Muhammed Lasege is 20 years old. He’s a 6-foot-11 Nigerian who played his country’s primitive form of basketball. A student so bright his grades were all A’s save for one B, his dream was a college education in the United States. Because his family couldn’t afford that education, and because Nigerian basketball players have seen their contemporaries emigrate to America, Lasege decided he would try to earn a scholarship with his basketball ability, meager as it was.
That decision set in motion a three-year odyssey that took Lasege across three continents and made him an unwitting actor in a harrowing international drama that moved from Nigeria to Moscow to a Kentucky courtroom where, last week, and hooray for this, Muhammed Lasege’s dream was made real.
Thanks to a judge’s order, he is playing basketball for the University of Louisville. How much he plays, no one knows. He came to Louisville raw and untutored, and he hadn’t played competitively in two years.
“But he’s got potential,” Louisville coach Denny Crum says. “He’s a good, big athlete with a nice shooting touch. He’s not a superstar or an all-American, but he can help us.”
In his two limbo years, Lasege has been a victim of NCAA cynicism. The administrators governing college athletics have been made cynical by long exposure to snakes. That cynicism may be useful, but when it produces indifference to life’s complexities, as it did with Muhammed Lasege, that blindness is evidence of corruption. Seldom challenged in court, NCAA’s administrators seem to believe their rules supersede this nation’s laws.
Those administrators ruled Lasege ineligible on grounds he had signed two contracts to play professional basketball in Russia (one for $9,000) and received benefits (an apartment, chauffeur).
That NCAA ruling did not go unchallenged. Attorney James E. Milliman represented Lasege before Judge Geoffrey P. Morris of the Jefferson Circuit Court.
Here’s Lasege’s story:
He was told by his Nigerian coach that the best way to get to the United States was to go to Russia, play a month, get a visa and emigrate. In Moscow, he signed “a contract work agreement” even as he was told he wouldn’t be paid, that the papers were a formality necessary for the visa.
He was never paid. Nor did he play in a professional league. He played 13 junior league games while spending not one month in Russia, but 14 months, most of that time as a virtual prisoner.
His passport was confiscated, he was monitored by an armed guard, was denied a telephone and was told he must practice or suffer “severe consequences.”
All this when Lasege was 17 years old.
A Nigerian in Russia.
The unmistakable odor is that of an international basketball flesh-peddling ring, Nigerian and Russian coaches conspiring to make a buck off a young man’s dream -- a dream so compelling that even after Lasege persuaded the Russians to let him go home in the summer of 1998, he returned for a tryout before American coaches.
To arrange a Canadian visa, the University of Buffalo asked help from the College of Halifax. Six months later, Lasege accepted a scholarship at Louisville.
Red tape ensued. Louisville discovered the Russian “contracts” and declared Lasege ineligible. The school immediately applied for Lasege’s reinstatement, saying those papers were not “contracts.”
The NCAA said no deal.
Cue the lawyers. Go to court.
There the validity of the “contracts” was argued. How could a minor alone in a foreign country coerced into signing papers he didn’t understand be held liable for entering into a contract?
The lawyer Milliman asked that question in court, only more colorfully, of Julie Ann Roe, the NCAA’s Reinstatement Committee director.
“I asked her, ‘If a contract is put in front of a student, and if he had a gun held to his head, and if he’s told, ‘If you don’t sign this, I’m going to pull the trigger,’ and then he signs the contract, is he then ineligible for NCAA competition?”
“Her answer, without a second’s hesitation: ‘Yes.’ ”
Heaven help us.
“Julie Roe is 26 years old,” Milliman says. “The NCAA has young kids making major decisions affecting people’s entire lives. They don’t have the life experience necessary to handle that kind of power.”
Judge Morris’ nine-page ruling is replete with scoldings, admonishments and outright scorn for any organization that could ignore the mitigating circumstances of Lasege’s bewildering odyssey. “This is where the greatest shame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the NCAA,” he wrote.
Calling the NCAA’s ruling “an injustice” that must be corrected, Morris ordered Lasege’s eligibility restored. Three paragraphs into the scathing order come about 200 words in the Cyrillic alphabet of the Russian language, with the judge adding a footnote translation that includes this closing sentence:
“Just as you had to have an interpreter to assist you with the appearance of this foreign language, can you consider the cultural shock, misunderstanding, lack of comprehension and possibly the subjection to coercion that a 17- or 18-year-old must have felt when the language of all but his closest friends is different?”
Muhammed Lasege is an economics major at Louisville. His grade-point average during these two years of chaos is 3.918. James Milliman says, “What a super kid Muhammed is. He wants to go home someday and help his country.”
Too bad the blinded-by-cynicism NCAA has worked so relentlessly to paint Lasege as a mercenary taking advantage of the system.
“He ought to be the NCAA’s poster child,” Denny Crum says. “Here’s a bright, wonderful young man using basketball to get an education. That’s what it’s supposed to be about.”