Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola, a former consultant for Adidas America, testified Wednesday in federal court that he made concealed payments on behalf of the shoe company to the families of five elite basketball prospects, including current Kansas forward Silvio De Sousa, former KU forward Billy Preston and former Arizona big man Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
Also Wednesday, while a KU compliance director took the witness stand, he was asked by a defense attorney about De Sousa at one point signing a contract with a pro team in Spain. But a U.S. assistant district attorney told the court that KU obtained NCAA clearance after including evidence from handwriting experts who could not conclude the signature on that contract and another with a sports agent was not De Sousa’s.
Gassnola, 46, said he worked with Adidas to make payments to those three along with Dennis Smith Jr. and Brian Bowen Jr. Smith Jr. is now with the Dallas Mavericks after playing at N.C. State, while Bowen is playing professionally in Australia after the NCAA declared him ineligible to play in college. Bowen never played at Louisville after the FBI learned that his father, Brian Bowen Sr., worked with Adidas on a scheme to funnel him $100,000 for his son to play at Louisville.
All but Ayton committed to schools whose athletic programs are sponsored by Adidas. Arizona is a Nike school.
“These players were either going to our (Adidas) universities or we wanted them to go to our universities,” Gassnola testified as to why their families were targeted for payments.
Gassnola, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, is a government witness in the case. He did not mention any specific payment amounts to Judge Lewis A. Kaplan and the jury on Wednesday, but is due back on the stand Thursday morning.
Asked by the government why he concealed the payments to the families of the five players, Gassnola said, “I didn’t want people to find out.”
The players would have been declared ineligible by the NCAA had the payments become public, and in fact the prosecution is arguing the defendants in the case had intent to defraud the so-called “victim universities:” Kansas, N.C. State, Louisville and Miami (Fla.).
Asked how he received the money from Adidas, Gassnola said, “Ask Jimmy,” referring to former Adidas executive Jim Gatto, one of the three defendants and the person to whom Gassnola reported at Adidas. Gatto was seated in the court when Gassnola made the comment.
Also on Wednesday, Jeff Smith, senior director of compliance for the KU athletic department, testified that he was made aware at some point that De Sousa signed a contract with a pro team in Spain. Asked if he was aware of an agreement between De Sousa and a sports agent, Smith said, “I don’t recall which documents I was given.”
He added that Kansas had taken steps to look into the matter — an attorney for the prosecution said KU only allowed De Sousa to play after presenting evidence and obtaining a clearance from the NCAA — and confirmed that De Sousa was on the current Kansas team.
Smith was asked if he was aware of a $90,000 payment to the family of Preston, and a $20,000 payment to De Sousa’s guardian, Fenny Falmagne.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Smith said in both cases.
Smith said he became aware of the alleged payments in April 2018, which is when the superseding indictment mentioning Kansas, N.C. State and Miami was released.
KU associate athletic director Jim Marchiony, when asked about De Sousa and the contract with the Spanish team, said KU Athletics would continue to defer all comment to KU director of strategic communications Joe Monaco. When contacted, Monaco referred to a previous KU statement from last week: “It is not appropriate for the university to comment while legal proceedings are ongoing. As we have said all along, the prosecution has not suggested any wrongdoing by the university or its coaches. We will continue to cooperate as requested throughout the trial.”
It remains unclear, for now, how the payments Gassnola said he made to Preston and De Sousa tie in to the amounts the government mentioned the families of those players received.
Earlier this week, Brian Bowen Sr. said Christian Dawkins, one of three defendants in the case, told him he could get $60,000 to $80,000 for Bowen Jr. to attend Louisville. But Dawkins later told Bowen Sr. his son was worth $100,000 because that was his understanding of what Adidas was paying for Preston to attend Kansas.
In April, Falmagne told The Star that neither he nor De Sousa received money.
“The kids and I never took money from anyone,” Falmagne told The Star. “This is bigger than basketball. These kids and I have sacrificed so much because we know this could change our countries and nation. Anyone that knows me will know that coach Larry Brown is the only person that I take advice from because who he means to me and the kids. He told me, ‘Fenny, the people at Kansas are good people and will help Silvio achieve his dream.’ And look what it did listening to him. Made it to the Final Four and got significantly better.”
Preston arrived at KU in 2017, appearing in the Jayhawks’ exhibition games that fall, but did not appear in a regular-season game. He was held out of action while the university investigated the ownership of his vehicle, which was involved in a one-car accident before the 2017-18 season.
Wearing a gray jacket, plaid shirt and red pocket square, Gassnola said he was paid $150,000 a year as an Adidas consultant. He said he agreed with Gatto and the two other defendants in the case — Dawkins and Merl Code — to funnel the money to the families of the five players.
Also Wednesday, Gassnola said he paid $7,000 “in cash in a magazine in an envelope” to either Brian Bowen Sr. or Dawkins as payment for Bowen Jr. to play with the Adidas-sponsored Michigan Mustangs while in high school. Chris Rivers of Adidas was going to handle the remaining $18,000 of the $25,000 payment to the Bowen family, Gassnola said.
The government also presented an email from Gassnola to Rivers dated March 2, 2015 which detailed so-called “touch points” in which Gassnola met or communicated with key college coaches, high school players and their families.
In the email, Gassnola said he attended “Late Night in the Phog” on Oct. 10, 2014 and “met with Coach (Bill) Self.”
Self was asked during KU’s basketball media day in Lawrence about Gassnola’s email, which, according to Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel, also included that Gassnola “talked recruiting targets” and “assured (Self and his staff) we are here to help.”
“No I don’t have any response,” Self said when told of Wetzel’s reporting on Gassnola. “I can’t talk about that. I’m not meaning to be opaque about this at all. I just feel like … our stance is still the same. We’ll comment when the time is appropriate. The appropriate time is when this is done and that’ll certainly be the case. I’m not going to make comments day to day on what has been said because we’ll know obviously in the next couple weeks what actually this is all about.”
“I’m taking the approach as everybody is on our team that we’re going to have Silvio De Sousa playing for us this year,” Self said, adding. “I obviously can’t really comment on what is ongoing. I can say this … in the past I made a statement we certainly believe based on information we had that this thing would have a positive resolution. But that was also based on the information we had. Who knows what could potentially happen in the next whatever period of time?”
Another email, dated Feb. 17, 2015, was sent by Rivers to several Adidas employees and consultants with the title, “Adidas Soul Patrol - AKA Black Opp’s Update.”
Rivers said he wanted “notes on who we are seeing and how each of these touch points will help us in the short and long term future.”
Gassnola began working as a grassroots basketball coach in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and eventually set up the New England Playaz Basketball Club, a powerhouse in New England that was sponsored by Adidas from 2004-17. He admitted that he used funds intended for the non-profit New England Playaz “to pay for personal expenses.” He said his annual expenses for flights, hotels and rental cars for himself and his players was about $200,000 to $300,000 a year.
He stopped working for Adidas in September 2017 after the FBI made 10 arrests in the case.
The Star’s Gary Bedore contributed to this report. Follow @AdamZagoria on Twitter.