Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola, a former consultant for Adidas America testified Wednesday in federal court that he made concealed payments on behalf of Adidas to the families of five elite basketball prospects, including former N.C. State star Dennis Smith Jr. and former Arizona star Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
Gassnola, 46, said he worked with Adidas to make payments to Smith Jr., Ayton and three other players: Brian Bowen (Louisville) and Silvio de Sousa and Billy Preston (Kansas). All but Ayton committed to Adidas schools. 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 testified as to why their families were targeted for payments.
Gassnola, who has pled 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.
Asked by the government why he concealed the payments to the families of the five players, Gassnola said, “I didn’t want people to find out.”
The players would have been declared ineligible had the payments become public, and in fact the prosecution is arguing the defendants in the case had intent to defraud the so-called “victim universities”: N.C. State, Louisville, Kansas and Miami.
Asked how he received the money from Adidas, Gassnola said, “Ask Jimmy,” referring to former Adidas executive Jim Gatto, one of the three defendants in the “US vs Gatto” case and the person to whom Gassnola reported at Adidas. Gatto was seated in the courtroom when Gassnola made the comment.
Wearing a gray jacket, plaid shirt and red pocket square, Gassnola said he was paid $150,000 a year as an Adidas consultant. He said he agreed with Gatto and the two other defendants in the case -- Merl Code and Christian Dawkins -- to funnel the money to the families of the five players.
It is unclear how Gassnola’s alleged payment to the family of Smith Jr. ties into reports that Dennis Smith Sr. received $40,000 for his son to commit to N.C. State.
N.C. State Compliance Director Carrie Doyle testified Tuesday that she had no prior knowledge of a $40,000 payment made to Dennis Smith Sr. by Gatto and delivered by an N.C. State assistant basketball coach.
“I have no knowledge,” she said.
Also Wednesday, Gassnola said he paid $7,000 “in cash in a magazine in an envelope” to either Brian Bowen Sr. or Dawkins as payment for Brian Bowen Jr. to play with the Adidas-sponsored Michigan Mustangs while in high school. Chris Rivers of Adidas was going to handle the remaining $18,000 of the $25,000 payment to the Bowen family, Gassnola said.
The government also presented an email from Gassnola to Rivers dated March 2, 2015 which detailed so-called “touch points” in which Gassnola met or communicated with key college coaches, high school players and their families.
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 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 in New England that was sponsored by Adidas from 2004-17. He admitted that he used funds intended for the non-profit New England Playaz “to pay for personal expenses.” He said his annual expenses for flights, hotels and rental cars for himself and his players was about $200,000-$300,000 a year.
He stopped working for Adidas in September 2017 after the FBI made 10 arrests in the case.