30 for 30 Podcast: Bag Game Ep. 1
(MUSIC NOT TRANSCRIBED) (00:00:01)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:00:04) Billy Preston arrived as a freshman on the campus of the University of Kansas in the fall of 2017. Billy had grown up in Los Angeles, but the sleepy college town of Lawrence actually felt like a perfect match.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:00:20) The vibe that I got, it was more like Lawrence was, like, a mellow scene. And that’s kinda how I am. I’m just, you know, like a flat line. I’m ne– I’m never too high, I’m never too low.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:00:30) Billy was no ordinary college freshman. He was a Jayhawk. A player on one of the top college basketball teams in the country. And on that campus, surrounded by Kansas corn and soybean fields, he was a celebrity.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:00:46) The lob inside, Preston. (APPLAUSE) That was really good stuff. And a time out for Mark Johnson.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:00:55) You know, I was– I was a guy out here. People, you know, snappin’ me, tellin’ me this. You know, “You’re a great basketball player, and you’re gonna be in the NBA one day.” I can, you know, do somethin’ where a lot of people loved me for doin’ what I do.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:01:15) One Saturday in November, Billy and his teammate, Marcus Garrett, decided to drive to the mall to buy some sneakers. Nike was dropping a new edition of Air Jordan 11s that day: white and navy blue.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:01:30) Man, there was some– some real– there was some real heat. And we drive all the way to (CLEARS THROAT) some mall that’s, like, a hour away, hour and ten minutes away.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:01:41) The big mall with the exclusive shoes was near Kansas City, about 40 miles away from the campus in Lawrence. But Billy was taking his time driving on the highway. It was rainy and near freezing.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:01:56) I’m not fittin’ to, you know, be doin’ nothin’ crazy, like, while– especially with a teammate in the car, you know, while at KU. Like, I– I’m– I’m smarter than that.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:02:07) Billy and Marcus were on a tight schedule. They had a team meeting that afternoon. Billy got his Jordans, but the store didn’t have Marcus’s size.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:02:16) It got to, like, a point where it’s gettin’ close to the time we gotta be back for the meetin’. So– I tell him, like, “Marcus, we gotta go, bro. (LAUGH) Like, you’re gonna have to get them shoes another time, bro, we gotta go. ‘Cause you know if we miss this team meetin’, like, it’s bad. Like, you know Coach Self about to be on us.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:02:33) Kansas Head Coach Bill Self had already disciplined Billy for a minor infraction. He’d missed curfew a couple of days earlier, parked his car illegally, and skipped class. Self had made Billy sit out the Jayhawks season opener against Tennessee State because of that. So Billy and Marcus got back into Billy’s Dodge Charger and hustled back to Lawrence.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:02:56) So literally on the way back, we rushin’ back. Like, I’m driving back faster, low key, than what I was goin’ there. And it was good. It wasn’t until, like, we got around the corner from the school, like, you would literally see the school right here, the athletic office. And, like, I don’t know what happened, but I literally turned the corner, like, I make a left, and next thing you know, like, my– my back wheels just, like, stopped movin’. It just got stuck and we start spinnin’ out.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:03:30) What Billy couldn’t know at the time was that this Saturday quest for sneakers would end up costing him nearly everything that mattered to him. He was about to get caught up in a scandal that rocked college athletics.
David Lloyd: (00:03:48) Breaking news, a federal probe has turned up widespread fraud and corruption on college basketball–
CORRESPONDENT: (00:03:53) What federal authorities are calling the dark underbelly of college basketball.
CORRESPONDENT: (00:03:58) Federal investigators say a marketing executive for Adidas agreed to funnel as much as $150,000 to a high school.
Bob Ley: (00:04:04) (IN PROGRESS) –has been goin’ on forever. And finally, the government put two years wire taps into it, and this is what you get.
Kate Fagan: (00:04:11) Why do you think there’s so much scandal? Because the rules don’t make sense–
CORRESPONDENT: (00:04:13) Now there’s a lot more at stake.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:04:16) Envelopes of cash, gotcha-style stings, and wire taps, the feds, surveillance videos in a swank hotel penthouse, a two-story yacht. A case appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. This scandal would connect coaches at Division I schools, executives at a sneaker company, and a web of agents, runners, and advisors all trying to grab their piece of the billion-dollar business that is college basketball.
