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LSU coach Will Wade huddles with forward Emmitt Williams, left, guard Javonte Smart and forward Naz Reid during a break in play against Tennessee, on Saturday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

LATESTLSU basketball coach Will Wade suspended after Yahoo report; school releases statement

ORIGINAL STORY:

The FBI secretly recorded phone conversations between LSU basketball coach Will Wade and federally indicted recruiting middleman Christian Dawkins, during which Wade discussed “this Smart thing” and issues with a “strong-ass offer” to a recruit’s family through an intermediary  that would compensate more than the “rookie minimum,” Yahoo! Sports and ESPN reported Thursday.

Wade’s reference to “this Smart thing” — and Wade’s discussion of apparent difficulties with an “offer” to a recruit and his mother — appears to refer to Javonte Smart, a standout LSU freshman guard and a former top-ranked recruit out of Scotlandville High School.

Wade, according to Yahoo! Sports and ESPN, didn’t elaborate on what precisely “this Smart thing” refers to in the wiretapped phone call. ESPN, citing unnamed sources familiar with the calls said Smart was the player being discussed.

The reported wiretaps — portions of which were quoted directly in the Yahoo! Sports and ESPN reports — come from a trove of evidence federal prosecutors amassed in a wide-ranging corruption case against college basketball coaches, athletic shoe executives and others accused of bribing coaches and steering payments to players.

Court records indicate Dawkins made “at least three calls with a cellphone number belonging to LSU coach Will Wade,” according to ESPN, with all three occurring between June 19 and June 30, 2017.

Smart, a highly sought star at Scotlandville who had received offers from some of the top college programs in the nation, announced his commitment to play at LSU in a June 30, 2017, tweet.

“I was thinking last night on this Smart thing,” Wade tells Dawkins on the wiretapped phone call, according to Yahoo! Sports. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m (expletive) tired of dealing with the thing. Like I’m just (expletive) sick of dealing with the (expletive). Like, this should not be that (expletive) complicated.”

Wade goes on to express frustration over an unnamed intermediary’s handling of a “(expletive) strong-ass offer” Wade brought him for the player — apparently Smart — “about a month ago.”

“The problem was, I know why he (the intermediary) didn’t take it now, it was (expletive) tilted toward the family a little bit,” Wade told Dawkins. “It was tilted toward taking care of the mom, taking care of the kid. Like it was tilted towards that. Now I know for a fact he (the intermediary) didn’t explain everything to the mom. I know now, he didn’t get enough of the piece of the pie in the deal.”

"Hell of an offer (...) especially for a kid who is going to be a two- or three-year kid,” Wade said, an apparent reference to the fact that Smart — although a highly regarded prospect — was expected at the time to need at least two years in college before jumping into the NBA draft.

Wade joked to Dawkins in a separate phone call that the player would be compensated more than the “rookie minimum,” to ESPN, which said it independently confirmed the contents of the wiretapped phone call after Yahoo! Sports first reported its contents Thursday.

Wade, according to ESPN, also told Dawkins on that call he’d made deals for "as good of players as him" that were "a lot simpler than this."

Just what Wade meant by a “(expletive) strong-ass offer” isn’t more clearly explained in the portion of the alleged conversation Yahoo! Sports and ESPN reported Thursday. Wade’s joke about “the rookie minimum” appears to be a reference to the NBA’s minimum salary for first-year professional players.  

Wade declined to comment about the report at a Thursday afternoon media luncheon. The second-year Tigers coach told reporters he knew about Yahoo! Sports’ coming story “about 20 or 30 minutes beforehand” but wasn’t told the substance of the story and hadn’t read it.

"We'll move forward as we need to," said Wade.

At Southeastern Conference media days last fall, Wade said he’d “never, ever done business of any kind with Christian Dawkins,” his voice rising. “So that’s really what I’ll say about that, and I’ll move forward from there and take any questions about our team and our season as we move forward.”

Melinda Smart, Javonte's mother, said she hadn't heard about the latest Yahoo! Sports report when contacted just after noon Thursday.

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said. "I don't know anything about all of that. I have to read it first."

“We are not commenting on the report,” Robert Munson, a spokesman for LSU’s athletic department, told The Advocate on Thursday afternoon.

The LSU men’s basketball team is in the midst of its strongest season in years. The Tigers are tied with Tennessee atop the Southeastern Conference with one game left in the regular season. They can clinch the title Saturday with a win over Vanderbilt.

Wade, 36, has been mentioned in connection with the federal corruption case on at least two previous occasions. Thursday’s report, however, provided the most potentially damaging evidence for Wade and his program.

Defense attorneys attempted to enter another wiretapped phone call between Dawkins and Wade at the October federal trial for Dawkins, former Adidas executive Jim Gatto and Adidas consultant Merl Code on bribery charges. The three men were convicted on felony charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Jurors in the October trial didn’t hear that transcript but the attorneys did read a portion of the call aloud to the judge in court, according to multiple media outlets that covered the trial.

Dawkins spoke to Wade on that call about “a recruit you would have funded” in reference to 2019 four-star recruit Balsa Koprivica, a 7-foot center who signed with Florida State in November.

Wade, according to the transcript read in court, told Dawkins “there’s other (expletive) involved in it.”

"Wait, I’ve got to shut the door,” Wade told Dawkins, according to the transcript read in court. He later added, “I can get you what you need, but it’s got to work.”

The full context of the conversation is unclear because the rest of the call wasn’t read in court and a full transcript wasn’t entered into evidence.

A judge on Tuesday sentenced Gatto to nine months in prison and Dawkins and Code to six months each. Code and Dawkins face additional federal charges currently scheduled for trial in April.

Federal prosecutors have argued that the trio — along with a number of assistant college coaches — conspired to funnel cash and other gifts to prospects and their families to steer them to Adidas-sponsored universities or toward particular sports agents once they turned professional.

Payments and gifts to players are strictly forbidden under NCAA rules, the governing body of college sports. The government argued the defendants defrauded universities of scholarships the institutions wouldn’t have awarded the players if officials had known about the illicit payments.

More details about Wade’s conversations with Dawkins could emerge in the second trial, scheduled to begin in New York City on April 22.

Wade and University of Arizona coach Sean Miller are both expected to be subpoenaed to testify for the defense at that trial, according to an earlier Yahoo! Sports report. Wade could face questions under oath about the exact meaning of his statements in the wiretapped phone calls and details about his efforts to land high-profile recruits.

Miller’s program has been extensively linked to the FBI probe. One of Miller’s former assistant coaches, Emanuel “Book” Richardson, pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit bribery in January. The father of a top-ranked recruit testified in October that Dawkins told him another former Miller assistant, current UC Santa Barbara coach Joe Pasternack, would pay $50,000 for his son to sign with the team.

Former Oklahoma State assistant coach Lamont Evans and former Southern California assistant coach Tony Bland have also pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to commit bribery in cases stemming from the FBI investigation.

The NCAA hasn’t yet taken action against any of the basketball programs mentioned at the October trial or otherwise somehow linked to the probe — a list that also includes NC State, Kansas, Louisville, Oklahoma State and Southern California, in addition to LSU and Arizona — but has said it’s investigating potential rules violations raised in the federal case.

Advocate writer Sheldon Mickles contributed to this report.


Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.