ATLANTA – The locksmith and I arrived at roughly the same time.
The location was Thompson Bespoke clothiers, a small business located in an unremarkable strip mall in this city’s Grant Park neighborhood. One door to the left is a barbershop, Sideline Cutz. Across a breezeway to the right is The Cockpit, a gay bar. Upstairs there is a hair salon and a martial arts studio.
The locksmith had been called to Thompson Bespoke one October morning because Rashan Michel was locked out of his own business. The locksmith eyeballed the front door, said this could be a complicated job, then waited for Michel to arrive. A few minutes later, he showed up looking nothing like the debonair photos that fill his Instagram feed: Instead of tailored suits and a dashing smile, the 42-year-old Michel was wearing gym shorts, a Washington State football hoodie and some gray stubble on an otherwise youthful face.
He was anxious to get into his store. He was not anxious to talk. But Michel smoothly navigated the situation, showing the grace of a veteran hustler.
“I can’t comment at this time,” he said apologetically, after clasping my hand in a friendly embrace.
This is the kind of situation that could easily be contentious – showing up at someone’s work place uninvited to ask about him being arrested on six federal charges of bribery and fraud, part of the FBI’s inquiry into corruption in college basketball. But Michel was quite polite while tacitly telling me to go away.
The encounter underscored the appraisal one Michel acquaintance gave the previous day:
“He’s a great guy,” the acquaintance said. “But probably not a very good person.”
The “great guy” Rashan Michel had some Jay Gatsby to him, portraying himself as a suave high roller while charming his way into the lives of NBA and NFL players, college coaches, and other socially prominent people. A product of Fairfield, Alabama, part of the Birmingham metro area, he settled in Atlanta and made connections throughout the community and in the city’s sports world. From there his reach spread around the Southeast and eventually nationwide.
After working as an NBA and college referee, it was time to take his hustle elsewhere. Michel carried many of his basketball contacts with him into the suit business. A standard offer was four suits, with matching ties, for $4,000, but he would knock a few hundred off in exchange for referrals to other athletes and coaches.
From there, he was able to outfit a slew of first-round NFL draft picks and a stable of college basketball coaches. Michel became an established presence at the NFL scouting combine, the Final Four and anywhere else potential clients from those sports congregated. At some big events he would open a pop-up shop; at others, he simply worked out of his hotel room.
Judging by his Instagram account, Michel was well established at Clemson (there are pictures of football stars Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, Shaq Lawson and Martavis Bryant, plus a mention of Sammy Watkins). He purports to have outfitted 2015 No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina. He may have been in Baton Rouge for LSU’s pro day in 2016.
Michel eventually became such a draft presence that the NFL Network did a feature piece on him. The clothier to the stars. At the time the arrest warrants came down last month, Michel was planning to expand to Charlotte and open a store there.
Being a “great guy” greased his entree. Michel was quick to offer a smile and a handshake and a deal. He was, in a word, charming.
“We call him Suit Man,” said Pete Smith, the father of former NBA player Josh Smith and a mainstay in the Atlanta grass-roots basketball scene. “I met him on a suit deal but I never did business with him. We crossed each other’s paths at games. He seemed to be a good guy, seemed to be above board.
“But then I see him involved in all this college basketball stuff and it shocked me, to tell you the truth.”
The word “shock” came up in several interviews regarding Michel’s current predicament. Others were by no means surprised. They were familiar with the other Rashan Michel, the one who is “probably not a very good person.”
He stands accused of conspiring with former Auburn assistant coach and NBA star Chuck Person, among others, to commit federal crimes. The U.S. Attorney’s Office complaint released in late September alleges that Michel conspired to funnel tens of thousands of dollars to “assistant coaches at various … Division I men’s basketball programs” in exchange for them directing players toward certain agents or financial advisers when they turned pro. In addition to accepting financial kickbacks himself, Michel also expected to be cut in as the tailor of choice for those players.
The complaint asserts that Person pocketed $91,500 in bribes in roughly a year’s time, from September 2016 to September 2017, and that Michel received $49,000, some of which he dispersed to others.
Dealing with Michel has had immediate consequences for some basketball staffers. Person was suspended indefinitely by Auburn after being charged. Alabama program administrator Kobie Baker resigned the day after being implicated in the U.S. Attorney’s complaint for allegedly receiving money via Michel from a financial adviser working undercover for the FBI.
Several people interviewed by Yahoo Sports described him as a devious schemer who routinely took advantage of relationships he cultivated. That led to a checkered officiating career, an infamous public brawl with NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, and a less-public feud with former NBA player Dion Glover.
“He is toxic,” said one longtime Atlanta resident who is ingrained in the city’s basketball culture. “Even the worst of the worst people told you to stay away from Rashan. He’s a fraud.”
Michel wound up in the clothing business because he was a bust as a basketball official. Originally hired by the NBA in the 1995-96 season as a replacement ref during a strike, Michel worked 212 games through the 2000-01 season, according to basketball-reference.com. He was fired thereafter, according to multiple sources.
