Nichole and the Bag Man Billy’s mom Nichole and her partner T.K. move around the country so Billy can play for elite high school teams. To remain eligible for college, Billy and his family can’t accept any money. But players in “The Bag Game” offer to circumvent those rules. Billy gets his top college pick, while Nichole makes a connection that could secure the family’s finances. But Billy’s dream is short-lived. And Nichole’s dealings get attention from federal investigators.
30 for 30 Podcasts: Bag Game Ep. 2
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:00:00) Previously on the Bag Game.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:00:03) A lot of people loved me for doing what I do.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:00:06) I mean, I don’t think I had NBA dreams, because to be honest with you, I didn’t think they were real.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:00:11) My back wheels just got stuck, and we started spinnin’ out. Somebody had called the NCAA anonymously and– and told ’em, like, they should investigate me.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:00:26) On the night of November 14th, 2017, Billy Preston and the rest of the University of Kansas Jayhawks were at the United Center in Chicago.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:00:37) Game two from Chicago. We welcome you back to the State Farm Champions Classic and to the real blue bloods of the sport. Number seven Kentucky and number four Kansas on the heels of that–
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:00:50) And for Billy, it would be his first regular season game as a Jayhawk after having sat out the first game for missing curfew. Lawrence Journal-World Sports reporter Matt Tait, was in Chicago to cover the game.
MATT TAIT: (00:01:04) It was supposed to be a pretty big-time night for Billy and– and for Kansas. And then in the– in the media room before the game, you started hearin’ a little bit about, “Billy’s not gonna play.” And– all of a sudden, you’re tryin’ to figure out why not?
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:01:19) An hour before tip-off, the Jayhawks released a statement from head coach Bill Self. It read, “On Saturday, Billy was involved in a single vehicle incident on campus. There were no injuries, but Billy’s car sustained damage. After I learned about the incident, I reported it to our administration.
(00:01:40) “The administration determined that we needed a clearer financial picture specific to the vehicle, so we decided to hold him out of tonight’s game and will continue to do that until the review is complete.” (MUSIC) This was the first anyone in the media was hearing about Billy’s car accident the previous weekend, and the first indication that Kansas had questions about whether Billy would be eligible to play.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:02:08) (IN PROGRESS) –looking into the options, because Billy Preston is not playing again here today. He initially was in a single car accident on campus. No injuries, but there is some I guess ambiguity about the status of the car, the financial arrangement of the car. They self-reported it. They don’t want him playing. He indeed seems to be ineligible–
MATT TAIT: (00:02:27) It was a big moment. I mean, it was– it was big news, potential starter and a big-time name and a big-time talent. And, you know, out of nowhere seemingly, he– he was no longer gonna play. And– and– so that– that kinda s– kicked off the whole thing.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:02:48) I’m investigative reporter Paula Lavigne from ESPN and 30 for 30 Podcasts, this is the Bag Game, episode two, Nicole and the Bag Man. Why did Kansas head coach Bill Self bench Billy? Well, as we heard in the last episode, Billy ran his Dodge Charger over a curb.
(00:03:24) But he didn’t hurt himself or anyone else. Police never even responded to the scene. But the accident was reported to the NCAA. And even a coach as powerful as Bill Self doesn’t risk crossing the NCAA. Today, we think of the National Collegiate Athletic Association as the organization that puts on college tournaments like the Final Four and the College World Series.
(00:03:54) But the organization that became the NCAA was founded in 1906, with the goal of protecting college football players. At least 45 players had died over the previous five years, and President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in to help negotiate the new rules. From early on, the NCAA held up an ideal of a student who attends college to get an education and just happens to play sports on the side.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:04:23) (IN PROGRESS) –Parnell (PH) open up in the second period with a pass for–
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:04:26) That meant teams absolutely could not pay athletes to play. It was a bedrock principle of the NCAA that the athletes were amateurs, not professionals. But the NCAA’s amateurism rule got more controversial as college sports made more money. That really got started in the 1980s when schools themselves were allowed to start selling the TV rights to football games.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:04:55) CBS welcomes you to the biggest game so far of the 1988 college football season.
JAY BILAS: (00:05:01) And it morphed into, you know, billions upon billions of dollars.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:05:06) That’s ESPN college basketball analyst, Jay Bilas.
