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Review: ‘The Scheme’ is much ado about nothing (new) for Arizona coach Sean Miller

It doesn’t help his cause, but it doesn’t make it any worse

arizona-wildcats-sean-miller-scheme-hbo-christian-dawkins-will-wade-fbi-ncaa-documentary-review Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

We didn’t get March Madness this year, but that didn’t stop Arizona Wildcats fans from getting a little taste of that familiar NCAA Tournament anxiety a few weeks ago.

When Yahoo! Sports reported on March 17 that a documentary was coming out about the FBI’s mostly failed attempt to solve college basketball corruption, the vast majority of UA fans probably had a “here we go again” moment. And based on the article, it looked like this could be really bad for Sean Miller and the men’s basketball program.

(Narrator voice) It’s actually not that bad at all, despite what others who have watched it have said on Twitter. It’s not good, either. But unless you had no prior knowledge of the scandal your opinion of Miller, what he did or didn’t do and his fate with the NCAA and Arizona is unlikely to change after sitting through all 115 minutes.

You’ll get to see for yourself Tuesday at 6 p.m. PT when HBO airs ‘The Scheme,’ which claims to provide an inside look at the three-year investigation and subsequent trials that led to the arrests of 10 people—including some Division I assistant coaches, one of them former Arizona assistant Emanuel ‘Book’ Richardson—but only led to the convictions of a few bit players.

The most notable of those is Christian Dawkins, from whose perspective the film is told. Yes, you read that right: the main subject is someone who was found guilty in two separate federal trials and is currently a free man while appealing those convictions.

He’s also somehow became a music executive during all this, since apparently convincing college basketball players to have him be their agent didn’t work out.

The doc is mostly about Dawkins and how his heavy ambitions managed to get him caught up in an FBI sting operation, and director Pat Kondelis does a good job of portraying the Saginaw, Michigan native as a sympathetic figure. We learn that Dawkins was teammates with Draymond Green and thought he was a stud player but really wasn’t that good, yet he still managed to put together a pretty solid AAU team while still in high school. Along the way he dealt with the sudden death of his younger brother, Dorian, to a heart attack at 14, and he coped with that loss by putting together a massive charitable event in his honor.

We hear his explanation of how he “mistakenly” charged thousands of dollars worth of Uber rides to Elfrid Payton, whom he helped noted sports agent Andy Miller sign prior to the 2014 NBA Draft. A simple mistake of forgetting to switch the credit cards on the Uber account, he says, could happen to anybody.

And we also find out he was already paying players and their families when he was teenager, and that the most influential book he read growing up was ‘Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed and the Corruption of America’s Youth.’

That book, written in 2000, was co-authored by Yahoo! Sports’ Dan Wetzel, who is interviewed in the film, was the first to report about the documentary and was at the forefront of Yahoo’s coverage of the bribery scandal.

Purely a coincidence, no doubt.

Dawkins readily admits throughout the film that he sees nothing wrong with paying players and doesn’t look down upon any coach that might do so. He even says, toward the end, that “any coach who offers to pay a player, in my opinion, is a good guy. I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

When it came to getting those players to sign with him after college, though, he didn’t see the point of getting their coaches involved in that process. At least not financially.

But when business partner (and future fellow defendant Munish Sood) put him in touch with some potential investors in their “scheme,” those money people preferred to use college coaches as intermediaries and give them cash in exchange for them steering their players toward Dawkins.

Those investors, Jeff D’Angelo and Jill Bailey, were actually undercover FBI agents who were hoping that, by luring assistants into taking bribes, they would flip on the bigger names in college basketball.

Like Rick Pitino. And Will Wade. And, yes, Sean Miller.

That’s how Richardson and assistants from Auburn, Oklahoma State and USC got busted. Dawkins set up meetings between them and the FBI agents, and surveillance footage shown in the doc has them accepting envelopes of cash.

More assistants might have gotten caught up in the sting had Dawkins and another cohort, Adidas executive Merl Code, not decided to keep the cash for themselves while telling the FBI agents they had passed it around to coaches.

In other words, the “scheme” that the title refers to was actually Dawkins and Code’s attempt to steal from who they thought were completely naïve whales. And it would have worked if not for those meddling feds!

So, what does this have to do with Miller and Arizona? For a large chunk of the doc I was thinking just that, especially since the very first scene following the opening credits was from the March 2018 press conference in which Miller vehemently denied a still uncorroborated ESPN report that among the thousands of hours of wiretaps recorded by the FBI was a conversation between Miller and Dawkins discussing paying $100,000 to ensure Deandre Ayton played for the Wildcats.

But then Miller isn’t really mentioned again until about 95 minutes in, the only Arizona reference before that from a recording of Dawkins telling an FBI agent on the phone that “you already know how I am with Arizona. So I can go into Arizona’s practice like I’m on the team. The thing with Arizona is that Sean Miller has to know everything that’s going on.”

More footage of that March 2018 Miller presser is shown, with Dawkins providing commentary afterward.

“Sean should have his own movie agent. He should be an actor. I was convinced, honestly.”

Recordings of Miller himself? Those come after the film describes Dawkins’ arrest in a New York City hotel room in September 2017, during which his phone goes off and Miller is listed as the caller. The FBI agents had already told him they wanted Pitino, and after seeing that they said they wanted Miller as well.

This would have been the perfect time to play that recording of Dawkins and Miller talking about paying six figures for Ayton, right? If that tape actually existed.

We do get to hear Miller on wiretaps, including ones in which he’s talking to Dawkins about prospects Naz Reid (who signed with LSU) and Nassir Little (who signed with North Carolina). Those are interesting but also vague, with Miller saying Arizona wasn’t going to bring Reid in for a visit and that any rumors about him committing to the Wildcats was a ploy to get LSU to pay more, and the focus of the Little convo being about which of that recruit’s handlers he should “focus on.”

Does that mean who would need to get paid? Maybe, maybe not. But without any actual mention of money it’s nothing but speculation.

For my money (pun intended) the best Miller wiretap was one the director likely included to show how friendly he and Dawkins were. We get to hear Miller curse like a sailor, dropping F-bombs and MFers left and right while describing a time that he was fed up with a player and told him just before tip-off that he wasn’t starting that game, which may have been referring to the one time in the 2017-18 season that Rawle Alkins came off the bench.

The Will Wade recordings? That’s a horse of a different color.

When discussing a player who was deciding whether to enter the NBA Draft or be a graduate transfer, he told Dawkins that LSU could “compensate him better than the rookie minimum. We’d give him more than the D-League,” and there was also the previously reported “strong-ass offer” he made to a player that was presumed to be eventual Tigers standout Javonte Smart.

There’s also a small subplot about the ‘Jeff D’Angelo’ agent disappearing from the investigation for several months, only to reappear at Dawkins’ arrest. During the point in the film when assistant coaches are shown taking money we’re also told that Dawkins saw D’Angelo and another man, informant Marty Blazer, gambling in a Las Vegas casino presumably with some of the cash the feds provided for the sting. Dawkins’ attorney, Steve Haney, says in the film the belief was the D’Angelo agent got busted for misappropriating funds but that was never made public.

That sidestory, like almost everything else in the doc, was meant to portray Dawkins as a victim. He was asked at the beginning and end of the film if he did anything wrong, to which he said no.

The twice-convicted felon still believes he is blameless, so take that into consideration when he says “that wasn’t true” when asked about Miller declaring at that presser that he’d never paid a player or anyone associated with a player.