When Taeshon Cherry committed in June to play basketball for USC, the forward from the San Diego area gave the Trojans their highest-rated recruit in a decade.
But according to a person with direct knowledge of the college basketball bribery case, Cherry is the USC recruit identified as Player-8 in the federal criminal complaint against Trojans associate head coach Tony Bland.
The person spoke on the condition they not be identified because of the ongoing legal proceedings.
Cherry’s mother, Danielle, vehemently denied any connection to the FBI case. “It’s not true,” she said. “My son is not Player-8.”
Cherry, who plays for Foothills Christian High in El Cajon, quietly decommitted from USC last week. He previously cited Bland as a key factor in picking the Trojans and had announced on Twitter last month that he would sign a letter of intent during an event at Petco Park.
“Can’t wait to be a Trojan,” he wrote.
However, he later deleted the tweet and did not attend the event.
The top-30 recruit had once been the cornerstone of a USC recruiting class ranked among the nation’s best. But the federal investigation led to the arrest and indictment of Bland, who remains on administrative leave. Also, Trojans sophomore De’Anthony Melton was declared ineligible and Cherry and Seattle standout J’Raan Brooks decommitted.
Paul Phipps, Cherry’s grandfather, said USC coaches stopped speaking to Cherry in recent weeks, leading to the change of plans.
“I just feel like USC decided that anybody associated with Tony Bland is probably someone they didn’t want to be associated with,” said Phipps, who attended business school at USC and served as general manager of the San Diego Clippers.
“My grandson is a great kid. He certainly has not done anything that in any way would jeopardize his eligibility in any way to be at USC. The fact they have really backed away from him is disappointing.
“It’s like the hangover from Reggie Bush has left USC so risk intolerant. I get it. I’m a big USC guy. But come on.”
School officials didn’t provide a reason for breaking off contact, according to Phipps.
USC declined to comment. NCAA rules bar USC from discussing recruits who haven’t signed with the school.
Federal prosecutors alleged in the complaint that would-be agent Christian Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood met a relative of Player-8 at a Los Angeles restaurant Aug. 30. An undercover FBI agent posing as a financial backer joined them and recorded the gathering.
Dawkins and Sood, the complaint said, wanted the relative to encourage Player-8 to use their services when he joined the NBA.
In part of the conversation recorded by the undercover agent, Dawkins said they would meet with Player-8 “when you feel the kid is mature enough to be able to have a business conversation, a grown-man conversation to understand who he is and what’s about to happen.” The relative agreed.
When the meeting ended, the complaint said, the undercover agent gave Dawkins an envelope containing $4,000 to give to the relative. They left the restaurant.
“Based on my discussion with [the undercover agent], I know that once outside the restaurant, while walking toward their cars, [the undercover agent] handed Dawkins the envelope containing $4,000 and Dawkins then walked off with Player-8’s relative,” the complaint said.
During another meeting recorded by the undercover agent the next day, according to the complaint, Bland used Player-8 as an example of his influence over USC players.
“Some guys, like [Player-8], I can say, this is what you’re doing, but other guys, the sooner you get in, you gotta, kind of … push them that way and before it’s too late, it’s what they’re doing,” Bland said.
The complaint alleged that Bland, Dawkins and Sood facilitated the payment of the $4,000 to Player-8’s relative and, a day later, $5,000 to David Elliott, a close family friend of Melton. Elliott’s attorney, Alex Kessel, has repeatedly denied his client received any money.
The complaint doesn’t provide any firsthand accounts of the relative or close family friend receiving money. But the version of events offered by prosecutors could put Cherry and Melton in violation of NCAA rules, though neither has been accused of any wrongdoing.
Fifteen schools, including UCLA, contacted Cherry the day he reopened his recruitment.
USC has said it’s holding Melton out of games as a precaution. Not doing so could lead to the school forfeiting games he played if the NCAA later found him ineligible.
Last week, after the school declared Melton ineligible, Elliott gave USC copies of credit card statements and other documents from his travels with Melton over the summer. USC officials previously interviewed Elliott for three hours. He also signed two declarations provided by the school.
After USC defeated New Mexico State to win the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii on Monday, one player held up a “#FREEDMELT” T-shirt in a team photo circulated on social media. And freshman Jordan Usher tweeted: “FREE D-MAN. This one was for you my boy.”
9:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with more details, including comments from the Cherry family.
This article was originally published at 5:05 p.m.