JAY BILAS: (00:05:10) That’s where the explosion in salaries came from. That’s where this explosion in staff came from. You look at the staffs of these universities, their athletic departments, they look like the Pentagon now.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:05:22) The business of college sports only grew. In 2010, Turner Sports and CBS paid $10.8 billion for 14 years of TV rights to broadcast the Men’s Division I basketball tournament. And just a few years later, they paid billions more to extend it.
(00:05:44) In 2011, ESPN paid $500 million to broadcast 24 NCAA championships and the exclusive international rights to Men’s March Madness for 12 years. Apparel companies like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour signed exclusive contracts with top schools to make sure the best teams wore their gear, forking millions more into athletic department budgets.
(00:06:11) And where did that money go? Salaries to head coaches in the millions. And what would be known as an arms race of spending on facilities, gear, and lavish amenities. Think waterfalls, video arcades, and professional chefs. But even the splashiest waterfall can’t compete with cash. And the system found a way for that too. Here is Bilas again.
JAY BILAS: (00:06:40) No coach wins without great players. Just doesn’t happen. So that’s the game is attract the best talent. The black market economy of paying players under the table exists because of the NCAA’s amateurism rules.
JALEN ROSE: (00:06:53) In sports and recruiting, 100% of the time money’s changing hands.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:06:59) That’s ESPN basketball analyst and former NBA player, Jalen Rose.
JALEN ROSE: (00:07:04) What makes it illegal is when you get caught. Otherwise, you gotta pay to play.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:07:12) Rose had his own brush with an NCAA scandal when he played at the University of Michigan back in the ’90s.
REPORTER: (00:07:20) The most renowned recruiting class in college hoop history is now the subject of scandal. The Fab Five made Michigan as the stylin’ hoopsters were elevated to rock star status. Is that tainted? Now the allegations include loans and gifts to players, most damaging–
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:07:35) Rose says payment rarely comes from the school or the athletic department. Instead, it comes from a network of hangers-on who scout elite players starting in middle school.
JALEN ROSE: (00:07:47) Agents, managers, and recruiters get paid to study you. They know where your parents work. They know how much money they make. They know about your siblings. They know about your uncles. They know everything about you. They’re studying you. So by the time they approach you, they know what goods to dangle in order to make their situation sound more attractive.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:08:11) Sometimes what’s dangled is money to buy a car.
JAY BILAS: (00:08:14) The questions started being asked, and– and they’re usually only asked of African American players, “Where did you get money– the money for this car?” You know, they don’t seem to ask that of– of white players.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:08:28) As a teenager, Billy Preston saw his life as a straight shot to the NBA. That’s where the big payday was going to come. Along the way, schools like Oak Hill Academy and the University of Kansas had lined up to offer him scholarships to play on their teams.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:08:47) Billy’s mom, Nicole, didn’t know much about the business side of youth basketball. But her partner TK knew about the industry around up and coming talent. Remember, she played on lead high school teams that led her to a Division I college and the WNBA.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:09:04) You go from playing and havin’ fun to instantly it’s business when you get to high school and you are one of the very good players. Because everybody’s lookin’ for the next best thing.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:09:16) Over the years, as Billy started getting more national recognition, and colleges began recruiting him, Nicole says she started fielding offers for serious cash. By the time he was– a senior, had– had anybody tried to offer you money? Had anybody talked to you about any sort of incentive to go anywhere?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:09:38) Honestly, yeah.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:09:41) Who?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:09:42) Big name universities with numbers that you wouldn’t imagine.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:09:45) Nicole said that after one notable game while Billy was in high school, a college head coach approached her with a proposal.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:09:54) Right then on the spot, head coach offered money.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:09:57) How much was he offering?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:09:58) $300,000.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:10:00) The head coach himself?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:10:01) The head coach himself.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:10:03) Just to be clear, that offer Nicole says she got, $300,000 for Billy to go play for a Division I college, that would have been completely against the NCAA amateurism rule. So she won’t say where the offer came from, but she did say that it wasn’t the only one she received. She described another time when an assistant coach came to her house, sat on her couch, and said.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:10:32) “Whatever you need, whatever you want, we’ll make it happen.” But he did tell me that he’s not even supposed to be in my home, like, it was totally, you know, illegal. Like, we weren’t supposed to be talking. Billy was still in 11th grade.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:10:45) Was Billy aware of these offers?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:10:49) No. Never said a word to him. I mean, you offer a kid that wants Jordans and PS4s and a new car, if– if I tell them that somebody wants to pay him a quarter of a million dollars plus to go to school, I think that would sway any child to go to that particular school.
