At least six college basketball programs and possibly many more were said to be involved in two different efforts. One involved paying players upwards of $150,000 in exchange for their commitment to certain adidas-sponsored universities. The other involved coaches receiving payments to steer players to agents.
Little’s AAU coach at adidas-sponsored 1 Family Hoops in Orlando, Jonathan Brad Augustine, was one of those arrested in the scheme to pay players’ families in exchange for steering those to universities sponsored by adidas.
And one of the players described in the FBI’s report as being offered money in exchange for his commitment appeared to be Little.
Little was not named in the report but appeared to be the athlete identified as “Player-12.” In the report, Player-12 is said to be part of Augustine’s grassroots program, 1 Family Hoops, a 2018 recruit, and the “number seven ranked player” in the country, which seemed to match Little’s profile.
According to the FBI documents, adidas director of global marketing James Gatto, his associate Merl Code, and Christian Dawkins, an employee at a sports management company, all of whom were arrested, conspired to funnel $150,000 from adidas to “Player-12” in exchange for his commitment to “University-7,” revealed to be the University of Miami. “Player-12,” a top recruit, would ultimately sign with Dawkins after he entered the NBA, according to the documents.
Augustine, Little’s AAU coach, was described in the documents as the facilitator of the deal with Gatto, Dawkins and Code. Little and his family are not described in the report as having had discussions about the money with the coaches.
Little’s family has denied he was ever offered money by a coach. His AAU team, 1 Family Hoops, released a statement also emphatically denying the allegations. Neither he nor anyone in his family has been charged with any wrongdoing.
Augustine has not been indicted in the case. His attorney declined to comment for this story.
Little, who would eventually commit to UNC, appeared to be caught in the middle of a system in which college coaches, sports agents, apparel companies and major universities vie for the best young basketball talent. The FBI’s investigation, which has spanned three years but is ongoing, showed the lengths some coaches, agents and shoe companies are willing to go to land the country’s top high school prospects, even if that means risking a player’s eligibility, sanctions by the NCAA, or, in this case, trouble with the law.
It has left many wondering: If this was the “tip of the iceberg,” as federal prosecutors have alleged, then which programs, coaches, and, or recruits, would be implicated next.
The sneaker connection
Since the late 70’s, sneaker companies have invested in basketball players at young ages with the hope that if they became stars, they would sign with that company after they turned professional.
Nike, adidas and Under Armour have their hand in all three levels of basketball. At the youth level they sponsor AAU teams, paying for their travel and outfits. They also host showcase tournaments for the top high school basketball players during the summer. College coaches from across the country watch and recruit those players.
In college they outfit entire athletic departments, sometimes paying a large part of schools’ athletic budgets, and help supplement the pay of coaches. And at the NBA level, they sign the biggest names to multimillion-dollar endorsement deals.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has a contract with Nike, said in October that the involvement of shoe companies is “paramount to the success of college sports,” particularly basketball. He said the shoe company-funded circuits provide opportunities for thousands of aspiring basketball players to be seen by college coaches.
“I would hate that if we look at this and we just say ‘well the shoe companies are bad’ ” Krzyzewski said. “Well, are the universities going to give up their school contracts that outfit the 20 to 30 sports that they have? Can something be wrong with certain parts of that? Yes. But let’s not eliminate the whole thing.”
He added that he didn’t think corruption in college basketball was rampant.
Williams, who also has a contract with Nike, says the firm has “really contributed a great deal to so many schools.”
But he has expressed concern about the influence of shoe companies on college basketball recruiting.
“A couple of years ago I really felt like, I said to my staff, I think the next big issue will be the involvement of shoe companies,” Williams said during a press conference in October. “It was a few years back.”
In response to a question about how to clean up college sports, N.C. State basketball coach Kevin Keatts said recruiting has to go to the parents. He said schools must do a better job of educating parents on how the recruiting process works.
“And that doesn’t allow other people to be involved in your recruiting,” Keatts said in October.
The FBI chronology
On Aug. 9, Little had narrowed his final five schools to Duke, UNC, Miami, Georgia Tech and Arizona, according to his Twitter page. He was starting to rise in the rankings after a successful summer in the adidas Uprising Circuit where he averaged 18.2 points per game, 6.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals in six games played.
Prosecutors say Aug. 9 was also the day they intercepted a call from Dawkins and Code in which the two discussed paying “Player-12 and/or his family” $150,000 at the request of “Coach-3,” or Larrañaga, who later identified himself as the coach described in the FBI documents but told The News & Observer he has never had a recruit ask him for money.
During the call, Dawkins and Code talked about the involvement the coach would have in ensuring that adidas would funnel payments to the recruit in exchange for his commitment to “University-7.”
On Aug. 11, investigators intercepted two more calls, this time from Gatto and Code. “Coach-3” requested they make a payment of $150,000 to Player-12 and his family to prevent him from committing to attend “another NCAA Division I university by a rival apparel athletic company,” that allegedly offered him a “substantial sum of money,” the documents state.
