Ed Tapscott, the American University basketball coach, was sitting in his office one day last March when Manuel Nadal, a freshman guard for the Eagles, entered and uttered the words that thrust the coach into the recruiting race for 7-foot-1 Tito Horford.
" 'I've been talking to Tito,' " Tapscott recalled Nadal telling him. " 'He's having problems with his letter (of intent at Houston, where he had signed early). I told him you're a good guy, this is a good place to go and he wants you to call him.' "
Tapscott knew Horford and Nadal were from the same town in the Dominican Republic, and he had seen Horford play the previous summer in Santo Domingo, when he was recruiting Nadal and Jose Vargas, a 6-8 power forward who chose Louisiana State, instead. "I didn't even try to talk or visit with Tito because I don't get involved with those type (top five senior centers) of kids," Tapscott said.
American University is a relatively small, private university in Northwest Washington. Its basketball program is better known for producing top coaches (Tom Young, Jim Lynam and Gary Williams preceded Tapscott) than players, and it plays its home games at Fort Myer, an Army base. The Eagles, who do not even have an athletic booster club, simply do not recruit against Houston, LSU, Oklahoma and UCLA for the best available high school center, which many people believed Horford to be.
Tapscott at first dismissed Nadal's suggestion as a joke. Then Nadal gave Tapscott a phone number in Houston, where Horford attended high school for three years. Tapscott dialed the number. Horford answered.
Little did Tapscott know then that he and his school would become one of the key factors in what AU President Richard Berendzen describes as "one of the most complex, troubling situations to come along in college sports in several years."
The NCAA is investigating Horford's recruitment, focusing on three or four major basketball powers. The NCAA expects to finish its work within six months. Already, the NCAA has ruled Houston used improper recruiting tactics, making Horford ineligible there, and Horford left Louisiana State Nov. 2 after independently talking with the NCAA investigator in the case. LSU Coach Dale Brown said there was no impropriety in LSU's recruitment of Horford and says he has an affidavit signed by Horford that states that LSU did not cheat to get him.
In an interview with the Houston Post Thursday, Horford indicated he would enroll at Houston in January with the intention of playing there. Houston would have to win an appeal to the NCAA for Horford to be eligible. The school lost its first appeal to the NCAA to have that decision reversed, and Horford left Houston for Baton Rouge the night before the second appeal was to be heard.
When Horford left LSU, Brown said that several unspecified schools had tampered with the player. Two sources in Baton Rouge said American University was one of those schools. Tapscott has denied any tampering by AU.
Two weeks ago, Brown called Tapscott, spoke with him for 20 minutes and said afterward he believed Tapscott had not acted improperly.
"It was a very friendly conversation," Brown said. "I believe what he told me. It was a private conversation." Brown says he does not want to comment further about Horford because he is tired of the controversy and wants to concentrate on coaching his team.
Until recently, Tapscott never knew how close Nadal and Horford were, that they grew up together and went to the same grade school. Unlike Horford, Nadal attended high school in the Dominican Republic, so there was a language barrier where Nadal was concerned. "We couldn't communicate well," Tapscott said. "His English was rudimentary. My Spanish was rudimentary."
Four weeks after Horford left LSU, many questions remain unanswered. One of those questions concerns Horford's flight from New Orleans to Washington the day he left school, Nov. 2, with a ticket a Baton Rouge newspaper said was purchased by Julio Castillo, a lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission here and a friend of both Horford and Tapscott. According to a source here, Horford asked to borrow the plane fare from Castillo.
NCAA rules prohibit a representative or booster of a member school from making loans or expenditures, such as a ticket purchase, for a prospective recruit. Tapscott said Castillo is not an AU booster, and that the school has notified the NCAA of all its contacts and dealings involving Horford.
According to sources in Baton Rouge and at American, Castillo, a native Dominican from the same region as Horford and Nadal, became involved in the Horford saga after Brown told Arelis Reynoso, Horford's girlfriend, to leave Baton Rouge in September. Horford then called Castillo and asked him if she could stay at his apartment.
Reynoso is one constant in the Horford story. She showed up in Houston, followed by Horford. She then went to Baton Rouge, and Horford soon showed up there. When she came to Washington, so did Horford.
Horford apparently returned to Washington about two weeks ago and is still here. Neither he nor Reynoso was available for comment, and Castillo has declined comment.
Horford showed up on the AU campus again Nov. 15 to visit Nadal, resulting in more public attention on AU. Even Tapscott said, "It's pretty much a set of circumstances that can be read or misread . . . Anything that has occurred when there's been any contact with Horford has been made available to the NCAA. I don't know if they've made a decision about it. But if they had a problem, I think they'd notify me."
The phone number that Tapscott called that day last March was that of Albert Mills, a Houston businessman with whose family Horford was living. Horford and Mills' son were teammates at Marian Christian Academy, where Bob Gallagher Jr., Horford's legal guardian, was the coach. Under NCAA rules, it was not considered tampering for Tapscott to call Horford because AU is not a member of the national letter-of-intent program.
