The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A bagman who helped Kansas and Louisville told all in basketball trial. Or did he?

The former head of Adidas’s grass-roots basketball division asked his top consultants not to “include any confidential ‘Black Opp’s’ information” in emails. (Anthony Geathers/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

NEW YORK — The bagman strode into the courtroom confidently each morning wearing what resembled a “businessman” Halloween costume: slacks, dress shirts and sport coats that didn’t quite match, with pocket squares providing a flash of color.

Now 46, T.J. Gassnola was as tall, broad and formidable as he was in the early 1990s, when he was a recent high school graduate known around Amherst, Mass., as the muscle for John Calipari’s Massachusetts teams, the friend of the point guard who hung around when the players went out at night in case things got rough.

In the three decades that followed, Gassnola fractured a few laws and bottomed out of the night club and real estate industries before settling into a comfortable life in what he called “the basketball underground”: the dense, multilayered network of NBA agents, financial advisers, college coaches and shoe company officials trying to influence or profit from elite teenage basketball players.

Gassnola was, in the terminology of his industry, a bagman. Money flowed into his bank account, in wire transfers and checks, from people who wanted to gain favor with America’s best teenage basketball players. And then out it went as cash, rolled into magazines, stuffed into envelopes and stacked inside gym bags, for parents, coaches and family friends of top recruits in transactions Gassnola described, on the witness stand and in wiretapped phone calls, as “black ops” or “dropping bags.”

When news circulated this year that the Justice Department’s investigation of the basketball black market had nabbed Gassnola and that he had taken a plea deal and was cooperating, it sent shivers through his former industry. “T.J. knows where all the bodies are buried,” one former business associate said at the time, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing legal investigation.

In Adidas college hoops trial, everyone agrees on facts. Will NCAA take action?

In three days of testimony this month in the trial of two Adidas officials and an aspiring NBA agent, however, Gassnola did not inflict the widespread damage once feared. Under questioning by prosecutors, Gassnola detailed how he worked with the three defendants to pay family members and friends of five top recruits. Guided by evidence collected by the FBI — recordings of his phone calls, copies of his text messages, emails and bank records — Gassnola provided an inside look at the “basketball underground.”

But when defense lawyers asked Gassnola about illicit deals involving other coaches, agents and players, the judge, who had barred what he termed the “everyone’s doing it” defense, usually prevented an answer. And when the judge did allow questions, such as those focused on Kansas Coach Bill Self, whom Gassnola said he considered a close friend, the bagman’s memory went spotty.

At one point, one defense attorney informed Gassnola he had said “I don’t remember” or “I don’t recall” more than 20 times and reminded him he was under oath.

“I have been truthful,” Gassnola replied. “I just don’t remember what you’re asking me.”

Checkered past

Shortly after Gassnola took the stand Oct. 10, an assistant U.S. attorney asked him about the reasons a jury might doubt his credibility, a common tactic to minimize the impact when defense attorneys raise the same information during cross-examinations.

Gassnola had a larceny conviction in his 20s for writing bad checks. There was an assault charge, later dropped, in which a man claimed Gassnola had pointed a gun at him and boasted of friends in the local mob. There were also “five or six” civil judgments, Gassnola admitted, including one for misleading buyers in a real estate deal.

And then there was money he owed the IRS — at least $60,000, Gassnola said, a figure likely to rise — for false tax returns that didn’t disclose income from Adidas and other sources. He also made false statements to FBI agents last year before deciding to cooperate.

Gassnola was testifying for the prosecution to try to avoid prison, he acknowledged, but he said he was telling the truth.

“I’m a good guy,” he said. “I’m being truthful.”

Gassnola got into youth basketball in the early 2000s, when he started a youth travel team, the New England Playaz, which soon earned an Adidas sponsorship.

Asked about the spelling of the team’s name, Gassnola said, “I went to high school. I didn’t go to college.”

