They were an island of misfit toys, the players on the men’s basketball team at Westchester Community College. And on the old video, their joy during their shining moment was unambiguous.
They won the National Junior College District 3 championship on March 8, 2014. Keith Thomas, 6-foot-8 and 23 years old, had nearly tossed away his life, in beefs and depression and loss. Now he was the national junior college rebounding champ.
Giovanni McLean, a wizard of a dribbler from the Bronx, whose nickname was Batteries Not Included, had bounced from one high school to another. He was there, along with Luis Montero, a string-bean forward from the Dominican Republican with spotty academics and elevator ups.
Their coach, the bearded, husky Tyrone Mushatt, now 43, walked on court to receive the victor’s plaque. He closed his eyes and rocked back and forth. Then he ran over to embrace his players.
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A year and a half later, all that joy has come undone in a metastasizing academic scandal. The players’ grade transcripts were falsified.
Thomas, who declared that year the best of his life, had received a scholarship to St. John’s University, which billed him as a potential Dennis Rodman. St. John’s booted him when reports of academic fraud surfaced. McLean landed at Quinnipiac University, which suspended him for a season. Montero remained at Westchester, which canceled its next season.
Finally, on a sunny morning three weeks ago, Mushatt was arrested and arraigned in Mount Pleasant Town Court in Valhalla, N.Y. Mushatt, a father of three, faces nine charges that he forged and falsified student transcripts. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
Mushatt has asserted his innocence. His lawyer said that the college’s internal investigation had cleared Mushatt and that the coach had wanted only the best for his second-chance young men.
Much about this is sad, and much is unsurprising. Too often, you wander the nation’s campuses and find coaches and universities that treat the academic lives of young men as inside jokes.
There’s Larry Brown, the vagabond coach now at Southern Methodist, who recruited a player from Dallas with a suspiciously broken transcript. One of the player’s high school grades appeared almost certainly falsified. Later, NCAA investigators found that Brown’s assistant coach had completed online coursework for that athlete. When Brown learned of this, he first told no one and then lied about it to investigators.
Yet nothing much happened. That assistant coach, who was Brown’s expert recruiter, lost his job. Brown, who treats repentance as a suit to be donned and tossed away, said that he felt terrible about all this but that the punishment was unjust.
Brown, who made about $2 million in his first year at SMU, must sit out nine games. His team is barred from playing in the NCAA tournament this year. His former assistant, whose recruiting blandishments are legendary, has a terrific new job.
Dallas school officials investigated and found that the system’s regulations were the usual mess.
It played out differently in Westchester. Lee Higgins, a reporter for The Journal News, conducted an expert investigatory dig and unearthed the scandal in its many tawdry details.
District Attorney Janet DiFiore and the state inspector general, Catherine Leahy Scott, offered no mere hand slaps. Mushatt faces criminal charges and could spend time in prison.
“They are committing fraud on these kids’ lives,” said B. David Ridpath, a former college compliance officer and now a professor of sports administration at Ohio University. He’s also a member of the Drake Group, which pushes for educational reform in college athletics. “It is quite rare that there are criminal charges, and it would be a good thing to make it clear that this is not just a game,” he said.
If the major college programs – at places like SMU, North Carolina, Kentucky and Duke – are the NCAA’s Imperial Rome, junior colleges are the basketball equivalent of distant Roman provinces, where almost anything goes.
Mushatt, who lives in an apartment up the street from a car wash in the Bronx, drew a $9,500 salary as basketball coach. He earns another modest salary as a gym technician.
The game of recruiting basketball players begins in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. With the right coach, and there are more than a few, athletics and academics are tightly bound. Other children, however, develop excellent jumpers and ankle-breaking crossover dribbles, and adults become far too accommodating of their miserable or missing academics.
When these young men cannot muster the grades to attend a four-year college, they are parked – “ditched” is the term of art – at junior colleges. Their job is to polish their grades enough to enter a major college program.
Four-year colleges are blind to none of this. A player who dropped out of high school, or who graduated with low marks, is going to have to labor hard to turn himself into an A and B student in junior college.
“Coaches say, ‘Hey, we’ll ditch them in a junior college for a year or two,’ ” Ridpath said. “Then you start to see anomalies, red flags, on their transcripts.”
Mushatt is accused of altering the transcripts of nine players. Jamell Walker, who starred at Mount Vernon High School before going to Westchester, was given a scholarship by Florida A&M, as was another Westchester college player, Damien Davis.
When news of the transcript forgeries broke, Florida A&M revoked both players’ scholarships.
None of the four-year colleges that recruited Mushatt’s players, from St. John’s University to Florida A&M, evinced anything like shame for their role in this racket.
Let’s start with Westchester Community College, which is part of the state university system. An anonymous email arrived at the institution in October 2013, detailing the forged transcripts, according to college officials. The college’s spokesman, Patrick Hennessey, told me that Westchester had acted promptly.
