Fake affairs, Charger-driving great grandmas, $300K expense accounts: Inside a routine day at hoops trial

NEW YORK – The most absurd moment of a most absurd day at the federal fraud case featuring one of college basketball’s most absurd characters had to be the following … well, actually, there are many contenders.

Maybe it was when Billy Preston wrecked his Dodge Charger on the campus of the University of Kansas. The fact a top incoming basketball recruit was driving such a car caused concern with the KU compliance office, which investigated who owned the vehicle.

Text messages later revealed Preston’s mother Nicole Player bragging about buying the car for her son, but, for whatever reason (and you can probably guess), the car was, according to statements by defense attorney Mike Schachter, registered with “Nicole Player’s recently deceased grandmother” who lived in Florida.

Wait, a great grandmother who drove a Dodge Charger? That’s one cool great grandmother.

“The University of Kansas was satisfied with that,” Schachter said.

Actually, maybe that wasn’t the craziest moment. It was what came next. That’s when in the process of looking into the car, KU discovered a wire transfer to Player that came from a man named T.J. Gassnola. Player lived in Euless, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Gassnola hailed from Ludlow, Massachusetts, a little town a couple hours west of Boston.

There appeared to be no good reason for this exchange – and there wasn’t, at least by NCAA standards. Gassnola, a member of Adidas’ so-called “Black Ops” group and AAU team owner, detailed from the witness stand how he had plied Player with $89,000 over the course of nearly a year, including a $30,000 cash payout in a New York hotel room and another $20,000 brick delivered while in Las Vegas.

But wait, that’s not the best part.

Worried there was no proper explanation for the payments, Player texted Gassnola to inform him she had told KU officials the two had been involved in an “intimate” relationship, believing such activity would somehow make it NCAA legal. Maybe that would get them out of trouble, she theorized.

Among the reasons this was might not be believed: Player had a live-in partner, Timicha Kirby, who happened to be a woman.

“She hoped it wouldn’t bother my fiancé,” Gassnola said of what he said was a made-up affair, before breaking into a chuckle and rolling his eyes. “OK, thanks Nicole.”

Courtroom 26B broke into laughter because when you are this far down the rabbit hole of the underworld of college basketball, there isn’t much else to do. The federal fraud trial of Adidas executives Jim Gatto, Merl Code and middleman/would-be agent Christian Dawkins is essentially the theater of the ridiculous – and few are more ridiculous than T.J. Gassnola, this burly, goateed legend in his own mind.

Former Kansas recruit Billy Preston (right) has been competing for a roster spot with the Cavaliers. (AP)
Former Kansas recruit Billy Preston (right) has been competing for a roster spot with the Cavaliers. (AP)

Gassnola was a valued Adidas consultant, paid $150,000 a year – more than his direct boss, Gatto – and afforded an expense account he abused to the tune of up to $300,000 a year.

As an aside: How do you spend $300K a year on travel? Well, on a one-night trip to Portland in 2017, Gassnola managed to drop $598.41 on a single room at the Nines Hotel. A manager there said such a bill probably meant he rented one of their 1,200-plus-square-foot suites: “You can get a regular room tonight for $199.”

That is probably more than enough for a one-night trip for most people, but not the owner of the New England Playaz.

“It’s spelled P-l-a-y-a-z?” asked Schachter, a nerdy lawyer who doesn’t appear up on street lingo, if this even qualifies as such.

“I only went to high school, I didn’t go to college,” Gassnola cracked.

Even Judge Lewis A. Kaplan laughed at that.

Anyway, the expense abuse was allowed by Adidas because Gassnola was adept at establishing relationships with college coaches and elite prospects alike. Even better, he was more adept at delivering bundles of cash to players, their families, their coaches and anyone else with whom Adidas wanted to curry favor.

So much money was getting wired in and taken out of his bank account that Gassnola couldn’t even recall one specific instance where he withdrew $40,000 in cash and flew to North Carolina with it. He remembered a different time he did that, but apparently not a separate one.

Such an act was just too regular of an occurrence.

Gassnola is unique, but then again not unique. There aren’t many who can match his oversized frame and oversized personality, but there are 50 other middlemen out there just like him who truly run college basketball. This is the sport, no matter what Mark Emmert’s Blue Ribbon Commission thinks. And Gassnola will still be on the stand when the trial resumes Monday.

Armed with Adidas’ money and a clear mission to deliver great players to Adidas colleges, Gassnola carried massive cache.

