Photo: David McNew (Getty)

Two weeks ago, before he was indicted in United States District Court for a wide variety of crimes, lawyer Michael Avenatti intimated that he had proof of Nike paying Zion Williamson to attend Duke, and doing so by paying Williamson’s mother for bogus consulting services. His threats were quite specific, and they also might be to be the product of a pretty effortless hoax.

On the night of April 5, Avenatti had ominously tweeted at Duke to ask whether Nike had paid Williamson’s mother Sharonda Sampson for fake consulting services two or three years ago.

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It became a whole thing the following morning:

At the time, Duke released a statement about Avenatti’s accusation, promising an investigation. “We are aware of the allegation and, as we would with any compliance matter, are looking into it. Duke is fully committed to compliance with all NCAA rules and regulations,” athletic director Kevin White said last week. Duke did not respond to a request for an update on the investigation.

In a separate but similar set of posts one week before that, Avenatti pushed claims that Nike had paid basketball players Bol Bol and DeAndre Ayton $170,000 to direct them to Nike-backed schools. He was then charged with trying to extort the company for $20 million. He tweeted the following threat at the time:

Nike should be criminally indicted on well over 200 counts and should also explain why they misled their investors/the SEC. If I’m lying or the docs are not legit, I challenge @nike to issue a stmt claiming no bribes were ever paid. Just Do It.

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It’s unclear where Avenatti received his information on Bol and Ayton, but his claims about Zion Williamson claims appear to have been based in part on a bogus document. Deadspin spoke to a person who had fabricated a fake invoice for $2,125 and texted it to Avenatti. About one hour after the lawyer received the fake invoice, he fired off his tweet to Duke.

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The tipster reached out to Deadspin last Friday afternoon and shared a video that showed them opening a text message conversation they had had with Avenatti one week prior, which featured Avenatti’s cell phone number. (It matched the number I used when I called him for this story a few years ago.) They also provided the fake invoice, writing “Boston Sucks!” on it at Deadspin’s request, to show they had the same handwriting as the notes on the bottom of the invoice provided to Avenatti.

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The person who sent it told Deadspin they were inspired by 4chan’s 2018 duping of Avenatti and that they sent the fake document because “he falls for crap and I don’t like him.” They searched for Williamson’s mother’s name online, created the document in Microsoft Word, and sent a photo of it to Avenatti, not expecting him to tweet about it so quickly or directly.

Avenatti seemed to figure out the next morning that he was getting played. He texted the hoaxer, “Nice try idiot. Next time try harder and be smarter. And fuck off btw.” Avenatti never retracted any of his claims about Williamson or deleted the tweets, though he did lock his Twitter account after he was indicted last week.

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Deadspin spoke to Avenatti today, and when asked about this prank and the text message exchange, he said, “I don’t know anything about that.” According to Avenatti, people are always trying to hoax him. “All kinds of people have fabricated all kinds of text messages. I have to deal with all this nonsense,” he said, adding, “it’s very easy to find my phone number.”

Avenatti said his accusations towards Williamson, his mother, and Nike were not based off of the invoice above. “I don’t make a claim off of just one invoice, we have substantial evidence, documents and testimony,” he said. When asked whether he would make that evidence public, he said, “We very well may release that info,” though he noted that he has no updates he’s willing to share with the public yet.

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