NEW YORK (AP) — 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.
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.
Witness grilled over texts to Kansas college hoops coach
Lawyers for a former Adidas executive who's a defendant at a college basketball corruption trial zeroed in on Monday on communications between a recruiting fixer and the head coach at Kansas.
On cross-examination in federal court in Manhattan, a key government witness, ex-Adidas consultant Thomas "T.J." Gassnola, was confronted with a record logging a call with Coach Bill Self, as well as texts he exchanged with Self.
The communications occurred amid what prosecutors say was a scheme by Gassnola, former Adidas executive James Gatto and two other defendants to funnel secret cash payments to the families of top-flight prospects to steer them toward programs sponsored by the sportswear company. While Gassnola has testified that wanted to keep coaching staffs in the dark about the prohibited payments to keep them out of trouble with the NCAA, the defense has sought to show the programs were aware of what was going on behind the scenes because of cozy relationships with fixers like the witness.
In the texts last year, Gassnola told Self he was in the touch with the guardian of Jayhawks recruit Silvio De Sousa. Prosecutors say De Sousa was among recruits whose families were offered payments of up to $100,000 in covert deals financed by Adidas.
Self responded: "We good," according to a defense exhibit of the communication.
Gassnola said: "Always. That was light work. The ball is in his court now."
That same day, Gassnola asked Self to call him when he had five minutes. Defense attorney Michael Schachter told jurors records show there later was a conversation between Self's phone and Gassnola lasting almost exactly five minutes.
"Do you recall what you wanted to discuss with Coach Self alone?" Schachter asked.
"I don't," Gassnola responded.
In testimony that concluded Monday, Gassnola suggested the exchanges were mostly about efforts to extend the Adidas contract with Kansas and to arrange for uniforms for Angola's national basketball team. De Sousa is from Angola.
In one text exchange, Gassnola thanked Self "for the help in getting the extension done."
The coach answered by saying he was happy with Adidas and added: "Just got to get a couple real guys."
Self has declined to comment on the testimony.
Kentucky's PJ Washington confident, poised to lead Wildcats
PJ Washington flashed a wide, sly grin when asked about plans to make his second season at Kentucky better than the first.
It spoke volumes about his confidence before he said a word.
But the 6-foot-8 forward does plan to be more vocal. He returns to school as the top scorer and rebounder for the Wildcats. Washington also wants to prove he can defend all positions, perhaps the most important advice he received last spring from NBA scouts while testing the draft waters.
An injured left pinkie that bothered Washington last season has healed following offseason surgery. Fully healthy, his focus now is applying lessons learned from a busy summer to a team that will look to him for leadership.
"I just came back to get better, honestly," Washington said Thursday at Kentucky's media day. "I knew my role was going to be bigger, so I just came back to just try to be a leader and I feel like I'm doing a great job right now."
One of a handful of Wildcats who entered the NBA draft after last season, Washington's decision after the combine to return for his sophomore season was significant for coach John Calipari's squad. Washington's 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as a freshman provide a good base for Kentucky, which returns 32 percent of its offense from the 26-11 squad that reached the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
The Dallas native has needed no motivation there. After being a spectator for part of the summer while recovering from surgery, he has thrown himself into training and added muscle to 228-pound frame.
As for that troublesome pinkie, Washington said it was bent at an awkward angle and painful — but now he's good to go. While he said it didn't affect his shooting — his 52 percent accuracy was second on the team — he acknowledged the injury affected how he grabbed rebounds.
On-court minutes are definitely there as Calipari seeks a catalyst, a role Washington is eager to fulfill after a summer of learning.
"The Bahamas helped me play my game on a different level," he said. "It helped me showing energy on both ends of the floor and being able to step out on the perimeter.
"I feel like I did a better job than last year and I'm going to try to continue to build off that."
Almirola advances in NASCAR playoffs with Talladega win
Tony Stewart hired Aric Almirola because he believed the journeyman would win races for Stewart-Haas Racing. Almirola came close time and again this year but fell short.
The boss made sure to keep Almirola's spirits high every chance he got, including a pre-race pep talk Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
"He just keeps telling me, 'Calm down, take deep breaths,'" Almirola said. "He's like, 'You're going to win, I promise you. The day I told you I was going to hire you, I knew you were going to win races for my company. Put yourself in position, and it will happen.'"