(00:11:13) So I never ever put my son in that position, and I never told him that type of thing. I wanted certain things to remain pure for him, and even when basketball started becoming a business, I just wanted him to go and play and have fun. And then if you can get a scholarship while doing so, s– let’s do it, you know. But other than that, nah. I– I never told him.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:11:37) But Billy certainly wasn’t naïve. He knew the system. He knew that colleges sometimes found a way to funnel money to players’ families. Billy says he and his friends called this money, “the bag.”
BILLY PRESTON: (00:11:54) So, for example, if I’m talkin’ to another talented player in my class, and we’re– just say we’re conversatin’ about college or where we’re gonna go. And he tells me, “Oh, I’m thinking about goin’ here.” And I’m, like, “Are they gonna throw the bag? Like, are they gonna throw the bag?” We already know, like, we’d say that– what– what were they talkin’ about, we’re talkin’ about money. So it’s, you know, that’s– that’s the bag.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:12:15) The bag often is the bribe. It’s the money offered to a player or a player’s family. Matt Babcock has spent decades as a college basketball analyst, and he’s a former sports agent. He’s seen plenty of this. He tells a story from his days as an agent about signing a player who was just outta college and getting a strange phone call.
MATT BABCOCK: (00:12:41) And– his mom had called, says, “Hey, I got a problem.” You know, the– the checks stopped coming. I’m, like, “What checks?” “Checks from the school.” And I’m, like, “All right, well, I don’t– I don’t know what kinda arrangement you made, but I– I can assure you, it wasn’t– wasn’t a lifetime deal. Your son’s not there anymore. I don’t want to know anything more,” kinda thing. And then asked me to call the coach, and I was, like, “There’s zero chance I’m making that (LAUGH) call.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:13:02) Babcock had heard rumors for years of coaches paying players, but that call confirmed it. Although now Babcock works as an NBA draft analyst for the media, he remains close enough to the system that he knows those deals still happen.
MATT BABCOCK: (00:13:20) You know, even to this day, I’ve got my– my guesses on certain staff of, like, “This guy’s probably the bag man.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:13:27) How do you spot the bag men?
MATT BABCOCK: (00:13:29) A lot of it is guys’ backgrounds. I mean, the– the guys that are coming from an AAU team, it’s pretty strong indicator, like, “All right, that guy’s set up to create pipelines for recruits.” And not every single guy that has, you know, has connections at the grassroots level is dirty. But more often than not, there’s some crooked stuff goin’ on.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:13:49) Babcock saw bag men connected to AAU, the Amateur Athletic Union. AAU teams are part of a wider universe of youth leagues around the country that are collectively called grassroots basketball. Nicole says that most offers of payments did not come directly from the college team staff. She’d hear from Billy’s AAU coaches that there might be an offer for him at a certain school. But according to Nicole, she didn’t take any of these colleges up on their offers.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:14:23) Ultimately, at the end of the day, money doesn’t affect the decision. That’s not, it’s not the money that drove us to one place and not drove us to another, because there were offers of substantial amounts that no one took.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:14:39) And anyway, Billy and his family had their eyes on the prize, millions of dollars in sponsorship money once Billy got to the NBA. College would be just a one-year stop along the way. This brings us back to Billy’s senior year in high school. Billy was being recruited by Indiana, Syracuse, USC, and Kansas.
(00:15:03) That’s when Nicole got an offer that would be a lifetime thing, bigger than anything that had come before. Billy and Nicole went to visit Lawrence on an official recruiting trip during Billy’s senior year in 2016. The school’s tour guide split them up.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:15:24) So the parents had an itinerary. You know, we would go see the boring stuff like the library and, you know, things like that.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:15:31) Eventually, Nicole ended up in Coach Self’s office, watching from a balcony overlooking the gym while Billy scrimmaged with the team. Bill Self was there, along with assistant coach Kurtis Townsend, as well as a couple of other guys.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:15:48) When we were in there, there’s two gentlemen in there who I’d never met before. I saw one of the guys just bein’ on the circuit, but I had never been formally introduced. And– both of whom were I guess the college representatives for Adidas.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:16:09) One of them was James Gatto. He worked for Adidas as the director of Global Sports Marketing for Basketball. The other man was T.J. Gassnola. Gassnola was a heavy-set guy in his mid 40s with a high and tight haircut, a Boston accent, and a criminal record.
