Twenty years ago, there was a local basketball star who had already figured out that his talent even as a high school player could bring him riches.
“If you need something, you just ask,” said Tony Bland, then a junior at Westchester High who played for a Nike-sponsored AAU team. “Shoes, shirts, jerseys, hats, socks, you name it. I’ve got shoes still in boxes.”
Bland’s quote was published as part of a 1997 Los Angeles Times investigation entitled “Shoe Wars,” which documented the relationship between apparel companies and the murky worlds of club basketball and college recruiting.
On Tuesday, Bland, 37, was arrested in Tampa, Fla., on federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, soliciting a bribe and wire fraud, part of a broad series of indictments related to fraud and corruption in college basketball.
Investigators say Bland, in his role as associate head coach of USC’s basketball team, took bribes to steer Trojans players to Christian Dawkins, a former sports agent who was trying to start his own firm. Bland also allegedly facilitated payments of $9,000 in cash to families of two USC basketball players.
Three other college assistant coaches, Chuck Person of Auburn, Lamont Evans of Oklahoma State and Emanuel Richardson of Arizona, face similar charges, and authorities said their investigation was far from finished.
People familiar with the road many players take to the NBA say the game is fraught with opportunities for corruption, from the club level to the high schools and colleges.
Bland was well acquainted with that route. He was an All-City player on a Westchester High team that won the 1998 state Division I championship. Westchester coach Ed Azzam said he and his wife still consider Bland “one of our kids,” and said basketball for Bland had "been his life."
After Westchester, Bland went to Syracuse, where he played for two seasons with Jason Hart, who is also a USC assistant coach.
Bland then transferred to San Diego State, and when his eligibility was up there he bounced between minor league circuits in the U.S. and Europe for a few years before becoming a personal trainer to NBA players. He returned to San Diego State in 2008 to finish his degree and serve as the team's manager.
In 2011, the Aztecs hired him as an assistant coach.
Bland quickly built a reputation for recruiting. His magnetic personality helped him form immediate connections, people who know him say.
His reputation as a player gave him “instant credibility,” Taft coach Derrick Taylor said.
Said Inglewood coach Pat Roy: “You go to basketball games and big high school tournaments, Tony knows every kid that’s in the gym. Every kid wants to come over and shake his hand.”
Bland occupied a role particularly valuable in the freewheeling but insular local basketball scene. He was a connector. Players gravitated to him. Coaches valued his opinions. Old heads respected him. If you wanted to make an introduction, Bland could help.
“There are a lot of guys who can do Xs and O’s, but there aren’t a lot of guys who can go into Westchester or Compton or Harvard-Westlake and immediately have a connection with a coach or his AAU coach or know someone his parents played with,” said Mark Zeigler, a reporter who covered Bland for the San Diego Union-Tribune. “And Tony’s one of those guys.”
Steve Fisher, who coached Bland at San Diego State and later hired him, declined to comment on the situation through a school spokesman. Brian Dutcher, the current San Diego State coach, coached Bland and worked with him on Fisher’s staff. Dutcher told reporters Tuesday that Bland “represented himself and the university with great integrity. What he did at USC, I can’t comment on that.”
As a recruiter, Bland made an immediate impact for the Trojans.
Typical was the flourish with which he courted Etiwanda High point guard Jordan McLaughlin, now a senior at USC. McLaughlin described a recruiting visit when he and Bland went bowling. McLaughlin was winning and told Bland that if the coach rolled a gutter ball, McLaughlin would commit to USC.
Bland responded by rolling his next ball into a completely different lane. McLaughlin became the gem of coach Andy Enfield’s first class of recruits.
USC’s roster is stocked with such highly sought players as McLaughlin, forwards Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu and guards Jonah Mathews and De’Anthony Melton. But Hart also played a key role in the recruitment of those players, as well as Charles O’Bannon Jr., the highest-rated incoming freshman.
"I don't even have Tony Bland's phone number,” said Valencia O’Bannon, Charles’ mother.
Bland worked closely with USC’s most highly rated recruit in years, Taeshon Cherry of San Diego St. Augustine High, who would be part of the 2018 class. Cherry cited his relationship with Bland as a reason for committing to the Trojans.
In a statement, USC Athletic Director Lynn Swann said the school was “shocked” to learn of Bland’s alleged involvement and promised an investigation, headed by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh.
Local veteran coaches say the notion of bribes in basketball was not particularly surprising, but that Bland’s alleged involvement was.
“I was surprised that Tony’s name had came up,” Taft’s Taylor said. “Am I surprised that the overall — the scandal or whatever you want to label it? No. That didn’t surprise me one bit. I’ve been around long enough to know there’s all type of hanky panky and funny stuff going on.”
Encino Crespi High coach Russell White, whose program produced USC guard Melton, said that anybody who denies the influence of money at the high school level “does not have their ear to the ground.”
“It’s not a matter of whether it’s going on or not, it’s a matter of how true are the stories of Vegas poker chips being handed over and clandestine meetings in Laughlin, Nevada,” White said. “You hear that stuff all the time.”
“If my dad wasn’t rich, I probably would have gotten offered probably half a million dollars,” said Rivers, whose father is Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “That’s just what it is.”
Rivers added: “I don’t want people to lose their jobs because there are a lot of good guys, man. … If anybody is going to be held responsible, it’s the AAU dudes.”
Rivers said the influence of AAU coaches was insidious because they steered players in certain directions without the players realizing it.
Prosecutors allege that’s what Bland offered too in his role at USC.
At a meeting in August with Dawkins and Munish Sood, the chief executive of an investment advisory firm who also was indicted, Bland told them, “I can definitely mold the players and put them in the lap of you guys.”
Los Angeles Times staff writers Nathan Fenno, Richard Winton, Broderick Turner and Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand