The centerpiece of alleged pay-for-play arrangement: Pierre Henderson-Niles
Three in the morning, a full four hours before students at Ridgeway High School were to report for home-room, there was a 6’8” high school junior, running up and down the bleachers at Halle Stadium in Memphis. The fresh face kid had the physical features of a grown man. His goal simple, summed up with three letters. NBA.
He was born Jartavious Pierre Niles on
Before signing to play at Memphis, Henderson-Niles began to gain exposure on the AAU circuit, developing the reputation for being a beast inside the paint, with good change of direction for his size. It was those gifts that enabled him to successfully guide Ridgeway to a state championship in 2005.
He felt he was the best player in the state of Tennessee, according to Saine, and certainly the best in Memphis. But the hype machine was south of the city with a versatile player at Mitchell High School. Thaddeus Young was more rounded than Henderson-Niles, if not just better. He too was an agile big man, but he could and did actually play all five positions at Mitchell. He was an honor student, the most celebrated Prep basketball recruit out of Memphis since Treadwell’s Penny Hardaway or maybe East’s Tony Harris in the 90s. Memphis coach John Calipari, who had the reputation of making national recruits outside of Memphis his top priority, targeted Young. But he knew keeping Young in Memphis would be a tough task. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina’s Roy Williams had both come to Mitchell High School with their suits and respective sales pitch. Calipari had always had his pick of the litter when it came to Memphis players, who took pride in playing in Memphis. Young was different.
And as Saine reflects on it years later, he believes he understands the dynamics, why Calipari needed Henderson-Niles, why he recruited him so hard. It was Young. He believes Calipari needed a backup plan. He didn’t think Calipari could afford to allow two nationally recruited players in his own backyard leave Memphis. He says Calipari was beginning to take heat in the community for not going after more area recruits. The Memphis program had always thrived on homegrown talent during their most celebrated seasons prior to Calipari's arrival.
Of course Calipari may not agree with Saine’s theory. But without question anyone who has spent more than 10-minutes around Calipari knows he’s very territorial and tactical. And they certainly are aware of his personal battles with Bruce Pearl, who was the coach at Tennessee. Pearl was giving his best sell to Henderson-Niles to get him to Knoxville. Pearl was the new Calipari. Modeled after the Calipari from Umass, the brash up and comer challenging the old guard, someone who could bend but not break the rules. Perhaps it was the similarity that caused the biggest rift between the two. But Calipari clearly had the upper hand in the battle for Henderson-Niles. Whether he realized it or not, Henderson-Niles wanted to play at Memphis all along, but he liked the attention that came with recruiting. When the dust settled, Young slipped out of Memphis to attend Georgia Tech, while Henderson-Niles opted to remain in the city and play under Calipari.
Calipari understood the coaching fraternity within the high school brass in Memphis. He spoke of it when he first took the Memphis job. He knew burning one could cause a wildfire with the rest.
So he was walking a tight rope when he met with Henderson-Niles, Uncle Steve, and Wes Henning, Henderson-Niles high school coach, one afternoon at Ridgeway. Henderson-Niles was having academic issues at the school. Calipari was well aware of the distractions a popular kid could have in his hometown. His advice was to send him to prep school for his senior year. Henning, who had just come off winning a state title and felt with Henderson-Niles back his program he had a good chance of repeating, wasn’t to thrilled about the idea.
But involving Henning in the conversation was just a courtesy, to keep from starting a wildfire. Calipari knew the person he had to convince was Uncle Steve. What was the main selling point is now in question, but soon after Henderson-Niles was off to prep school and of course Memphis later. Henderson-Niles' time at Memphis was disappointing. He battled with weight issues throughout most of his college career. He left the team during his senior year.
Now years removed from high school and the University of Memphis, some of Henderson-Niles’ goals remain the same. He still wants to play professionally. He knows the NBA is very unlikely. He works at the Varangon Academy, a behavioral modification school for children age 13-18. He has children now. And he brings them to church where Uncle Steve is the pastor. He even shows his face at Pastner's basketball camps.
When he’s not being daddy or providing for the family, he is working to get back in shape, to give this professional basketball thing another try. He figures he can make it on a roster playing for some team east of the United States.
Henderson-Niles doesn’t speak of the allegations his uncle has made against the UofM and Coach Calipari. Not now. Maybe in the future. He’s in a no win situation. To deny the claim would be calling Uncle Steve a liar. To second it would disgrace the University. Sometimes the truth may not set you free.
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