(00:04:47) A business in which players were forbidden from sharing any of the profits. I’m Paula Lavigne. I’m an investigative reporter for ESPN. In my 25 years as a journalist, I’ve been in far more courtrooms than basketball courts. I’ve been one of the reporters covering this story for five years, the biggest pay-for-play scandal ever in college sports.
(00:05:14) I’ve watched it embroil big-name university programs we all thought were untouchable. And I’ve seen it unravel the lives of players like Billy Preston. But I’ve always wondered. How did all this corruption exist for so long as an open secret throughout college basketball? And would the scandal drag it into the light and change everything? For ESPN and 30 for 30 Podcasts, this is The Bag Game. Episode 1: The Making of Billy Preston.
(00:06:11) Billy Preston went from being just a kid who loved to play to one of the top NBA prospects in the country. He was such a valuable commodity that sneaker company executives were exchanging text messages about him. How did that happen? Well, hard work, practice, and luck. But Billy also had parents so committed to his success that they were willing to uproot their entire lives in pursuit of a dream.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:06:42) I think I overcompensated for a lotta things. I never told my son no, ever in life.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:06:50) I met Billy’s mom, Nicole Player, back in 2019. And she took me to the very beginning. She got pregnant when she was 18 years old.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:07:01) He’s been– he’s definitely been my blessing. He’s definitely been, for me, the thing that kept me grounded.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:07:08) Where were you guys living at the time?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:07:09) In Los Angeles, trying to figure it out. Trying to figure it all out.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:07:15) Can I ask about his– his father?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:07:18) His father’s around. The guy, just a little misguided to me.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:07:23) Billy and Nicole say Billy’s dad was present in his life. But Nicole was his primary caregiver. And in the early years, Nicole struggled with raising Billy while holding down work and housing.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:07:36) I got evicted out of an apartment. I don’t know– we didn’t have– a lotta money. I had food stamps and whatnot.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:07:43) Nicole and Billy spent some time in a shelter, or as Billy called it, “the pink house.”
BILLY PRESTON: (00:07:49) That’s what we called it when– I was growin’ up. But yeah, it was like– a shelter. So yeah, I stayed– me and my mom, we stayed with a bunch of strangers, just in the– in the shelter, you know, trying to make ends meet. I just felt like I was just doin’ what we had to do. And I made the best of whatever situation we were in.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:08:08) A federal housing voucher allowed Nicole to move Billy to a better neighborhood. Then, while working as a waitress, she met her future partner, Timicha Kirby, who goes by TK.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:08:23) Hey now, hey now–
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:08:24) Hey.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:08:24) I’m glad you guys made it. Let’s go, come on in. Welcome to The Kut Experience.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:08:29) Thank you. This is so cool–
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:08:31) TK showed me around her barber shop in her native Compton. Across one wall there is a series of portraits of famous people who all grew up in the neighborhood.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:08:41) So we have Yo-yo, she’s– a rapper from Compton. DeMar DeRozan went to Compton High, playin’ professionally in the NBA. Dr. Dre, part of the infamous N.W.A from Compton, went out on his own. And then here we come with the GOATs. Serena, then you have myself, I’m a GOAT in my own. (LAUGH)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:09:03) TK played basketball growing up in L.A., and went to the University of Iowa to play with legendary Hawkeyes Coach Vivian Stringer.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:09:11) The first game that I started, Coach Stringer put me at the one. And she was just like, “Go play.” That moment right there just made me feel accomplished bein’ able to be on the floor and her having that confidence in me.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:09:24) TK got signed to a team in the WNBA in the league’s second season.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:09:29) I can say that I had on the WNBA jersey. I mean, I played for Hall of Fame coaches and everything. Like, I made it, whether I played a day or ten days.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:09:39) What was the pay like in the N–
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:09:41) Oh, no–
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:09:41) –in the WNBA back then–
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:09:42) –Paula, we’re not talkin’ about that. It was nonexistent. I mean, literally, free agents were getting paid $15,000. And, you know, we played just in the summer.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:09:53) Lupus sidelined TK’s pro career. By 2003, she was coaching high school basketball in Los Angeles when she met Nicole. Billy was five, and Nicole says he was full of energy.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:10:07) Rambunctious. (LAUGH) My grandfather would call him, “All boy. All boy.” I mean, you would look up, this kid would be on the roof. You know, like, “What are you doin’ up there,” you know?
