Christian Dawkins' compelling and contentious testimony vs. prosecutors highlights college hoops federal case

NEW YORK -- The clashing and commotion kicked off almost immediately. 

Government prosecutor Robert Boone and defendant Christian Dawkins -- 26 years old; in his second federal trial in less than a year; facing even more time behind bars; putting himself in the line of fire on the witness stand -- were contentious and argumentative almost from the start of Boone's cross-examination of Dawkins Thursday morning at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse in downtown Manhattan. 

Objections from Dawkins' attorney, Steve Haney, were frequent. Honorable Judge Edgardo Ramos had to pause the proceedings multiple times to remind attorney and defendant not to talk over each other.

"He's clearly being argumentative on a level I haven't seen in a while," Haney told Ramos of Boone's cross. 

It was so tight at certain moments, one would've thought Ramos was going to demand a recess and clear the courtroom just to simmer the environment. 

In the early going, Boone attempted to disassemble Dawkins' character by laying out his guilty verdict in last October's federal trial and also by bringing to light reasons for his firing from ASM Sports in 2016. As Boone was trying to get to Dawkins to admit the ways he'd been dishonest, Dawkins verbally danced around the answers Boone was hunting for.

"Do you want me to go over the ways?" a surprised Boone asked.

Dawkins didn't flinch, invited Boone in.

"Please," he said. 

An entertaining fight over semantics continued. Boone looped back to Dawkins' firing at ASM, which stemmed from $42,000 (from 1,865 rides) in Uber charges on a former client's credit card. 

"Mr. Dawkins, do you enjoy using the Uber service?" Boone asked.

"I love it," Dawkins plainly said. "It's very convenient." 

That drew chuckles from across the courtroom. (Dawkins previously testified to the Uber complaint ending amicably and having no litigation brought against him.) 

And when Boone was trying to show the jury that Dawkins was willing to pay just about anyone to advance in the world of basketball, he even injected the absurd, such as offering up the possibility that Dawkins could have, or would have, bribed bus drivers if that meant landing players. This led Dawkins to impatiently asking Boone to "get to the question, please" -- Boone in turn sternly reminded Dawkins who was allowed to ask the questions -- and then that finished with Dawkins providing another answer no one could have seen coming around the corner just 30 seconds before.

"I have never paid a bus driver," Dawkins said under oath. 

At one point, Dawkins even told Boone to "relax" as Boone pugnaciously read from a wiretap transcript. 

What a day and what a trial this has become. It was irresistible give-and-take, this uncomfortable verbal combat a day removed from Dawkins inducing laughter on most in the courtroom over some charming and enlightening direct testimony. 

The trial eventually found something of a rhythm, as the government attempted to frame Dawkins as a thirsty fraud willing to bribe many, most notably college basketball coaches. That's his charge here. That's why he took the uncommon choice of testifying in his own defense. It's why this trial has captured the attention of college basketball's community, and in particular its coaching fraternity, for the past two weeks. 

"[The undercover agent's] biggest focus was trying to get us to bribe coaches." Christian Dawkins

Boone went line by line through multiple wiretaps to show that Dawkins wasn't being true to his word. He referenced a March 3, 2016, meeting in Columbia, South Carolina, when Dawkins traveled with Munish Sood and Marty Blazer (both of whom he barely knew at that point, and who would become government witnesses that turned on him in this case) to meet Gamecocks assistant coach Lamont Evans. At that lunch meeting, Dawkins is caught on wiretap saying things like, "OK agents obviously have influence but you gotta get the college coaches too. You, you skipping -- it's almost like you skipping a step if you just deal with the agents."

Another incriminating quote laid at Dawkins' feet was when he told the group at that lunch: "You need to get in bed with somebody like him (Evans), so you get complete access to a kid."

There's also wiretap evidence catching Dawkins telling Blazer and Sood he needed to introduce them to "the f---ing King of LA," USC assistant Tony Bland. What's more, that tap catches Dawkins invoking Book Richardson and former Louisville assistant Kenny Johnson being the "elite, elite" kind of assistants worth paying, and by doing that, his group could be "running college basketball." 

The jury was given a lot to think about. Because Dawkins also testified on Wednesday and Thursday he never paid Book Richardson at all, which evidence suggests is true. Richardson was given $20,000 total in two meetings, both meetings never including Dawkins, both payments coming from undercover agent Jeff D'Angelo (an alias).  

"We're trying to run a legitimate business, not a bribe-coaches shop," Dawkins said on the stand. 