(00:16:29) Gassnola had convictions for larceny and assault, and a long record of theft and unpaid debts. He’d reportedly bragged about being connected to organized crime. He drove with an invalid license for more than a decade, and was labeled a “habitual traffic offender” by the state of Massachusetts.
(00:16:47) Despite his past, Gassnola found success in the world of youth basketball. In 2004, he founded an Adidas-sponsored AAU team in Massachusetts called the New England Playaz, and he could spot talent. According to Gassnola, the Playaz sent about 150 kids to play college basketball over 15 years.
(00:17:13) Many of those players got athletic scholarships. Gassnola also worked as a consultant for Adidas, making about $150,000. On top of that, he billed the company upwards of $300,000, largely for quote-unquote “travel expenses.” As an Adidas consultant, Gassnola helped recruit top high school athletes to college programs sponsored by Adidas like the University of Kansas. The $300,000 included money that Gassnola funneled from Adidas to those players and their families. That’s how T.J. Gassnola met Nicole Player in October 2016 in Coach Bill Self’s office at Kansas.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:18:06) I don’t know who made the formal introduction. I can’t say.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:18:09) But Coach Self was there?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:18:12) Yeah, he was.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:18:14) Billy also remembers seeing Gassnola hanging around Bill Self’s office with assistant coach Kurtis Townsend.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:18:22) I walked into Coach Self’s office one time, the basketball office, and I seen, you know, the rep for Adidas there. And Coach Townsend lets me know that he’s gonna introduce him to my mom. Like, he– like, he’s gonna introduce and link them up together, you feel me?
MALE VOICE: (00:18:38) So he lets me know this after he just walked out the office. I just talked to him, shook his hand. I’m talkin’ to him, and he’s tellin’ me, like, “Yeah, that’s T.J., Adidas. I’m gonna– I’m gonna link him up with your mom, and, you know, they’re gonna get in contact,” and this and that.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:18:53) Later on during that 2016 visit, Nicole says she ran into Gassnola again in the lobby of The Oread Hotel, a castle-like building just off the university campus. That’s where Nicole, TK, Gatto, and Gassnola were staying. Gassnola asked Nicole if she and TK would meet with him and Gatto in their hotel room.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:19:16) I said, “Sure, no problem.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:19:19) When Nicole and TK got to the room, Gassnola led off the pitch.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:19:25) Gatto barely did any talking. Gassnola did all the talking. It reminded me of the head mob boss and his henchmen.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:19:31) They started by comparing Billy to other players that had gone to Adidas schools like Kansas, and the amounts of money they made in contracts with the sneaker company once they went pro.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:19:43) And then they’ll say, “But Billy’s ten times better than him. You know, Billy is a $20 million guy. You know, we project Billy to be here. We take care of our own, you know. Adidas takes care of Adidas athletes.” But then when they were givin’ me specific numbers of where they projected my child to be, which was the first time I had heard the– any type of numbers like that, I was, like, “Oh, really?” You know, it opened up a door. You know what I mean? And it definitely opened up somethin’ for me, I will say that.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:20:18) What did you think they meant when they said to you, “We take care of our own”?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:20:22) I feel like they wanted Billy to go to an Adidas school, to an Adidas branded school.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:20:29) Nicole’s not making a huge leap here. As evidence came out later in the scandal, this was a strategic and intentional scheme that went up the chain. Gassnola frequently worked with another Adidas rep named Merl Code. Here’s a hidden camera recording in which Code explains how Adidas attracted top prospects through it’s grassroots basketball circuit and then steered them to Adidas-affiliated colleges.
MERL CODE: (00:21:02) You’re tryin’ to push those kids to your affiliated schools. For instance, Indiana, Kansas– Arizona State, Miami are all Adidas schools. So if I could have those kids in my own (UNINTEL) flow, I can now follow those kids through my sponsor schools, I win at the grassroots level, my colleges win, and then hopefully I can assign them (UNINTEL).
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:21:24) Code, Gatto, and Gassnola wouldn’t talk to us for this podcast, but Gassnola did testify under oath in a federal courthouse in New York. That’s where all of this wound up in October 2018. Here’s an excerpt from his court testimony. It’s read by actors here, and we’re doing that for all court transcripts and written evidence, because no tape recorders were allowed in the courtroom. The questioner was Eli Mark, an assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case. And he’s asking Gassnola about the conversation he and Gatto had with Nicole and TK at The Oread Hotel.
