When the FBI released the findings of its NCAA college basketball fraud and corruption investigations on Sept. 26, 2017, the stated goal was to expose the “dark underbelly of college basketball,” as Joon H. Kim, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that day. The dark underbelly implicated dozens of individuals: associate head coaches, players, assistant coaches, sneaker executives and parents. Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Arizona’s Sean Miller swallowed up the headlines. Pitino was fired. Miller kept his job. But the main objects of the FBI’s attention were non-household names.
Mostly low-level sneaker employees and advisers.
Mostly men of color.
People like USC associate head coach Tony Bland. He was charged with a felony count of conspiracy to commit bribery. He accepted a $4,100 bribe in exchange for advising USC players to use a sports management agency led by Munish Sood and Christian Dawkins.
Tony was known as the West Coast’s premier recruiter, close to leapfrogging to the next major head coaching job. But when he was arrested, Tony’s life was derailed. He lost his childhood dream. Lost the daily pride of working just a few miles away from the rough South Los Angeles neighborhood that raised him.
He was not the only man involved to lose something.
Brian Bowen II was a 5-star recruit and a potential lottery pick. But in the aftermath of the FBI probe, he no longer had a clear-cut path to the NBA. He lost his NCAA eligibility after his father, Brian Bowen Sr., allegedly agreed to accept $100,000 from Adidas if his son agreed to play for Louisville, an Adidas-sponsored team. Bowen II was forced into exile as a result, his childhood dreams possibly over. He should have been where other members of his 2017 class—former Arizona center DeAndre Ayton, former Duke forward Marvin Bagley III, former Missouri swingman Michael Porter Jr., former Texas center Mo Bamba—are: in the NBA.
Instead, Bowen became somewhat of an unknown who needs a good showing at this week's 2019 NBA Draft Combine simply to make the league.
The irony of exposing the dark underbelly of college basketball was that people like Tony Bland and Brian Bowen II got lost in the light. One day they were coming up through, and entrenched in, a system. The next, they were on the outside, looking in.
Tony vowed he would never be in a predicament like this. Not after what he’d been through, and certainly not at age 38.
As a kid he saw police patrol every square inch of his neighborhood. He saw people get shot, go to jail or end up trapped in nightmares like the one he was now living.
Avoiding this reality was why Tony clung to basketball so tightly. He believed in the game and where it could take him. What it could save him from.
His father was not always around through childhood. Tony’s grandmother and uncle mostly took care of him, as did Dartgnan Stamps, his mentor and former AAU coach since sixth grade.
The 1992 Los Angeles riots occurred when Tony was in sixth grade. The next year, his head was on full swivel. Stamps remembers how one day, after school, Tony had a scowl on his face. His eyebrows were pressed down, the curve of his lips tight. Every muscle in his face locked, like he was imitating a statue.
“Why you look like that?” Stamps said.
“You gotta be tough,” Tony said. “You never know when somebody’s gonna challenge you.”
He wanted a different life. So, he practiced seven days a week, often pounding two basketballs. Once, in a game, Tony blocked a shot, fell to the floor, fractured his wrist, but got right up and kept sprinting. He had to if he wanted a scholarship. “He was hungry,” says Derrick Mills, former Fairfax High assistant coach who coached against Tony. “You couldn’t rattle him.”
Tony earned All-City and All-American honors, and a basketball scholarship to Syracuse. In college, he morphed into a big guard who could score and defend. He also showed glimmers of his coaching future. “He was always that person that would push you in practice,” says Deshaun Williams, former Syracuse teammate. “He’d say to me, ‘Are you getting treatment? Going to your classes? Getting extra help, getting your ankles taped, lifting on your own time?’ Tony had that hustle.”
He transferred to San Diego State for his junior season, during which he helped his Aztecs earn their first NCAA men’s basketball tournament berth since 1985. After graduating, he began working out pros, like Trevor Ariza. He loved mentoring young men just like him, who came from neighborhoods like his. (Ariza grew up in Los Angeles and attended Tony’s alma mater, Westchester High.) Tony soon landed at USC. His charming personality and infectious, gregarious spirit, allowed him to connect with recruits. He had been that way his entire life. His nickname in high school and college was “Pretty T.” “Everybody liked Tony,” says Ed Azzam, his former Westchester coach. He was a positive force in the locker room. “He always had good energy, always seemed to be in a good mood,” says Ryan Blackwell, former Syracuse teammate. “He enjoyed being around everybody.”
