Ethical questions raised as amateur basketball recruiters engage in a high-stakes battle for blue-chip recruits
First in a three-part series on the sneaker industry's influence on amateur basketball in New England.
SPRINGFIELD -- A brazen foot soldier in a multibillion-dollar war between sneaker makers for the soles of America's youth, Thomas J. ``TJ" Gassnola has peddled basketball dreams to inner-city adolescents across New England despite a lengthy criminal history and prodigious legacy of financial delinquency.
The face of youth basketball in the region for Adidas, Gassnola is a free-wheeling recruiter whose tactics often have clashed with rules set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to protect amateur athletes who aspire to careers in college sports. Some of his practices underscore the inability of the NCAA and other watchdog agencies to adequately police abuses in summer youth basketball.
A Globe investigation of the sneaker industry's influence on youth basketball in New England found that Gassnola has handed cash to members of his Adidas-sponsored summer travel teams for expenses unrelated to basketball. Several parents of elite players said the Springfield-based recruiter offered them free airfare or Adidas merchandise while pursuing their sons, and another parent said he interpreted Gassnola's sales pitch to mean the recruiter would provide his son improper financial aid. NCAA rules bar amateur players from receiving anything but ``actual and necessary travel, room and board, and apparel and equipment for competition and practice."
The Globe also witnessed Gassnola drive his teenage players in several states, even though his Massachusetts driver's license has been revoked or suspended 24 times and was not valid from 1993 until last month.
``You're talking about putting kids at risk in so many different areas," said John Kottori, chairman of boys' basketball in southern New England for the Amateur Athletic Union. ``It makes my stomach turn to think about it."
Gassnola, whose supporters include Adidas, and numerous parents and players, has done it all in the company's name. As the sneaker giant's top New England recruiter in its quest to wrest supremacy of the market from archrival
The system has created a cottage industry in which corporate agents such as Gassnola lavish free travel, shoes, gear, and other benefits on predominantly needy youths with basketball skills. For the players, it is a heady environment with a sometimes shady underside: For all the future college and pro stars who have prospered in the system, some have seen their reputations tarnished by their company-backed coaches or recruiters.
One of the most egregious cases involved a Nike-funded coach, Myron Piggie, of Kansas City, Mo., who was sentenced to 37 months in prison in 2001 for fraud and tax convictions after paying more than $35,000 to five teenagers, including future NBA players Corey Maggette, Kareem Rush, and Korleone Young, to play in his summer program. Three of the players, after enrolling in college, were suspended from basketball competition by the NCAA for periods ranging from five to nine games (the NCAA has no jurisdiction over amateur athletes until they are enrolled in member schools).
Subsequent efforts by the NCAA to crack down on abuses in summer youth basketball have produced few results, largely because of its limited jurisdiction.
``Every time we try to make rules, somebody tries to circumvent them," said Tom Izzo, who guided Michigan State to the national championship in 2000 and serves on a select NCAA committee of college coaches.
Gassnola, 34, aspires to make his New England Playaz the top power in summer youth basketball in New England, a distinction long held by the Nike-sponsored Boston Amateur Basketball Club. He declared himself ``hell-bent on destroying" the BABC and engaged in a verbal confrontation with BABC coach Leo Papile last winter that nearly became physical during a tournament in Chelsea.
``It's a personal war, a turf war, and a sneaker war," said Gassnola, who has stocked his team with some of the region's best talent, including stars he has poached from clubs in Greater Boston, including the BABC.
``When I die, I want it to say on my tombstone: `TJ Gassnola, The Guy Who Put Leo Papile Out Of Business,' " Gassnola said.
Papile, 52, who founded the BABC in 1977, also serves as assistant executive director of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics. His program receives $50,000 a year from Nike plus sneakers, gear, and apparel, while Gassnola said he receives no cash from Adidas but an unlimited supply of merchandise.
Gassnola recently enhanced his program by gaining an endorsement from NBA Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, whose name now appears on the team's uniforms. But Papile, whose program has won 11 national championships and sent more than 200 players to Division 1 colleges, including NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing and former Celtic Dana Barros, shrugged off Gassnola's challenge.
