Minutes after playing what was perhaps the best game of his young career, UCLA star Shabazz Muhammad found himself back in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Per Peter Yoon of ESPN Los Angeles:
UCLA's compliance department is looking into the designer backpack star freshman Shabazz Muhammad wore during postgame interviews Thursday night after he scored 23 points in the Bruins' 84-73 upset of No. 6 Arizona.
UPDATE: Friday, Jan. 25, at 11:40 p.m. ET by Kyle Vassalo
UCLA's investigation of Shabazz Muhammad has reportedly been closed. According to Bryan Fischer of Pac-12 Digital, the backpack was received as a gift from a family member:
UCLA statement: Compliance has confirmed Shabazz Muhammad & Kyle Anderson received items as gifts from their families, matter is closed.— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) January 26, 2013
---End of update---
UPDATE: Friday, Jan. 25, at 9:04 p.m. ET by Michael Moraitis
It appears Muhammad's sister, Asia Muhammad, is coming to the UCLA star's defense in regard to the backpack controversy, per Peter Yoon of ESPNLosAngeles.com:
Shabazz Muhammad's sister, Asia Muhammad, a professional tennis player, took to Twitter to defend her brother. She tweeted directly to Pat Forde, the author of the Yahoo! Sports column that first mentioned the backpack, that she and her mother gave the backpack to Muhammad as a birthday gift.
"I have the original receipt if you need to verify that," Asia Muhammad wrote to Forde. "[Shabazz] doesn't need anything from anyone except his family. ... You're barking up the wrong tree on this one."
---End of update---
While most college athletes wear generic, school-issued accessories in their postgame sessions, Muhammad instead wore what appeared to be a designer bag from Gucci. A quick click to the company's website shows that men's bags range between $990 and $2,980.
The headline above appears comical at first, but given Muhammad's history, it's far from a laughing matter. Shabazz missed the first three games this season due to impermissible benefits received in high school—a case that could have threatened his amateur status for good had the NCAA handled it properly. As Yahoo! reporter Pat Forde explains:
The high school All-American was under NCAA investigation for impermissible benefits received in high school – and a lengthy suspension appeared to be a possibility until word broke about an NCAA investigator's boyfriend being overheard blabbing about the case on a plane. With the investigation apparently considered compromised, Muhammad was released from NCAA jail after missing only three games and being required to repay $1,600 in benefits received.
On the heels of such a fiasco, Muhammad was expected to lay as low as possible during his UCLA tenure. That would seem like the the only appropriate way to handle his fortuitous reinstation. Regardless of how this investigation plays out, his blithe disregard of caution speaks lengths about how seriously he takes these matters (or, at the very least, his judgement).
This is unfortunate considering the circumstance this incident followed. Muhammad led UCLA with 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting in a massive upset win at No. 6 Arizona Thursday night. It was, in almost every conceivable way, the best game he's played as a Bruin—certainly the most important. On the season, he's averaging a team-best 18.2 points to go along with 4.9 rebounds per game.
Thursday's win vaulted UCLA back into the public's consciousness and had many re-touting the Bruins as legitimate threats come March. If Shabazz Muhammad keeps his head on straight, that's exactly what they'll be.
But given this latest snafu—even if the investigation gets quickly dismissed—that "if" is turning into a big one.