He was the same way as a coach, taking time to get to know hundreds of kids, coaches and parents.
“Take basketball away from everything, just as a human being, he cared about kids,” says Glen Worley, a coach for the Compton Magic AAU program who has known Tony for years. “He was genuinely concerned about how you were doing.”
Every game at USC’s Galen Center, Tony felt pride. He was in a position that enabled him to give young men a shot to play at the highest level. He’d sometimes turn to the stands, beaming as he glanced at his wife and children. L.A. looked at Tony that way, too. Every year, he’d attend the hottest game in Los Angeles—the showdown between Westchester and long-time rival Fairfax.
He never acted too big-time. Tony would bop and sway in the middle of the standing-room-only crowd to Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go” during timeouts—happy, in love with basketball, in love with his community.
He was theirs. He made it.
From the beginning, it seemed as if Brian Bowen’s lifelong dream of playing college basketball was going to come true.
Nicknamed Tugs for the way he used to tug on his mother’s hair as a baby, he was all but a surefire 5-star recruit from the beginning. He was tall—6’7” with a 6’10” wingspan. He had moonbeam bounce. He had hoops IQ. He attended the La Lumiere School, a college preparatory and boarding school in LaPorte County, Indiana that had produced top recruits like Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jordan Poole, who left Michigan early to enter this year’s NBA draft.
But Tugs never really had the 5-star posture. He was shy, introverted. Sometimes mute. Always humble. Growing up, people would always ask him: Why are you so quiet? One reason was that he has always been content by himself, eating his mom’s spaghetti, listening to Drake, working out with his father, dominating on the court. Another: He wasn’t one to talk about working hard. He just did it, like the one morning in 2016-17—during his final high school season—when he decided to go to the gym despite the minus-20-degree weather.
“That’s who he is,” says close friend James Banks III, former La Lumiere teammate who now plays for Georgia Tech. “You have certain people who build a perception about him that have no idea.”
Tugs used to work out with his dad all the time. Morning, night. Lots of shots. Lots of reps. The two were close. His dad was the one who encouraged him to play basketball in the first place.
When Tugs found out he was named a McDonald’s All-American, he was relaxing in a hotel with his teammates from La Lumiere School. He broke into a big smile but didn’t say anything. He almost looked embarrassed.
His recruitment lingered; he remained uncommitted through the McDonald’s All-American Game. Though he had considered other schools such as Michigan State, Arizona, Creighton and Texas, his attention shifted to Louisville late in the recruitment process. Louisville had offered him a scholarship in 2014 but hadn’t really been in the hunt as Brian’s profile grew. At least not publicly. That changed abruptly on June 1, when the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that Brian had changed his enrollment status from “application” to “matriculation.” He committed to play for Louisville shortly thereafter, on June 3, 2017. The move surprised some analysts, but it got Brian one step closer to his ultimate dream.
He was regarded as an immediate impact player, someone who could score in bursts, but also someone who might benefit from time and quality coaching. If he could develop into a pro with a year of college to fine-tune his skills, he had the potential to do what others had done before him—go one-and-done.
He didn’t know that in less than three months, there would be no straight path.
When the FBI took its findings public, few were surprised. Many general basketball fans knew these types of payments occurred—and had been happening for decades. Not just with coaches like Tony, but with players. Especially top-25 prospects like Tugs.
“It’s just something that’s been done for so long, it’s status quo,” says Worley, the Compton Magic coach. “Everybody knows what’s going on. We know who is taking money and who’s not.”
Joon H. Kim, the acting U.S. Attorney, said that managers and financial advisers were “circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes.”
As much as Tony cared for the kids he was recruiting, he, too, had decided to profit off them. He accepted $4,100 worth of bribes. He talked about players like they were pawns. Easy to control. Easy to finesse. In a July 29, 2017, meeting with Dawkins in Las Vegas that neither man knew was secretly being recorded by an undercover FBI agent, Tony said he had “heavy influence” on his USC players. Tony said he’d eventually get them to sign with Dawkins.
Then, in an Aug. 31 meeting at an on-campus restaurant at USC, Tony told Dawkins, Sood and the undercover agent that the opportunity to direct players to their agency was a “gold mine.” Tony also said: “I definitely can get the players. … And I can definitely mold the players and put them in the lap of you guys.”
