MANHATTAN (CN) — As the coach who guided basketball hotshot Deandre Ayton to become the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 2018, Gary Franklin probably didn’t think he’d become a star himself — a star witness, that is.
Franklin found himself at the center of a federal case against Michael Avenatti when he tried to hire the celebrity attorney to help clear up problems Franklin was having with Nike, a sponsor of his California Supreme basketball program.
“I just thought he was a good attorney, a good lawyer, and I thought he could go in and represent my case,” Franklin testified Thursday in Manhattan federal court.
The federal indictment says Avenatti, 48, contacted Nike on Franklin’s behalf, threatening to expose its alleged wrongdoing unless the company forked over $1.5 million. Avenatti also allegedly told Nike it must hire him and fellow celebrity attorney Mark Geragos to conduct an internal investigation for a retainer fee between $15 million and $25 million. Franklin and his associate, consultant Jeffrey Auerbach, maintain their demands were much smaller than that.
Franklin founded California Supreme, a nonprofit amateur basketball club that counts Ayton, Denver Nuggets center Bol Bol, and other professional and college hoopsters among its alumni. It’s funded mostly by parents but also — for a time — partly by Nike, Franklin testified. The organization counted heavily on Nike’s involvement, which brought them talent, gear and $75,000 cash per year.
The New York Times has reported that Franklin was known to keep his program free of the scandals that plague other professional-track teams.
But Cal Supreme’s relationship with Nike was complicated. Court exhibits and testimony indicate Nike executives Carlton DeBose and Jamal James had directed Franklin to falsify invoices, make questionable wire payments, and pay $10,000 in cash to Ayton’s mother.
When Nike pulled its sponsorship in 2018, Franklin teamed up with consultant Jeffrey Auerbach, whose son had played in the program, to make a plan. All Franklin wanted, he said Thursday, was his team back; DeBose and James fired; and some restitution for money he had lost.
Auerbach testified in Avenatti’s trial earlier this week.
“I felt like they were mistreating me,” Franklin testified Thursday, referring to DeBose and James. “I felt that they were bullying me. … I also wanted my program back.”
Auerbach suggested they talk to Avenatti, who had become nationally known by his flamboyant representation of adult-film actress Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit against President Donald Trump.
Avenatti told Franklin and Auerbach he could get a meeting with high-level Nike executives.
“I’m Michael Avenatti,” he told them, according to Franklin. “If I call a meeting, they’re going to meet with me.”
But Franklin wasn’t ready to go public with his grievances, he said Thursday, repeating over and over in his testimony that he was worried about the reputations of his players, their parents, himself and Nike.
“I didn’t want anything to go public at all,” he said. “I just wanted to resolve my issue … and get back my team and continue to coach and do what I love doing.”
It’s easy to imagine Franklin’s deep voice booming over the sound of bouncing basketballs, but he appeared nervous in court, mumbling some answers and frequently asking lawyers to repeat their questions.
At times as Franklin spoke, Avenatti — in a suit and tie at the defense table — shook his head, rolled his eyes, and made a show of looking incredulous.
Franklin described his shock when, a few days after Avenatti had abruptly flown to New York to meet with Nike lawyers, Avenatti tweeted that he would be holding a press conference the next day to expose a “major high school/college basketball scandal … [that] reaches the highest levels of Nike and involves some of the biggest names in college basketball.”
The same day, March 25, 2019, the FBI knocked on Franklin’s door. Franklin called Avenatti.
“I hope Nike’s not trying to fuck you,” he testified Avenatti told him. “I think I’m going to go public.”
But Avenatti was arrested later that day, and the press conference was never held.
Nike is currently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly making illegal payments to youth players. A similar investigation of Adidas ended with three representatives in prison.