He put himself in position Sunday to cap an absolute SHR rout at Talladega with an overtime victory that earned him an automatic berth into the third round of NASCAR's playoffs.
It also snapped a 149-race losing streak for Almirola and atoned for his oh-so-close moment in the season-opening Daytona 500.
"I just love racing at Talladega and I came to the track with the mindset that we were going to go race and we were going to go give them hell, and if we wrecked, we wrecked," Almirola said. "And if we win, we win. And we won. What a cool time to do it, too."
Struggling Buccaneers fire defensive coordinator Mike Smith
Mike Smith is out as defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, replaced by linebackers coach Mark Duffner.
Riding a three-game losing streak and not showing any signs of being able to fix a porous unit that keeps undermining the team's chances of winning, the Bucs dismissed the former Atlanta Falcons coach Monday after yielding 92 points in the first half of consecutive losses to Pittsburgh, Chicago and Atlanta.
Tampa Bay, which has the NFL's second-ranked offense and No. 1 passing attack, rallied to make two of those games close, however pressure on coach Dirk Koetter to make a change had been mounting since Mitchell Trubisky threw a career-best six touchdown passes in the Bears' 48-10 rout of the Bucs on Sept. 30.
Titans linebacker Morgan out 'few weeks,' Spain day to day
Titans coach Mike Vrabel says linebacker Derrick Morgan probably will miss "a few weeks" after hurting a shoulder against the Baltimore Ravens, though left guard Quinton Spain is day to day after hurting his right shoulder.
Vrabel said Monday that it's unfortunate the Titans won't have Morgan for a few weeks as a veteran guy who studies and takes care of his body.
Morgan played 19 snaps in the 21-0 loss to the Ravens before leaving the game. The nine-year veteran has started the past five games for the Titans (3-3), and he has 13 tackles with seven quarterback pressures this season.
Spain was hurt in the third quarter with 7:06 left, and he did not return. Spain, who has started 39 of his 41 games with Tennessee, was replaced by Corey Levin. Vrabel says they will know more on Spain later but are hoping to have him Sunday in London against the Chargers (4-2).
Watson's girlfriend takes blame for causing suspension
Austin Watson's girlfriend is taking blame for the incident that led the NHL to suspend the Nashville Predators' forward for 27 games, a punishment reduced to 18 games by an arbitrator on appeal.
Jenn Guardino issued a statement Saturday saying the incident on June 16 was not an act of domestic violence and that Watson would never hit or abuse her.
"My behavior and state of intoxication lead to the police being involved that day," Guardino said. "I have struggled with alcoholism for many years and I am actively involved in AA. I am fortunate to have Austin's continued support with my treatment. We handled matters poorly on June 16th and know that we need to make better decisions going forward."
Guardino also apologized to everyone involved, including the Predators and the city of Nashville.
Watson was arrested June 16 after a witness flagged down a police officer to a gas station in Franklin, Tennessee. Watson told police he and his girlfriend were arguing and that he pushed her. Officers said they found red marks on her chest, and she said Watson caused them. Watson pleaded no contest to domestic assault on July 24.
He can have the misdemeanor charge dismissed by fulfilling terms of his judicial diversion program. Watson must serve three months of probation and complete both an in-patient treatment program and a batterer's intervention program.
The NHL suspended Watson on Sept. 12 for 28 games, and both the league and the NHL Players' Association announced Thursday that arbitrator Shyam Das had reduced it to 18 games.
The league issued a statement Friday saying the NHL was disappointed with the arbitrator's decision on an issue of personal conduct. The NHL doesn't have a written domestic violence policy and takes each situation on a case by case basis.
The NHLPA has defended its work on domestic violence awareness with both rookies and throughout the season, noting the CBA giving players the right to appeal punishment for off-ice conduct.
Watson is a former first-round draft pick who scored a career-high 14 goals and had five assists in 76 games during the 2017-18 regular season. He had five goals and three assists in 13 playoff games.
The 26-year-old Watson has 23 goals and 24 assists in 216 career regular-season games, all with the Predators.
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