Commentary

Battle for Liggins turned personal

Indiana Elite founder denies trying to adopt recruit, cutting off cellphone service

Updated: May 26, 2011, 1:00 PM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

ROCHESTER, Ind. -- Mike Barnett is seated at a desk inside a one-story tan and brown corrugated metal structure that serves as home to Team Pride Athletics, his uniform and screen printing business. The adidas consultant is wearing gray sweats with an appropriate logo. His white 2002 Chevy Avalanche truck, set off by an Indiana University vanity plate, is parked outside his office.

[+] EnlargeMike Barnett
Mike Kenny/Rochester SentinelMike Barnett, seated second from right, denies he tried to adopt Liggins as a way of influencing his college choice.

Barnett, an Indiana Elite founder who says he's tight with some of the college game's marquee coaches, is talking about how he only once played a hands-on role in the recruitment of a top player. And it didn't turn out well. Just why his involvement with 6-foot-6-inch guard DeAndre Liggins, an All-SEC defender who has declared for next month's NBA draft, soured is a matter of disagreement among those involved.

Barnett turns defensive when asked whether he tried to guide Liggins away from the SEC program and whether he essentially dropped Liggins from his life after he committed there -- allegations that multiple sources made to ESPN.com during a five-month investigation. ESPN.com found other cases in which A-HOPE or Indiana Elite officials tried to direct some players' college choices in the absence of close parental involvement, allegedly dropping the players from contact or future help if they chose a school the officials didn't want them to attend.

In the Liggins case, Barnett's battle for the highly touted prospect turned personal between him and then-Kentucky assistant Glynn Cyprien -- two adults tugging at a teenager's heart: one a college recruiter for a team with clear intentions, the other living on the game's fringes.

Barnett acknowledges working against the Wildcats, saying he believed Cyprien, their chief recruiter at the time, wasn't playing by the book. That was before Liggins' arrival in Lexington and before Barnett's coaching friend, John Calipari, left Memphis for the upgraded gig. Barnett acknowledges that the rumor mill had him pushing Memphis and Kansas to Liggins.

At one point, with Liggins unable to play for Indiana Elite because of a serious foot injury, Barnett is alleged to have discussed adopting the Chicago teenager, which sources said was not solely a benevolent gesture but one designed to expand his influence over Liggins. Barnett loudly denies it, but seven people -- among them Liggins, his mother and an NCAA official -- told ESPN.com that he indeed had proposed the idea. Barnett is also said to have cut off Liggins' cellphone service soon after he committed to Kentucky.

"DeAndre is the only kid ever in our program where I opened my home to the point of saying, 'I'll do whatever I can to help you,'" Barnett says. "I will admit that I was fielding most of the [recruiting] calls because he was living here a lot."

As he tells it, Liggins' life back in the Chicago projects wasn't the best. Barnett would drive Liggins back and forth between Rochester and his home on weekends, a 120-mile trek each way. The teenager spent a Christmas with the Barnett family. Mike Barnett gave Liggins a part-time job in his screen printing shop. Barnett acknowledges that at one point he researched whether Liggins could transfer to a Rochester high school and move in with his family.

Barnett also took his son, Kory, and Liggins on an unofficial visit to Kansas. When he couldn't break from his own schedule, he paid a young friend gas and meal money to drive Liggins to a camp at the University of Illinois. He had planned another visit to Memphis. But Barnett, anti-Kentucky at the time, wasn't on the plane when Liggins, his mother and at least two high school coaches flew to check out the Lexington campus -- which infuriated him, leaving him to suggest Cyprien was playing loose with NCAA rules.

"Yeah, DeAndre is a great kid," Barnett says. "The saddest part of the whole thing -- the reason I use the word 'manipulative' -- is that is the reason Cyp [Cyprien] won this recruiting war is he got to the mom. And here is a kid who never saw his mom sitting in the stands, and all of a sudden she wants to be a part of his life. She wants to go on a recruiting trip with him."

Of the chief recruiter and Kentucky winning out, the Indiana Elite founder says it was "awful to see that happen." The battle between Barnett and Cyprien became an ugly sidebar to the recruitment of Liggins, who committed to Kentucky, then played his senior season at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas.

Because of initial eligibility issues related to his recruitment, the NCAA held Liggins out of nine games in the 2009-10 season.

Cyprien, now an assistant at Memphis under Josh Pastner, declined comment, though he did say that he purposely chose not to deal with Barnett during Liggins' recruitment.

Billy Gillispie, who at the time was the Kentucky head coach, recently told ESPN.com he was unaware of an overture by Barnett to adopt Liggins, adding: "When dealing with an elite athlete it is always competitive in the recruiting world. We had a fair shot and were lucky enough to get him.''

Barnett says he didn't have an agenda as far as where Liggins ended up.

But there are questions about jockeying to gain influence, particularly the notion of adoption.

"Oh yeah, he decided -- he wanted to do that, but I didn't want him to do that," Liggins told ESPN.com when asked whether the adoption talk was true.

As for why Barnett raised the idea, Liggins, who is leaving Kentucky for the NBA after having completed his junior season, says, "I don't know. He thought my family wasn't really up for me."

According to people familiar with the situation, Cyprien promptly went to Liggins' mother when he got wind of the idea. Liggins had been raised by his grandmother, but his mother began to re-emerge late in his recruitment and was cultivated by the then-Kentucky recruiter.

"Yeah, he tried, but we put an end to that," Tammi Crockett, Liggins' mother, says of Barnett. "If he is talking about adopting my son, he has to be crazy."

Barnett acknowledges that the family inquired about covering Liggins' unpaid medical bill on his health insurance but says he never seriously considered adoption.

As for cutting off the teenager's cellphone after his Kentucky commitment, Barnett says Liggins had a "company phone" and was paying for it by working in his shop. He says Liggins' phone service ended as he prepared to leave for his senior year of high school in Las Vegas. "If it was abrupt, it was because I couldn't reach him on that phone for days," he says.

"It was ironic that it cut off sooner than normal, let's say that," says Tommy Dobson, Liggins' former high school coach in Chicago.

Liggins sidestepped the issue, saying "I ain't answering that question," before essentially ending an interview with ESPN.com.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.