NEW YORK — A former consultant for Adidas America testified Wednesday in federal court that he made concealed payments on behalf of the shoe company to the families of five elite basketball prospects — including former Arizona Wildcats star and No. 1 NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton.
Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola, 46, said he worked with Adidas to make payments to the families of Ayton and four other players who landed at Adidas schools: Brian Bowen (Louisville), Silvio de Sousa and Billy Preston (Kansas) and Dennis Smith Jr. (N.C. State). Ayton verbally committed to the UA, a Nike school, in September 2016. The decision surprised recruiting experts, many of whom believed he’d commit to Kansas.
Bowen never played at Louisville after the FBI learned that his father, Brian Bowen Sr., worked with Adidas on a scheme to funnel him $100,000 for his son to play at Louisville.
“These players were either going to our (Adidas) universities, or we wanted them to go to our universities,” Gassnola said.
Asked by the prosecution why he concealed the payments to the families of the five players, Gassnola said, “I didn’t want people to find out.”
Ayton and the others would have been declared ineligible by the NCAA had the payments become public.
The prosecution is arguing that the three men on trial — former Adidas executive Jim Gatto, former Adidas employee Merl Code and would-be sports agent Christian Dawkins — had intent to defraud four so-called “victim universities”: Louisville, Kansas, N.C. State and Miami.
Asked how he received the money from Adidas, Gassnola said, “Ask Jimmy,” referring to Gatto. Gatto was seated in the court when Gassnola made the comment.
Gassnola, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, is a government witness in the case. He did not mention any specific payment amounts to Judge Lewis A. Kaplan and the jury on Wednesday, but is due back on the stand Thursday morning.
Attorneys told the jury last week that Ayton’s name was likely to come up in the trial, along with those of UA coach Sean Miller, former Wildcats assistants Joe Pasternack and Book Richardson, and dozens of others throughout college basketball.
ESPN reported in February that Miller discussed a pay-for-play scheme involving Ayton, a story the coach vehemently denied. An attorney hired by the UA to conduct an outside review, Paul Kelly, issued a statement after the ESPN report that said Ayton had “consistently and credibly” maintained that neither he nor any member of his family received money or an extra benefit that influenced his decision to attend Arizona. Miller returned to the UA bench March 1 after sitting out a game amid the ESPN report and defended his star player, saying the allegations hurt, among others, “Deandre Ayton and his incredible family.”
Ayton signed a lucrative shoe deal with Puma in June, days before the Suns made him the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
Wearing a gray jacket, plaid shirt and red pocket square, Gassnola testified Wednesday that he was paid $150,000 a year as an Adidas consultant. He said he, Gatto and the other two defendant in the case — Code and Dawkins — agreed to funnel the money to the families of the five players.
The prosecution also presented an email from Gassnola to Adidas executive Chris Rivers dated March 2, 2015, that detailed so-called “touch points” — times Gassnola met or communicated with key college coaches, high school players and their families.
Between Feb. 19-22, 2015, the email said, Gassnola attended practices involving both UCLA and Arizona. “Spent time with (Steve) Alford and his staff,” it read. Nothing specific relating to Arizona was mentioned. The Wildcats and Bruins played Feb. 21, 2015, at McKale Center, with Arizona winning 57-47. ESPN’s “College GameDay” broadcast from McKale Center earlier that day.
Another email, dated Feb. 17, 2015, was sent by Rivers to several Adidas employees and consultants with the title, “Adidas Soul Patrol — AKA Black Opp’s (sic) Update.”
Rivers said he wanted “notes on who we are seeing and how each of these touch points will help us in the short and long term future.”
Gassnola began working as a grassroots basketball coach in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and eventually set up the New England Playaz Basketball Club, a powerhouse club which Adidas sponsored from 2004-17. He admitted that he used funds intended for the nonprofit New England Playaz “to pay for personal expenses.” He said his annual expenses for flights, hotels and rental cars for himself and his players were about $200,000-$300,000 a year.
He stopped working for Adidas in September 2017, after the FBI made 10 arrests in the case.