Dawkins had once boasted: “If we take care of everybody, we control everything. You can make millions off one kid.”
That might be true. But what is equally true, and overlooked, is that most AAU players do not, in fact, generate that kind of profit. Most do not get paid. “That’s the biggest misconception,” Worley says. “It’s a very small amount of people that do it. Probably less than 3, 4 percent.”
But the headlines said otherwise. Corruption, fraud, bribery.
Before Brian could restart his life, he first had to learn what lay ahead would be much different than before. He had been cleared by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York on Nov. 3, 2017, but he was not allowed to return to Louisville. He had transferred to South Carolina and was ruled ineligible by the NCAA the following May. He turned pro, but his clear path—one-and-done—to the NBA was no more.
He was forced to look elsewhere—China, Europe and the G League—but Australia seemed to be the best option. The Sydney Kings, a professional club in the National Basketball League (NBL), would challenge him. He wanted to be challenged.
Andrew Gaze, then the head coach of the Kings and a former NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs, was brutally honest when he first spoke to Brian in the summer of 2018. Brian would not play 35 minutes per game, Gaze said. He would not be anointed a starter. There would be zero guarantees.
The Kings had a veteran squad hunting for a championship, one that included Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut. Brian was 19. Athletic and skilled, but green. Really green. He would have to earn every minute of tick.
“If you’re not content, at some stage, sitting on the bench and going two or three games with a DNP,” Gaze told Brian, “do not get on the plane.”
Brian got on the plane and flew roughly 10,000 miles away from his hometown of Saginaw, Michigan. Far from his NBA dream.
In Australia, Brian would battle grown men—and he would have to mature quickly.
But nothing between the lines fazed him early on. Bogut would come to find out why.
“He said he was interviewed by the FBI for six hours in a dark room. I can’t imagine,” Bogut says. “For a 19-year-old kid to experience that and get through that—he’s said a few times that he uses that as motivation.
“If he can get through that, he can get through anything, because that was really hard on him.”
In a way, Brian was fortunate to play in Australia, a Westernized, English-speaking country. He and his parents shared an apartment about 10 minutes from the Kings facility. His parents traveled to road games. He quickly built a good rapport with his teammates. On his birthday, they surprised him by rolling a small chocolate cake with candles onto the hardwood after practice. It felt like he was beginning to find his footing.
Still, this was not the path he would have chosen.
“He’s extremely determined. Obviously, he took a different route, not the route he wanted to take,” says close friend Jordan Poole, a former La Lumiere School teammate. “But I know no matter what the situation is, the saying we use is, ‘It’s a marathon and not a sprint.’”
But playing overseas was difficult. Different. Isolating. Brian had to wrestle with the fear of people forgetting him. Replacing him. Judging him. Branding him a cautionary tale. “I had to find myself,” Brian says. “Find who I really am.”
Little things reminded him how far he was from home. Like driving on the other side of the road. Measuring distance in kilometers. He struggled to find a proper barber to keep up his blond, signature mohawk. He couldn’t find his favorite cereals, like Cocoa Puffs. Just knockoffs, which cost 10 bucks. I’m just not gonna eat cereal anymore, Bowen told himself. He sent former La Lumiere teammate Ramon Singh a Snapchat of breakfast horror.
“It was a shock [for Brian], being so far from home,” says Singh, a Sydney native who now plays for Xavier.
He took solace on the court. He had to prove he belonged with pros despite only playing about 15 minutes per game. Sometimes, not at all. It didn’t matter. This was his second chance.
“He didn’t have a woe-is-me attitude,” says Banks III, adding later: “He wants to show everybody that he deserves to be playing here in the United States.”
By Oct. 2018, Brian began to adapt to international play. It was physical; it was demanding. But he liked it. Lived for it.
He began to show skills that could translate to the NBA, like knowing when to set someone up and when to take the ball to the basket himself. He proved he was talented in the open floor, had a knack for rebounding and could go get it with his quick leaping ability. He didn’t have everything, of course; he still needed to hone his athleticism and transform his body, but his teammates were impressed by what they saw.
“He’s got a chance to be an NBA player,” Bogut says. “He still needs to be developed a bit, but he has all the tools to be an NBA player.”
Gaze marvels at how coachable Brian is. “Mature beyond his years,” he says. “A good teammate, a good guy to be around.”
