LSU coach Will Wade gives directions to his players during the first half of the Tigers' game with Arkansas on Jan. 12.

Brian Bowen Jr. appeared destined for basketball stardom in the summer of 2017. A lanky guard from hardscrabble Saginaw, Michigan, Bowen was among the year’s most prized recruits, a five-star college prospect with a scoring touch and a 6’7” frame.

But Bowen, who goes by “Tugs,” never checked into an NCAA basketball game. Not for Louisville, where his recruitment ended up costing Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino his job, nor for South Carolina, where Bowen briefly enrolled.

Instead, Bowen’s first star turn came in a federal courthouse in New York City, where Louisville’s crooked courtship of the young player served as Exhibit A in a wide-ranging criminal investigation into corruption in college basketball.

His father, Brian Bowen Sr., testified to payoffs stretching back years, money orders and bags of cash from summer-league coaches, a Louisville assistant and a New York financial manager. But the probe’s ultimate target wasn’t a coach or a player or a university: It was a young hustler from Bowen’s hometown named Christian Dawkins, a cog in a much larger machine.

Dawkins, now 26, has been involved in the off-court side of basketball since his teens, launching his own tournament and running a recruiting service for coaches. He later worked for a major NBA agent as a “runner” — someone who builds relationships with players to land clients and business — and was trying to launch his own management company before his September 2017 arrest.

The elder Bowen, a former Saginaw cop on disability who also played basketball in high school, told jurors that Dawkins passed along lucrative offers from various colleges — Oregon, Arizona, Oklahoma State, Creighton.

His son, he testified, knew about none of it. Tugs now plays professional basketball in Australia.

Where LSU, Will Wade fit in

LSU now finds itself caught up in the fallout from the same complex federal corruption case. Coach Will Wade, a 36-year-old rising star who arrived in Baton Rouge in 2017 and built LSU into a conference champion in his second season, was apparently caught on FBI wiretaps talking with Dawkins about his own offers for recruits.

On one call, Wade groused to Dawkins about trouble closing on a “strong-ass offer” to another middleman to lock down a coveted recruit, believed to be LSU freshman guard Javonte Smart, then a star at Baton Rouge’s Scotlandville High.

Another FBI wiretap caught Wade and Dawkins talking about Balsa Koprivica, a 7-foot-2 Serbian center who has since committed to Florida State.

Dawkins tells Wade “you would have funded” Koprivica’s recruitment and asks if he’s interested. Wade’s response — for which he’s “got to shut the door” — is that “I can get you what you need, but it’s got to work.”

Wade denied wrongdoing when the Koprivica wiretap surfaced in October but hasn’t done so since the most recent wiretaps involving Smart emerged, saying only that the recordings “do not begin to tell the full story.”

Just what role Wade might yet play in the sprawling federal criminal case against Dawkins and several others remains murky. If Wade paid players or their families — something hinted at in the wiretaps but not clearly established — it could theoretically make him a part of the criminal conspiracy the government has outlined.

Dawkins’ attorney is expected to subpoena Wade as a witness in a trial set to begin April 22, apparently hoping Wade’s testimony could undermine the prosecution’s case by demonstrating university officials were in on the scheme. Prosecutors have portrayed colleges as the victims.

Dawkins, often described as a “basketball savant,” became a mover and a shaker in the world of high-level youth hoops at a young age. He ran a subscription-based recruiting newsletter as a teenager and launched a successful tournament for high-school players. He ran his own A.A.U. summer team with some of the area’s top talent.

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Soon, he was in the middle of the deal-making underworld of purportedly amateur basketball.

Dawkins, like the Bowens, hailed from Saginaw, a small Rust Belt city about 40 miles north of Flint. His father, Lou, was an accomplished basketball coach at Saginaw High. Tugs played for Dawkins’ summer team, and Bowen’s father, according to his court testimony, began taking cash from the aspiring agent when Tugs was still in his early teens.

Just how Dawkins ended up linked to Smart or Koprivica is unclear. LSU on Saturday made Smart available for interviews for the first time since Yahoo Sports and ESPN first reported the wiretaps two weeks ago, but he shed little light on the matter.

"I have nothing to do with that," Smart said in response to one question about the calls, but conceded that the flap over the calls is "a lot on your mind."

Smart’s mother hasn’t responded to messages from The Advocate.

Wade publicly denied having “ever done business of any kind with Christian Dawkins” when the Koprivica wiretap first surfaced publicly in October. But LSU athletic director Joe Alleva says Wade has acknowledged he knew Dawkins and often chatted with him -- and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, he added.

“Christian Dawkins has had conversations with lots and lots of basketball coaches, that’s kind of what he does. He’s kind of a middleman kind of guy that talks to coaches about players,” Alleva said last week. “That’s not uncommon, that’s not illegal. That’s pretty common in the world of college basketball.”

The legal ramifications

NCAA rules have always banned cash payments and other kickbacks to players and their families. But there are hundreds of millions of dollars sloshing around the “amateur” game in the form of sold-out arenas, national television deals, apparel sales and lucrative coaching contracts.

Pitino earned nearly $7.8 million per season coaching at Louisville, and his program raked in more than $45 million in some recent seasons. The men’s hoops program at football-mad LSU, by comparison, brought in more than $8 million in revenue in a recent season, while Wade’s contract pays $2.5 million per year.

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Landing top recruits can instantly change the fortunes of a college program, and snaring a future superstar can mean millions of dollars in fees for agents and hundreds of millions in sales for sneaker companies. But before a player goes pro, none of that money is supposed to touch his hands or those of his family.

The federal case contends the payments from intermediary figures like Dawkins to players’ families amount to a criminal conspiracy to commit fraud. It’s a tricky case to make. In the government’s telling, the universities themselves are the victims of the scheme -- even though an observer might well mistake them for the beneficiaries.

