Investigation into freshmen continues as UCLA begins practice


The UCLA basketball team held its first fall practice Friday in preparation for what was expected to be a season of redemption. The successful recruitment of four of the nation’s top freshmen fueled high hopes the Bruins would enjoy a triumphant return to iconic Pauley Pavilion, resplendent after a $136-million makeover.

But with all the anticipation there is worry and frustration.

Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, the most polished among the gems in that recruiting class, still have not been cleared for competition. The NCAA is examining the eligibility of both players.

Muhammad, who is ranked at or near the top among all freshmen, has faced the most speculation. There are questions about money his family received from Benjamin Lincoln, the brother of an assistant at his high school, that helped pay for unofficial recruiting visits.

Investigators may also be looking at Ken Kavanagh, a New York financial planner who partially funded the summer team Muhammad played for in his hometown of Las Vegas.

Lincoln referred inquiries from The Times to his attorney. Kavanagh did not return a message left at his office seeking comment. The other principals in the case also have stopped talking. The NCAA doesn’t comment about its investigations and anyone involved has been strongly encouraged to remain mute.

But for the first time since the probe began, one key figure close to Muhammad has chosen to speak in depth about the situation.

Clayton Williams, who coached the Dream Vision AAU team for which Muhammad played, said he would be shocked if the NCAA found any impropriety.

“I was there every game,” he told The Times in an exclusive interview. “I was around. No agents, no this, no that.”

That the NCAA is examining a top player’s eligibility is not in itself noteworthy. After such scandals as the one that rocked USC involving Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo, prominent incoming athletes are routinely vetted.

With point guard Anderson, the NCAA reportedly is examining a connection to Thad Foucher, an agent who works with Arn Tellem for the L.A.-based Wasserman Media Group. Casey Wasserman, the company’s founder, is a prominent UCLA booster.

More than anything, the length of the Muhammad and Anderson investigations — UCLA’s opener is less than a month away — has added fuel to published speculation that the Bruins must have cheated to attract such talent.

There was even a summertime poll of nearly 100 college coaches that placed the recruitment of Muhammad and Anderson among the most suspicious in recent years. The same survey placed Bruins Coach Ben Howland at No. 3 on a list of “perceived” cheaters.

Howland, before he went quiet, called such speculation unfair.

Muhammad’s parents, Ron Holmes and Faye Muhammad, have not recently been formally interviewed by the NCAA, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the investigation. Typically in these cases, investigators request extensive financial records and other documents.

Williams, coach of Muhammad’s club team, said the NCAA has not requested an interview with him even though he has known Holmes since they met on a recruiting visit to San Diego State in the early 1980s.

UCLA won Muhammad’s services, Williams said, because of dogged recruiting by assistant coach Phil Mathews and because the player “loves a challenge.”

Williams also talked about those unofficial campus visits, Kavanagh’s investment in the Dream Vision team, rumors that Adidas played a role in Muhammad’s college choice, and even whispers about the car the player drives and jewelry he’s worn.

The visits, Williams said and Muhammad’s family confirmed, concerned trips to North Carolina and Duke that Lincoln, a North Carolina-based financial planner, paid for. Each trip was cleared through the school’s compliance office, according to Williams and a statement the Muhammad family released through its attorney, Bill Trosch.

Kavanagh’s investment in Dream Vision was one of the personal loans Williams said he secured from a small group of close friends when the team was struggling financially. Williams said he and Kavanagh have known each other for more than 20 years, dating to when they resided near each other in La Jolla in the 1990s.

However, Kavanagh “hasn’t said two words to Shabazz,” Williams said.

As Holmes did during an interview with The Times in April, Williams shot down speculation that Muhammad’s decision to attend UCLA was influenced by Adidas, which has a contract with the Bruins and Dream Vision.

“If they’re saying that Adidas is giving me money, that’s a downright lie,” Holmes previously said.

Williams listed nine former Dream Vision players who, like Muhammad, committed to play basketball for major-college programs. Six of those players chose schools whose teams were sponsored by Nike.

Of the group, only Muhammad is under NCAA investigation, Williams said, adding, “If everybody else has been cleared, in my opinion Shabazz should eventually be cleared too.”

UCLA did have one special connection with Dream Vision. Jordan Mathews, son of the UCLA assistant coach, played about 10 games with Muhammad in the summer of 2011. Mathews, one year younger, played so well on Dream Vision’s 16-under team, he was promoted to an older group for those games.

That allowed coach Mathews to watch Muhammad play even during “dead” periods, when college coaches are prohibited from contacting recruits.

However, UCLA never capitalized on the situation, according to Williams, who said schools such as Memphis, Arizona and Washington all were around more.

Phil Mathews said his son joined Dream Vision because it was “one of the best AAU teams around,” not because a UCLA recruiting target was part of the program. He laughed while denying the contact gave him an advantage. “You still have to recruit,” he said.

As for reports that Muhammad had visited more than a dozen college campuses — whereas athletes are allowed only five official visits paid by the university — Williams confirmed as much. He said he took his Dream Vision team members to a number of campuses near where the team played in tournaments. Those visits didn’t count against the NCAA limit, Williams said, because they weren’t paid for.

“Shabazz wasn’t treated any differently; he wasn’t treated special,” Williams said.

Muhammad also raised eyebrows by driving a cream-colored Cadillac Escalade. Persons who know the family, including Williams, say it is a high-mileage 2005 model that was a gift Shabazz received last year from his sister Asia, a professional tennis player who made the down payment.

Asia Muhammad has struggled with injuries since joining the professional tennis tour in 2006, but she has more than $100,000 in career earnings.

Public records and interviews with acquaintances indicate the family has financial resources. Holmes and Faye Muhammad reside in a 4,400 square-foot, four-bedroom home in a gated community about 10 miles south of downtown Las Vegas. Holmes Consulting LLC, a business that lists both Holmes and his wife as officers, is registered at the same address.

The family does not own the home, Nevada records show, but Holmes has made a living as a real estate investor since the mid-1980s.

“He’s had money,” Williams said of Holmes. “You’re talking about somebody who’s had money for a long time.”

Williams tried to dispel something else he says is a myth: That Muhammad knew early on he wanted to play for UCLA.

“They decided on UCLA in the last hour,” Williams said. “They thought UCLA would really be conducive for Shabazz because of the media there, the reconstruction [of Pauley Pavilion], the fan base being down.

“Shabazz likes to go from underdog to hero. It’s kind of like a new face in Los Angeles at the college level that is much needed.

“Let’s face it, if he went to Kentucky … or he went to Duke, would it really be news? With UCLA, you get both prestige and you also get credit for helping revive the program. He likes that challenge.”

Times staff writers Ken Bensinger and David Wharton contributed to this report.