Still, he wanted to play more. Needed to play more. He had to stay on the minds of NBA scouts, and how could he do that from the bench?
“Without a doubt it was 100 percent frustrating,” Bowen says of his minutes, “but I knew the situation I was going into.”
Gaze tried to nurse him through, to get him to accept his role.
But Brian had no patience for that. He needed to play more now.
He needed to contribute more now.
The 2019 NBA draft was coming now.
Gaze told Brian to put less pressure on himself: “People take different pathways to the league,” he said. In the brief minutes he got, he labored on defense. “Every minute I got, I gave it all that I could,” Brian says. “That was my biggest thing, bringing energy off the bench.”
He proved more versatile than expected. “Everyone knows he can get to the basket when he wants to and that he can jump through the roof,” says Jeremy Loeliger, CEO of the NBL, “but I think he proved that he can defend a guy that is significantly bigger than him and won’t be intimidated by him.”
Physicality still posed somewhat of a challenge to Brian, however. So did talented guards like Melbourne United’s D.J. Kennedy. (“The league is really strong at the moment,” says Alex Loughton, an 11-year NBL veteran and Old Dominion University Hall of Famer.) Brian stood his ground. Embraced the intensity.
He had dreamed of playing in the Final Four. Playing in front of sold-out college crowds. Beating Kentucky.
Competition didn’t paralyze him.
“Sometimes young kids get into those situations, and despite all the bravado, you see an uncertainty about how to handle the moment,” Gaze says. “He didn’t show that. Doesn’t mean there weren’t times when he got beat, but he wasn’t showing that vulnerability of being scared of the moment.”
How could Brian be scared? Especially given what was happening back home. On Oct. 4, 2018, his father was called to testify at the college basketball trial in Manhattan. When he got on the stand, he sobbed and sobbed and sobbed and couldn’t stop. He tucked his face into tissues. After a 15-minute recess granted by U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan, Bowen Sr. tried desperately to pull himself together. Tried to clear the tears rolling down his cheeks. The emotion carried through to his second time on the stand.
“I still think my son is a victim,” Bowen Sr. said. “And I always will.”
Bowen heard the noise about his father all the way in Australia. Heard how he exploited him for thousands of dollars from potential programs looking to sign him. That there was money for a car, money for housing. Money from this coach, money from that coach. (Bowen Sr. maintained Brian was unaware of the payments.)
Brian tried to ignore the chatter. Tried to quicken his first step and transform his body. Harness his physical gifts. Sharpen his skills. He pushed himself, often training with two basketballs. He completed defensive slides, quicker, sharper. Day after day he finished practice drenched in sweat. Determined. Positive. Frustrated. Homesick. Not bitter, though he had reason to be. The basketball court helped him not think about the trial. Or anything else.
“I just feel free,” Brian says. “It’s my safe haven.”
As Brian continued to find his footing overseas, the trial pressed on in New York.
On Jan. 2, 2019, Tony sat stone-faced and mournful, prepared to do what he knew he must: enter a guilty plea. It was a cold, winter morning outside in Manhattan, but there was a particular chill inside the courtroom, located on the sixth floor of the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse.
“I'm happy to take your plea,” the Honorable Edgardo Ramos said. “However, before I do that, I need to ask you a series of questions. I'm trying to determine, in the first instance, that you understand what is going on here today and the consequences of taking a plea. I'm also trying to determine whether you are, in fact, guilty of the crimes to which you wish to plead guilty.”
Tony agreed: “Yes, sir.”
“Do you further understand that, if I accept your guilty plea, and find you guilty, that determination may deprive you of certain valuable civil rights…?”
Deprive. Tony understood only too well what he was forfeiting. He was pleading guilty to a felony count of conspiracy to commit bribery. He was admitting that he accepted the $4,100 bribe.
He had already lost a lot—lost his job for $4,100.
Lost his chance at a college head coaching job for $4,100.
Lost his reputation for $4,100.
And now, his freedom was in jeopardy for $4,100.
Tony was contrite, his demeanor sober. To end up in a courtroom after spending his entire life trying to avoid rooms like that was devastating.
His attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, would later tell B/R: “He broke the law.”
“He took a $4,100 bribe. Do I think that conduct should be enough that would absolutely destroy his college coaching career? Of course not. It’s ludicrous that that’s what’s occurred.”