He met regularly with any college coach in America. Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Bill Self, whomever. Self and Gassnola regularly discussed recruiting targets, although Gassnola claimed he never directly told anyone at Kansas about his payments. He and Pitino exchanged texts, including one right after the scandal broke, because, as Gassnola told the FBI, he “believed Pitino was involved in and aware of the [Brian] Bowen deal” where Adidas promised to provide $100,000 to Bowen’s dad for Bowen to play for the Cards.

Other testimony and wiretaps suggest Pitino didn’t actually know all the details and maintained, in the words of Code, at least “plausible deniability.”

It’s hard to tell, really.

During the recruitment of Orlando’s Nassir Little, Gassnola boasted he could get the kid to the University of Miami by having head coach Jim Larranaga call Gatto and tell him Little was a priority for the Hurricanes. Little’s AAU coach was seeking $150,000 for the player, Gassnola said, and supposedly Arizona was willing to pay it. Gassnola wanted Little to go to an Adidas school (Miami) rather than a Nike school (Arizona).

“Larranaga will make the phone call when I tell him to and everyone will be paid,” Gassnola said on wiretap.

Well, sure enough, just as Gatto said he would, Larranaga called Gatto. Gatto, however, said no money was discussed. “He just asked about the kid,” Gatto said on the wire. The federal case broke before any money could be provided. Little wound up at North Carolina.

Another time, Gassnola and Gatto visited Indiana and according to a memo detailing the trip, Gassnola wrote “Jim assured [then]-Coach [Tom Crean] we are here to help. … We received huggs (sic).”

What “help” means is open to debate. Crean eventually lost his job at Indiana in part for not recruiting well enough, so whatever “help” Gatto and Gassnola were talking about didn’t, well, help. But did just the hope Gassnola might be of any use for the Hoosiers really warrant a hug?

“Tom hugged me,” Gassnola testified.

Gassnola loved regaling the jury with tales of his close relationships with coaches, and how casually he doled out of cash. He had a penchant for stuffing thousands into magazines and mailing it to people. Another time he had his fiancé wire $20,000 to Player’s partner.

It really shouldn’t have been such a proud moment. He was sitting on the stand as part of a deal to warrant a lesser sentence for not just federal conspiracy charges but also tax evasion and other assorted problems.

Gassnola seemed oblivious to the idea he had become a basketball rat. He often spoke of the importance of “loyalty” and, at one point, said he still considered Gatto “a great friend,” apparently forgetting he was presently testifying against Gatto.

With friends like these, college basketball doesn’t stand a chance.

Gassnola just kept bombing out details. There was a $15,000 payment to then-high school junior Deandre Ayton, who later chose Arizona anyway, a decision that disappointed Gassnola greatly.

“Did you feel you let Coach Self down when Deandre Ayton did not go to the University of Kansas,” Schachter asked.

“I did,” Gassnola stated.

This was the dichotomy of Gassnola’s testimony. On one hand, he kept boldly claiming he never spoke to coaches about the payouts, but on the next he’d speak about how much they all begged for his help.

“The basketball coaching staffs want assistance,” Gassnola said.

Regardless of motive, he provided it. There were piles of cash to Player. There was $2,500 to the guardian of Silvio De Sousa. There was discussion of another $20,000 because the guardian had allegedly taken $60,000 from a booster for Maryland and needed to pay back some money in order to sign with Kansas. Gassnola said he never gave the $20K – probably because how was the Maryland booster really going to demand a return of a bribe? De Sousa went to his preferred KU anyway.

Another time, Schachter alleged, the high school coach of Diamond Stone said Stone’s family needed $150,000 for the player to sign. Gassnola apparently wouldn’t bite. Stone would up at Maryland. So, it was win some, lose some.

Gassnola either gave Dennis Smith Jr. $40,000 or $80,000, depending on his memory when he was a commit to Adidas-sponsored North Carolina State. The one thing he was certain of included flying to Raleigh with $40K in a big envelope and giving it to N.C. State assistant Orlando Early to forward to the family.

Gassnola said Early had previously called seeking such assistance because the Smiths weren’t easy to control. “He was … having issues keeping the situation together,” Gassnola testified. So Gassnola swept in, like some kind of AAU Superman, solving the problem with his gift and guile.

“That was the right thing to do,” Gassnola said.

After dropping the money, he flew back to New England, first class, of course.

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