Will Lance Thomas’ Jewelery Purchases Endanger Duke’s 2010 National Championship?

Posted by Chris Johnson on September 10th, 2012

Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

The following names are listed as “clients” on the website of Rafaello & Co. Jewelers: Drake, Jay-Z, T-Pain, Lil Wayne, Rihanna, Justin Bieber. I’m barely scratching the surface of the illustrious canon of entertainment superstars and hip-hop moguls associated with the famous New York jeweler, but you get the point. This is not your average knock-off thrift shop. You don’t walk into Rafaello & Co. unless you have some serious cash to splash. So it’s not at all surprising that Lance Thomas, a starting forward on Duke’s 2010 National Championship team and a current member of the New Orleans Hornets, needed nearly $100,000 to purchase a black diamond necklace, a diamond-encrusted watch, a pair of diamond-stud earrings, a diamond cross and a black diamond pendant in the shape of Jesus’ head. No, what’s surprising is how Thomas was able to pony up $30,000 just two days after Duke defeated then-No. 15 Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden, in the midst of the Blue Devils’ title-winning season. And how Thomas was extended a nearly $70,000 loan to complete the glamorous spending spree. Even more puzzling is the fact that Thomas was expected to repay the loan within 15 days, and that Rafaello & Co. waited over two years to file a suit against him demanding he break even on the very credit he sought when he made purchase.

The NCAA will likely investigate Thomas’ involvement in a potential improper benefits scandal, endangering Duke’s 2010 National Championship (Photo credit: AP Photo).

There’s plenty to be resolved here, and it’s far too early to draw conclusions. But unless Thomas somehow managed to accumulate $30,000 (and was expected to raise nearly $70,000 on top of that within the next 15 days) while undergoing one of the more rigorous academic curricula in the nation and, mind you, the added time spent practicing, lifting, studying film and playing basketball at Duke, this situation has the looks of a hanging curve ball, slowly arching its way into the heart of the strike zone, awaiting its bludgeoning from the NCAA’s sanction-laced Louisville Slugger. If college athletics’ ruling body is determined to achieve one mission with its quirky and vaguely byzantine rulebook, it is to sustain the notion of amateurism. Student-athletes are not to use their extra-curricular activities as leverage to obtain financial benefits or other gifts unavailable to non-athletes. Which means Thomas must have received no outside assistance in making a five-figure lump-sum payment at a world-renowned jeweler. He had to have made the money himself. Nor could he have used his status as “Duke forward” to persuade the jeweler into giving him the loan. That’s the baseline assumption we’re making for his innocence. However, if an outside source provided aid when Thomas completed his transaction nearly three years ago, things could get ugly for one of college basketball’s marquee programs and the patron saint that bosses its sidelines.

The principals at stake here transcend typical NCAA improper benefits cases. When you deal with Duke, you deal with head coach Mike Krzyzewski. If the NCAA finds substance in this overwhelmingly grim cloud of dust and if Thomas is retroactively deemed ineligible for receiving impermissible benefits, the repercussions – since he was a key role player on Duke’s 2010 national title team – would damage a flawless and morally impeccable reputation. Coach K prides himself on running his program the “right” way, abiding by all NCAA guidelines, hammering home morals and life lessons, building not just basketball players, but men, on and off the floor, all in the effort of serving as an exemplary program for others to follow. Coach K’s two-most recent co-authored books are titled “Beyond Basketball: Coach K’s Keywords for Success” and “The Gold Standard.” You see, his cachet and the fundamental dogma of his program rests upon a clean track record. Former Duke player Corey Maggette was found to have received improper benefits from an outside agent in the late 1990s, but no punishment was handed down. The NCAA sniffed around, but ultimately cleared Duke of any wrongdoing.

This time the evidence appears thicker, more clear-cut, a textbook case ripe for an NCAA smackdown, as Thomas purchased these jewels while playing in a Blue Devil uniform. If it comes to this, vacating Duke’s 2010 national championship wouldn’t affect Duke’s future success; Coach K would still contend for ACC and national championships by recruiting some of the nation’s best prospects and molding them into high-discipline, fundamentally sound outfits. But for Coach K, the man, it would hurt. It runs against his entire philosophy and removes some of the luster – even if, as expected, Kryzewski and/or Duke had no knowledge or involvement with Thomas’ actions – from the basketball program Coach K has built in Durham. This is unfamiliar territory for the all-time winningest coach in Division I. Where the NCAA or Duke goes from here remains unclear. But as far as I can tell from my limited circumstantial knowledge, Duke is going to have a tough case to make that Thomas should have been eligible for the second half of his senior year.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.

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