``I don't know know how old he is, but all I can say is, `Good to luck him, if he lives long enough,' " Papile said. ``I've seen guys like him come and go, and when they go, good riddance. They're not good for basketball."
The scramble among the sneaker giants for the nation's elite young athletes has escalated since the early 1990s, spawning dozens of company-sponsored teams that barnstorm the nation from April to July competing in showcases that often attract college recruiters, NBA scouts, and national scouting services.
Nearly every American-bred college and NBA star in recent years has played for a company-sponsored team, and organizers such as Gassnola and Papile have come to wield enormous influence with young players, helping them land lucrative scholarships to private secondary schools, fielding inquiries from college coaches, and advising them on their college choices.
In turn, players who make it big both by turning pro and reaping lucrative sneaker endorsement deals sometimes reward their summer coaches, though Papile said none of his alumni have given back to his program. Gassnola said he receives a combined $20,000 a year from three NBA players whom he declined to identify (none of his alumni has reached the NBA).
Indeed, a number of NBA stars, including Tracy McGrady, Tim Thomas, and Tyson Chandler, have designated portions of their multimillion-dollar sneaker contracts to their company-sponsored coaches or handlers.
``This is a big-time business," said Gassnola, a fast-talking recruiter with a self-portrayed ``degree in bull" and close ties to former University of Massachusetts coach John Calipari's program at the University of Memphis.
Papile raised eyebrows in the 1980s when he became a Boston-based assistant coach for Cleveland State University after five members of his BABC teams went to play for the school. Responding to rumors that he may have sold players to colleges, Papile issued an emphatic denial in a 1997 interview with the Globe.
``Anybody who has the courage to confront me with that, I would go into a steel cage with them and pound them to smithereens, because that's how untrue it is," he said. One summer coach who recently clashed with Papile over a player questioned the propriety of Papile serving as both a high-level scouting adviser for the Celtics and an amateur coach whose former players the Celtics could draft. Two former BABC players, Iowa State's Will Blalock and Notre Dame's Torin Francis, recently participated in predraft workouts for the Celtics.
``It's absolutely absurd that he's getting paid by an NBA team and running an AAU team," said Rick Isaacs, who coaches the H Squad, an elite independent travel team based in California. ``Is that not a conflict of interest?"
Papile said he has long reported his BABC role to the NBA, which has approved the activity as a community service. Papile, who said he is not paid by the BABC, also noted that Blalock and Francis worked out for many NBA teams other than the Celtics.
Though Papile has long served as the face of the BABC, his name has not appeared on corporate documents the organization has filed with the secretary of state. Instead, Papile's wife, Kimberly Johnson, is listed as the BABC's president, treasurer, and clerk, while Frank Burke, a basketball operations assistant for the Celtics, and Stuart August, a lawyer, are listed as directors. Papile explained his absence from the documents as a consequence of his work for the Celtics, which requires him to travel about 200 days a year. He also owns and manages a number of real estate properties.
``All I can do is coach," he said. ``I don't have time to do all the other stuff."
Before going nonprofit in 2003, the BABC functioned for many years as a for-profit corporation, though Papile said no one in the organization received a salary and ``we never came close to making a profit."
As a nonprofit, the BABC reported raising nearly $99,000 in 2004, the most recent year for which its federal tax return was available. The club reported spending more than $94,000, including more than $6,700 in charitable donations to scholarship funds at Chelsea High School and Charlestown High School.
Numerous coaches, however, have complained through the years about losing players to Papile's higher-profile program -- Kalon Jenkins of the Stoughton-based Bay State Magic said the core of his 15-and-under team jumped this year to the BABC -- yet Papile generally has maintained a favorable reputation while reigning as New England's dominant force in summer youth basketball.
He was inducted in 2004 into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame.
``If I feel my kids need to be at the next level, I deal with Leo only," said Pete Washington, who heads the Young Achievers Basketball Club in Mattapan and previously coached at Roxbury Community College and East Boston High School.
Gassnola said he has ``made a ton of mistakes in my life." He attributed many of the lapses to a ``dysfunctional" upbringing and said, ``I absolutely robbed Peter to pay Paul to make this [basketball] program work." But he said he has turned his life around.
