Source: USA TODAY
ST. LOUIS — Ben McLemore’s former AAU coach says he received thousands of dollars in cash, lodging, meals and trips from a middle man who courted the Kansas player on behalf of sports agents and financial advisers during the 2012-13 college basketball season.
Darius Cobb, a St. Louis-based AAU coach, told USA TODAY Sports that he accepted two cash payments of $5,000 during the regular season from Rodney Blackstock, the founder and CEO of Hooplife Academy, a sports mentoring organization based in Greensboro, N.C.
Cobb says he also received three all-expense paid trips to Los Angeles — and that a cousin of McLemore’s, Richard Boyd, accompanied him on two of them — for meetings in January and February with sports agents and financial advisers hoping to represent McLemore if he left for the NBA after his redshirt freshman season at Kansas. McLemore, 20, declared for the NBA draft on April 9.
Cobb provided travel itineraries and photos taken of he and Boyd on the trips, however, Boyd denied making the trips with Cobb.
“No, I did not (go to Los Angeles),” Boyd told USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t know anything about that. The rumors, that’s why I don’t want to do interviews because people misinterpret stuff. … There is too much confusion. Everyone is trying to control this and that.”
A person who became close to Blackstock to help him build relationships with players and their families confirmed knowledge of Blackstock’s payments to Cobb. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity so he would not harm his relationships with those involved.
Blackstock did not return multiple text and voice messages left on his cell phone seeking comment.
Although Boyd denied being on the trips, he acknowledged Blackstock had built a close relationship with the family and defended him, saying Blackstock’s involvement has helped because he knows the agent industry and can navigate a landscape strewn with individuals who don’t always have the player’s best interests at heart.
“He is cool,” Boyd says of Blackstock. “He has just given us some pointers. He has been in the business a while and has been overseas. But everything is Ben’s and his mom’s decisions.”
Cobb says Blackstock cultivated a relationship with himself and McLemore’s family and introduced them to multiple Los Angeles-based sports agents during the season. McLemore knew “little to none” about Blackstock’s financial involvement in the player’s life, Cobb said, nor did McLemore know that Cobb had accepted $10,000 from Blackstock.
Documents obtained by USA TODAY Sports via a public records request to the University of Kansas show that Blackstock received complimentary admission as McLemore’s guest to three Jayhawks home games during the 2012-13 season. Guest signature reports for the Jayhawks’ Feb. 2 game vs. Oklahoma State, Feb. 11 game vs. Kansas State and March 4 game vs. Texas Tech list Blackstock’s name as a recipient, McLemore’s name as the student-athlete making the request and Blackstock’s signature acknowledging he was admitted. Under NCAA rules, players are allotted four complimentary admissions per game for guests.
Cobb says Blackstock paid him money because he wanted Cobb to steer McLemore toward Blackstock. Cobb, 41, has known McLemore since the player was in the sixth grade, and he began coaching McLemore when the player was 15 years old. Cobb also said he has helped the family financially from time to time, paying bills and buying McLemore clothes and food. Cobb was on McLemore’s guest list for five home games this season, and he said he also attended some road games.
The payments that Cobb said he received from Blackstock – and the trips to Los Angeles that Cobb says he and Boyd accepted – potentially could have jeopardized McLemore’s amateur status because of NCAA rules that prohibit college players’ family members, friends and coaches from accepting money or gifts from sports agents or those working on their behalf. The NCAA has historically handled similar situations on a case-by-case basis.
Multiple attempts to reach McLemore were unsuccessful.
In a statement on Saturday, Kansas Athletics Director Sheahon Zenger said, “Late this afternoon we received an inquiry regarding the relationship between the family of Ben McLemore and a third party, Rodney Blackstock. This was the first time this inquiry had been presented to us. In accordance with the conditions and obligations of its membership in the NCAA and the Big 12 Conference, the University of Kansas will review the information and process it with both of those entities if necessary. We are not in a position to comment further at this time.”
Cobb detailed his involvement during more than 10 hours of interviews with USA TODAY Sports at his home and elsewhere in the St. Louis area. Cobb says he is telling his story because he wants to help educate basketball families such as the McLemores and expose individuals who pursue college athletes and their families while the players still have amateur eligibility.
“I don’t want to hurt the family, I want to protect the family,” Cobb says. “If there had to be a bad guy, if there had to be a fall guy, let it be me, as opposed to ruining a great kid who has busted his butt to get where he is. Let me be the crooked AAU coach. I was willing to take the brunt of it for the sake of this kid. I wanted to keep him pure.”
Cobb has had run-ins with the law in his life, and has pleaded guilty to charges that include stealing, fraudulent use of a credit device and possession of a controlled substance. He served two years in jail because of the fraudulent use offense.
“I am an example of someone who has made bad choices but has rededicated myself to doing right by helping the kids in my community so they don’t make the same mistakes I made,” Cobb said. “By no means am I perfect. But I have been committed to the kids in my community, and this is the way I give back.”
Cobb also acknowledges he was facing his own financial difficulties at the time he accepted money from Blackstock, and Cobb said the saga has splintered his relationships with McLemore’s family members. Text messages between Cobb and family members throughout the season show that Cobb repeatedly tried to warn the family about Blackstock’s growing influence.
“There is a lot of damage that has been done in a short amount of time,” Cobb says. “And what hurts me the most is Ben. This is supposed to be the happiest time in this kid’s life. It’s not. And it’s coming from the people who supposedly love him.”
After sitting out the 2011-12 season because he was not academically eligible, McLemore’s stock soared during his sole college season, in which he led the Jayhawks to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. Kansas coach Bill Self called McLemore, who set the Jayhawks’ freshman scoring record, the best young player that he has ever coached.