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:10:16) Nicole and TK moved in together, and registered in California as domestic partners in 2006. Billy called TK his godmother. The family moved to Irvine, a small city that’s been ranked one of the safest places in America. It was a big change from South L.A. And as he got older, Nicole says Billy began to channel his boy energy into one activity in particular.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:10:44) All he wanted to do was skateboard all day. That’s all he did. From growin’ up in the Valley, livin’ in Orange County, he just wanted to skateboard all day.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:10:53) I definitely had goals of, like, bein’ a professional skateboarder, you know? I was kinda lookin’ at it like I could be, like– the next Tony Hawk or somethin’ like that, you know? ‘Cause I was really good.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:11:06) Yeah, what was it about skateboarding that you really liked?
BILLY PRESTON: (00:11:09) The falling process, like, I had times where I was trying to, you know, jump off– six-plus stairs with my skateboard. And– and I’d fall off my skateboard and have a bruise or a scar or somethin’, and I’d have to get right back up. I– that’s just one thing that kinda made me tough. Like, you– you– you damn near fall in love with the ground. (LAUGH)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:11:31) Billy may have enjoyed falling. But Nicole and TK started to worry about his skateboarding accidents.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:11:38) 1) He almost got hit by a car. He fell off the skateboard, skateboard went into traffic, broke in pieces, that scared me to death. The next one was he had fallen and busted his head. He needed, like, ten staples.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:11:53) TK was fed up with Billy’s skateboarding, so she made a decision.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:11:59) One morning I woke up, I couldn’t find my skateboard, like, anywhere. Like, I thought I misplaced it. I couldn’t find it around the house. I checked outside our– our apartment, it was nowhere to be found. And then I went upstairs, I asked my mom, I’m like, “Yo, where’s my skateboard?” My godmom told me she threw it away.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:12:16) All right, did you really throw his skateboard away?
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:12:18) Absolutely. I sure did. (LAUGH) I sure did. I said, “We’ll get somethin’ else. We’ll do somethin’ else. But this is it for that.” (LAUGH)
BILLY PRESTON: (00:12:28) So at the moment, I’m mad. I’m– I’m very disappointed, like, I’m highly upset. And– went in my room and closed the door, sat in there with attitude for a minute. She came in there and talked to me, like, “Your skateboard not gonna get you nowhere. That’s not somethin’ you– you should be doin’.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:12:46) Instead, by middle school, Billy found his way to the sport that would define his life: basketball. And TK was willing to test him out.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:12:55) We would watch basketball, you know, together. And then I– I’ve always been coaching. So he would come with me to my practices. And so he wanted to play. So I was like, “Okay.” I was like, “I’m gonna be hard on you.” I was like, “If you wanna play, there’s certain things you have to do and you have to be committed.”
BILLY PRESTON: (00:13:13) So as a young boy, she just started trainin’ me, like, workin’ me out. I started gettin’ in the gym more, workin’ on my game.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:13:19) Billy had two things going for him at age 12. He was tall, like, really tall, over six feet, and he picked up skills quickly. But he needed to develop as an overall player.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:13:33) Billy was lazy. He didn’t wanna run. He just wanted to score points, you know? That was it. And I just told him it was very simple. “I love you to death. But you gotta work hard. And if you’re not gonna work hard, there is no exception. Because we’re goin’ home together, and I love you, and I’m raising you.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:13:51) So how did he respond to that? Like, what did that training look like–
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:13:53) Pouty at first because it’s like, “What? This is our team. I’m supposed to be–” no, that’s not how it goes.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:13:59) The lesson stuck. Through middle school, with Nicole’s support, TK kept training Billy. And he kept getting better.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:14:07) I started getting good, getting better in reps and reps and reps every day in the gym. It got to a point to where, like, “This is what I wanna do. I can make money. I can, you know, make millions and live a great life by just puttin’ the basketball in the bucket.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:14:24) By age 15, Billy was getting ready for ninth grade. And he had his pick of high schools. Private academies in Los Angeles were throwing scholarships at him. In December of his freshman year at St. John Bosco, Billy had his breakout game. His team went to play in a national tournament called The City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Florida.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:14:50) (APPLAUSE) Ooh, there’s that (UNINTEL).
