Bill Self, Kansas Suddenly Caught in Federal College Hoops Trial

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NEW YORK — There are no Jayhawks on trial at the U.S. District Court in southern Manhattan. Nor were any Kansas coaches ensnared in the larger FBI probe that begat the ongoing simultaneous cases against Adidas executive Jim Gatto, former Adidas consultant Merl Code, and burgeoning player rep Christian Dawkins. And still for yet another day the actions and interactions of the staff of one of college basketball’s most storied programs took center stage in a federal courtroom, where the unseen machinations of amateur basketball’s “underground” continue seeing rare light.

This is a weird case in many ways. The FBI’s entire years long corruption investigation rests on a peculiar premise: that because NCAA-member universities impose amateurism rules to prevent athletes from being directly, financially compensated for their talents and labor, conspiring to circumvent those rules in order to benefit schools’ teams amounts to criminal fraud against said schools, who would in turn bear the punishment if and when such schemes are uncovered. Backchannel payments to high school and college athletes, once scandalous in their own right, are thus treated matter-of-factly in this trial, as the general public has grown increasingly blasé toward such news and the defense, rather than deny the documented transactions took place, tries to argue that they involved no fraud.

Key to the government’s case is that the schools were ignorant to the fact that players were paid to play for them. Here is where Kansas enters the picture. Last week, the government called to the witness stand T.J. Gassnola, a former Adidas consultant who ran the New England Playaz AAU program and, in March, plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in an attempt to avoid jail time. Gassnola testified that he was part of the shoe company’s “black ops” team, recounting an array of under-the-table financial moves that included payments to former Arizona forward—and most recent No. 1 NBA draft pick—Deandre Ayton, former N.C. State and current Dallas Mavericks guard Dennis Smith Jr., onetime Louisville commit Brian Bowen, and recent Kansas big men Billy Preston and Silvio de Sousa.

It was the detail regarding the latter pair that was most revelatory. Evidence showed Gassnola making note of a meeting with Kansas coach Bill Self and his staff, whom he assured Adidas was “here to help” with recruiting targets. On the stand, Gassnola described how de Sousa’s guardian needed a five-figure payment to get out of an agreement with Under Armour for de Sousa to attend Maryland. And most notably, it was revealed that when Preston’s mother, Nicole Player, caught wind of Kansas investigators discovering a series of wire transactions from Gassnola to Player in connection with Preston’s car, she suggested that Gassnola explain them away by claiming he and Player were having a romantic affair. Nevermind that it wasn’t true, and that Gassnola and Player both had partners who are women.

When the trial resumed on Monday, it did so with Gassnola still on the stand and new evidence being entered into the record by Gatto’s defense team: a series of text conversations that Gassnola had with Self and Jayhawks assistant coach Kurtis Townsend last August. In them, Gassnola—who reverently addressed Self as “Hall of Famer”—asked for Self to call him when he could be alone, then later told Self via text that he had spoken with de Sousa’s legal guardian, Fenny Falmagne, and that it “was light work” and the “ball is in [Falmagne’s] court now.”

On the stand, Gassnola testified that Falmagne was seeking help purchasing uniforms for the national team of Angola, where de Sousa is from. That conversation was Aug. 9. On Aug. 26, Townsend sent Gassnola a message that he explained was from Falmagne, saying “Coach been on the phone with Angola … We are good to go … We will commit tomorrow.”

To that, Gassnola wrote back, “I’ll follow up tomorrow.” When asked on the stand whether that follow-up involved a discussed payment of $20,000 to Falmagne to get de Sousa out of the Maryland deal, Gassnola said he may have been asking about de Sousa’s online classes.

The texts, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan repeatedly instructed the jury, were admitted not as proof that anything the Kansas coaches said was true (they were not there to testify as much) but for their “effect on the listener”—in this case Gassnola, offering insight into his motives. Presumably the implication by the defense is that if these university employees are aware of or involved in Gassnola’s payments, the university was not being defrauded, or that the onus would fall on the university to monitor its workers.

For his part, Gassnola testified that Self was not aware of the payments he made to Preston and de Sousa with Adidas money, in order to then lure them to Kansas, which Gassnola described as one of the company’s “flagship” programs. But Monday’s evidence showed Self was at least aware of how involved Gassnola—an Adidas employee—was in the recruitment of the 6’ 9” de Sousa, who wound up being a key midseason addition for a frontcourt-starved Kansas team last season, helping the Jayhawks reach the Final Four.

The messages also painted Gassnola as an adamant booster of Self’s within Adidas, with a history of collaboration between them. “In my mind it’s KU, bill self,” Gassnola wrote. “Everyone else fall into line, to f***ing bad, that’s what’s right for Adidas basketball.” The more Kansas wins and has lottery picks, Gassnola suggested, the more happy they would be.

“That’s how ur [sic] works at UNC and Duke,” Self wrote back. Gassnola responded: “Kentucky as well.” (All three are sponsored by Nike.)

“I promise you I got this,” Gassnola continued. “I have never let you down. Except [Ayton] lol. We will get it right.”

Gassnola has thus far been the trial’s star witness. With an air about him like a smolderingly bored Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, he has at times provided evidence that could help either side: his steadfast denial of Self’s knowledge of payments, for example, aiding the prosecution, but his text messages with Self and Townsend helping the defense suggest that the coaches were in on the scheme. Still it was the defense that sought to impeach Gassnola as a witness, harping on his history of larceny, bad checks, and real estate scamming and the plea deal he took that would allow him to escape prosecution and certain jail time for massive tax fraud. (Gassnola testified that he had omitted hundreds of thousands of dollars in Adidas income on tax returns in recent years.) Gatto’s attorney, Mike Schachter, even brought up Gassnola’s six-year-old and 18-moth-old children, asking if Gassnola would do anything to see them grow up, drawing an objection from the prosecution.

It was a day filled with those, with Judge Kaplan growing so increasingly flustered with the defense’s line of questioning and the prosecution’s subsequent objections that at the peak of one long string of them, he leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, keeping his gaze there even as he declared whether he would sustain or overrule. That was one of several lighter moments in the proceedings, including when Schachter asked Gassnola to confirm that his text to Self saying “Call me p” meant “Call me please,” and Gassnola answered, “That was a typo.” At another point Dawkins’s attorney, Steve Haney, asked Gassnola to confirm that he is 46.

“Do I look it?” Gassnola asked.

To which Haney responded, “Do you want me to answer?”

It was not clear how well the defense’s spinning of Gassnola’s text conversations with the Kansas staff played with the jury, most of which looked understandably bored during a full day of examination that for sustained stretches focused on the intricacies of invoices and the Adidas corporate hierarchy. Unknown too is how much scrutiny the newly revealed texts from Self and Townsend will draw from the NCAA, which has essentially sat on the sidelines while the FBI’s investigation has played out, not yet punishing even the most directly implicated schools like Louisville, Auburn, USC, and Arizona. (According to a thorough analysis by SI legal expert Michael McCann, “the Justice Department has likely asked or encouraged the NCAA to refrain from imposing punishments until all pieces of the corruption litigation is over.”)

But what’s clear, as the trial heads into what is expected to be its final day of evidence on Tuesday, is that a program that could enter the upcoming season atop the national polls— Kansas—is going to continue receiving a lot of attention it will surely be dreading. After long serving as an Adidas flagship, that relationship may have sent it on a wayward course.

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