U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement that Tony “abused his position as a mentor and coach,” adding: “He treated his players not as young men to counsel and guide, but as opportunities to enrich himself.”
Tony was not made available to comment, per Lichtman.
“When I consider that there are so many worse things out there that’s been done by college coaches,” he adds, “it’s painful to see that it’s happened to a guy like Tony who, by all accounts, is a decent guy, a fantastic coach and came from a very rough upbringing.”
He is not the only assistant coach facing a similar fate. Of the people who face prison time as a result of the FBI NCAA probe, none are head coaches. Tony, like Emanuel “Book” Richardson, formerly of Arizona, and Lamont Evans, formerly of Oklahoma State, is an assistant. Richardson and Evans have also pled guilty to one count of bribery. None of their former bosses, even the ones named in the FBI report, have been subpoenaed to testify.
Experts have their own theories about why that is.
Dinos Trigonis has been involved in AAU basketball for more than 25 years. “Did they deserve to lose their jobs? Probably so. They knew what the rules were, they violated the rules, amateurism, NCAA,” he says. “Do they deserve to have felonies on their record and go to jail? Dragged through the federal criminal system? No. The NCAA cares more about their own self-interest than they care about the kids. They care about power.”
Don Jackson, a veteran sports attorney and current associate professor of sports law at Samford University, has a slightly different view. “Let’s just be candid about it. You have selective enforcement of the rules,” he says. In recent years, a growing chorus of people have called the NCAA out for what they consider an unfair system, especially for student-athletes. “As it relates to the application of these amateurism rules, the athletes that are most aggressively investigated and most harshly punished have historically been African American and international student-athletes.”
Tony's participation in this system landed him here. After entering his guilty plea, he listened to instructions from the judge.
“I accept your guilty plea and find you guilty of Count One of the indictment,” the Honorable Edgardo Ramos said.
“Sentencing will be set for three months from today.”
Brian moved back to the States after his season in Sydney concluded in March. He hopes to get drafted by an NBA team on June 20.
“I’m willing to do whatever I can to help a team win,” Brian says.
He still battles negative perception, given what has happened with his father and the trial. “It’s a rough journey,” Bowen says.
“I have a chip on my shoulder at all times,” he adds.
He’s been working out twice a day in Southern California. Getting his ball-handling, strength and shooting range NBA-ready. He hopes teams will see him as he sees himself: a talented basketball player willing to work.
I have a chip on my shoulder at all times—Brian Bowen II
“I feel like I have a lot to prove,” he says, adding later: “I’m going to do whatever I can to achieve my goals. I’m not going to let anybody stop me.”
Brian is also awaiting a trial for a racketeering lawsuit he filed back in November against Adidas and associates James Gatto, Merl Code, Dawkins, Sood, T.J. Gassnola and Christopher Rivers. The lawsuit contends that Adidas “preyed upon” student-athletes like Bowen, who faced “exploitation” for the company’s profit.
Tony is still in L.A, trying to move forward with his life. This spring, he’s been spotted at local high school basketball games at Fairfax High School and Mater Dei, peering out onto the court, trying to take refuge in a space that was once his escape.
His sentencing date was pushed back from April 2 to May 29. He could potentially serve up to 12 months in prison, per his plea agreement, but given that he does not have a criminal record, there’s a chance he could receive probation.
Finding a college program willing to give him another shot isn’t likely.
“This is a guy that certainly deserves a second chance,” Lichtman says of Tony.
Lichtman is hopeful, but not optimistic. “I don’t know if he will be able to because this is the way that the industry is,” he says. “They are maybe afraid to touch Tony, but they shouldn’t be afraid to touch him because he’s helped so many people, and he’s so well thought of, that he’d be a head coach at this point.”
The second trial, which mainly focused on Dawkins and Code, began in late April 2019. This time, the focus was on Sean Miller and whether he paid Ayton. Miller has categorically denied paying any recruits. (Arizona did not respond to requests for comment.)
Meanwhile, Tony awaits his sentencing, having already accepted his truth in a court of law. His fate will be forever connected to the game that gave him so much.
“It hurts my heart,” Stamps says. “I’ve been around AAU basketball and this environment for 30 years. … I was sad for Tony but more disgusted with the system that they would actually try to apply these charges and jeopardize somebody’s livelihood, their family, something he’s worked for all his life.”
Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the Los Angeles Press Club. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.