On Aug. 12, investigators intercepted another call, this time between Code and Dawkins. According to the documents, Code said if one of the universities, which appears to be Arizona, was willing to pay the full $150,000, “then that’s where the kid is going to go.”
He said Gatto didn’t have sufficient funds to pay the player in 2017. He said if adidas waited until 2018 to commit to a payment, then the asking price for the recruit might reach $200,000.
Dawkins asked for the highest price adidas would pay the player. Code said $150,000.
A week later, on Aug. 19, investigators intercepted a call between Code and Augustine. Code told Augustine, he would do whatever was necessary to make sure they secured the player, but they were strapped for the year on funds.
“So ’18 puts us in a better place to have that conversation,” Code told Augustine.
Harold Little, Nassir Little’s father, declined to go into detail about the FBI allegations. He said his family wants the FBI to clear his son’s name first.
“What I’m looking for from them, is that we can confirm that this family has nothing to do with anything,” the elder Little said. “And we want from the NCAA to verify and confirm his eligibility.”
Harold Little said when the FBI’s documents came out, the family was surprised to read that the player being described fit the description of his son.
“Based on the assumption that it’s him, it was like a shock, obviously, because we knew what was being alleged, at least in regards to us, wasn’t true,” the elder Little said.
Two months ago, Harold and Nassir Little denied under oath the bribery allegations and any misconduct by Miami’s staff. In an Oct. 13 sworn affidavit, Nassir Little says neither he nor his father “solicited or discussed a payment of any kind in exchange for my commitment to play basketball at the University of Miami or any other school.”
He also denied that anyone offered or discussed any form of payment with him or any family members. The Miami Herald was the first to report about the affidavit.
When asked about UNC’s impression of Augustine and whether he accompanied Little on a recruiting trip, a UNC spokesperson said Williams “does not go into details of recruiting or recruiting trips.”
Harold Little also declined to answer any questions about Augustine.
Nassir Little was supposed to visit Miami in September, Arizona in October, and Duke in November, according to 247sports.
But he never did.
On Sept. 26, the day the FBI announced its investigation, Little tweeted he was re-opening his recruitment. It was not clear whether he had heard of any concerns from any of the schools recruiting him.
But he soon deleted the tweet and said he would announce his college decision on Oct. 4 on Twitter.
UNC always a top choice
UNC had been a favorite to land Little even before the FBI’s report was released. His father said UNC was Nassir’s favorite team to watch growing up.
“I grew up a Carolina fan, so by proxy, he was a Carolina fan,” Harold Little said.
After an unofficial visit to UNC, an in-home visit from Williams and his official visit, all in September, most recruiting experts, thought the Tar Heels had the upper hand.
Little, who learned how to play basketball at 13 through YouTube videos, had started fielding Division-I offers after his freshmen year of high school. The first offer was from Stetson. Then came the University of Florida. Then the University of North Florida. Next was Florida State.
East Carolina’s basketball coach at the time, Jeff Lebo (Lebo resigned last week), also tried to recruit Little, but he wasn’t interested.
Lebo, a former UNC basketball player, asked Little if he would be interested in UNC. Little was. After all, it was his favorite college basketball team. Soon, UNC’s coaching staff made contact with Little’s high school coach.
The Tar Heels offered him a scholarship in July.
Williams confident in Little
On Oct. 4, Little announced that he would go to UNC by posting a video on Twitter. The video started with a text message conversation between him and his dad. Little says he’s ready to commit. His dad replies that it’s been a long journey and says “a lot has been going on.”
Little replies, “Fact! But Lions Don’t Lose Sleep Over the Opinions of Sheep.”
In the next frame of the video, Little is shooting a basketball in a UNC jersey.
Little also released a video of his phone call with UNC coach Williams, delivering the news that he would be a Tar Heel. In the video, Williams asks, “You’re not pulling my leg are you boy?”
Little says “no, sir.”
Then Williams lets out a scream on the other end of the phone.
Asked later that month at a press conference whether he had any concerns about any of his recruits given the FBI probe, Williams, who could not comment directly on Little until he’d signed his National Letter of Intent, said, “I think if we’re still recruiting them, I still think that we feel good about it, yes.”
During Operation basketball in Charlotte in October, Williams talked about how the university vets their recruits.
“We try to look into it as much as we can,” Williams said. “I want to talk to their guidance counselor, I want to talk to their teachers, I want to talk to the custodians. Every time I go into a school, if I meet somebody I say, ‘Well, what do you think of Joel?’ … When I go to the games where people would say, ‘Well, I have Joel here, in this class, I say, ‘Well how is he doing?’ So I do that all the time, and I mean with everybody. And what people tell you is extremely important to me.”
Little signed his National Letter of Intent during the early signing period in November.
When asked at a press conference in November whether he’s confident that Little was not involved in any wrongdoing related to the FBI’s investigation, Williams said he trusted Little and his family.
“Just because something was written down on paper doesn’t mean it actually happened,” Williams said, adding that Little and his father also signed the sworn affidavit. “So I trust him.”
Staff writers Chip Alexander, Andrew Carter, Steve Wiseman and Joe Giglio contributed to this report