Cobb says he started speaking regularly with Blackstock by phone before the 2012-13 season because Cobb and mutual friends sought to launch a sports management company. He felt that Blackstock, 32, with his relationships with college players and his location in the basketball hotbed of North Carolina, could play an important role.
Cobb says he introduced McLemore’s mom, Sonya Reid, to Blackstock at the Jan. 19 Kansas game at Texas because he also felt Blackstock could help the family with advice if McLemore opted for the NBA draft after the season. Cobb says Reid and Blackstock sat together during the game.
Very soon, Blackstock’s influence grew, Cobb says.
Cobb says a cousin of McLemore’s, Boyd, was included on two of the trips to Los Angeles because McLemore’s mom wanted someone in the family present so no business deals were agreed upon without the family’s knowledge.
Cobb says on the second trip he took with Boyd the two stayed at the Luxe Hotel Rodeo Drive. Cobb showed USA TODAY Sports three February emails from people associated with a financial firm and a sports agency in the Los Angeles area that contained hotel confirmation numbers for Boyd, Cobb and Blackstock at that hotel from Feb. 15-17.
Boyd and Cobb are pictured standing next to the sign for the Luxe Hotel in a photo obtained by USA TODAY Sports. Cobb says the photo was taken by Blackstock, who has used a photo of himself standing next to the same sign as the profile picture on his Facebook account.
Cobb describes Boyd as a “good guy who is in over his head.” And Boyd acknowledged that it was difficult to discern who to trust as McLemore’s regular season progressed and that the situation became overwhelming for him and some family members.
On Feb. 16, when Cobb said he, Boyd and Blackstock were in the Los Angeles area, Cobb says Blackstock expressed in a text message his plan to become a sports agent, and to get help covering those costs.
In the message, Blackstock wrote, “We bringing to the table and the pipeline bro they gonna be winning and willing to do whatever. So I am thinking a point and secondary agent they pay my agent license six figure salary benefits [and] travel budget for recruitment bro.”
Multiple efforts to reach Reid by telephone and in person at her home were unsuccessful. Boyd said she had advised him that no one close to McLemore should agree to interviews with the media.
Boyd says he was not aware that Cobb accepted money. When asked specifically about Cobb’s influence, Boyd says, “Everybody should fall in line instead of trying to do their own thing. (Cobb) is a good guy, has a good heart. So much that he wants to try to do on his own, but he has got to follow a protocol with Ben and his mom.”
Visits to L.A.
Cobb offered numerous details about other trips and benefits in interviews. He provided text messages, flight receipts, travel confirmation emails, photos and bank records to support his statements:
Cobb says his first trip to California was in January, accompanied by Blackstock, to meet a prominent financial planner who works with professional athletes. Cobb says he never saw a bill because he paid for nothing during his trip and stayed at the Four Seasons in Westlake Village, Calif. On the way to the airport to fly home, Cobb said Blackstock gave him $5,000 in cash. Cobb says he never asked for money and was shocked when Blackstock gave it to him, but the coach says he accepted it because he was facing financial hardship.
Cobb says he returned to Los Angeles at the end of January — this time with Blackstock and McLemore’s cousin, Boyd — so that Boyd could meet the same financial planner. Cobb says the two men stayed at the SLS Hotel Beverly Hills, and also were given tickets to a Los Angeles Clippers game on Jan. 27 against the Portland Trail Blazers. Cobb showed USA TODAY Sports a photo of he and Boyd in their seats at the Staples Center, with the Los Angeles Clippers logo visible behind them.
After that trip, Cobb says he saw Blackstock again in St. Louis. Cobb says Blackstock took him to a Bank of America branch in North County, made a withdrawal and handed him another $5,000 – two bands of $2,000 in $20 bills with the wrapper on them and another $1,000 in $50 bills. Cobb showed USA TODAY Sports a bank statement of his that included a $2,500 deposit on January 31 and a $2,000 deposit on February 4. Cobb says he kept $500 as cash on hand. Because the deposits were in cash, the source of the money cannot be determined from the statement.
On Feb. 2, the same day Blackstock attended Kansas’ home game against Oklahoma State, he sent a text message to Cobb in which Blackstock asked Cobb about an order that needed to be placed for a “custom” cake for McLemore’s upcoming birthday party. Cobb says he did not have enough of his own money to cover all the expenses, so the money from Blackstock “was like perfect timing.”
“I used it to help purchase hotel rooms and extra tickets” for the Kansas State game, Cobb says. “The whole time I am telling everyone, ‘Hey, this is trial and error. There is no book for doing this. I am doing the best I can. But if something goes wrong, let me be the fall guy.’ That way I kept the family clear and Ben stayed eligible.”
On Feb. 3, Cobb sent McLemore’s mom a text message asking for a “final (head) count so I can book the rooms and get tickets today.” On Feb. 9, Reid sent Cobb a text message, telling him that she had made it to Lawrence for McLemore’s birthday party set for the next day.
Cobb says he helped book a bowling party for McLemore’s birthday, and that Blackstock accompanied him to set up the reservation at Wayne and Larry’s on Iowa Street in Lawrence. Cobb says that when he returned from the restroom, Blackstock already had paid for the party, about $400 or $500. Cobb said he saw the bowling alley employee handing Blackstock’s Bank of America debit card back to him after Blackstock paid the bill.
“He was like, ‘Man, don’t worry about it. I got you,’ ” Cobb says. ” ‘We’re a team. We’re family.’ That was him saying, ‘I am part of this. I am doing this out of my own pocket.’ ”
Eric Prisbell, a national college basketball reporter for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @EricPrisbell.
Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.