UK Men's Basketball

Calipari addresses mention of Kentucky assistant in alleged Nike corruption case

Kentucky head coach John Calipari said Sunday that he is not concerned about associate coach Kenny Payne’s name being referenced in a court document filed in the case involving attorney Michael Avenatti alleging corruption by senior officials in the Nike grassroots basketball program.

The document, which was released on Aug. 15, contained texts between Payne and Carlton DeBose. DeBose heads Nike’s EBYL summer league.

Calipari suggested that Kentucky basketball was mentioned in the filing because a marquee program can generate attention to the case.

“You put Kentucky in a headline or you put me in a headline, oh, you’re getting eyeballs,” Calipari said.

Calipari saw ill intent in original reporting not identifying Payne as the Kentucky coach in the filing.

“They didn’t say his name because they wanted it to be me,” Calipari said. “So they left his name out.”

The Avenatti filing 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.

In the exchange of texts, Payne was trying to help a longtime friend, Calipari said.

The first text message included in the filing begins with a question from Payne, who is identified as “KP.”

“Do u help people like Webster and speedy every year and how many more people asked you to help them,” KP asks. “They both are happy u are helping them how many more are there.”

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.

Later, KP texts DeBose with a question. “Can it come back n hurt you?”

To which DeBose responds, “Not really. 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.

To which Calipari defended Payne. “He (Payne) basically wanted him (DeBose) to do right, which would have been good. But because it’s us (his voice trailed off).”

According to the filing, DeBose acknowledged that Nike funneled payments to high school players through at least 10 different EBYL coaches. The filing does not mention the UK assistant coach by name nor does it imply wrongdoing on behalf of the UK coach or Kentucky’s basketball program.

Knowing what prospects and their families want from a college program is key in preventing problems with the NCAA, or more recently with the FBI, Calipari said.

“Tell us what’s important to these kids and their families,” the UK coach said at an annual round table gathering of reporters. “And if it’s something we’re not willing to do, we walk.”

Later, Calipari said he did not mean to say UK would walk away from players or families looking for money, but would ease recruiting efforts because a greater priority was put on being an individual star rather than team accomplishments.

Calipari, who said he did not read all the court documents, seemed to suggest that policing college recruiting is difficult, if not impossible.

“I said it before, you’re not going to legislate morality,” the UK coach said. “You’re not. . . . All I want to see is fair decisions. That whatever you did for this school, you do the same thing to this school. And If this school got nothing, then this school should get nothing.”

Calipari criticized the NCAA for not following precedent. Schools that commit the same rules violations may not receive the same punishment, he said.

Plus, he added, richer schools can more easily avoid harsher penalties.

“If you have money to go get lawyers and, say, we’re going to spend $10 million on lawyers, you’re good,” Calipari said. “What if you’re a smaller school? . . . They have $25,000 to spend on lawyers. And that’s it. Guess what? You’re accepting whatever they say. You’re going down. You’re getting buried. . . .

“Until we get a fair system where precedent is used, (pause) I think we all go about our business in your own silo. You better make sure you’re doing right or you’re going to get fired.”