UK Men's Basketball

New court documents detail alleged text messages between UK coach, Nike basketball official

The exhibits previously mentioned in the motion filed on behalf of attorney Michael Avenatti to dismiss charges against him related to the college basketball corruption scandal were released Friday, and they include the text messages purported to be between Nike official Carlton DeBose and a University of Kentucky assistant coach.

According to the motion, the messages sent in the early morning hours of July 6, 2017, are communications between DeBose, the head of Nike’s EYBL travel circuit, and the UK assistant, whose name appears in the messages as “KP.”

Kenny Payne has been on John Calipari’s coaching staff at Kentucky since 2010.

“KP” asks DeBose in the first message included in the exhibit: “Do u help people like Webster and speedy every year and how many more people asked you to help them. They both are happy u are helping them how many more are their.”

DeBose responds with a list of about 10 Nike league coaches who he says “are helping families to the total of about ($200,000) annually.”

“Wow,” KP responds.

“Can it come back n hurt you?” reads a later message from “KP.”

“Not really,” DeBose responds. “Have to to do it cleanly and with a process. I’m good but it’s enough to where Lynn and Nico don’t want to know the intimate details to cover their asses. So it’s a risk but my every day job is a damn risk so I’m used to it now.”

Lynn Merritt is a senior official in Nike’s basketball marketing operation. Nico Harrison is Nike’s vice president of North American basketball operations.

“Watch your back bro,” KP responds to DeBose.

The motion to dismiss federal charges against Avenatti filed this week on his behalf alleged several instances of Nike officials planning to pay high school players. One of those examples was, “DeBose acknowledged in an exchange of text messages with an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky that Nike was funneling payments to high school players through at least ten different EYBL coaches.”

That was the only mention of Kentucky’s basketball program in the 50-page court filing, and the text messages released Friday to support that statement showed no evidence that “KP” had any prior knowledge or involvement in the alleged plan to pay recruits.

The filing on behalf of Avenatti also accused Nike officials of conspiring to pay at least $35,000 to Zion Williamson, $20,000 to Romeo Langford, and $15,000 to a player from Michigan who was not named because he is a minor. Additional documents to back up those claims were also included in Friday’s update to the motion along with several other documents showing communication between Nike officials.

There was nothing in Friday’s filing that showed any wrongdoing on the part of the aforementioned players, and there was no evidence presented that those players were even made aware of the alleged plan.

These court filings revolve around the Avenatti legal team’s argument that federal investigators mishandled the case that led to charges against him earlier this year. The lawyer was charged with extortion, and federal investigators characterized his conduct toward Nike as a “shakedown” — accusing Avenatti of threatening to release evidence against the company unless Nike agreed to a payment of more than $20 million.

Avenatti has disputed those charges, and the court filings this week seek to prove that he was simply trying to arrange for a settlement for his client, Gary Franklin, a Nike-affiliated AAU coach who says he was used by Nike grassroots officials to make payments to associates of some of his highest-profile players, DeAndre Ayton, Bol Bol and Brandon McCoy, while they were still in high school.

The documents released Friday also show an email sent to DeBose in July 2016 from Mel McDonald, who was connected to the recruitments of Ayton and Bol, showing expenses that appear to be related to Ayton’s recruitment.

One of those expenses is dated Dec. 12 and refers to “5k in Kentucky (3 cells 2k cash).”

Ayton’s high school team, Hillcrest Prep (Ariz.), played two games in Lexington on Dec. 12 and Dec. 13, 2015.

UK was at times linked to Ayton’s recruitment, but the Wildcats did not seriously pursue the No. 1-ranked player in the 2017 class in the latter stages of his recruitment. Ayton never took a recruiting visit to UK, and he committed to Arizona (a Nike school) in the fall of 2016 and later became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Two Adidas officials were found guilty last year of federal crimes related to the college basketball corruption scandal, which also led to the arrest of four assistant coaches at major colleges and directly resulted in Rick Pitino’s ouster as the head coach of Louisville in 2017.

Shortly after the initial round of arrests and charges related to the scandal in the fall of 2017, Nike was served with a federal subpoena as part of the ongoing investigation. The documents included in this week’s court filing on behalf of Avenatti were handed over to the federal government as a result of that subpoena.

No one associated with Nike has been charged as a result of the investigation, and the company has not specifically commented on Avenatti’s claims.

Ben Roberts covers UK basketball, football and other sports for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has specialized in UK basketball recruiting for the past several years. He also maintains the Next Cats recruiting blog, which features the latest news on the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts.
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