Wiretaps also show Dawkins trying to talk D'Angelo out of the pay-the-coaches scheme on a June 28, 2017 phone call. Dawkins testified he tried to do this on other calls as well. And on that same day, Dawkins called Merl Code and said, "I ain't paying no coaches." (Code did not and will not take the stand.)

"Most of these coaches need guys like Merl and me to help them as opposed to them helping us, basically," Dawkins told D'Angelo on June 28, 2017. "That's the dynamic I need you to understand, because you got to remember Merl has the kid first. So Book, everybody that has to see Merl. That's what I'm trying to explain to you."

Dawkins also told D'Angelo he was more powerful than any coaches they would meet. It was his access that would eventually get them rich, not the college coaches and their attachments to players. 

"Jeff's biggest focus was trying to get us to bribe coaches," Dawkins said from the stand, adding that he didn't think paying anybody to introduce coaches to anyone was a smart idea. 

Still, Richardson did take money and he did take the meetings on account of his relationship with Dawkins, who testified he did what he did as means to "placate" D'Angelo, who was only going to continue to fund the enterprise if coaches were getting paid. This never made much sense to Dawkins, but if the guy was going to give tens of thousands of dollars of his own money, so be it. 

"I had to put someone in front of him at the end of the day," Dawkins said.

And as for Arizona, Mark Moore, Merl Code's attorney, questioned Dawkins in cross-examination Thursday and broached the topic of Sean Miller. This was intriguing, but only briefly, as Moore never got to the point where Dawkins was going to outright squeal on the Arizona coach. Dawkins testified he didn't need help with players from outside sources because he had pretty good relationships with guys like Miller. And when Moore asked, "Miller knew what was going on, correct?" in reference to Arizona players allegedly being paid, the prosecution objected to the question and the objection was sustained by Ramos. 

There are still things presented in this trial that are up for interpretation or remain unclear. Near the end of Boone's cross, audio of Dawkins' Las Vegas meeting, at The Cosmopolitan hotel, with Blazer, D'Angelo and Creighton assistant Preston Murphy was played. Video and transcripts of this had previously been entered into evidence, but the government made sure to bring to the jury's attention that Dawkins in fact brought up the name "Marcus Foster" and not "Marcus Phillips," which is on the transcript and brought up by Murphy. 

Marcus Foster did in fact play for Creighton. He was a good college player and an NBA hopeful. Marcus Philips was a fictional figure, one the defense and Dawkins relied on its arguments; Dawkins said Murphy made up the name and the two laughed after that meeting, when Murphy gave the $6,000 he'd accepted from D'Angelo back to Dawkins that night. 

Who was conning who? Both sides, apparently. D'Angelo was off the case not long thereafter, reportedly on account of misusing government funds. That fact has not been presented at the trial, but Dawkins tried to coyly make reference to it on the stand Thursday when he said he never had contact with D'Angelo again after the Vegas trip. 

By the end of Dawkins' testimony, it was clear that testifying in his defense was the necessary move for him. Who knows if it will work, but putting a face, a voice, a compelling counterargument with realistic reasons for a lot of the things alleged against him in this case? It almost certainly will spur some interesting discussion among the 12 jury members when they begin deliberations next week.  

Dawkins knows who he is and that came away clearly on Thursday. He gave off a confident air and displayed a lot more knowledge of the basketball space than the government had in assembly of its case. Whether that helps or hurts him in the minds of jury members is not known. Does the fact that he hates the amateurism model -- he again made his opinion known that college players should be paid -- improve his standing or worsen it? Will the common juror believe college players should be paid, and thus, empathize with Dawkins and Code's situations? 

Dawkins never signed any agreements to bribe college coaches. He testified he never paid any coach in this saga except when he paid Lamont Evans, and only doing it at the summoning of his former boss, Andy Miller. There is a massif of evidence that could easily sway a jury against him, but Dawkins probably did as well for himself as could have been expected.

With both sides at rest and prepping for closing arguments, it's worth noting that no recordings of head coaches ever came into play in this trial, and the forthcoming verdicts ultimately aren't what most in college basketball care about. People cared about who would be exposed, what schools and coaches would be attached to cheating, what Dawkins would say if he took the stand. 

Who he could drag into this muck.

Now that he's had his chance -- and passed on burying any coaches -- and now that closing arguments are set to begin on Friday morning, college basketball has arguably an even bigger mess than before. The fact it took a 26-year-old runner and convicted felon to voice truth to a lot of the problems facing college basketball speaks worse about the sport -- and the NCAA -- than it does about Dawkins, who is far from an angel but is also not the devil some have depicted him to be. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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