Shabazz Muhammad missed UCLA's opening three games of the season.… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
NEW YORK — The NCAA is investigating a conversation pertaining to UCLA basketball player Shabazz Muhammad that a Memphis, Tenn., attorney said she overheard on an Aug. 7 commuter flight.
The attorney, Florence Johnson Raines, said she heard a man who said he was dating "an NCAA attorney" loudly telling people around him that his girlfriend had said Muhammad would never play college basketball this season because he broke rules.
Raines emailed a letter to Dennis Thomas, then a member of the NCAA infractions committee, saying she was concerned that what should have been a confidential matter was being discussed in such a way.
Muhammad, a highly recruited freshman swingman, was declared ineligible Nov. 9, just hours before UCLA opened the season against Indiana State. The NCAA ruled that its amateurism policies had been violated because a financial planner whom the Muhammad family considered a friend paid for unofficial recruiting visits the player took to Duke and North Carolina.
The Times obtained a copy of Raines' letter and spoke to her last Wednesday, publishing a story online later that day. When contacted, she confirmed her story and added details such as the man referring to his girlfriend as "Abigail." Abigail Grantstein was the NCAA's lead investigator on the Muhammad case.
The NCAA announced Friday that Muhammad would be eligible after paying $1,600, which was the approximate cost of the recruiting trips, and serving a three-game suspension. It effectively made him immediately eligible because he had already missed three games.
"I was relieved by what the NCAA did on Friday," said Raines, who practices labor and employment law at Johnson and Brown, P.C., in Memphis. "I felt they understood that they had an issue."
When Raines' letter was first publicized, the attorney requested anonymity, saying she wanted to avoid more media attention. However, she granted permission for her name to be published Monday, when she confirmed she had been contacted by the NCAA about her letter.
She said she planned to speak by telephone this week with an independent attorney representing the NCAA. That attorney, Donald Lundberg, told Raines that her original letter had been "apparently overlooked" and was "not forwarded to the NCAA."
"The NCAA expects our staff to protect the integrity of all of its processes, and we take any credible claims to the contrary very seriously," NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said Monday. "As a result, we are working with experienced outside counsel to conduct an inquiry into this matter but do not have any further comment."
The airplane conversation took place only eight days after the NCAA first requested documentation from Muhammad's family and long before any of it was received.