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Fixer testifies that he paid Deandre Ayton’s family friend as part of Adidas pitch

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NEW YORK — Former Adidas America shoe consultant Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola’s second day of testimony in the federal trial against three men included details on how he paid those close to top basketball prospects in exchange for their commitments to schools with Adidas contracts.

Deandre Ayton didn’t sign with an Adidas school, but was mentioned nonetheless. Gassnola testified Thursday in federal court that he paid a family friend of the former Arizona Wildcats standout and top NBA Draft pick $15,000 to pass along to Ayton’s mother, Andrea. Gassnola testified that he made the payment in Winter of 2015; he said Ayton was a junior in high school at the time.

“I felt bad for his family and wanted to establish the relationship with his family,” Gassnola said.

Gassnola testified that he received the money from Adidas executive Jim Gatto, one of the three men on trial. Gassnola testified that he paid a man named Larnelle “to give it to Deandre’s mother.”

Gassnola did not mention the last name or occupation of the family friend, but this 2015 story from Jeff Eisenberg details, among other things, the Bahamian big man’s relationship with the coach who discovered him.

Larnelle Johnson was an assistant coach for a Mexican league team when he spotted Ayton at the now-famous Jeff Rodgers basketball camp in Nassau. He told friends in San Diego about Ayton, and soon the center relocated there to play for the upstart Balboa City prep program. Ayton eventually left the San Diego school and enrolled at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix.

Gassnola’s attempts to win over Ayton and his camp with money didn’t exactly pan out.

Ayton played in just one Adidas-sponsored tournament, the 2016 Adidas Nations event. He committed to Arizona, a Nike school, five months later. Ayton signed a lucrative shoe deal with Puma last summer, days before the Phoenix Suns took him with the No. 1 overall pick.

Gassnola, 46, continued to drop some notable names in basketball during his second day on the witness stand. He described how he paid former North Carolina State star Dennis Smith Jr. via a Wolpack assistant.

He also 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.

Smith played one year at NC State. He’s now in the NBA playing for the Dallas Mavericks.

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