NEW YORK — A former shoe consultant and fixer detailed Thursday how he paid those close to top basketball prospects in hopes they would play for Adidas-sponsored college programs.
Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola testified for the second consecutive day in a federal trial against three men accused by the federal government of fraud. Among the players he mentioned was Deandre Ayton, the former Arizona Wildcats star and the No. 1 overall draft pick of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
Gassnola testified Thursday that he paid a family friend of Ayton’s $15,000 to pass along to Ayton’s mother, Andrea. Gassnola testified that he made the payment in the winter of 2015; he said Ayton was a junior in high school at the time.
Gassnola, 46, said he also tried to line up housing and a job for Ayton’s unnamed family members, but was unsuccessful.
“I felt bad for his family and wanted to establish the relationship with his family,” Gassnola said.
Gassnola testified that he received the money from Adidas executive Jim Gatto, one of the three men currently on trial for fraud. Gassnola said that he paid a man named Larnelle “to give it to Deandre’s mother.”
Gassnola did not mention the last name or occupation of the family friend, but a 2015 story from Yahoo Sports detailed, among other things, the Bahamian big man’s relationship with the coach who discovered him.
Larnelle Johnson was working the now-famous Jeff Rodgers basketball camp in Nassau when he spotted Ayton for the first time, the story said.
Johnson told friends in San Diego about Ayton, according to the story, and soon the center relocated to California to play for the upstart Balboa City prep program. Ayton eventually left the San Diego school and enrolled at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix.
Gassnola’s stated attempts to win over Ayton and his camp with money didn’t exactly pan out.
The 7-footer played in just one Adidas-sponsored tournament, the 2016 Adidas Nations event. He committed to Arizona, a Nike school, five months later. Ayton signed a lucrative shoe deal with Puma last summer, days before the Suns took him with the No. 1 overall pick.
Gassnola said Thursday afternoon that he was disappointed when Ayton chose Arizona over Kansas, an Adidas school, given the shoe consultant’s close relationship with Jayhawks coach Bill Self.
Gassnola said he paid four other players; two of them, Silvio de Sousa and Billy Preston, chose KU.
When asked in cross-examination if he felt like he let Self down, Gassnola replied with two words: “I did.”
Gassnola also name-dropped many talented young basketball players during his day-long testimony. He told a jury he delivered money in cash to a coach of Dennis Smith Jr., a highly touted point guard who ended up picking North Carolina State, an Adidas school. Gassnola said the coach told him he was going to give it to Smith Jr.’s personal trainer as a way to get it to the prospect’s family.
Gassnola also described how he texted then-Louisville head coach Rick Pitino in a panic in September 2017, when he learned there was an investigation into the payments made to several players, including Louisville recruit and one-time Arizona target Brian Bowen.
“I was just looking for information, and I instinctively reached out to him,” the witness said.
Gassnola is scheduled to return to the witness stand Monday, when the trial resumes.