Nearly two months after a Sports Illustrated story painted him in a negative light, former UCLA men’s basketball player Reeves Nelson has sued the magazine.
The suit, filed Wednesday in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, names Sports Illustrated’s parent company, Time, Inc., and writer George Dohrmann as defendants. Nelson’s complaint alleges defamation, false light and intentional infliction of emotional distress after Dohrmann wrote an expose on the UCLA basketball program titled “Not the UCLA Way.”
Nelson is being represented by attorneys Keith Fink and Olaf Muller of the firm Fink & Steinberg. Fink is also a professor in the communication studies department at UCLA.
The suit claims damages in excess of $10 million. Reached late Wednesday, a spokesperson for Time declined comment, saying the company had yet to receive the suit.
The expose depicted Nelson as abusive, which 18 of his UCLA teammates dispute in sworn declarations attached to the suit.
In the declarations, current and former players deny some of Dohrmann’s anecdotes: that Nelson bullied Matt Carlino, which led to the guard transferring to BYU; that Nelson and former forward Mike Moser came to blows during a practice; and that Nelson tried to go after James Keefe’s already injured shoulder in practice.
Carlino, Moser and Keefe were not among the players who signed declarations for Nelson’s suit. However, a handful of players denied they were victims of Nelson’s alleged abuse, according to declarations.
Drew Gordon, who transferred to the University of New Mexico, said he never fought with Nelson. Tyler Honeycutt, now in the NBA, denied that Nelson ever urinated on a pile of Honeycutt’s clothes. Tyler Trapani said in his declaration that Nelson did not go out of his way to hurt him during a drill.
All of the players save two ““ former walk-ons Alex Schrempf and Blake Arnet ““ said in the declarations that they did not speak to Sports Illustrated, which anonymously sourced “more than a dozen (UCLA) players and staff members.” Schrempf said that when speaking with Dohrmann, he denied a secondhand account that Nelson intentionally hurt him. Schrempf’s denial was not included in the story.
Fink hinted at a possible defamation lawsuit during an appearance on a local radio station shortly after the story was published, but admitted that it was difficult to prove malicious intent and that such cases were hard to win.
“Now having spent two months speaking to everybody on this case,” Fink said Wednesday, “I think it’s pretty easy to demonstrate actual malice and defamation.”
In addition, the suit alleges Dohrmann has a long-standing grudge against UCLA. In 1996, Dohrmann reported that Baron Davis, then a top recruit who would eventually become a Bruin, was driving a car that belonged to then-UCLA coach Jim Harrick. The Pac-10 Conference and the NCAA found no wrongdoing in that case. Dohrmann also accused current UCLA coach Ben Howland of NCAA violations in his 2010 book “Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit and the Youth Basketball Machine.”
Fink said the lawsuit had to be filed within the one-year statute of limitations for defamation claims. He added that the proximity of the NBA draft gave greater urgency to filing suit.
Nelson was kicked off the team by Howland in December. Nelson signed with a professional team in Lithuania before returning home to Modesto. Since then, he has been training for upcoming workouts with NBA teams, according to Fink. The NBA draft is June 28.
Nelson was not available for comment.
The day the story was released, Fink sent a letter to Sports Illustrated’s editor in chief on behalf of Nelson demanding a retraction. Time and Sports Illustrated responded with a statement saying they “unequivocally stand behind George Dohrmann’s story, “˜Not the UCLA Way.’”