Gassnola has been convicted three times of larceny over $250 or receiving stolen property, among other charges, and has been ordered by judges in at least 11 civil cases to make good on more than $45,000 in bad debt.
``This is what I do and I love it," he said of his basketball program. ``I've stepped on some people's toes I shouldn't have, but I didn't do it intentionally and I'll never do it again."
Court records show Gassnola's criminal record dates to 1988, when he was convicted of delinquent larceny at age 16 and ordered committed to the Department of Youth Services for a year, with the sentence suspended.
Gassnola said he has applied the lessons of his troubled youth to help a new generation of at-risk teenagers.
``Imagine a guy who sits in juvenile court with a chip on his shoulder the size of you and me," he said, referring to himself. ``He went from one juvenile home to another. His father left him at a young age and his mother never understood him. There were a lot of bumps in the road, but he tried to do the right thing. This guy understands kids better than anybody because he used to be one of them, and he doesn't want those kids to go down the same bumpy road."
The road remained bumpy for Gassnola in adulthood. At 22, he was convicted of assaulting a man outside a Springfield bar, for which he received a 90-day suspended jail sentence.
Less than a year later, Gassnola was indicted on charges of felony assault and unarmed burglary stemming from a confrontation in which one of the alleged victims told police he aimed a licensed handgun at Gassnola to ward him off. The alleged victim also reported a subsequent encounter with Gassnola.
``He told me he could have me killed and that he belonged to one of the highest organized crime families in Springfield," the man told police, according to court records.
A jury in Hampden Superior Court found Gassnola not guilty of the charges. (In an interview, Gassnola denied having any connection to organized crime, though he said he once was involved in bookmaking.)
Gassnola's criminal record also includes convictions for receiving stolen property and uttering a false check in 1998, larceny over $250 in 2000, and larceny over $250 in 2001 (the larceny convictions involved nearly $2,200 he stole from two women). He received probation or suspended jail sentences in each case and was ordered to pay a total of $3,091 in restitution.
Meanwhile, the list of plaintiffs who have received civil judgments against Gassnola for bad debts include a former basketball associate, a college in Springfield that rented him a gym, and a Hadley company that installed audio equipment in his SUV.
``It's tough to get started in this business," he said, estimating his program costs $100,000 a year (he said he already has invested nearly $32,000 of his own money this year).
``You kind of live beyond your means and sometimes you ruffle some feathers," he said.
Gassnola, whom the Globe witnessed driving teenage players in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Arkansas while his license was revoked, also has amassed a voluminous record of traffic violations such as speeding, operating with a suspended license, and operating an unregistered vehicle. (None of the violations involves alcohol or drugs.) He has been classified five times as a habitual traffic offender, with his latest four-year revocation ending May 3.
``He has continued to drive in blatant violation of the law," Amie O'Hearn, a spokeswoman for the Registry of Motor Vehicles, said before Gassnola regained his license last month.
Registry officials said they did all they could to sanction Gassnola while he continued driving. The rest, they said, was up to police and the courts.
Gassnola has heard critics voice the most derogatory assertions about him, he said, none more incendiary than that he has paid athletes to play for him and has directed players to colleges in return for cash. He said he has done neither.
``I'm not proud of a lot of stuff, but the proudest thing in my life is that I've been able to build this program with a level of success," he said. ``I'm trying to do the right thing."
An Adidas spokesman, Terrell Clark, said the company has received ``no complaints or criticism" about Gassnola.
``We have, however, taken note of a great deal of praise by the parents of players directed to both the club and its officials," Clark said.
Carol Price said Gassnola played a key role in helping her son, Kendric, secure his basketball scholarship at Michigan.
``I can't say anything negative about the experience," Price said. ``It was one of the best things that could have happened for Kendric in terms of exposure."
Veronica Brantley credited Gassnola with transforming her son, Jamual Warren, a 6-2 guard from Springfield, from ``a hard-headed little boy to a responsible young man." Warren, whom Gassnola has mentored for more than eight years, attends Globe Institute of Technology in New York and will play next season for the University of Cincinnati.
``From the outside looking in, people will see what they want to see about TJ," said Brantley, a single mother of five. ``But TJ has been a blessing for me and my family, and he's done it all out of the kindness of his heart."
