At precisely one minute past midnight on Saturday morning, in an event televised live in Lexington, coach Eddie Sutton's Kentucky basketball team sprinted onto the floor to a delirious standing O by the 10,000 Wildcat fans who had made the pilgrimage to Lexington's old Memorial Coliseum. The players did a bunch of show-time dunks and basked in the wild adoration that the commonwealth showers on its most beloved team. Alas, this year's Midnight Madness practice session, the traditional opening workout for the Wildcats, may turn out to be the highlight of their season. With Kentucky riddled by the losses of last year's leading scorer, Rex Chapman (departed early for the NBA), the only starter scheduled to return, Eric Manuel (sidelined in a cheating scandal), and a top recruit, Shawn Kemp (benched by Proposition 48), Sutton is preparing Wildcat fans for the possibility of Kentucky's first losing record in 60 years.
Only hours later, on Saturday afternoon, university president David Roselle announced the arrival of a letter from the NCAA detailing 17 allegations of misconduct in the Kentucky basketball program. In addition to relatively minor charges involving free T-shirts, baseball caps and meals allegedly given to athletes and friends, there were more serious charges: offers to one recruit of a car, a $300 monthly allowance and financial help for his mother; transportation having been provided by boosters to various athletes; "academic fraud" involving Manuel; and lying to NCAA investigators by Wildcat athletes and staff.
These charges came three months after the NCAA formally accused Kentucky assistant coach Dwane Casey of sending, via Emery Air Freight, a package containing $1.000 in cash to Claud Mills, the father of Los Angeles high school star Chris Mills, now Kentucky's most promising freshman. Casey has denied sending the money and has brought a $6.9 million defamation and invasion-of-privacy suit against Emery. Claud Mills denies receiving money from anyone at Kentucky.
In its latest action, the NCAA said that an athlete's relative, identified by SI sources as Shawn Kemp's mother, Barbara Brown, who lives in Elkhart, Ind., received several Emery packages from the Wildcat basketball office in 1987 and '88, and that around the time each package arrived, the recruit's relative made "unusual payments in cash." The NCAA said explanations it was given about the matter were incorrect and asked the school to investigate.
If Kentucky is found guilty in what NCAA enforcement director David Berst called a "major" case, the minimum penalty would be two years' probation and severe restrictions on recruiting. The NCAA could also recommend the removal of certain athletic staff members. The Wildcats would likely be banned from postseason play and television appearances, and some basketball scholarships would be eliminated.
Among the charges brought on Saturday was one that Casey had offered to a player, identified by sources as Sean Higgins, a high school teammate of Mills's, an automobile at the time of his signing with Kentucky, an opportunity to get a different car after enrolling at the school, a monthly allowance of $300 and financial help for his mother. The NCAA says it was told that these offers were confirmed to the player or a relative of his by two "representatives of the university's athletic interests." Higgins signed a letter of intent with UCLA, but then enrolled at Michigan last fall.
Casey, 31, a popular former Wildcat guard, and Sutton have publicly stuck up for each other. Calm, polite and outwardly earnest, Casey is apparently the consummate college recruiter, and most Kentucky fans find it hard to believe that he would lie.
" Sean Higgins?" Casey asks. "Do you know him? He's not credible at all. He supposedly told the NCAA I offered him a 735i BMW and six figures to his stepfather. Can you believe that? Those charges are totally false."
Of the Emery Air Freight incident involving the Millses, Sutton said last week, "It was a setup, I know it. You can be sure Vegas [the University of Nevada at Las Vegas] or UCLA did it." Casey acknowledges sending the package but says it contained only a videotape. He says he's convinced that two or more Emery employees planted the money to taint Kentucky's recruitment of Mills, so UCLA could sign him. Casey says at least two other Emery packages to the Mills home were delayed or misrouted and that Emery's procedures allow an employee in Los Angeles, for example, to trace the movement of a package sent from Lexington to L.A.—all of which, Casey says, points to a conspiracy to discredit Kentucky. By Emery's account, the package popped open in shipment, one of the company's employees saw 20 $50 bills along with a videotape in it, the matter was reported to supervisors, and the rest is recruiting history.
The charge involving Manuel, a 6'6" sophomore, arises from the suspicious improvement in his college entrance exams. While attending Southwest High in Macon, Ga., Manuel twice took the scholastic aptitude test (SAT), both times scoring less than 700, the NCAA minimum for eligibility. Manuel could enroll at Kentucky in the fall of 1987, but he would be ineligible to play basketball until he improved his scores. He took the American College Test (ACT) in June 1987 in Lexington. Testing officials say an SAT score of 700 or less is roughly equivalent to an ACT score of 14. The NCAA requires an ACT minimum of 15 from any freshman hoping to play sports. A university spokesman and Sutton say that when Manuel took the ACT he scored a 23, the equivalent of about 1,100 on the SAT. Students who improve when they take the ACT a second time increase their score by an average of .8 of a point. A nine-point improvement, ACT officials say, occurs less than once in 1,000 tests.