Michel then reffed the college game, including parts of two seasons working women’s games in the Southeastern Conference, but he was not highly regarded there, either.
“When he was fired by the NBA, the late John Guthrie [former Southeastern Conference supervisor of officials] asked me to give him a shot in the Horizon League,” said John Adams, who supervised officiating in that league and in later years was the coordinator of officials for the NCAA. “I assigned him to one game at Butler, watched the game, and told him the next day that we wouldn’t need his services. His judgment and how he handled himself on the court did not rise to the level of a D-I official.”
Two people who know Michel don’t think he handled himself very well as a clothier, either. They pointed out that his list of athlete clients is heavy on rookies – perhaps with the assistance of college coaches directing them his way. They said that younger players are more easily taken in, whereas veterans who have learned the ropes tend to leave Michel behind after unsatisfactory business dealings.
“He is just an old-school hustler,” one source said. “He’s always looking for the next scheme to make a buck. And if I know Rashan, he will absolutely rat out everyone to save himself.”
The specter of Michel potentially unloading dirt on his long list of acquaintances is why many basketball insiders are ducking for cover at the mention of his name. “I don’t know the guy” has become a popular refrain, even from people who are friends with Michel on Facebook or pictured with him on his Instagram feed.
Right now, any relationship with Rashan Michel raises questions. If you’re a college basketball coach who has been photographed wearing one of his suit coats with the trademark yellow stitching around the lapel buttonhole, you might have some explaining to do. (Many, but not all, of Michel’s coats have that stitching.)
One such coach is 2014 national champion Kevin Ollie of Connecticut. Ollie is prominent on Michel’s Instagram feed. When called for comment, Ollie deferred to UConn basketball spokesman Phil Chardis.
“He said, ‘I really don’t know the guy, I bought a couple suits from him, that’s all I understand about the guy,’ ” Chardis related.
Still, one Instagram picture dated Aug. 7, 2014, appears to show Michel with Ollie in the UConn basketball offices, with one of the school’s national championship trophies partly visible in the background.
There are many others with basketball ties promoted on the Instagram account: Oregon assistant Tony Stubblefield on two occasions wearing a coat with the yellow stitching; former Kentucky assistant, South Florida head coach and current Illinois assistant Orlando Antigua in February 2016 (Antigua lost his job at USF last year in part because of NCAA violations); former Kentucky guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison in September 2015; ESPN analyst Jay Williams is pictured holding up three pairs of shoes prior to the 2014 Kentucky Derby; and a picture posted the same day shows Michel at a high-end Louisville steakhouse with famed basketball shadow figure William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley.
Wesley declined comment to Yahoo Sports. Requests for comment from Antigua and Williams through their current schools were not returned. Stubblefield said he met Michel seven or eight years ago at a Final Four and has bought four or five suits from him over the years, but “never” was offered anything in terms of deals with players or financial advisers.
“Strictly suit business,” Stubblefield said.
Shammond Williams, who was an assistant coach at Western Kentucky until resigning in July, said his relationship with Michel is longstanding and above board.
“I’ve known him for over 15 years, at least,” Williams said. “He was an official in the NBA when I played. He used to [officiate] Vince Carter’s celebrity game every summer in Toronto.
“I was always a suit guy. I think I saw him officiate a collegiate women’s game and he presented his business, that he was making suits, so I gave him a chance and he did a great job. I would refer coaches to him. His work was second to none. … The other things that took place [and led to Michel’s arrest], I know nothing of.”
Others were less laudatory of Michel’s clothes. Syracuse assistant Allen Griffin, formerly with Archie Miller at Dayton, said the quality of Michel’s suits “sucked, to be honest with you.” Beyond that, Griffin said his relationship with Michel was strictly related to buying clothes and there was never any discussion of brokering deals for players or involvement with financial advisers.
But throughout the sport, surprise over Michel’s arrest has since given way to wariness. Said one assistant who bought clothes from the man who sought to outfit the college basketball coaching profession: “I know everyone is purging their cell phones.”
At Sideline Cutz, the barbershop next to Michel’s clothing store, all the barbers wear black-and-white striped officiating shirts. It’s ironic attire, given the former occupation of their next-door business neighbor.
Much like people within college basketball, the barbers aren’t very open to talking to a reporter about Michel, either. When the shop was devoid of customers on the morning of Oct. 6, most of them responded to questions by taking keen interest in their phones or cleaning up the shop.
“He’s good people,” said one barber. “We don’t discuss any of that other stuff.”
Three days later, the “other stuff” necessitated Michel’s appearance in federal court in New York alongside court-appointed attorney Jonathan Bach. Of the five men involved in the case who appeared in court that day, Michel was clearly the best dressed.
His royal blue suit was accented by silver pinstripes, and he wore an open-collared dress shirt with a checked pattern. When a New York Daily News court reporter approached him to find out the name of the pattern, he declined comment.
This was hardly the venue where Suit Man hoped to show off his fashion line. A great guy but probably not a good person, the time of reckoning has arrived for Rashan Michel.