Sally Jenkins: College sports programs aren’t victims of fraud. They’re participants.

While running the Playaz, Gassnola testified, he also earned side income for a few years as a runner, or recruiter, for sports agent Andy Miller. When a defense lawyer asked whether Gassnola knew about Miller making illicit payments to try to land top recruits, the judge prevented an answer.

In 2012, the NCAA banned Gassnola from any involvement with “certified events” — youth tournaments college coaches can attend — because of his relationship with Miller. He briefly lost his Adidas sponsorship, until Jim Gatto, a friend of Miller’s who worked in the company’s basketball marketing division, intervened.

Gatto made Gassnola a consultant, he testified, a job that entails recruiting top talent to the shoe company’s youth league and maintaining relationships with college coaches.

The prosecutor displayed a text message Gassnola once sent Gatto, who is facing wire fraud charges over deals Gassnola described on the stand, to send recruits to Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina State and Miami.

“Appreciate u man more than you will ever know maybe I don’t say it enough your my man Jim,” Gassnola wrote.

“Jimmy was right there for me,” Gassnola explained. “He was a great friend.”

“Is that how you felt about Mr. Gatto?” the prosecutor asked as Gassnola’s former boss at Adidas — a 48-year-old father of two with no prior criminal record — sat feet away, stone-faced, staring straight ahead.

“Still do,” Gassnola said.

'He didn't say no'

In February 2015, an email went out to six of Adidas’s top consultants, Gassnola included, from Chris Rivers, an Adidas executive who formerly oversaw the company’s youth basketball division. Rivers copied Gatto, his colleague.

The subject: “adidas Soul Patrol aka Black Opps Update #1.”

Rivers informed his consultants of a policy change: He wanted emailed memos, every 90 days, detailing their travels, the college coaches and top recruits they met with and how things went.

“Please don’t include any confidential ‘Black Opp’s’ information but make sure there is enough detail that validates the money we spent,” wrote Rivers, who has not been charged with a crime and has been placed on administrative leave by Adidas, according to two people in the company’s youth basketball division.

A few weeks later, Gassnola filed a memo that detailed meetings with coaches at eight schools — Kansas, Indiana, Arizona, UCLA, Kentucky, N.C. State, Miami and Michigan — as well as several meetings with top high school and college players. At some of these meetings, Gassnola acknowledged on the stand, he arranged what Rivers had referred to as black ops.

“Black ops meant payments to families of players,” Gassnola explained. Rivers “didn’t want it in an email where there was any proof of it.”

The money for these operations flowed through the bank account for the New England Playaz, Gassnola testified, through the loose financial arrangement he had with Adidas.

While Adidas had an annual sponsorship contract with the Playaz — $75,000 in Adidas products and $70,000 for travel expenses — there was no contract for Gassnola’s job as consultant.

Gassnola earned about $75,000 a year as a consultant, he said, and expensed another $100,000 to $150,000 annually to Adidas for travel, repeatedly ignoring Gatto’s requests that he stop flying first-class, staying in expensive hotel suites and renting high-end sports cars.

The shoe company’s money flowed into Gassnola’s bank account in sizable chunks, his bank records showed — a $90,000 wire deposit here, a $55,000 check there — and he usually made large cash withdrawals.

Inside the basketball black market that put Adidas in the FBI’s crosshairs

In the fall of 2015, Gassnola testified, he received a concerning phone call from Orlando Early, an assistant coach at N.C. State. Star recruit Dennis Smith Jr. was apparently reconsidering his decision to commit to the Adidas-sponsored team.

“I offered to bring him $40,000 to calm the situation,” Gassnola testified. Asked what the coach said in reply, Gassnola answered, “I don’t recall his exact words, but he didn’t say no.”

Gassnola said he booked a first-class flight to Raleigh, N.C., and hand-delivered a bulging envelope to Early at his home. Early told Gassnola he would give the money to a trainer who would give it to Smith’s family, Gassnola testified. It was unclear whether Gassnola ensured the money actually made it to the family.