The legal theory goes like this: The cash Dawkins and others handed the senior Bowen over the years violated NCAA rules, and thus rendered his son, Tugs, ineligible for his athletic scholarship from Louisville. Conspiring to hide the payments, the federal government argued, exposed the university’s profitable basketball program to NCAA sanctions — and the loss of revenue that could follow.

Dawkins’ attorney freely acknowledges his client funnelled cash to parents of top recruits, but he scoffs at the idea that the colleges were hurt.

“Violating NCAA rules in helping these poor families was in fact what colleges wanted,” Steve Haney, Dawkins’ attorney, told jurors at the October trial. “And not only was it what the colleges wanted, it’s what they sought and needed. Guys like Christian Dawkins were expected to bridge these families’ financial hardships for prospects the schools wanted on their campuses by any means necessary.”

Dawkins and others also allegedly bribed a handful of assistant coaches — several of whom have since pleaded guilty — for their help steering college players toward particular pro agents.

Prosecutors were able to persuade a jury in October that the scheme amounted to wire fraud.

“There’d be nothing wrong with what anyone is doing here without the NCAA rules in place,” said Craig Mordock, a New Orleans criminal defense attorney who represented former Arizona assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson in the case. “But the NCAA rules aren’t federal crimes. They’ve really stretched the bounds of intent here.”

Regardless of where the criminal case goes, the NCAA’s sanctions could be crippling -- for Louisville and any other schools singed in the probe. At least 25 universities — including basketball heavyweights like Louisville, Kansas, NC State, Kentucky and Arizona — have been linked to varying degrees to the corruption so far.

Case against Dawkins

Dawkins was tried with two alleged co-conspirators, both former employees of the Adidas shoe company. But the real focus of the trial was the world of backroom deals and payoffs the federal government alleges are commonplace in college hoops recruiting. And Tugs Bowen’s journey offered a peek behind the curtain.

Cash came to the elder Bowen from various sources thanks to his son, a nationally known prospect at 14. Shoe companies allegedly funded many of the payments.

Bowen Sr. testified that one Nike-sponsored youth team paid him up to $8,000; another offered $18,000 to switch. An all-star team sponsored by Adidas paid him $25,000, delivered by Dawkins and an Adidas executive, for his then 16-year-old son’s play.

Dawkins himself handed the father cash and covered family expenses. The unspoken understanding, Bowen Sr. testified last fall, was that Tugs would turn to Dawkins as his business manager when he broke into the NBA, where the average salary is more than $6 million per year.

Dawkins had earlier worked a job steering potential clients toward high-profile NBA agent Andy Miller, whose offices were raided by the FBI as part of the probe and who gave up his certification to negotiate contracts amid its fallout.

Later, Dawkins joined forces with a New York-based financial manager named Munish Sood — who unwittingly partnered with an undercover FBI agent and ended up pleading guilty and testifying for the prosecution against Dawkins. Sood helped bankroll Dawkins’ payments in exchange for Dawkins’ help steering business from NBA players his way.

Dawkins also served as a sort of clearinghouse for under-the-table offers to play at different universities, allegedly ranging as high as $150,000 plus a car and family housing.

Dawkins told Bowen Sr. that Adidas had offered $60,000 for Tugs to play at Louisville, one of the flagship programs Adidas sponsors. Dawkins later negotiated the price up to $100,000, Bowen testified, to match what the company had allegedly offered fellow all-American Billy Preston to play at Kansas (Preston left Kansas without ever playing a game after an investigation into the ownership of a car he crashed on-campus stretched out for months).

Jim Gatto, Adidas’ former global director of sports marketing, was tried and convicted alongside Dawkins in October for helping funnel payments to players’ families. So was Merl Code Jr., a former star point guard at Clemson who later ran Nike’s elite youth league and then joined Adidas as a consultant in 2016.

T.J. Gassnola, a longtime Adidas consultant, struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors in which he admitted to negotiating similar deals for recruits to Kansas and N.C. State.

Like Dawkins, attorneys for Gatto and Code acknowledged their clients made payments to recruits and their families but contended the payoffs, although violations of NCAA rules, didn’t amount to crimes.

Adidas and other shoe companies — including Nike, which dominates the basketball market — spend millions each year sponsoring so-called “grassroots” basketball, a catchall term that includes A.A.U. travel teams, camps and tournaments.

The payoffs to college recruits, evidence at the October trial suggested, served dual purposes for Adidas. First, scoring recruits for high-profile schools sponsored by Adidas helps ingratiate the company with coaches, who are key to maintaining the lucrative endorsements.

Second, the sponsorships — and alleged illicit payments — also help ensure top NBA prospects remain outfitted in the company’s sneakers. And they increase the odds a future star might ink an endorsement deal with Adidas once turning pro.

Such endorsement deals can be incredibly valuable. Nike’s deals with two of the sport’s biggest past and present stars, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, have played a major role in its domination of the basketball market.

The federal investigation appears to have focused on Adidas because of the close ties between Dawkins and Miller, his former boss, and top brass at the company. Though Adidas is the world’s second-largest sportswear maker, it has struggled to build its profile in the basketball market.

Most of the dealmaking uncovered in the federal case flowed through assistant coaches and involved only cryptic exchanges with head coaches, making Wade’s presence on the wiretaps particularly noteworthy.

At least according to one of Dawkins’ co-defendants, that’s by design.

"He doesn't know everything. Plausible deniability,” Code said of Pitino, the Louisville coach, in a wiretapped call with Dawkins after striking the deal for Bowen. 

Editor's note: This story was changed March 17 to reflect that Javonte Smart took questions from reporters Saturday about a wiretapped call in which his name was mentioned.

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.