Memphis Commercial Appeal
Published 10:05 PM EST Nov 8, 2019
There was risk and reward to be had in hiring Penny Hardaway as the Memphis men’s basketball coach.
The rewards have been plentiful thus far. A No. 1 recruiting class. A full FedExForum. A national championship contender. A return to relevancy, both locally and across the college basketball world.
The risk arrived Friday night, in the hours leading up to the Tigers’ 92-46 win over Illinois-Chicago. The risk was how this all happened.
It’s a question that lingered beneath the surface throughout the past 12 months, once James Wiseman committed to Memphis. It’s a question Memphis basketball fans were happy to overlook and, judging by the notable cheers he received every time his name was announced Friday, they still might be.
But it’s a question that now threatens to jeopardize what we all assumed would be a magical season. It’s a question that could make Wiseman’s college basketball career even shorter than we assumed. It’s a question that the NCAA thinks it has answered, and it doesn’t appear willing to back down.
This much is clear after the soap opera that played out over several hours in downtown Memphis.
JAMES WISEMAN: Memphis star freshman ruled ineligible by NCAA, still plays Friday
FAQ: NCAA deemed Penny Hardaway a booster for helping James Wiseman move. Here’s what that means
STAR FRESHMAN INELIGIBLE: What we know about NCAA ruling, judge’s hold
First, prominent Memphis attorney Leslie Ballin conducted a news conference inside his 12th floor offices and announced that the NCAA had deemed Wiseman ineligible earlier this week and that he had filed a lawsuit on Wiseman’s behalf with the NCAA and the University of Memphis as defendants. A few minutes after that, a Shelby County Judicial Court judge granted Wiseman a temporary emergency restraining order that allowed Wiseman to play Friday.
About 10 minutes after that, at 5:17 p.m., Wiseman emerged from a black Sprinter van in the garage underneath FedExForum, and ran inside the building. Just after 6 p.m., he was announced as a member of the starting lineup. By the second half, the NCAA responded.
“The University of Memphis was notified that James Wiseman is likely ineligible,” the organization said in a statement. “The university chose to play him and ultimately is responsible for ensuring its student-athletes are eligible to play.”
That sound you’re hearing is the NCAA’s heels digging in.
It means Memphis took a huge risk playing Wiseman Friday night and, frankly, during Tuesday’s season opener. Because according to Blake Ballin, a member of Wiseman’s legal team, the NCAA sent a letter notifying Memphis Wiseman was ineligible “minutes or hours before tipoff.” Tuesday night.
These first two wins could very well become forfeits.
“We’ll get through this,” Memphis athletic director Laird Veatch said as he walked along press row Friday night.
Hardaway addressed the issue on ESPN in an interview after the game.
“That’s just up to the school,” he said. “We’re just going to go about it legally moving forward. James has a right to do what he did and we’re moving forward.”
We’ll see. The drama seems to just be getting started.
NCAA rules stipulate that a booster can’t give a prospective student-athlete money. And that’s what the NCAA is alleging happened when Hardaway gave Wiseman and his mother $11,500 for moving expenses when Wiseman relocated from Nashville to Memphis in the summer of 2017.
The NCAA considers Hardaway a University of Memphis booster because he donated $1 million to the school in 2008. According to the NCAA, that makes Hardaway a booster in perpetuity.
Whether you think that’s fair, whether you think college athletes should be able to get money for their name, image or likeness, or whether you think the NCAA is a corrupt organization making millions off unpaid labor, it’s going to be hard for Memphis and Wiseman to get around this.
Prospective student-athletes and their families aren’t allowed to accept $11,500. Hardaway was allowed to give it to him because he wasn’t yet employed by the University of Memphis. But Wiseman, according to NCAA bylaws, was technically ineligible the moment his mother accepted those moving expenses since the NCAA considers Hardaway a booster.
Wiseman appears to be following the same playbook he used when the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association initially ruled him ineligible to play at Memphis East High School. Wiseman had transferred to East, where Hardaway was the coach, from Nashville’s Ensworth School.
In that instance, a lawsuit was also filed in a Shelby County Court and a similar temporary injunction was issued. The case was never actually resolved before Wiseman graduated, and he played two seasons at East, which included a state championship in Hardaway’s final season.
Wiseman and his family have long claimed his move to Memphis was to be closer to his sister, who is currently a student at the University of Memphis. The TSSAA alleged it was to play for Hardaway, who had become his grassroots basketball coach in the summer of 2017.
Perhaps, as Wiseman’s attorneys argued Friday, there’s a way to prove Hardaway shouldn’t have been considered a booster. Perhaps, as they disclosed in the lawsuit Friday, the fact that Hardaway and Wiseman allegedly disclosed the $11,500 in moving expenses to the NCAA during its initial eligibility ruling in May will convince a judge to rule in Wiseman’s favor.
Much like Hardaway’s hiring, this is a wholly unique situation. NBA superstars don’t often become high school and grassroots basketball coaches. High school and grassroots basketball coaches don’t often ascend immediately to a head coaching job.
But it was a risk then, and it’s definitely become a risk now.
Now, the most important moment of this Memphis basketball season won’t happen on the court. It’ll happen in a courthouse.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto