'Black-Ops' mission: Hoops bag man details how he offered 'help' to college basketball programs, like Kansas

NEW YORK – As part of Adidas America’s so-called “Black Ops” division, T.J. Gassnola had been explicitly instructed by his bosses not to detail in writing any payouts to high school and college players on the company’s behalf. Adidas didn’t want any information out there that might find its way into an NCAA case, or presumably even a federal fraud trial like the one being held here in Lower Manhattan.

“A dark operation, underground [that] they don’t want anyone to know about,” testified Gassnola, a burly, goateed Massachusetts AAU coach who has been described as Adidas’ “bag man.”

Adidas did, however, need some documentation on what the hell Gassnola was doing out on the road, something that could justify his outrageous expenses, which Gassnola admitted approached $300,000 a year via first-class flights, luxury car rentals and high-end hotel rooms.

So Gassnola typed out a litany of meetings and work he performed over a 90-day stretch in 2014 and sent it to his bosses.

It didn’t mention the payments to college players and their families that he copped to on the witness stand, including Billy Preston (Kansas), Silvio De Sousa (Kansas), Brian Bowen II (Louisville), Dennis Smith Jr. (North Carolina State) or Deandre Ayton (Arizona).

It did note various meetings with coaches at Adidas schools around the country – N.C. State, Indiana, UCLA, Miami and so on. In particular was a trip in 2014 to Lawrence, Kansas, to attend the Kansas Jayhawks’ annual first practice called “Late Night in the Phog.”

“Met with Coach [Bill] Self and his staff,” Gassnola’s note read. ” … talked recruiting targets and the upcoming season. Assured them we are here to help.”

Exactly what Gassnola meant by “help” and what Self and his staff said in response to such an assurance should be a major focus of Thursday’s testimony. That’s especially the case when Gassnola faces cross-examination from the attorneys for former Adidas executives Jim Gatto and Merl Code, and would-be agent and middleman Christian Dawkins who are standing trail for wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Kansas head coach Bill Self talks huddles with his players during a practice session for the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Friday, March 30, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP)
Kansas head coach Bill Self talks huddles with his players during a practice session for the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Friday, March 30, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP)

The defense is eager to show the jury that any payments to players or their family were not designed to defraud or harm universities, including Kansas in the case of Preston ($90,000) and De Sousa ($20,000). Rather, it was an effort to help Adidas’ flagship college programs land top recruits, often from the Adidas AAU and high school ranks. Here is a government witness saying it for them.

“It is important that they attend Adidas’ schools,” Gassnola testified of college teams sponsored by the shoe and apparel giant. “It was important to us in the grassroots system.”

So exactly what does “help” mean and what exactly did Self and his staff take it to mean? Also, what exactly did talking about recruiting targets entail? For the purposes of NCAA violations, everything may boil down to that.

Thus far, KU has tried to remain above the fray in this scandal. While Louisville fired its Hall of Fame coach, Rick Pitino, after the federal case broke last September, Kansas has stuck by its coach.

A KU compliance director even testified Wednesday that De Sousa has never been suspended by the school even though there appears to be no dispute between the prosecution and the defense that his guardian, Fenny Falmagne, was paid $20,000 to have De Sousa attend Kansas. De Sousa played on last year’s Final Four Jayhawks team.

Kansas has even followed the government’s lead and labeled itself “a victim.”

Gassnola’s testimony Thursday may shed light on just whether that is accurate. That’s why Kansas appears to have sent two attorneys to observe testimony, although on Wednesday the men would only say they were from “elsewhere” and laughed if “elsewhere” meant a small town on the Plains.

Gassnola is no choir boy and no one who takes one look at him or listens to one sentence he speaks could imagine he was some innocent benefactor.

Adidas hired him for their “Black Ops” program because of his connections and ability to get things done. He’s a basketball con man though, a guy who took a deal with the feds in an effort to avoid, or reduce, prison time in this case. To do so, he has to testify against his former buddy and boss, Gatto.

A guilty plea on conspiracy charges is just the start. Gassnola acknowledged on the stand that he has defrauded people by passing sham checks, used the charitable foundation attached to his AAU program to pay himself, failed to pay taxes for years, cheated on loan applications and operated unethically in the real estate and car business, among other travails. It took the government 15 minutes to explain all his scams and schemes to the jury in an effort to take the heat off when the defense brings it all up and blisters him later for being an unreliable lout.

Armed with a high school education and some experience in the night club industry, he found grassroots basketball perfect for his talents despite operating out of the unlikely locale of little Ludlow, Massachusetts, located in the western part of the state where there is no elite talent.

Yet even when employed as a consultant to Adidas and given the dream gig of shuffling players through the system and meeting with famous coaches, he wouldn’t follow Gatto’s constant pleadings and admonishments to stop spending so much money on the road. He preferred instead to enjoy a lavish lifestyle knowing he wouldn’t be fired as long as he delivered players.

And deliver he did.

For example, when he heard Brian “Tugs” Bowen, then one of the top sophomores in America from Saginaw, Michigan, might be looking for a new AAU team, he said he flew out to watch him deliver “30 and 20” in a high school game, took the entire family out to dinner and later stuffed $7,000 in cash in a magazine and mailed it to Bowen’s father.

“They are committed to us,” Gassnola wrote.

There is almost nothing about Gassnola that implies credibility or interest in following the rules – be it NCAA statutes, federal laws, state laws or basic IRS procedures.

He looks like he came straight out of Central Casting as “muscle” and seems to revel in projecting such an aura.

Even here in court, the 46-year-old strode in with confidence wearing an oversized gray sports jacket, with a red pocket square and fresh Adidas sneakers. At one point his NE Playaz AAU team was getting $75,000 in Adidas gear per year and grew to prominence despite in 2012 being banned for one year from NCAA-certified events for Gassnola’s ties to New Jersey sports agent Andy Miller.

This is who the college basketball coaches of America discussed recruiting targets with and got assurances of help from. This is the sport.

By the time defense attorneys are done with Thursday, he should prove to be a treasure trove of stories about the underworld of college basketball – a lot of light being shined on the “Black Ops,” perhaps even all the way to Lawrence.

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