Coaches Marvin Avery at Lynn Tech and Mike Hart at St. Andrew's said they have encountered no problems with Gassnola. In 2001, Gassnola also received a recommendation in a sentencing hearing in Springfield District Court from John Robic, who then coached Youngstown State between stints as Calipari's assistant at UMass and Memphis.
``He's a good man," Avery said of Gassnola. ``I'm a big supporter."
Yet Gassnola has no shortage of detractors, many of who portrayed him as a hustler more concerned about enhancing his image with Adidas than protecting the interests of young athletes.
``He could end up hurting a lot of kids," said Darryl Bishop, of Roxbury, whose 16-year-old son, Darryl, is one of several players Gassnola tried to poach from Papile. ``I don't think he's very good for youth basketball and what it stands for."
Bishop, a former football star at Western Kentucky who serves as athletic director of the Shelburne Community Center in Roxbury, said Gassnola arrived there uninvited to try to lure away three of Papile's players: the younger Bishop and 6-7 Jamal Coombs-McDaniel of Dorchester, both of whom Papile helped steer to Lawrence Academy, and 6-8 Alex Oriakhi of Lowell, a 16-year-old phenom whom Papile helped enroll at the Brooks School.
``He didn't offer me anything directly, but he did talk money, about how he had helped out some kids in the past," Bishop said. ``I've been there before, so I knew what he was talking about. I told him, `Anything you do now could hurt my son down the road.' I explained to him that we're not about that."
Bishop, who rejected Gassnola's invitation, said he took Gassnola to suggest he would provide his son improper financial support. Gassnola denied offering anything inappropriate.
``I would never say anything like that," he said. ``I don't operate like that."
Still, Gassnola said he is bound by few, if any, regulations, largely because the NCAA is hampered by its limited jurisdiction and no other agency carefully monitors the summer basketball universe.
``You can do whatever you want [because] there are no rules," he said. But while he insisted he would never entice a player or his parents with money, Gassnola acknowledged delivering small amounts of cash to a number of players who have joined his program. He made clear the money was for things unrelated to basketball competition -- such as food and leisure travel -- and thus a possible violation of NCAA rules on amateurism. He said his only motive is compassion for his players.
``Do I wire a kid $40 so he can get something to eat? You're damn right I do," he said. ``I'm not leaving a kid on the side of the road who's got nothing at home."
In one recruiting ploy, Gassnola told Coombs-McDaniel's father, Pernell McDaniel, he would provide the elder McDaniel with Adidas footwear if his 16-year-old son joined the Playaz.
``He said, `What size sneaker do you wear? I'm going to take care of you,' " said McDaniel, who declined the offer.
Gassnola, who acknowledged making the offer to McDaniel, described the goods he receives from Adidas as a valuable resource.
``When a guy like me has product behind him, that makes a difference," Gassnola said. ``Kids say, `That's what T-Mac [Tracy McGrady] wears.' If I had no product behind me, this wouldn't be as easy."
In another recruiting episode, Gassnola failed to impress Doug Millard, of Goffstown, N.H., whose 6-8 son, Chad, played as a freshman last season for Rick Pitino at Louisville after starring at Trinity High School in Manchester, N.H., and Brewster Academy. Doug Millard said Gassnola invited his family to dinner at a Manchester Applebee's while he was recruiting Chad, but when the bill came Gassnola produced three credit cards, all of which were rejected. Millard then picked up the check.
``At that point, I said to Chad, `You're not playing for this guy. How can his team afford to travel if he can't buy a $50 dinner?' " Millard recalled.
Gassnola then encouraged Doug Millard to let Chad play in a tournament in Memphis. By Doug Millard's account, which Gassnola confirmed, Gassnola said, ``If you let Chad go, we have an extra plane ticket. You can go, too."
The offers to McDaniel and Millard could have posed a potential problem with the NCAA, under a provision that bans prospects and their families from receiving preferential treatment, benefits, or services based on an athlete's reputation.
``We met hundreds and hundreds of people in the basketball world over the last few years and 99 percent of them were great people," Millard said. ``They're not all TJ Gassnolas."