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:14:53) This was the kind of travel that was becoming normal for Billy. This was the world of elite youth basketball he and his family had entered. But for that game, the spotlight wasn’t supposed to be on Billy. TK remembers the focus was on two of his teammates.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:15:09) Tyler Dorsey, that was a pre-season All American, Daniel Hamilton. So you had those two guys bein’ heavily recruited. Everyone’s watchin’ them. And then Billy’s just a freshman. And I had told him before the game, “Listen, all the attention is gonna be on Tyler and Daniel.” I said, “You gotta show up when it matters.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:15:28) Their team lost. But Billy ended the game with 21 points and 12 rebounds. That made a big impression on all the coaches and scouts in the stands.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:15:39) From there, that’s when the recruiting, like, picked up. Because he was showin’ he was, you know, reboundin’ the ball and pushin’ it. It was just– they saw all facets of his game, and they couldn’t believe a kid at 16 could handle the ball this way, dribble past, and shoot. It was like, “Whoa, who is this?”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:15:57) And that was his freshman year?
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:15:58) His freshman year. That’s when our phones started blowin’ up. It was crazy.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:16:03) It’s not unusual for elite players to go to a different high school every year, climbing the ladder and getting exposure at each stop. Going into the tenth grade, Billy wanted to switch schools to join some former teammates.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:16:19) And Billy begged me to go to Redondo Union High School. Now, I told you I never say no. So we made that happen.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:16:28) Now, Redondo Union High School is a public school in the City of Redondo Beach, California. But Nicole and Billy didn’t live in Redondo Beach. They lived in Irvine, about an hour away. To enroll Billy in the school, Nicole used a false address.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:16:48) So how did you end up using someone’s address?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:16:52) We paid him. Yeah, I paid the landlord (it was an empty apartment) to be able to– get mail there and whatnot.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:17:02) You hear about young athletes doing this kind of thing all the time. TK told me she even did it.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:17:09) Oh, I used an address in high school. That’s normal. When I left from Morningside– to Lynwood, I lived in Compton with my grandparents. And that’s out of district. But we had a member of our church that went to Lynwood, so when it came full circle for him– of course, if we don’t live in the area, we definitely need an address.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:17:30) Billy had switched schools after his freshman year. And halfway through Billy’s sophomore year, Nicole and TK made an even bigger move for Billy’s future. They picked up from Southern California and moved to Dallas, Texas. Nicole and TK had no connections to Dallas, no family or friends there. But Billy had an opportunity to play for Prime Prep, a private school co-founded by former NFL player Deion Sanders, that would put him on a bigger stage.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:18:02) Now it’s like you– you turn into a star, damn near.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:18:06) He was ranked in the top ten in his class nationally. His older teammates were getting recruited by Division I schools like Louisville, Alabama, and Arizona. So in Billy’s mind, it was all leading to the big time.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:18:20) You know, it was all just to get to the NBA. Like, whatever I had to do to advance and further my career to get to the NBA, if I felt like this was the right move, this is what we was gonna do.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:18:32) Nicole had a different goal in mind for Billy.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:18:35) My goal was always for Billy just to go to college. I had my son at 19. My mother had me at 18. I mean, I don’t think I had NBA dreams because, to be honest with you, I didn’t think they were real.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:18:48) But for Billy, the dream was real. And his senior year of high school would be crucial for his prospects. He needed to go somewhere with a track record of landing players in big college programs. Prime Prep had folded in a scandal, so in 2016 he ended up at Oak Hill Academy, a small private boarding school in rural Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, where annual tuition was close to $30,000.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:19:17) And how did you guys pay for that?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:19:20) We didn’t. He had a scholarship. Yeah, he had a full scholarship.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:19:26) By this time, Nicole and TK had split up. When Billy went to boarding school in Virginia, they agreed that Nicole would stay in Dallas and TK would move to Charlotte, a couple of hours’ drive from Oak Hill, so Billy could have a parent nearby.
STEVE SMITH: (00:19:42) I thought he could develop into a really good player.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:19:45) Steve Smith was the head coach at the school. He coached at least 40 future NBA players, including Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. And when Coach Smith looked at Billy, he saw another potential top recruit.
STEVE SMITH: (00:20:00) And he was comin’ in September, so I thought by the time December, January rolls around, when you’re in the middle of your schedule, he’s gonna be one of the best players in the country. And– he was that.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:20:14) In the winter of his senior year, Billy returned home to Southern California to play what was shaping up to be a very big game against Chino Hills. At the time, Chino Hills was home to the famed Ball brothers. Older brother Lonzo had already left for UCLA. But his siblings, LaMelo and LiAngelo, remained and dominated.