“Upon the advice of the New York State Office of the Inspector General, the college did not complete an investigation so as not to disrupt the IG’s investigation,” wrote Hennessey, who took questions from me only via email.
This statement mangles the truth.
The state inspector general received an anonymous email early in 2014 making allegations about tampering and false grade transcripts, according to law enforcement sources who requested anonymity as their investigation continued. The inspector general’s office investigated, and the district attorney’s office joined in. About eight months passed, records show, and the inspector general’s office contacted Westchester Community College officials. At that point, those officials revealed that they had received the same email in October 2013 and had apparently done little or nothing about it.
Westchester college officials tossed up clouds of obfuscation. Early on, Higgins, the reporter for The Journal News, asked them about the missing grades of Walker, the Mount Vernon High standout. Hennessey told the newspaper that Walker had never played basketball for the two-year college.
The Journal News was kind enough to provide Hennessey with YouTube videos that showed Walker playing for Westchester Community College and being interviewed while wearing his jersey. The paper also provided statistic sheets documenting Walker’s career.
Embarrassment might have been expected to follow like a clap of thunder following a lightning strike. Westchester officials just doubled down. “There’s no rules violation because he wasn’t on the team,” Hennessey told the newspaper.
He acknowledged to the newspaper that college officials had not solved the puzzle that was Walker’s appearance in those videos.
On and on it goes. Westchester Community College fired an assistant coach, Richard Fields, saying he had admitted to falsifying grade transcripts. Fields denied saying any such thing. Since then, the district attorney and the inspector general have pointed legal fingers of blame at Mushatt and have made no mention of Fields.
Fields has sued the college. He said in a court filing that accusations that he “had been involved in forgery or dissemination of fraudulent information were maliciously made without reasonably adequate investigation.”
I asked Hennessey if the college had made a mistake. “Regarding Mr. Fields, the college does not comment on pending litigation,” he wrote.
There is of course the matter of the big boys, the Division I colleges that grabbed the junior college players. Rooting about in the junior college bargain bin is a precarious business for universities.
The University of Oklahoma needed a point guard and flew McLean to its campus. Someone’s antenna must have twitched, because coaches took a look at the transcript and began mumbling about eligibility issues. McLean went to Quinnipiac. (McLean has since straightened out his eligibility problems and has taken on a full course load. He is playing for Quinnipiac this season.)
Walker had taken just a single class at Westchester. His transcript, investigators say, showed a full load and an associate’s degree. He is living with relatives in Mount Vernon. Davis lives in the Bronx.
As for Thomas, he knew he had issues.
He had played just a single year of high school basketball and had legal problems. He lost a grandfather who was his life anchor. He worked as a bar bouncer, a waiter, a cook and a cashier. Eventually, as he told a reporter for The New York Post in May 2014, he decided to get serious.
“I never thought I would be in this position,” he said of his St. John’s scholarship. “I’m here now and I’m thankful.
“My dream is coming true.”
How much the players knew of the forgeries on their grade sheets and transcripts remains a mystery. From college presidents to athletic directors to coaches to players, it seems safe to assume there are few naïfs in this world. Start for a good Division I college team, and the possibility of a pro career, in the NBA or more likely overseas, is a dream tantalizingly within reach.
Thomas, Walker and McLean did not return phone calls or emails.
Thomas filed a lawsuit against Mushatt and Westchester, claiming that he had placed his life and his fate in their hands. They told him, he said, that they would take care of the application. The loss of his associate’s degree and his scholarship to St. John’s and the humiliation of seeing his name linked to scandal, he stated in the lawsuit, have caused him great emotional distress.
In June 2014, Mushatt shook hands with an unidentified St. John’s employee in the parking lot of the Crossroads Shopping Center in Greenburgh, N.Y., and handed over a forged transcript, according to the Westchester district attorney. Very likely this is not the typical route by which St. John’s receives an applicant’s transcript.
As the apparent fraud became public, St. John’s folded its tent with the efficiency of a traveling circus. It pulled Thomas off the team. Coach Steve Lavin issued a heartfelt statement, almost worthy of an institution founded by the Vincentian Fathers to serve New York City’s poor.
“We share Keith’s disappointment and as a basketball family will provide moral support during this challenging time in his life,” Lavin said. “Keith clearly has a bright future in basketball and is determined to ultimately further his education.”
Lavin, who made more than $2 million a year at St. John’s, has since left, perhaps with a wee nudge from the university. He’s now a television analyst.
I emailed the St. John’s spokesman Stephen Dombroski and asked about Thomas. Would he be allowed to work toward a diploma?
“We can confirm Keith Thomas left St. John’s,” Dombroski said.
I tried again. Had St. John’s offered Thomas “moral support,” as Coach Lavin promised, and perhaps given him an avenue to earning a diploma?
“Perhaps our previous coaching staff has remained in contact per the comments you referenced,” Dombroski said. “But I cannot confirm this.”
Thomas is living in Yorktown Heights. He is halfway through his 20s, and his dreams of a basketball career, not to mention possessing a college degree, are a tide running swiftly out.