Coach K on Michael Avenatti and Nike: 'There's nothing there' | Zagsblog
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Sunday / December 8.
  • Coach K on Michael Avenatti and Nike: ‘There’s nothing there’

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    By ADAM ZAGORIA & JIM MUSTIAN

    WASHINGTON — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski brushed off a question here Thursday relating to Michael Avenatti and Nike.

    “No, I have — no, there’s nothing there,” Coach K said as his press conference at Capitol One Arena wound down ahead of Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup with Virginia Tech.

    It came out during the Adidas college basketball trial last fall that Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend discussed financial requests of the family of Duke freshman Zion Williamson during a phone call with Merl Code, one of the defendants who was later found guilty of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

    Williamson chose Duke over Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Clemson on Jan. 20 2018, and has not been linked to the scandal other than the mention during the trial. Nike sponsors all of those schools except Kansas, which is sponsored by Adidas. The 6-7, 285-pound wing from Spartanburg, S.C. is now the projected No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

    “He’s certainly a special basketball player,” Coach K said Thursday. “But as a youngster, he has a maturity — it’s uncommon. It really is uncommon. And how humble he is and how fresh, exciting. It’s exquisite, just the best. And it’s been an honor for me to be with him on this journey.”

    Earlier Thursday, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team plays LSU here in the other Sweet 16 matchup, said “everybody” related to the FBI investigation into college basketball “should be held accountable.”

    LSU is being coached by interim coach Tony Benford after head coach Will Wade was caught on a federal wiretap allegedly making an offer to a middleman for a player, reportedly freshman guard Javonte Smart. Smart was cleared to play in the postseason.

    “I think everybody should be held accountable in everything we do,” Izzo said. “I think coaches should be held accountable. I think players should be held accountable. And I think whether it’s the NCAA — I mean, we all need to be held accountable.

    “It’s hard to figure out what that accountability is, but it saddens me that we’re even talking about it, but it is a reality, and I understand that. I just hope and pray that the game that I got into for the reason I got into it remains equal where everybody has the same chance to be successful.”

    Avenantti on Tuesday accused Nike — without evidence — of “rampant” corruption mere hours after he was released from U.S. custody on charges he tried to extort up to $25 million from the company.

    In a string of posts on Twitter — a medium he has often used to accuse others of wrongdoing — Avenatti claimed Nike has funneled “large sums” of money to elite student-athletes bound for top colleges.

    Prosecutors haven’t commented on whether Avenatti’s information about Nike was accurate but said he crossed a line by trying to enrich himself with threats.

    A Nike spokesman declined to answer questions about Avenatti’s tweets. The company released a statement Monday saying it will “not be extorted or hide information that is relevant to a government investigation.” It also said it has been cooperating with a federal investigation into NCAA basketball for a year.

    Avenatti, best known for representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in legal battles against President Donald Trump, didn’t produce evidence or detail exactly what he believed the company had done wrong. But he said that corruption “reaches the highest levels of Nike” and cryptically referred to receipts that are “clear as day.”

    Avenatti’s tweetstorm came the morning after he was arrested and charged in two separate federal cases. In Los Angeles, he’s accused of embezzling money from a client. In New York, prosecutors say he told Nike he would reveal damaging information about its dealings with a youth basketball team unless the company paid him millions.

    Avenatti denied the charges in an interview Tuesday with CBS Evening News. He cited unnamed “legal experts,” who he said contended that he was “well within the line as an aggressive attorney.”

    “People make threats all the time in connection with trying to settle a case,” he said.

    Avenatti’s fame from the Daniels case made him a leading figure in the anti-Trump movement, with relentless cable news appearances, a hard-punching style and a knack for obtaining information about others’ wrongdoing.

    “Contrary to Nike’s claims yesterday, they have NOT been cooperating with investigators for over a year,” Avenatti tweeted. “Unless you count lying in response to subpoenas and withholding documents as ‘cooperating.’ They are trying to divert attention from their own crimes.”

    The company and Avenatti were referring to a recent federal prosecution in New York involving multiple coaches, sports business agents and allegations that the families of top youth basketball players were secretly paid thousands of dollars to attend certain colleges sponsored by the apparel company Adidas.

    Former Adidas executive James Gatto and business manager Christian Dawkins also were found guilty.

    Prosecutors did not accuse Nike of wrongdoing. Code ran Nike’s elite youth basketball league, but by the time he was charged, he had left the company to work as a consultant for Adidas. In one wiretapped call, Code was recorded saying, “Nike schools pay, too,” describing the practice of paying athletes as “just part of the space.”

    Avenatti suggested he had new evidence of wrongdoing.

    At the trial, a government witness testified that he paid $15,000 in cash to the family of basketball star Deandre Ayton, now with the Phoenix Suns, in a failed bid to get him to attend a university affiliated with Adidas, only to see him attend Nike-sponsored University of Arizona.

    Avenatti claimed in his tweets, without providing evidence, that Nike also made illegal payments to Ayton.

    Ayton’s agent did not respond Tuesday to an email seeking comment.

    Avenatti also claimed — again without evidence — that the University of Oregon star freshman Bol Bol “and his handlers also received large sums from Nike.”

    The school released a statement saying it was “unaware of any evidence that would support” Avenatti’s allegations.

    “Diligent inquiry last summer into the amateur status of our student-athletes revealed no indication of improper payments made to any student-athletes or their families,” the statement said.

    Darren Heitner, a Florida sports attorney who has closely followed the college basketball scandal, said Nike has faced previous scrutiny, including its youth basketball league receiving a subpoena from federal authorities.

    But he said Avenatti sought to take things to another level.

    “You have a lawyer trapped in a corner,” Heitner said, “and he’s doing whatever he can to vindicate himself in the court of public opinion, where he seems to spend more time than the actual courtroom.”

    (The AP contributed)

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.