STEVE SMITH: (00:20:37) They play a s– style of basketball that’s– nobody else plays. It almost looks like they’re playin’ street ball. I mean, they’re just flyin’ up and down the floor. They’re throwin’ baseball passes the length of the floor, and they catch and shoot at three. I mean, it was wild.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:20:49) TK remembers this game clearly.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:20:52) And they had a very, very good team. But it was nobody that could guard Billy. And then Coach Smith knew how to defend. I mean, at 6’10 handlin’ the ball, shootin’ the three. It– it just was difficult to guard him.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:21:05) What were the final seconds of that game like?
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:21:08) Oh, it was tense. Because I think we were only up by three. So it was a possession where the whole gym was, like, silent. Because it was, like, they could hit a three at any time and tie the game up. But it didn’t happen.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:21:26) (BUZZER) (APPLAUSE) (INAUDIBLE PHRASE).
BILLY PRESTON: (00:21:31) We just proved the real hill ’cause we just beat Chino Hills. So I’m gonna say we’re the real hill.
STEVE SMITH: (00:21:36) I think the people in the gym were kinda shocked that we beat them out there. I mean, we have– Oak Hill’s got a big name in high school basketball. But when you go to California and you’re playin’ Chino Hills, you’re expected to lose. So that was a big game and a big win for us.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:21:52) This was the kind of performance that would get the attention of college coaches. And with that, came a lot of promises. For top-ranked high school basketball players like Billy Preston, playing at an elite private high school like Oak Hill was part of a script.
(00:22:20) The next act: To be a one-and-done, play a requisite one year at a Division I college, then enter the NBA draft. It felt like a lock. His senior year, top college coaches were always showing up at Billy’s games. TK would drive up from Charlotte to watch.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:22:41) Every game was jam-packed. I used to sit in the corner because it was nowhere, literally, to sit on the bleacher side, you know? You see (LAUGH) Kansas walkin’ in. You see Duke walkin’ in. And college basketball, those are the celebrities.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:22:57) Were they the head coaches?
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:22:58) Absolutely. Head, first assistant. Sometimes it would be all four that would come. I mean, the– the– if they’re seriously recruiting a kid, you don’t send an assistant. So the head coach has to show up.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:23:13) Billy was most interested in the University of Kansas. Kansas has one of the top basketball programs in the country. It’s one of a handful of schools known as blue bloods. That transition goes back to Kansas’s first head coach, James Naismith, the guy who invented basketball.
JAMES NAISMITH: (00:23:33) I blew a whistle, and the first game of basketball began.
INTERVIEWER: (00:23:37) And– what rules did you have for your new game, Dr. Naismith?
JAMES NAISMITH: (00:23:41) Well, I didn’t have enough. And that’s where I made my big mistake.
MATT TAIT: (00:23:45) Funny thing that people like to talk about, that James Naismith is actually the only coach in– in KU basketball history to have a losing record.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:23:51) That’s Matt Tait, sports editor of the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper. He’s been covering University of Kansas sports for over a decade. And in a town like Lawrence, basketball is the beat.
MATT TAIT: (00:24:04) Oh, it means everything here. I mean, in some ways the entire town revolves around it. It’s one of those things where, if KU’s playing, the bars are full of people watching– the streets are empty. And a lot of people tie their– their happiness to it. If the Jayhawks win, people are in a good mood the next day. And if they lose, they’re a little grumpy.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:24:24) The intensity in Phog Allen Fieldhouse is almost unmatched in college basketball. You can just feel the energy come through from the fans to the players. And you can see it in the Oklahoma State players’ faces, how focused they are, along with the Jayhawks.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:24:37) Sixty years of college hoops inside this historic building.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:24:41) And Jayhawks fans are dialed in. So when Billy went to Lawrence on his official visit in October, 2016, the fans knew he was coming.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:24:51) You know, I just look up and there’s people out in the Fieldhouse yellin’ my name. “We want Billy. We want Billy.”