"We talked for 15-20 minutes," Tapscott said. "I told him about AU."
The voice on the other end of the phone sounded confused.
"He said he didn't know if he wanted to go there (Houston)," Tapscott said. "He said he didn't know the coach well enough. He didn't know if he liked the team."
They talked about recruiting.
"He said there had been a lot of pressure," Tapscott said. "People were calling at all times of day and night. I told him we wouldn't put any pressure on him, and I'd like to have him come for a visit."
Horford told Tapscott he was coming to Washington to play in an all-star game, the McDonald's Capital Classic. The game came during what is known as a "dark period" in recruiting when no off-campus recruiting or paid visits are allowed. Tapscott couldn't even go to Capital Centre to see the all-star game.
"Tito said he would get on campus," Tapscott said.
"He walked around campus for two hours," Tapscott said. "I asked if I could come to see him in the Texas All-Star Game in Houston in April. He said, 'Sure.' "
Tapscott saw him play in Houston. After returning to Washington, Tapscott said he called Horford "once or twice to ask him what he was going to do. He said he didn't know."
A few weeks later, Tapscott went to Dallas to watch Horford play in another McDonald's all-star game.
"He looked upset," Tapscott said. "He said, 'All this stuff is getting bad. All this pressure, people coming after me. I'm thinking of coming and playing with Manny . . .' It was the last time I saw him until the summer in Santo Domingo."
Tapscott and Horford talked on the phone about once a week throughout the spring. "He'd tell me about the pressure," Tapscott said. "He said he was going to go home, get away from the pressure and think about it. He said he'd make a decision sometime in the summer."
Tapscott said he went to Santo Domingo in late July to meet Nadal's parents, whom he was unable to meet the previous summer because of NCAA rules, and to recruit two other players for AU.
"I saw Tito in practice in the Sports Palace, and I asked him if he had come to any decision. He said, 'Yes, coach, I'm going to Houston,' " Tapscott said. "That was the last time I saw Tito Horford or talked to him until Oct. 12."
According to sources in Baton Rouge, the events of Oct. 12 more than anything else probably caused LSU's Brown to question AU's role in this matter. It was more troubling to him than the ticket purchase by Castillo.
On Oct. 12, Horford showed up at American University for the second time, to visit Nadal and Reynoso. According to sources in Baton Rouge, Brown thought that Tapscott should have notified him that Horford was in Washington.
Tapscott thought his contact with Horford was so inconsequential that it didn't warrant a call. When Horford showed up at AU for a third time, on Nov. 15, a Friday evening, to visit Nadal, Tapscott called Brown's office first thing Monday morning.
It was sometime after the Oct. 12 trip to Washington that Horford apparently decided he would independently go to the NCAA and discuss his recruitment, according to a source close to Horford. After that, he decided he had to leave LSU and, according to the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, called UCLA assistant Jack Hirsch in late October inquiring about the possibility of transferring there. Hirsch told him that they could not talk until he got his release from LSU.
That's apparently when he called Castillo and asked him to borrow the plane fare to leave LSU.
Castillo has been portrayed in newspapers in Louisiana as Horford's agent and also as an agent for some pro football players. But, according to one of his friends, Castillo is a government lawyer whose speciality is credit law.
Tapscott said he met Castillo when they were undergraduates in college 10 years ago, Tapscott at Tufts and Castillo at Columbia. Tapscott said his brother-in-law and Castillo were fraternity brothers.
Tapscott and Castillo came to Washington to attend law school, Tapscott at American and Castillo at Georgetown. "We were good buddies," Tapscott said.
Their friendship continued and, two years ago Tapscott received a form letter from Ed Gomez, then a coach in the Dominican Republic and the man credited with teaching Horford how to play basketball. Gomez said there was talent in the Dominican Republic. At the time, Tapscott put the letter into his files and forgot about it.
But a few weeks later, Carlton Valentine, the power forward from DeMatha whom Tapscott coveted as his top recruit, decided to attend Michigan State. It was so late that other high school prospects in this country already had committed to other schools, so Tapscott, remembering the letter from Gomez, called Castillo.
Tapscott spent four days in Santo Domingo and his attention became focused on Nadal and Vargas. He arranged for them to visit the AU campus. Nadal committed to AU before he left; Vargas said he had one more school to visit: LSU.
Four weeks have passed since Horford left LSU, and the NCAA has yet to make any public pronouncements about Horford and the schools that recruited him. Before Horford indicated this week his desire to return to the University of Houston, Tapscott had said Horford wanted to play college basketball and was making a list of schools to consider. Assistant coaches from major universities have called Tapscott, asking him to steer Horford their way.
Tapscott has yet to declare publicly whether he would sign Horford, saying, "If he calls, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."
Even if Horford's high school record -- which is not public -- was below AU's admission standards, AU likely would be able to admit him under a policy that permits one exception to normal admission standards per year for basketball.
"AU's role in it (Horford's recruitment) has been quite appropriate, above board and carried out professionally," Berendzen said. "We're not going to sell our soul for any athlete or any athletic program ever."