Fixer says he made cash payment in college hoops scheme
NEW YORK — A government witness at a college basketball corruption trial testified Thursday that he made a secret $40,000 payment to the inner circle of a North Carolina State recruit through an assistant coach at the school.
Testifying in federal court in Manhattan, self-described recruitment facilitator Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola told a jury he delivered the money in cash to the coach, Orlando Early, on a trip to Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2015.
He said the coach told him he was going to give it to a personal trainer for highly-touted point guard Dennis Smith Jr. as a way to get it to Smith’s family.
Business manager Christian Dawkins, former amateur coach Merl Code and former Adidas executive James Gatto have pleaded not guilty to defrauding various colleges by concealing the use of under-the-table payments of up to $100,000 from Adidas in exchange for commitments to programs that were seen as a path to big NBA paydays.
Their lawyers haven’t disputed payments were arranged in violation of NCAA rules, but they argue the schools never suffered any harm.
Gassnola, 46, a former Adidas consultant who has pleaded guilty, continued to drop some notable names in basketball during his second day on the witness stand Thursday.
He said that while working under the direction of Gatto, he paid out $15,000 in cash in 2015 to try to lure DeAndre Ayton to an Adidas school only to see him sign with Nike-sponsored Arizona. Ayton attended Arizona for his freshman season before being drafted No. 1 in the NBA by the Phoenix Suns.
He also testified about meeting with the mother of McDonald’s All-American Billy Preston in a hotel room in 2016 to bring him to Kansas for $90,000, warning her off of other recruiters who were less discrete about the money.
“If the payments weren’t well concealed,” he explained to the jury, “Kansas would lose their eligibility, people would lose jobs, and Kansas could have sanctions laid on them from the NCAA.”
Grassnola also testified he paid $2,500 to a person referred to has current Kansas player Silvio De Sousa’s legal guardian and discussed trying to make a $20,000 to the guardian.
Grassnola even described how he texted then-Louisville head coach Rick Pitino in a panic in September 2017 when he learned there was an investigation into the payments made to several players, including Louisville recruit Brian Bowen Jr.
“I was just looking for information, and I instinctively reached out to him,” the witness said.
There’s no evidence that Pitino responded to the text.
The legendary coach was never accused of a crime but was fired amid the fallout.
Asked Thursday about the testimony on North Carolina State, Athletic Director Debbie Yow said in statement, “If any former employee was involved, they knew they were breaking the rules and chose to keep it hidden.”
Early did not respond to a text message from the AP on Thursday.
North Carolina State announced in 2017 that both he and head coach Mark Gottfried were leaving the program months before the corruption case became public.
Smith played one year at NC State. He’s now in the NBA playing for the Dallas Mavericks.
Preston ended up leaving Kansas without playing a game for the Jayhawks.
He’s now under contract with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers in a developmental league.
Bowen also left Louisville without taking the court and now plays professionally in Australia.
The trial resumes Monday.