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Zion Williamson got hit with a $100 million lawsuit just before the draft

Zion Williamson officially joined the NBA on Thursday -- a day after getting hit with a lawsuit. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Shortly before he experienced the exhilaration of becoming the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Zion Williamson learned the hard — and possibly expensive — way that being a high-profile professional athlete can also bring its share of headaches.

Williamson, who parlayed his one season at Duke into superstar status and the top selection Thursday by the New Orleans Pelicans, was hit with a $100 million lawsuit from a sports marketing agency, per reports. Also named by Prime Sports Marketing LLC in the lawsuit was a firm representing Williamson, Creative Artists Agency, and two of its employees.

NBA draft 2019: Zion Williamson goes No. 1

The legal action, filed Wednesday, came approximately a week after the 18-year-old sued Prime Sports, alleging that a contract he signed in April did not contain language mandated by North Carolina law. His suit also pointed to the lack of registration as an athlete agent in the state by either the Florida-based Prime Sports or its president, Gina Ford.

The agency countered Wednesday, per Sports Illustrated, by accusing Williamson and CAA of breach of contract, breach of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealings, fraud, tortious interference with a contract, civil conspiracy, unjust enforcement, misappropriation and violation of the Florida Uniform Trade Secrets Act.

According to reported court filings, Williamson signed with Prime Sports five days after he declared for the NBA draft April 15. The Blue Devils star hired CAA on May 30, and a day later one of his representatives sent Ford an email (via SI) declaring that his agreement with her firm was “hereby terminated and voided effective immediately.”

A lawyer for the forward, Jeffrey S. Klein, said in a statement (via the AP) that Prime Sports “blatantly violated the North Carolina statute specifically designed to protect student athletes,” and that the agency’s “continued threats” against Williamson “made necessary the filing of this lawsuit.”

Prime Sports issued a statement in which it stated that Williamson “knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily entered into a contract” that is “governed by the laws of the State of Florida.” Williamson was accused of having “intentionally breached his agreement” with Prime Sports and, with the encouragement of CAA, having committed another act of bad faith by filing his suit even though Prime Sports had agreed to a “pursuit of an amicable resolution.”

Attorneys for Ford told the AP that she “has worked tremendously hard to build Prime Sports Marketing into a competitive marketing and branding consulting firm while raising a family,” and that she is “deeply saddened and disappointed that what was once a promising business with Mr. Williamson has now resorted to legal action.”

Williamson reportedly claimed in his suit that his contract with Prime Sports violated the North Carolina Uniform Athlete Agents Act because it did not state that he would lose college eligibility upon signing it. The contract also lacked a disclaimer clause allowing him 14 days to cancel it, the lawsuit claimed.

There’s an awful lot of money at stake given that Prime Sports was set to get a 15 percent cut of marketing contracts it arranged for Williamson, who hits the NBA as arguably the most hyped prospect since LeBron James in 2003. At the very least, he is all but guaranteed to be offered massive shoe endorsement deals from the likes of Nike and Adidas, all the more so in the wake of his much-noted exploding-sneaker mishap while playing for the Blue Devils.

That incident, in which Williamson hurt his knee and was forced to miss several games, was noted in Ford’s complaint. Following that scare, the lawsuit stated (via SI), “Williamson realized that by continuing to play at the collegiate level, risking injury, could jeopardize his dream of becoming an NBA player.”

The lawsuit alleged that Williamson let those close to him know at that time that he “absolutely” would not play another season at Duke.

Thus Ford’s lawyers could argue that by declaring for the NBA draft with no intention of backing out — particularly as the presumptive No. 1 pick — Williamson had effectively relinquished his college eligibility by the time he signed with her firm. His attorneys signaled in their filing that they would point to what they claimed was the contract’s lack of conformity to North Carolina regulations.

The two sides may well come to a financial settlement before taking the dispute further through the courts. In the meantime, Williamson might have just joined an NBA squad, but he’s already seen the need to have a legal team in place.

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