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‘The Scheme’: A hoops hustler opens up his playbook in well-crafted HBO doc

Christian Dawkins explains his corrupt wheeling and dealing with coaches, players, companies and agents.

Christian Dawkins arrives at his 2018 federal trial in New York, where he was convicted of bribery charges.
AP file

Christian Dawkins was a legendary player in the high school and college basketball ranks.

Not that Dawkins ever sank a shot or grabbed a rebound. He was a player: a hustler, a go-getter, a schemer and a dreamer — and eventually a convicted felon.

But as you watch the HBO sports documentary “The Scheme” and you see how Dawkins’ life unraveled and you learn the details of the FBI investigation that brought him down, you get the distinct impression the feds devoted an enormous amount of time and resources on making Dawkins the fall guy while much bigger fish were allowed to keep swimming in the very murky waters of big-time college hoops.

In September 2017, the FBI announced the arrests of 10 individuals, including a number of assistant coaches at major universities and an Adidas executive, charging them with bribery, money laundering and wire fraud — much of it connected to various plans to steer illegal payments to blue-chip high school prospects.

At the center of the storm was a charismatic, animated, ambitious, name-dropping middleman named Christian Dawkins. In Pat Kondelis’ meticulously crafted and sometimes farcically funny documentary, Dawkins tells his side of the story in great detail.

“Yes, I’m a convicted felon,” says Dawkins. “I don’t even want to tell my story as I much as I want to tell the bigger story. … It got f---ed up … beyond my imagination.”

That turns out to be an understatement.

The now 27-year-old Dawkins grew up in basketball-rich Saginaw, Michigan, where his father coached high school ball and the likes of NBA star Draymond Green honed their skills. By the time Dawkins was a high school freshman, he realized he didn’t have the physical tools necessary to play the game, so he turned to entrepreneurial endeavors, e.g., a scouting newsletter so comprehensive, college coaches were willing to fork over $600 to read it.

By the age of 16, Dawkins was running major amateur basketball tournaments, making a five-figure sponsorship deal with Under Armour and building relationships with potential NCAA/NBA stars as well as college coaches across the nation. A couple of years later, he signed on as a “runner” with big-time agent Andy Miller, meaning Dawkins would act as a go-between and facilitate payments to star recruits, with the understanding they’d sign with Miller’s agency if they turned pro.

Between 2015 and 2017, Dawkins delivered 10 NBA first-round draft picks to Andy Miller’s agency.

When the feds arrested one Marty Blazer, a would-be movie producer who had scammed millions from investors, Blazer said he’d turn confidential informant and spill the goods about a wide-ranging scheme involving illegal payments to prized basketball prospects. That’s how the FBI learned about Dawkins’ wheeling and dealing. As we learn from previously unreleased audio recordings and the occasional cheesy re-creation scene, Dawkins was reeled in by a couple of “investors” going by the names of Jeff D’Angelo and Jill Bailey who were in reality working as undercover agents.

The feds rent a yacht in New York and reserve a penthouse suite in Las Vegas so D’Angelo and Bailey can convincingly portray moneyed investors. They keep pushing Dawkins to make payments to assistant college coaches, even as Dawkins says this is a waste of money, and the funds would be better spent on the prospects and their families.

Bailey eventually shows Dawkins her FBI badge. He thinks she’s joking, but she tells him he has to make a decision: either hand over major college coaches such as Rick Pitino and Sean Miller or go to jail. When he asks for an attorney, eight gun-toting feds come busting in.

“The Scheme” shows us footage of coaches denying they ever had any substantial dealings with Christian Dawkins — followed by audio recordings of these very same coaches getting quite chatty and familiar with him. Meanwhile, the FBI has its own problems when the lead undercover agent on the case is accused of misappropriating government funds for gambling, food and beverages.

At times “The Scheme” goes so deep into the weeds it’s tough to keep track of all the characters and the web of corruption, though some charts and graphics prove to be helpful. This much is crystal clear: Dawkins was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, while the head coaches at major programs either kept their jobs or resurfaced elsewhere.

Schools such as Kansas, Ohio State and UCLA have deals of $200 million or more with athletic wear companies. College coaches continue to make six- and seven-figure salaries. Agents continue to hover around prospects, sometimes when the kids are still in junior high.

Everyone’s angling for a slice of the pie. Christian Dawkins just happened to get caught trying to scoop up relative crumbs.