How one alleged encounter details challenges facing NCAA in confronting amateurism problem

The NCAA is facing a monumental task in confronting the issue of how a young player’s free-market value runs counter to its current amateurism model. (Credit: Yahoo Sports)

(Update: The National Basketball Players Association refuted that Edrice “Bam” Adebayo attended the dinner mentioned in the ASM Sports expense report in the story below. The NBPA referenced a box score from a game in which Adebayo played around the same time of night as evidence that he couldn’t have been present at the dinner.)

On the evening of June 19, 2015, amateurism’s age-old nemesis and college basketball’s most persistent and pressing riddle huddled around a steaming fondue pot filled with lobster, Pacific white shrimp, scallops and andouille sausage.

It was Friday evening at The Melting Pot in Charlottesville, Virginia, just after the NBA Players Association’s Top 100 Camp broke for the night. About one mile down the road at the University of Virginia, a hand-selected group of the finest high school basketball players in America had been battling on the court. Off it, the teenagers listened to life skills lectures, courtesy of a labor union they all desperately hoped to join in a few years.

At this dinner, according to expense reports and receipts that are part of evidence collected by the FBI and viewed by Yahoo Sports, were three guests of particular note: Stephen Pina, who worked as an agent for ASM Sports out of New Jersey; Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, then a 17-year-old who had just completed his junior year at Northside High School in Pinetown, North Carolina, and was in the midst of what scouts called a “standout” performance at the camp; and Eric Peartree, who was described in many media reports as Adebayo’s “mentor” or “guardian.”

The significance of this alleged meeting is how seemingly insignificant it was. It was dinner; a good dinner, but not some glitzy wining and dining. There is no evidence of bags of cash or new cars or anything you might see in a movie. There is no suggestion Pina was steering Adebayo to any school (he was uncommitted at the time but later attended the University of Kentucky for the 2016-17 season before becoming a first-round draft pick of the Miami Heat). Adebayo never even signed with ASM.

It reaffirms, however, the challenge for college sports leaders who are finally confronting the issue of how a young player’s free-market value runs counter to the NCAA’s standards of amateurism.

For decades, the NCAA has been powerless to police what it believes to be a major problem – agents like Pina and “mentors” like Peartree who attach themselves to top prospects. Their proliferation over the past two decades created a black market so brazen that it wasn’t unusual for Pina and Peartree to attempt to do business in the vicinity of a camp founded, in part, on warning players about such interactions.

As an NCAA-mandated commission headed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets to discuss reform in the wake of a widespread federal investigation, the complications of fixing a broken system are vast. Can the NCAA face the reality that the only way to fix a culture of commonplace rule-breaking is to overhaul the rules?

Pina would later submit his expenses to ASM, including an itemized receipt, and list “Bam & Pertree (sic)” as the attendees. That doesn’t prove Adebayo or Peartree were there or that Pina picked up the full check. Maybe he lied to his bosses. Maybe they paid him their share in cash.

Pina declined to answer questions from Yahoo Sports and said he would have his attorney respond to the media inquiry.

Through his agent, Adebayo on Monday denied being present at a meal with Pina during the NBPA 100 camp. Attempts to reach Eric Peartree on Monday were unsuccessful.

Pina’s expense report is the alleged activity of one agent from one agency on one day. It’s merely a couple of receipts in an FBI evidence file viewed by Yahoo Sports, part of a mountainous federal document haul that contains scores of names across all levels of the game.

“There’s a lot of discussion about the Olympic model and I think it’s well deserving of serious consideration,” NCAA president Mark Emmert told the Associated Press over the weekend, broaching the idea of allowing, like the International Olympic Committee began doing in the 1980s, athletes to have representation and the ability to secure sponsorships and endorsements.

At the Melting Pot that night, the three, according to the documents, would order three of the limited edition “Summer Seafood Catch Entree,” adding four extra “succulent” crab claws. Someone had a cranberry juice. The bill came to $89.68, and at 9:43 p.m. Pina felt their server, Abbie, had done her job well enough to merit a tip of $18, or just over 20 percent.

A receipt from a dinner allegedly involving ASM Sports agent Stephen Pina, Edrice “Bam” Adebayo and Adebayo’s mentor Eric Peartree. (Credit: Yahoo Sports)

If Pina’s expense report is to be believed it was an audacious meeting – agent, middleman and future first-round pick likely sitting in plain sight at a popular downtown eatery in a small college town that at the time was teeming with other basketball insiders, including NBPA union officials. Pina also submitted a report from earlier that same day saying he had a meal with Peartree and someone named “Shawn” at the now-closed Charlottesville Ruby Tuesday, indulging in shrimp fondue, a hickory pork chop, sweet tea and Corona.

