College basketball corruption trial: Former Adidas consultant says he paid 5 recruits' families, including Deandre Ayton's
NEW YORK — College basketball’s federal corruption trial had an explosive afternoon on Wednesday when a former consultant for Adidas testified to secretly paying the families of five recruits, including former Arizona star Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
Thomas Joseph (“T.J.”) Gassnola testified that he also paid money to families of current Kansas player Silvio De Sousa, former Kansas player Billy Preston, former NC State player Dennis Smith Jr. and former Louisville player Brian Bowen II. Gassnola also testified to conspiring with Jim Gatto, Merl Code and Christian Dawkins — the three defendants in this trial, all of whom have pled not guilty — to conceal payments from schools and the NCAA.
“I wanted to keep it quiet,” Gassnola said of the shrouded pay-for-play scheme that sits as a central theme and catalyst in this court case.
Gassnola’s sworn statement marked the first time Ayton’s name was brought up during testimony in the trial. His name, and Arizona coach Sean Miller’s, have previously been infamously connected to the FBI’s casethat alleged Dawkins and Miller being caught on wiretap discussing Ayton and six-figure payments.
Wednesday’s session ended with Gassnola still under direct examination and he is expected to continue to receive extensive questioning from the prosecution on Thursday morning before the defense gets its chance to cross-examine him. Gassnola, 46, is a government witness after pleading guilty on March 30, 2018, to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. By cutting that deal, Gassnola is attempting to avoid a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
“Who are the victims here?” one of the prosecutors asked Gassnola.
“The universities,” Gassnola said.
Playing for the feds also makes Gassnola an enemy of his former Adidas colleagues. At one point on Wednesday, Gassnola was asked by the prosecutor how he got money for players’ families from Adidas.
“Ask Jimmy,” Gassnola said, referring to Gatto, who sat 20 feet away and was alertly watching and listening to the testimony.
In testifying on behalf of the government — which is trying to establish that schools were defrauded when players were steered and paid to play at certain programs — Gassnola’s lifting the lid on how Adidas’ illicit recruiting operations worked.
“They needed to be better than what they were when I first started with Jimmy,” Gassnola, who was composed, calm and direct all afternoon, said on the stand.
The government displayed for the jury an email from Feb. 17, 2015, from Adidas grassroots executive Chris Rivers, who described a “Black Opp’s” (sic) strategy and select members of the company who were grouped into those endeavors.
“Please do not include any confidential ‘Black-Opp’s’ information but make sure there is enough detail that validates the money we spend in addition to demonstrating how we are building relationships that will help us in the draft signings process,” Rivers wrote to his colleagues.
Per Gassnola, the Black Opp’s was a “dark operation, underground. They don’t want anyone to know about.”
He said Rivers “didn’t want things in print or in email as proof.” Rivers has not been charged in this case and is not expected to be called to testify.
Gassnola said he helped orchestrate a $25,000 payment to Bowen II’s family when he was in high school, corroborating testimony made by Brian Bowen Sr. on Tuesday. The payment assured Bowen II he’d play for Adidas-sponsored Michigan Mustangs on the grassroots circuit after the family made it aware they’d “need” $25,000 to switch teams. Gassnola said he paid $7,000 in cash and delivered it in an envelope that was placed in a magazine. He said the rest of the money was given to the family by Rivers.
Another document from Feb. 13, 2015, showed Gassnola reporting to Rivers and others in the “Black Opp’s” email chain that the Bowen family was “committed to us.”
Gassnola, who coached more than 150 Division I prospects and led the Adidas-sponsored New England Playaz grassroots program since 2004, became an outside consultant in 2015. He had no contract. When he needed to get paid for his consultant work, Gassnola said, “I’d ask Jimmy for the money.” He embraced being a basketball greaser, someone who looked the part.
Adidas paid Gassnola $75,000 annually to operate the Playaz and provided another $70,000 in cash for travel expenses. Gassnola testified that he was paid an additional $150,000 from 2015-17 for his consulting duties and also brought in between $200,000-$300,000 for reimbursement on travel expenses. Gassnola ignored Gatto’s repeated requests to dial down his extravagant travel lifestyle. Instead, he flew first class, rented the best cars and stayed in elite hotels.
All for the sake of acquiring elite high school talent, getting them to go to Adidas schools, and working those relationships to a payoff if and when the players became NBA commodities.
One document entered into evidence by the prosecution showed a $90,000 wire transfer from Adidas to Gassnola on Jan. 15, 2015, that bumped his account from $2,634.89 to $92,634.89. A check with an Adidas logo on it and dated May 15, 2015, showed a $55,000 deposit to Gassnola’s account.
There were not a lot of specifics provided by Gassnola, such as how much money each player and their families received. More pertinent details are expected to come in direct examination Thursday morning.
The defense is sure to lean on a consider-the-witness design Thursday; Gassnola is no angel. On the stand he admitted to years worth of tax evasion and currently is $60,000 in debt to the IRS. The prosecution knows that the defense is going to go at Gassnola with a thirst to slice up his credibility. To get ahead of that, the prosecution laid out for the jury all of Gassnola’s misdeeds dating back to his 20s: larcenous on multiple occasions for passing bogus checks; tax evasion; taking Adidas’ money for his non-profit grassroots youth travel team and using $70,000 of it to apply for a loan in his fiancee’s name; having him tell the jury he lied to the FBI multiple times before consulting with his lawyer and agreeing to testify on the side of the federal government.
It was a revealing day, and who knows what information that was provided under oath will ultimately blow back from an NCAA standpoint. The circumstances surrounding Kansas basketball are getting thornier by the day in this case. The defense highlighted, from evidence, two instances of paperwork from former player Billy Preston that weren’t properly completed by Kansas’ compliance staff. Preston and De Sousa were alleged to have been provided $110,000 between both their families.
De Sousa, the only active college basketball player implicated on Wednesday, appears unchanged in status as an eligible student-athlete. Kansas senior director of compliance Jeff Smith was on the stand prior to Gassnola and said the University of Kansas became aware of potential eligibility issues with De Sousa in April of this year.
The defense cross-examined Smith and asked what he knew about a $20,000 deal set up for De Sousa, in addition to an alleged signed overseas paper agreement and involvement with an agent for a pro team in Spain that was signed by De Sousa. Smith said he did not recall anything about the money but did remember potential issues with the paperwork agreement for overseas.
When Smith was asked by the prosecution if he had knowledge of De Sousa being ineligible “at this point,” he replied: “I do not.”
Yet both sides of lawyers in this case are working under an understanding that De Sousa’s guardian was party to a $20,000 payment.
These are threads that may be tied by Gassnola’s attestation Thursday. Kansas, Arizona, NC State and Louisville remain on high alert — as does the NCAA, which can now choose to use evidence provided in court as means for sanctions in its own cases.
And Gassnola’s testimony procedure isn’t even halfway done.