College basketball fixer describes ‘black op’ payments

NEW YORK (AP) — A cadre of fixers in the world of college basketball conducted covert “black ops” to funnel tens of thousands of dollars in secret cash payments to the families of top prospects like DeAndre Ayton to lure them to major programs, a former Adidas consultant testified Wednesday at a corruption trial.
In this Dec. 30, 2017 file photo, Arizona forward Deandre Ayton (13) works toward the basket as Arizona State’s Romello White defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Tucson, Ariz. (Ralph Freso / Associated Press)

Asked whose families he brokered deals with, Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola ticked off a list of five names, including Ayton, who attended Arizona for his freshman season before being drafted by the Phoenix Suns, and Brian Bowen Jr., who committed to Louisville before departing without playing amid the widening recruitment scandal. Gassnola also named Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa of Kansas and Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State as the others.

The government cooperator, who’s also a former amateur basketball league director, said the he and other fixers referred to the deal-making as “black ops.” Asked what he meant, he responded, “It’s dark. Underground. You don’t want anyone to know about it.”

On trial are aspiring sports agent Christian Dawkins, former amateur coach Merl Code and former Adidas executive James Gatto. All have pleaded not guilty to charges that they defrauded basketball programs that passed out scholarships by concealing how they directed funds from Adidas to prospects considering schools sponsored by the sportswear company.

Gassnola has pleaded guilty. He was expected to return to the witness stand Thursday in federal court in Manhattan.

Earlier, the jury heard college administrators in charge of making sure Kansas and North Carolina State complied with NCAA rules say that they were unaware of payments that would have made some of their biggest players ineligible.

“I didn’t know anything about that,” Jeff Smith of Kansas responded about an alleged scheme to channel $90,000 to Preston’s mother.

Carrie Doyle of North Carolina State had a similar response when asked if the school knew about a $40,000 payment made to Smith’s father. She said there was some worry that former Wolfpack football player Eric Leak was involved in Smith’s recruitment despite the fact that he was barred from campus for providing improper benefits to two other players.

Smith spent one year at North Carolina State and now plays for the Dallas Mavericks; Preston left Kansas without playing a game and is under contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers in a developmental league; and De Sousa is still on the roster at Kansas.

Bowen, whose father testified at the trial about taking money, is playing professionally in Australia.

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