Adidas consultant alleges large cash payments to families of five basketball players
NEW YORK — Former Louisville recruit Brian “Tugs” Bowen and current Phoenix Suns player Deandre Ayton, this year’s top overall pick of the NBA draft, are two of the five players whose families received payments from former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola, according to explosive testimony Gassnola delivered on the stand Wednesday in Manhattan federal court.
Gassnola, 46, is a key government witness in the college basketball fraud and corruption trial, and his testimony directly implicated the three co-defendants in the case: aspiring agent Christian Dawkins, former Adidas consultant Merl Code and Adidas executive James “Jim” Gatto, who Gassnola testified was his superior while he worked for Adidas.
Earlier this year, Gassnola pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and on March 30, 2018, Gassnola signed a cooperation agreement with the government. He testified Wednesday that he has a prior criminal record dating back to “my 20s,” for “larceny and writing bad checks.”
When asked by the prosecution Wednesday what his guilty plea in this case referred to, Gassnola testified that he “concealed payments” to the families of student athletes and “kept them from universities.”
Gassnola then testified that he had not acted alone, and named Dawkins, Code and Gatto by name. Federal prosecutor Eli Mark asked Gassnola how many families of and/or student athletes he had provided payments.
“Five,” said Gassnola. “Brian Bowen, Billy Preston, Silvio De Sousa, Dennis Smith and Deandre Ayton.” Gassnola testified that he tried to conceal each payment from different universities.
Tugs Bowen currently plays professional basketball in Australia. Ayton played at Arizona and Dennis Smith Jr. played at N.C. State. Preston had committed to play for Kansas, but was involved in a car accident last year. After an investigation into the incident, he decided to play professionally. De Sousa is still playing for the Kansas Jayhawks.
Gassnola testified that he first became aware of Tugs Bowen through Dawkins, during Bowen Jr.’s sophomore year in high school. Gassnola said the Bowen family later indicated that Tugs wanted to play for a different grass roots/AAU basketball team in Michigan — the Michigan Mustangs, which has an Adidas sponsorship.
Gassnola said he traveled to Saginaw, Michigan to see Tugs Bowen play — “(Bowen Jr.) had potential. He had a bright future,” Gassnola said Wednesday — and that he was later informed by Dawkins that the Bowen family “wanted to make a move,” so Tugs could play for the Mustangs. Gassnola testified that Dawkins told him the Bowen family needed $25,000 in order to make the switch of teams.
Gassnola testified he and Dawkins met with Bowen Sr., Tugs, and Bowen Jr.’s mother in a Saginaw restaurant to finalize the switch by Tugs to play for the Mustangs. Gassnola then testified that he sent $7,000 to the Bowen family — he couldn’t remember who — and placed the cash amount in a magazine before enclosing the cash-stuffed magazine in an envelope.
“Chris Rivers took care of the rest of (the payment),” Gassnola testified. Rivers is an Adidas executive.
In an email from Rivers to numerous parties, including Gassnola and Gatto dated Feb. 17, 2015, which the government displayed, Rivers used the term “Black Opp’s,” which Gassnola testified was a term used to refer to secret payments made to the families of student athletes.
In a March 2, 2015 email from Gassnola to Rivers that the government displayed, Gassnola discussed seeing Tugs Bowen play. “Feb 13 Saginaw Mich saw B Bowen Play against Saginaw he had 30 and 20 took family to eat they are committed to us,” the email said.
Gassnola started his own grassroots team in Massachusetts, the New England Playaz Basketball Club, and he testified that when he asked for money from Gatto, the money was sometimes wired into his Playaz account. Gassnola testified that Gatto reprimanded him at least once for exceeding the limits of his travel expense budget while working for Adidas.
“I stayed in nice hotels, rented nice cars,” Gassnola said. An endorsement agreement Gassnola signed with Adidas in January 2017 listed him as “Consultant.”
“It was all about relationships, having access to college programs,” said Gassnola.
Earlier Wednesday, Carrie Doyle, a compliance officer for N.C. State, finished her testimony on the witness stand.
Doyle testified that the university had concerns over former men’s basketball head coach Mark Gottfried’s interactions with Eric Leak, a former N.C. State wide receiver.
A memo introduced in court by defense by Michael Schacter detailed an Oct. 30, 2014 meeting between Gottfried, Doyle, athletic director Debbie Yow and senior associate AD Chris Boyle.
Yow expressed her concerns about Gottfried interacting with Leak in the memo.
“Mark indicted (sic) he needed to be able to recruit talented young men who may/may not have correlation/ties with either Desmond Eastmond or Eric Leak,” read the memo.
Doyle said her department’s fears were ”assuaged” when it was determined Gottfried hadn’t committed any NCAA violations. Gottfried was fired by N.C. State last year.
Jeff Smith, a University of Kansas compliance officer, also testified Wednesday. Gassnola will resume testimony Thursday, and the government indicated it could rest on Monday.