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Opinion: Do the right thing, NCAA, and free Memphis star freshman James Wiseman

Loose James Wiseman.

That’s the compassionate factor — the suitable factor — for the NCAA to do. Let Wiseman proceed to play this season for Memphis and, sure, for Memphis trainer Penny Hardaway, who technically, it appears, allegedly broke NCAA laws in 2017 when Wiseman was once a highschool participant and Hardaway was once a highschool trainer.

Two years later, Wiseman is the projected No. 1 general pick out within the 2020 NBA draft. He’s additionally, and that is the crux of the topic, a freshman heart at Memphis. The place Hardaway now coaches.

The James Wiseman eligibility tale at Memphis isn’t a black-and-white factor, regardless of how onerous any folks — fanatics, haters, neutrals, even (particularly) the NCAA — attempt to see it that approach. Now, I’ll come up with this: Should you see the James Wiseman tale simplest during the prism of the NCAA rulebook, neatly, it’s black-and-white. He will have to be ineligible. That’s what the rulebook says. Should you lack the power or compassion to take a look at this every other approach, congratulations. This kaleidoscope of a global should be really easy for you.

Memphis Tigers center James Wiseman is introduced before their game against the South Carolina State Bulldogs at the FedExForum on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

For the remainder of us …

This one is crushing, as it’s so rattling onerous.

For many who don’t know the important main points, they’re those: Wiseman had simply completed his sophomore 12 months of highschool in Nashville in the summertime of 2017 when Hardaway — his grassroots trainer — gave Wiseman’s mom $11,500 to transport to Memphis … the place, sure, he would play for Hardaway at Memphis East Prime.

RISK & REWARD: Memphis, Penny Hardaway walking the line with Wiseman

WISEMAN INELIGIBLE: What we know about the NCAA ruling

As the story goes, the family wanted to be closer to Wiseman’s sister, a student at Memphis. If you don’t believe that story, and the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association did not, the story is sideways already. Wiseman was declared ineligible to play at East, because the TSSAA is as heartless as the IHSAA here in Indiana, but he won a temporary restraining order; the case was never resolved, and Wiseman played his junior and senior seasons at Memphis East.

By then, Hardaway was the coach at Memphis.

And while this has nothing to do with the NCAA’s ruling of ineligibility — hard to believe, but true — that coaching change looks weird, too. Memphis had fired Tubby Smith after just two seasons, when he won 19 and 21 games, ostensibly because the school wasn’t selling tickets and was losing money. To fire Smith with a 40-26 record after just two seasons, the school paid nearly $10 million to buy out his contract. Does that make sense?

Maybe this does: The school hired legendary alum Penny Hardaway before the 2018-19 season, a favorite son Memphis knew would energize the fan base. And he has.

But the school also knew — had to know — that in one year he would bring future NBA lottery pick James Wiseman into the program.

Sins of the mother

It’s complicated, this story, and here’s why the NCAA decided Wiseman cannot play for Memphis, ever: Not because Hardaway was his high school coach, or his AAU coach. And not even, technically, because he gave Wiseman’s mother $11,500 to move the family to Memphis in 2017. No, Wiseman is ineligible at Memphis for something that happened in 2008, when the kid was 7 years old:

Hardaway, a former Memphis Grizzlies player with gobs of NBA money, donated $1 million to fund the school’s Penny Hardaway Hall of Fame. That, according to the NCAA, made Hardaway a Memphis booster in perpetuity. Which made his $11,500 gift to the Wiseman family in 2017, nine years later, a violation.

Confusing? It’s about to get worse. After Wiseman signed with Memphis, the school told the NCAA about the $11,500 moving expenses. The NCAA knew. It studied Wiseman’s eligibility from all angles, as it does with every super-elite prospect, and deemed him eligible in late May …

… until Oct. 31, when the NCAA told the school: We’ve changed our mind. Wiseman isn’t eligible after all. Play him, the NCAA was warning Memphis, and we’ll forfeit your whole damn season.

Memphis' James Wiseman (32) high fives fans as he takes the court Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, before an exhibition game against LeMoyne-Owen at FedEx Forum in downtown Memphis. Memphis won 88-63.

Memphis won an injunction in a local court. It’s playing Wiseman, knowing the NCAA still has the authority to forfeit the 2019-20 Memphis basketball team — and then crush the program with sanctions — after the season is complete.

Want another layer of complication to this whole thing? Here you go: James Wiseman never knew Hardaway had helped his family move in 2017. Nobody told him. Maybe his mom was too proud to admit to her son that she couldn’t afford moving expenses. Whatever the case, the kid didn’t know.

So those are the facts, and they completely, totally stink. On the one hand, based on everything we know about the way the NCAA has worked for decades, Wiseman cannot play for Memphis. Maybe he cannot play anywhere. The sins of the mother, and all that. It’s one of those cold-blooded concepts we’ve accepted as fact over the years, because that’s the way the NCAA has always done things.

But the NCAA is changing how it’s doing things. It’s going for, finally, more compassion. It’s looking into allowing athletes to make money off their likenesses, money that for years was pocketed by the schools — and by the NCAA — while students were told room-and-board was all they deserved for their role in this billion-dollar business.

The NCAA also is allowing players to transfer much more freely, finally acknowledging that kids choose schools because of the coach — and if the coach leaves, well, the kid should be able to find another school (and coach) to play for.

But here, compassion is gone. Penny Hardaway did something when James Wiseman was 7 years old. What Hardaway did in 2008 was completely legal, and for more than a decade it looked awfully generous — until 11 years later, when the NCAA wants us to believe it looks illegal, even nefarious.

Your fault, NCAA

And after all of this, who did the NCAA determine should pay the ultimate price? James Wiseman. But not in May, when the NCAA had the facts to make that ruling and Wiseman still had the chance to play for another school. No, the NCAA said: Let’s make this ruling on Oct. 31, when it’s too late for Wiseman to pick another school.

The NCAA, after screwing up, said: Let’s crush the kid.

No, NCAA. Let’s not.

Let this one go. Let Wiseman play. Decide that this issue is so gray, so completely and hopelessly gray, that you’re allowing Wiseman to play in college for his AAU coach, for his high school coach, for one of the most legendary basketball names in state history.

There may well be some guilty parties in this story, whether guilty of avarice or, in the case of the NCAA, incompetence.

But there is at least one completely innocent person here.

Free James Wiseman.

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.fb.com/gregg.doyel.

- Opinion: Do the right thing, NCAA, and free Memphis star freshman James Wiseman


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