In NCAA Corruption Trial, ‘Tugs’ Tale Pulls at Heartstrings

MANHATTAN (CN) – A crucial government witness in the NCAA corruption trial gave sobering testimony Thursday about how he misled federal agents who grilled him last year on his son’s corporate sponsorship.

NCAA basketball recruit Brian Bowen is photographed before a Jan. 16, 2018, basketball game in Columbia, S.C. Bowen’s trajectory is central to a conspiracy case underway in New York where a recruiter, a coach and a former Adidas executive are accused of corrupting the game. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford, file)

“They wanted to know about my involvement in a scheme for my son to get $100,000 from Adidas for my son to attend Louisville,” Brian Bowen Sr. stated matter-of-factly this afternoon.

Explaining why he did not tell the officers the truth, Bowen added: “I didn’t want to get myself in trouble or anyone else in trouble.”

A former police officer from Saganaw, Michigan, Bowen had no trouble telling a federal jury about that stressful affair or how he lost his 10-year career in law enforcement because of a shoulder injury. But the 50-year-old pensioner could not hold back his tears the moment a federal prosecutor asked him what happened to the career of his son Brian Bowen Jr., described throughout his father’s testimony by his nickname “Tugs.”

Seeing the witness lose his composure, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan called for a brief recess.

The jury would have to wait another 15 minutes to learn where Tugs is now: still shooting hoops, but with a team nearly 10,000 miles away.

“He’s playing professional basketball in Australia,” the elder Bowen testified.

Brian Bowen Sr. arrives at federal court on Oct. 4, 2018, in New York. When his basketball star son, Brian Bowen Jr., announced in June 2017 that he would attend the University of Louisville, a school that had not been on anyone’s radar as his possible destination, sportswriters called it a coup that “came out of nowhere.” In a trial that began Monday, federal prosecutors aim to prove that the signing wasn’t luck at all but the result of a payoff to Bowen’s father. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Bowen said his son previously had been a “top prospect” for college basketball with a clear course to an NBA career.

“It’s every kid’s dream,” the father said.

That was before Bowen Sr. met with Christian Dawkins, one of three men on trial now for allegedly funneling secret payments to the families of top recruits.

After pointing out Dawkins at the defense table, Bowen Sr. described their meeting while his son was still in high school. The father seemed unclear about the official job title Dawkins held.

“A runner or something?” Bowen hedged, adding that Dawkins acted as an agent without an agency.

Testimony showed how the industry capitalized on young athletes even before college.

Tugs for one was still in high school, playing for the Michigan Mustangs in the Amateur Athletic Union, when he earned his first Adidas sponsorship. Bowen testified the athletic-wear brand paid him $1,500 to $2,000 a month.

Evidence showed Bowen received a check from Adidas executive Chris Rivers with the notation “Staff help,” though the father said he never worked for the company.

The next boys basketball team Tugs played for, Chicago’s Meanstreets, was named after its sponsor, Nike.

After Tugs received an invitation to a high school all-star game called the Jordan Brand Classic in 2017, Bowen said, Dawkins saw dollar signs.

“Tugs is earning himself some money,” Dawkins wrote the father in a text during the big game. “They better give him MVP.”

The text was prescient: Tugs earned his most-valuable-player honor that day and with it, Bowen testified, new college prospects.

Former Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino talks to reporters during a Feb. 21, 2018, news conference in New York. A recruiter, a coach and a former Adidas executive are scheduled to go on trial in New York in a criminal case that exposed corruption in several top U.S. college basketball programs. It also led to the firing of Pitino and sidelined the playing career of Brian Bowen Jr. AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

While Tugs initially had his sights set on Arizona, Bowen said that the University of Louisville had been looking increasingly attractive. Donovan Mitchell had just gotten recruited from that university to the NBA draft. Bowen said he wanted his son to play Mitchell’s position, and he respected the team’s then-coach Rick Pitino, a Basketball Hall of Famer.

For Bowen, Louisville also had a financial leg up on the competition.

“There may be money involved,” Bowen said, noting that Adidas was the college basketball team’s official sponsor.

Originally offering $60,000, Louisville sweetened the pot to $100,000.

Two days before Bowen publicly announced his intention to join the Cardinals, Adidas executive Jim Gatto left a message congratulating coach Pitino.

“Heard the good news,” Gatto said in a June 1, 2017, voicemail played for the jury. “That’d be great. Excited for you.”

Though Gatto and Dawkins are on trial, Pitino is not charged with wrongdoing. Bowen will continue his testimony after the Columbus Day weekend on Tuesday.

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