MATT TAIT: (00:24:57) They were excited to see him play. They knew what his game was about, you know? They follow the recruiting. They follow their high school careers. They wanna know everything about him, ’cause they wanna see, “Who’s our guy here? What’s– what’s he gonna bring to our team?” The fans were excited about Billy comin’ to Kansas.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:25:14) The night Billy visited Kansas, he attended the massive pep rally that kicks off their season every year called “Late Night in the Phog.”
BILLY PRESTON: (00:25:23) The whole atmosphere, like, was crazy. Like, bein’ in Allen Fieldhouse, I’m havin’ good vibes from the coaches, good vibes from the players. My moms havin’ a good time. Like, you know, it’s just– in the moment you’re just feelin’ like this is where you would wanna be.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:25:37) So after he had finished his visits, we sat down and was like, “Okay, where you wanna go,” pros and cons, and worked it out.
CORRESPONDENT: (00:25:47) An announcement from one of the best high school basketball players in the country, he’s a top-20 recruit, say hello to Billy Preston, who has joined us here on our set at ESPN. You know, Billy, say hello to America here. You’re about–
BILLY PRESTON: (00:25:57) How y’all doin’–
CORRESPONDENT: (00:25:57) –to see a lot–
BILLY PRESTON: (00:25:58) How y’all doin’–
CORRESPONDENT: (00:25:58) –more of him coming up–
BILLY PRESTON: (00:25:59) How y’all doin’–
CORRESPONDENT: (00:25:59) –next season (LAUGH) as he makes his college choice. Without further ado, let’s have your college choice. Where you goin’ to school?
BILLY PRESTON: (00:26:04) Next year I’ll be attendin’ the University of Kansas. (LAUGH)
CORRESPONDENT: (00:26:08) The Jayhawks smiling big right now. And their head coach, Bill Self, certainly as well.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:26:15) TK remembered what it was like for her to show up on a college campus as a freshman athlete. And she had some advice for Billy.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:26:23) (SIGH) My advice to him was, “Don’t lose your focus. You cannot allow outside distractions to keep you from your goals.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:26:34) In August 2017 before classes started, the Jayhawks took a trip to Italy. They visited Rome and Milan, playing local teams.
MATT TAIT: (00:26:46) When they were in Milan, they had– a private viewing of The Last Supper.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:26:50) Lawrence Journal-World reporter Matt Tait covered the trip.
MATT TAIT: (00:26:54) They also did a– boat tour of Lake Como, and they got to– they got to get out and– and do some shopping and– and check out the Bellagio over there. And I remember just thinkin’, you know, “Here’s this super talented dude who’s just a kid.”
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:27:09) He brought his mother and I– both back two gifts. And we were so teary-eyed, ’cause Billy, he– you know, with his own money, he has n– you know, never bought us nothin’. He’s, you know, a kid. He’s spendin’ his money on his own stuff. So he went to Italy and he had got his mom this really– this really nice Italian leather purse, because she, you know, was into– handbags. And then he had gotten me– a piece of jewelry, ’cause he knows that I like jewelry. And I was like, “Oh, that’s so thoughtful.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:27:36) Around that time, Billy got a nice gift from his mom as well.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:27:41) I got a Charger. My moms had gotten me a Charger– a car. And it was like nothin’ too crazy. It was a 2016 SRT or somethin’ like that, and the real regular stock rims. It was nothin’ crazy, gray. I’m really just thinkin’, like, “Well, I’ve been askin’ my mom for a car for years, and she finally just waited till college to get me one.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:28:01) Far away from his own family back in Lawrence, Billy was starting to feel like part of the Jayhawks family. Head Coach Bill Self made Billy feel at home.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:28:12) Watchin’ games at his house, his wife would cook.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:28:15) What was his house like?
BILLY PRESTON: (00:28:17) It was big. It was super big. Coach Self house is– it’s like a mansion. I guess you’d call it a mansion. Like, his house is crazy. He got multiple rooms, like, a game room. You know, one room that was our favorite was the– the theater room, you know?