When he got back to Massachusetts, he filed an invoice and called his boss, Gatto.

“I just told Jimmy that there was a situation involving Dennis Smith that I had needed to take care of,” Gassnola testified.

In 2016, Gassnola said, he learned that Kansas recruit Billy Preston’s mother, Nicole Player, was taking money from other “entities” interested in her son’s talents. Concerned that these other people, whom he didn’t identify, would be “sloppy” and get Preston’s mother caught, Gassnola made her an offer: Stop taking money from everyone else, and Adidas would pay her what she needed.

Over the next year, Gassnola testified, he paid Preston’s mother $89,000, in installments. In November 2016, Gassnola took out $50,000, gave $30,000 to Player and used some of the remaining $20,000 to buy Super Bowl tickets for himself and some colleagues at Adidas, he said. Two months later, he took out another $27,500 and gave $20,000 to Player.

A prosecutor asked Gassnola what he did with the remaining $7,500.

“I kept it in my pocket and went shopping,” Gassnola testified.

After each payment, Gassnola said, he would invoice Adidas and call Gatto, to let him know he needed another reimbursement, using the same suggestive message: “Billy Preston’s family is in a good place.”

'Light work'

Last December, Gassnola and his lawyer met with an FBI agent to start discussing a plea deal. When asked about the $100,000 promise Adidas had made to get a recruit to attend Louisville, Gassnola told the agent he believed Coach Rick Pitino knew about the deal, according to an FBI agent’s notes. Pitino has adamantly denied this.

On the stand, Gassnola said he didn’t recall what he told the agent about Pitino. This is a crucial point. Defense attorneys have argued that if top head coaches — arguably the most powerful people on college campuses — approved of the illicit recruiting help Adidas was providing, their clients can’t be guilty of defrauding the universities.

Gatto’s defense attorney, Michael Schachter, then read from the FBI agent’s notes, to see whether it refreshed Gassnola’s memory about what he had said last year about Pitino.

“I don’t remember saying that,” Gassnola testified.

Schachter then highlighted, in Gassnola’s bank records, sizable deposits from Martin Fox, a business manager who worked with professional athletes.

In September 2015, Fox wired Gassnola $40,000. A few days later Gassnola made a $40,000 cash withdrawal and booked a flight to Raleigh. The questions suggested that Gassnola had been paying the Smith family on behalf of more interested parties than just Adidas.

“I don’t recall that,” Gassnola said of his trip to Raleigh or what he did with the $40,000.

Why Bill Self’s texts with an Adidas official are a headache for Kansas basketball

Similar memory gaps arose when the conversation turned to Gassnola’s recruiting efforts on behalf of Kansas. Gassnola admitted to agreeing to pay the legal guardian of recruit Silvio De Sousa $20,000 to ensure the forward from Angola attended Kansas. Gassnola denied informing Kansas Coach Bill Self about the money, though. Gassnola said he told Self only that he would help De Sousa’s legal guardian, also an Angola native, get Adidas gear for the Angolan national team.

On Aug. 9, 2017, with De Sousa still uncommitted, Gassnola texted Self to let him know he had spoken with De Sousa’s guardian.

“We good?” Self texted.

“Always . . . light work,” Gassnola replied.

The same day, Gassnola and Self had a five-minute phone conversation. When asked about the phone call, Gassnola said he didn’t remember what they discussed that day.

Later, another defense attorney asked Gassnola a question about the “basketball underground” he had described.

“When you say the world you live in,” the lawyer began before Gassnola interrupted and corrected him.

“Lived in,” he said.

Not long after, the judge excused Gassnola for the last time, and he stepped down from the stand. Gassnola then did something he also had done the previous two days: As he walked toward the courtroom exit, he muttered a series of expletives, to himself, and the door closed behind him.

Hobson reported from Washington.