College basketball has a problem, and Kansas guard Ben McLemore’s former AAU coach Darius Cobb was dumb enough to bring it to light this past weekend.
Cobb told the USA Today's Eric Prisbell that he accepted money and gifts from middleman Rodney Blackstock, a former college basketball player who is getting his start in the basketball business world as a professional briber.
Cobb is a man who was convinced he was out for McLemore’s best interest—and at one time, he probably was—but was now willing to capitalize off his relationship with the talented basketball player.
The NCAA and the court of public opinion might not let McLemore’s story pass as such an open and shut case, but that is exactly what it appears to be. Unless more information comes out that implicates Kansas or McLemore, the NCAA should not be reactive.
That would be the easy way out—to make an example of McLemore and Kansas.
McLemore could be ruled retroactively ineligible by the letter of the law, specifically NCAA Bylaw 126.96.36.199, which states that an individual shall be ineligible if he, his family members or his friends accepts benefits from: “An agent, even if the agent has indicated that he or she has no interest in representing the student-athlete in the marketing of his or her athletics ability or reputation and does not represent individuals in the student-athlete's sport.”
If it were as simple as that, McLemore certainly played games as an ineligible player. Kansas might have to forfeit wins from this past season.
But it’s not that simple.
McLemore, coach Bill Self and Kansas reportedly had no idea what was going on, and there is a precedent for the unknowing escaping without penalty. The NCAA reinstated Cam Newton when he supposedly did not know what his father was doing behind the scenes.
Unlike the case with Auburn and Newton, this had nothing to do with getting McLemore to Kansas. McLemore was already a Jayhawk. No one bribed anyone to make him a Jayhawk.
The bigger issue for the NCAA is how to avoid men like Blackstock weaseling their way into the lives of players like McLemore, players who are too overwhelmed to know what is going on.
Before anyone laughs off the defense of McLemore as a naïve and overwhelmed bystander, consider his history.
Compared with most elite prospects, McLemore was a late bloomer. According to a feature story earlier this year in the Kansas City Star, Cobb used a basketball connection to get McLemore a spot in KU’s camp for elite players before his junior year of high school. Before that, Self and his staff did not even know about McLemore.
He spent his first year at Kansas as a practice player, forced to redshirt because he was not eligible to play as a freshman. After that year, he could have declared for the draft.
But this was not the case of a player who had been on the NBA’s radar for years.
McLemore blew up quickly this past season when he led an experienced Kansas team in scoring. His out-of-nowhere story was told by the Kansas City Star. It was also told by Prisbell in the USA Today.
Should the NCAA penalize Kansas for Ben McLemore's former AAU coach accepting money and gifts?
McLemore was not used to all the attention.
He was hesitant to be "the guy" for Kansas and often struggled away from Allen Fieldhouse. He also struggled in his first two NCAA tournament games, scoring 13 points on 2-of-14 shooting.
McLemore told his teammates at the time that he needed their help. He felt overwhelmed by the moment; by the pressure.
“He’d never been in this type of situation before, this type of stage,” teammate Travis Releford said.
Now, read that again.
He'd never been in this type of situation before.
The narrative begins to make sense. McLemore and his family also needed help when the NBA attention quickly came his way. Who had been there since McLemore was in the fifth grade to help the young man develop his game and take the next step at every turn throughout his ascent? Cobb.
Cobb had always been a spokesman for McLemore. He was a natural in that role. He was someone the family trusted.
There were reasons to be suspicious though.
Someone in the family should have questioned how McLemore’s birthday party at a Lawrence bowling alley was paid for, or how his cousin and Cobb were able to reportedly fly to Los Angeles.
McLemore trusted a man who he had always trusted. McLemore’s mom may have thought she was getting a head start on picking an agent.
That is an easy trap for any family that is about to experience what the McLemores were about to experience.
The smart thing to do would have been to wait and let Self help the family with that process. College basketball coaches like Self are millionaires. They have no reason to chase the cash or steer their players toward a certain agent. Cobb did.
McLemore is going to get his payday. His family and Cobb are lucky he did not have to miss any of the games that helped him get his payday.
The NCAA has to take these situations case by case, because each situation is unique.
In the end, the only people who should pay for this are Cobb and Blackstone. Their reputations will take a hit. Neither should have a future as a businessman in basketball, which is what they were pretending to be.
If there’s anything to take from this story, it’s that NBA prospects should be patient. Their family and friends should be patient. The money will be there. The agents will be there. Unfortunately, everyone wants a head start.
That is why this is not going away. That is why the NCAA needs to continue to educate. Coaches need to continue to educate their players and their families.
Only the agents can police themselves, and they have men like Blackstone doing their dirty work for them.