Simply meeting with an agent is not against NCAA rules, although receiving anything from them (even as little as some fondue) before formally turning professional is.

Last month, Yahoo Sports published a copy of an ASM balance sheet from Dec. 31, 2015, that listed “BAM” as having received $12,000 from the agency. Another document published by Yahoo Sports listed $36,500 in payment to Adebayo with the notation, “2017 draft. Not signed. Bad loan.”

Those documents, and the expense reports of Pina and other ASM employees, are part of the cache of evidence the FBI collected from ASM’s offices in a raid last fall during its three-year federal investigation of basketball’s black market. It led to the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York charging 10 men in a major corruption case that has rocked college athletics to its core.

“The whole system is corrupt,” longtime NBA agent Keith Glass said. “It’s corruption on top of corruption.”

It’s notable that the Melting Pot dinner came during a week where the NBPA seeks to help educate potential future draft picks about a host of issues so they might better make the transition from prospect to pro. There are seminars about navigating recruiting, and often some education about dealing with agents.

Yet there, according to Pina’s expense report, was Adebayo and his mentor, dealing with a sports agent.

It is a week the NCAA has little to do with. College coaches are prohibited from even attending the camp to watch prospects, let alone talk to them or take them to dinner. Yet in that vacuum there might be an assumption that players would be insulated and protected at the NBPA Top 100 Camp.

Instead it is perhaps proof of how little agents, players and middle men respect NCAA rules, or a sign of how the business is so competitive those rules can’t be followed. According to a source with extensive knowledge of how the camp operates, agents are not allowed to watch the workouts or games — but that doesn’t mean agents aren’t in town while the camp is going on.

“After [camp] hours there is a high concentration of parents to interact with,” the source said. “It’s a target-rich environment.”

A day after Yahoo Sports’ Feb. 23 report on ASM Sports documents that allegedly intertwine the agency with more than 20 schools and 25 players, Emmert said in a CBS interview that he would be open to a change in agent rules as they relate to college basketball.

“It makes perfect sense to me that it ought to be very different than it is now,” Emmert said.

The ties between top players, grassroots basketball and agents are forever intertwined. It’s often difficult to know who is who, even when dealing with familiar faces. Allegiances are fickle and often informal; multiple college coaches said so-called “runners” involved with prospects could be working for more than one agent, or a financial adviser, or aligned with a specific sneaker company. The lack of structure makes the sport’s underground economy all the more difficult to regulate and police.

The proliferation of agents buying players before they turned professional is “one of the things that drove me out of the business,” said Len Elmore, a former NBA player, NBA agent, New York assistant district attorney and current television analyst.

“As the money grew, so did the desperation of agents to go out and get players,” Elmore added. “There was a time when you could go in to meet with a player’s family, show your wares and they would make a decision. Then there came a point where you come in and get a question: ‘So and so offered X dollars. What can you do?’ I can wish you good luck, that’s all. I wasn’t going to buy players to represent them.

“Then it started to filter down to the travel teams and the colleges. They created advisory panels where agents could come in and meet with players on campus and that was supposed to be the answer, but it was all a smokescreen because someone had gotten to the family long before that.

“It’s still about following the money. Travel teams, relationships with shoe companies, relationships with the coaches. It’s against the rules of the union, but how often do you see people representing both players and coaches? And they go unpunished.”

Glass, the veteran NBA agent, voiced similar frustration over the current climate.

“There’s no silver bullet to solve all this,” Glass said. “There’s not one thing. It’s so complicated. You have high school, AAU, college basketball, the NCAA and the NBA. They’re not all on the same page. … No one in certain aspects of this system wants to rock it because they’re making a fortune.”

For Pina, the fondue dinner was only part of his recruiting journey that week. On his drive back from Charlottesville, Pina’s receipts show him stopping for meetings and meals with associates of both former Maryland star Melo Trimble and current Miami freshman Lonnie Walker, who was in high school in Reading, Pennsylvania, at the time. And after that thoroughly documented trip through basketball’s underworld, Pina included a fitting bookend to his work on the fringe of the NBPA Top 100 Camp: He traveled to New York prior to the draft and attended the NBPA’s agent seminar, where they annually discuss best practices.

(Officials from Kentucky, Miami and Maryland all declined to comment Monday night.)

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