But his prime pursuit has been youth basketball. He got his break in 1998 when he steered Warren to the powerful Playaz Basketball Club of Paterson, N.J., an Adidas-funded organization whose alumni include the NBA's Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter, and became one of coach Jim Salmon's assistants.
With the Playaz's blessing, Gassnola spun off his own team in their image two years ago. Both Gassnola and Salmon said they have no financial relationship, and Gassnola said he raises most of the money for his team from Springfield-area businessmen and the unnamed NBA players.
At the core of Gassnola's mission is delivering some of the region's premier talent to major national tournaments and camps, particularly those sponsored by Adidas. Under NCAA rules, the events represent the last major showcases for prospective college players before the November period for players to sign with NCAA schools, further boosting the influence of operatives like Gassnola.
``It's a world most people don't know very much about," said former Celtics coach John Carroll, whose 16-year-old son, Austin, plays for Papile's BABC. ``There are guys like Leo who have been doing it a long time and have built a good reputation, and there are bottom-feeders like [Gassnola] who try to make a name for themselves by going into inner cities and doing whatever they can to entice kids. It's sad."
Gassnola, who last year incorporated the New England Playaz as a nonprofit and listed himself as the president, treasurer, clerk, and sole director, insisted he cares more about helping his players secure college scholarships than scoring points with Adidas.
``I'm going to make sure they go to college and aren't walking the streets doing nothing," he said of his players. ``That means more to me than Adidas going, `Holy [expletive], you got Antonio [Anderson]. He's a [potential] pro.' "
At times, however, Gassnola has put basketball before education. In 2004, he helped 6-9 Travis George, of Roxbury, enroll at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, only to quickly remove him over philosophical differences with the school administration. Bill Barton, Notre Dame's principal and basketball coach, said the differences included Gassnola expecting George to leave campus and compete with the Playaz when Barton insisted George remain there during summer school to study.
``We will not take TJ's kids anymore," Barton said. ``There are some coaches who should not be guiding young men."
George has attended five prep schools since Notre Dame and has yet to meet the NCAA's academic eligibility standards. For his part, Gassnola acknowledged personally assailing Barton for requiring George to study rather than play basketball.
``[Barton] was killing the kid," Gassnola said. ``Travis won't be going to Yale to be an engineer."
Gassnola also acknowledged owing money to Notre Dame after reneging on a pledge to pay Warren's tuition. To date, Notre Dame has taken no legal action, though word of Gassnola's debt has spread through the youth baskeball community, further tainting his reputation.
Several AAU coaches told the Globe Gassnola has snatched away players from them by making promises the coaches could not or would not match. Most youth teams charge athletes to play, while high-powered programs such as Gassnola's and Papile's cover all the expenses, including travel to tournaments across the country.
No one in Greater Boston has lost more players to Gassnola than Mauricio Vasquez, who runs the Reebok-affiliated Metro Boston program in Dorchester. The players include Anderson, Price, George, and Alvin Lewis, a freshman at Kentucky Wesleyan.
Vasquez said he no longer cares to speak to Gassnola.
``However he got the kids, so be it, I'm not going to sink to those levels," Vasquez said. ``If someone sells you a dream and you feel that's going to get it done for you, so be it."
Gassnola said he respected Papile's turf in Greater Boston until he learned that Papile advised a relative of Dominique Price, a star guard at Holy Name in Worcester, to steer clear of Gassnola because of his troubled past. (Papile denied the assertion.)
``If [Papile] had shut his mouth, I would have left him alone out of respect," Gassnola said. ``But now, it's like I told him in a voice message, `You know what, bro? Boston is open game.' "
Gassnola has little chance of unseating Papile, according to Sonny Vaccaro, who revolutionized the relationship between sneaker companies and youth basketball players as a Nike executive in the 1980s before he moved to Adidas in 1992 and joined Reebok in 2004.
``That's like taking on the Red Sox or the Yankees if you're the Pirates," Vaccaro said. ``It's silly to even say that."
But Gassnola, who hit the road this year with a team he stocked with Division 1 college prospects, said he has no plans to go away.
``Mark my words," he said. ``In 10 years, the No. 1 program will be the New England Playaz."