Note: This review contains minor spoilers. Proceed with caution.
Every great story has an even better villain.
Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has Thanos, the United States has President ‘China Virus’ and HBO’s riveting documentary, The Scheme, trots out 25-year-old Christian Dawkins; a basketball prodigy-turned-business manager who was sentenced in October for attempting to funnel collegiate superstars to his sports management company after turning pro.
In order to achieve this goal, the Saginaw, Mich., native dipped into his wealth of resources and connections—jumpstarted by his father’s reign as a high school basketball demigod—and made tenacious assistant coaches like Book Richardson of the Arizona Wildcats an offer they couldn’t refuse: money.
On the surface, most would categorize this as “bribery,” which falls well within the purview of classic villainy, except one glaring problem: FBI wiretaps have Dawkins on tape adamantly refusing to cash out coaches. Why? Because in his years of maneuvering within basketball’s venal ecosystem, that’s just some shit you don’t do. Or as he so eloquently states, “it makes no fucking sense, bro.”
So instead, in order to appease Jeff D’Angelo, an overzealous investor who’s adamant about convening with the Book Richardsons and Merl Codes of the world, Dawkins opts to facilitate meet-and-greets between D’Angelo and collegiate basketball coaches while pocketing the money for himself—as not to get caught up in a bribe, only to be convicted for doing exactly that anyway.
“Everybody went into it with the right intentions,” Dawkins asserts in the film. “Did it get completely fucked up? I mean, it got fucked up...beyond my imagination. And I have a pretty big imagination.”
If this all sounds insanely baffling, it’s because it is. But it also just so happens to be the crux of the biggest criminal case in the history of collegiate sports—which is rather fitting for the right supervillain.
For three long years, the FBI conducted an exhaustive investigation into the NCAA’s nefarious underworld, where sneaker companies and indomitable basketball programs vie for blue-chip prospects by any means necessary. And while The Scheme implies that embattled NCAA legend Rick Pitino and disgraced sports agent Andy Miller were the big game being hunted all along, the film does a masterful job of completely throwing Arizona Wildcats head coach Sean Miller and LSU’s Will Wade under the bus.
Wade, in particular, touts the outrageous offer he made for a highly sought-after recruit (“We could compensate him better than the [NBA] rookie minimum!” he boasts) in previously unreleased recordings (that just so happen to include Dawkins), while Richardson makes a similar admission that Sean Miller “fronted the deal” to secure the services of Deandre Ayton, who would go on to become the top pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
To that end, It’s not exactly a secret that the NCAA routinely manipulates its amateur status in order to exploit collegiate athletes for financial gain, but it’s maddening to watch Dawkins be accused of defrauding that same billion-dollar juggernaut—which happily continues to employ scum like Sean Miller and Wade—just because he refused to flip on Pitino or Andy Miller.
And don’t get it twisted; Dawkins is much more sinner than saint—his illicit deeds created a legal precedent for the James Wiseman debacle—but he’s not exactly the supervillain he’s purported to be, either. He’s a martyr. And what makes The Scheme so fascinating isn’t his brazen audacity or cavalier nature, it’s learning who the true villains within this elaborate ploy actually are.
“The moral of the story is ‘fuck the NCAA,’” Dawkins says.
The Scheme is currently available on HBO.