(00:28:28) And we was in there one night watching the draft, and it was literally the whole team in this house. And we was eatin’. You know, it was this one pasta– that he had named after him. It’s, like, Bill Self pasta, it’s like macaroni and buffalo chicken. It was cool.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:28:43) That is the funniest thing about having a pasta named after you.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:28:46) Yeah. (LAUGH) In fact– you know, “This is the Bill Self pasta.” It was pretty good, too, so.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:28:53) Billy played in a few exhibition games before the season started. Kansas won all three.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:29:00) The lob inside, Preston. (APPLAUSE) That was really good stuff. And a time out for Mark Johnson.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:29:08) And Billy got to shake off some of the nerves he had about playing in front of big crowds.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:29:14) It got to a point to where, like, what– what’s in this gym right now, it’s not gonna be no less people than this. KU knocked my whole stage fright out. That was the first place I got to to where that I could be in front of millions of people and feel comfortable, whether I’m doin’ bad, whether I’m doin’ good. I know I can be me.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:29:31) But then, for the season opener against Tennessee State on November 10th, Coach Self benched Billy. He talked about it in a press conference after the game.
BILL SELF: (00:29:42) We all were kids. And– and when– and our parents I’m sure said, “Can you believe our kids? I mean, can you believe they were– what were they thinkin’”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:29:50) The team’s official Twitter account noted that Billy had been out past curfew the night before, had parked illegally, and skipped class.
BILL SELF: (00:29:58) I ask him, “Did you miss class today?” And so he told me. And I ask him why, and he told me. So, I mean, this wasn’t much of a decision to be made, so.
REPORTER: (00:30:07) You think that was– is– this is a one game?
BILL SELF: (00:30:09) Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just– just– just take care of your business. So– but he needs to take care of his business. He– everybody needs to be responsible.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:30:21) The next day was Saturday, November 11th, the day Billy and his teammate, Marcus, drove to the mall outside Kansas City for those Air Jordans. November 11th is Veterans Day. A military band marched down Massachusetts Street in the cold, rainy drizzle.
(00:30:42) On a nearby highway, rain and wet roads contributed to several accidents. And within sight of the KU campus, Billy Preston lost control of his brand new Dodge Charger while rushing to get back in time for a team meeting. He hit a curb, flattening both tires on one side of the car.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:31:03) Like, the tires was off of the rim. It was– dented up and all type of stuff. Like, it was bad. As soon as that happened, we’re like– me and Marcus, we’re, like, looking at each other like, “Bro, like, what just happened?” He was like, “Bro, call Coach.” I called Coach Townsend. I let him know, like, “We right– right around the corner from the school. We just got into a wreck.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:31:29) Kurtis Townsend, the assistant coach, picked Billy and Marcus up and called a tow truck for the car. Dispatch records for that day show that no emergency vehicles were called, and there was no police report. Billy called his mom and TK right after the accident to let them know what happened, and that he was okay.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:31:49) What did you think the fallout would be to that?
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:31:52) Honestly, Paula, I didn’t think anything, to be honest with you. I was more concerned with his safety and makin’ sure he was okay. I did– didn’t think anything past that. Just makin’ sure he was fine is where I was. But when you are an athlete at the University of Kansas, it’s a whole lot different.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:32:09) After that, I asked my coach, I said, “What’s the process now? Like, what’s gonna happen?” Then that’s when he told me that he had to report it to the NCAA that somethin’ happened to a player.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:32:18) The accident would be reported to the NCAA, the organization that rules over eligibility for college athletes. If Billy thought he’d been in trouble before for missing curfew, he hadn’t seen anything yet.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:32:33) And then Coach Townsend– he told me that somebody had called the NCAA anonymously and– and told ’em, like, they should investigate me.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:32:45) Why would the NCAA want to investigate Billy? Well, the NCAA was already looking into major possible eligibility violations in college basketball. Those had come out earlier in the fall. NCAA investigators had prominent college basketball programs, like, Kansas, under a microscope. So Billy’s accident couldn’t have come at a worse time. Coming up in our next episode:
BILLY PRESTON: (00:33:22) The first question that comes up is, “Where did you get the Charger from?”
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:33:26) It wasn’t a bag. It was just an envelope. And it was $30,000 cash in there.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:33:30) That’s next time on The Bag Game.
(MUSIC NOT TRANSCRIBED) (00:33:33)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:33:42) The Bag Game is based on reporting by me, Paula Lavigne, and Mark Schlabach for ESPN’s investigative unit. Senior producer is Matt Frassica. Senior editorial producer is Eve Troeh. Line producer is Cath Sankey. Associate producers are Gus Navarro and Meghan Coyle. Production assistants are Diamante McKelvie and Isabella Seman. Archival producers are Meghan Coyle and Chi-Young Park. Music by Braxton Cook, with additional composition, scoring, and sound design by Hannis Brown.