- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Calling the recent Sports Illustrated story on UCLA basketball "yellow journalism at its worst," an attorney representing former UCLA forward Reeves Nelson accused the article's writer of defamation and asked the magazine for a retraction during an interview Thursday with the Mason and Ireland show on 710 ESPN.
The article alleges numerous misdeeds in the UCLA program over the past few seasons, singling out Nelson for boorish behavior, including urinating on a teammate's clothes and intentionally injuring players. Nelson was dismissed from the team earlier this season.
"You couldn't have taken a harder swipe at the young man's reputation," said Keith Fink, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who is representing Nelson. "He all out says the guy is a criminal. He criminally stalked and assaulted players. And he tries to pinpoint six or seven instances."
Fink and Nelson have not yet filed any legal claim, but are simply trying to clear Nelson's name, Fink said. The story alleged that Nelson stalked players and intentionally tried to injure them. In one instance reported by Sports Illustrated, Nelson supposedly yanked on James Keefe's surgically-repaired shoulder and knocked him out for several weeks.
Fink said he has text messages from each of those players denying the incidents.
One from Keefe "categorically says that he told the reporter that he did not believe that Reeves tried to hurt him," Fink said. "Mike Moser's text message says that reporter made some s--- up there. He never tried to fight me. Drew Gordon says LMAO, laugh my butt off, I would beat your butt if you were giving me a black eye. His statement: He never gave me a black eye."
Tyler Trapani, also alleged to have been a victim of Nelson's abuse, said he did not want to comment after UCLA's game Thursday night.
Coach Ben Howland, in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, said that he never witnessed any players intentionally injuring others and that the depiction of players assaulting one another was a false allegation. He suggested that the altercations stemmed from hard fouls during practice that are common in many competitive environments.
"Never was there any -- during my watching and being there for every minute of every practice -- an assault where I felt like it was prudent that there was some kind of assault going on," Howland said. "Often times in the heat of battle elbows are flying or guys are being physical. A cheap shot is different than a closed fist punched in someone's face or directed at someone."
Among the most memorable and egregious Nelson anecdotes in the magazine article is one that alleges Nelson urinated on Honeycutt's clothes when Nelson suspected Honeycutt of ratting out a plan to rent a party bus.
"I have Tyler Honeycutt's text message from yesterday that it is categorically false," Fink said. "Completely, completely made up."
Most of the sources in the Sports Illustrated article are anonymous, but reporter George Dohrmann wrote that "Nelson confirmed all these incidents to SI and expressed his regret, saying, 'On all that stuff, I have no trouble admitting that I lost control of my emotions sometimes. I take responsibility for my actions. I'm really just trying to learn from the mistakes I made on all levels.'"
Fink, however, said that statement was taken out of context and was a general admission during a "very short phone call" with Nelson. He said Dohrmann did not discuss specific incidents, nor did he specifically ask Nelson about urinating on Honeycutt's clothes.
"The reporter didn't go, 'Reeves, one by one I want to go over these allegations and you tell me did they happen, didn't they happen, your side of the story,'" Fink said. "Instead in his conversation with Reeves, Reeves told him there were some mistakes he made while he was at UCLA and for those he doesn't apologize for. When he made that statement he wasn't addressing a single incident of physical assault.
"That was the context of his statement. (Dohrmann) wrote the article implying the mistakes he made were the mistakes of physical assault. This is yellow journalism at its worst."
Asked why Dohrmann, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, would fabricate such incidents, Fink said he could only speculate.
"UCLA is one of the most prestigious universities in the nation as it comes to basketball," Fink said. "It has the most or one of the most storied traditions in the country. If you want to really put a feather in your cap, there is no better school to try to take down. I'm sure everybody who read the article has an interest in basketball and people have an interest in UCLA."
He added that he had no idea why anyone would want to soil the reputation of Nelson and the university.
"You're asking me what his motivation was to tar and feather and, in particular, take down Reeves Nelson," Fink said. "I can't tell you that. All I can tell you is the facts as I know them from Reeves Nelson and the facts as I know them from the players which he doesn't quote in the article.
"The players are categorically denying what he's put in the article. That's all I can tell you. You have to ask him why he wrote an article that is not based on fact."
For now, Fink said he simply wants to restore the reputation of his client. Nelson is currently training and preparing for the NBA draft, but the alleged incidents could hurt him in that endeavor if teams are unwilling to take a chance on someone with behavioral issues.
Legal action could follow, Fink said, if he's unable to restore Nelson's reputation via a retraction.
"Defamation action is always a possibility," Fink said. "This is a young kid I'm more interested in trying to clear his name from the press. Getting the truth out ... I believe I can establish malice. I'm not the judge and I'm not going to decide, but the law in defamation is difficult."
Peter Yoon writes about UCLA athletics for ESPNLosAngeles.com.