ACTOR FOR ELI MARK: (00:22:08) During that conversation, what did you say, and what did Ms. Player say and TK say?
ACTOR FOR T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:22:14) I had heard for a while that they were takin’ money from outside influences, you know, whether it had been agents or financial people. You know, that’s what I heard. So I told those ladies that from now on stop taking money from those entities and just come to me, and I’ll take care of it.
ACTOR FOR ELI MARK: (00:22:28) And why did you want Ms. Player and TK to stop taking money from other people and instead go to you?
ACTOR FOR T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:22:34) I didn’t think those other people would conceal it very good, and there was always the risk of it getting out that they were takin’ money from agents or whoever. I just thought, I could conceal it better than those other people could.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:22:45) Nicole took another meeting with T.J. Gassnola a month later in New York City. There she says Gassnola pressured her to get Billy to go to an Adidas school.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:22:56) He didn’t care which one it was. It coulda been Indiana or Kansas, just an Adidas school. But he asked me, was I gonna commit to either one of those two schools? And making that commitment, he basically said that, you know, they would guarantee Billy a contract after with Adidas. And so I agreed. I wanted my son to get what they told me he was projected to get and what they saw him getting.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:23:29) What they saw him getting was $20 million after his year playing college ball at Kansas. But Gassnola also put a more short-term offer on the table.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:23:41) We had a conversation about him advancing me money on future Adidas royalties.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:23:50) Nicole says Gassnola offered her money up front in exchange for Billy’s commitment to one of the Adidas-sponsored universities.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:23:59) Basically for a verbal commitment, you know, he’ll pay me X-amount of dollars, and then for signing, he will pay me X-amount of dollars.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:24:08) What was your thought coming out of there, especially as it pertained to whether you thought doing this was going to risk anything?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:24:18) I didn’t think it was gonna risk anything, honestly. I don’t know why I didn’t. I didn’t. I was told from T.J. the money was coming from him himself. “It’s from my personal. This has nothing to do with Adidas. This is from my personal stash, this is from me.
(00:24:36) “This is from me to you as an advance” that we had to pay back when Billy got an Adidas contract. I don’t know, I– I guess I just, I didn’t think that it would affect anything. I don’t know, and naïve on my part, but I didn’t. He told me it was personal and that it was a loan basically.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:25:00) Gassnola testified that he paid Nicole $30,000 at that meeting. A coupla weeks later, Billy made his verbal commitment to Kansas.
MALE VOICE: (00:25:10) Without further ado, let’s have your college choice. Where are you goin’ to school?
BILLY PRESTON: (00:25:13) Next year, I’ll be attendin’ the University of Kansas. (LAUGH)
MALE VOICE: (00:25:18) The Jayhawks.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:25:19) Nicole met Gassnola again in January 2017 at a hotel in Las Vegas.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:25:25) I went up to his room, and he handed me an envelope. It wasn’t a bag, it was just an envelope. And it was $30,000 cash in there.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:25:35) When did you realize it was $30,000? Did you count it? Did he tell you?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:25:38) I counted it.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:25:39) Like, right in front of him?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:25:41) Yeah. I stayed up there and counted it in front of him.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:25:44) Gassnola and Nicole disagree on the amounts of money involved, but Gassnola gave testimony under oath. and his testimony was backed up by bank records, text messages, and recordings of wiretapped phone calls.
(00:26:05) Part of what Gassnola was trying to do was to make sure Kansas stuck with Adidas. At the time, the two sides were negotiating what would become a 14-year, $196 million sponsorship deal. When Bill Self was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in September 2017, Adidas threw a party for him and another inductee. Gassnola was there too. The bill for the night? $250,000.
(00:26:39) And Preston wasn’t the only player Gassnola was working on. A wire-tapped call picked up Gassnola talking about dropping bags for $20,000 or $30,000 for another recruit in order to get Kansas to resign with Adidas. All along, Gassnola was submitting phony invoices to the head of basketball marketing at Adidas, Jim Gatto.
T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:27:06) What– well, I’m gonna– I’m gonna break out all my expenses in the next month, so every–
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:27:09) Here’s a wire-tapped phone call between Gatto and Gassnola. It’s a little hard to understand, but Gassnola is telling Gatto about all of his expenses. And Gatto is telling him to document everything for the invoices.
T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:27:23) (IN PROGRESS) –give me (UNINTEL) so I mean, another– it– t– 20 towards salary.
JIM GATTO: (00:27:27) Put it all– all down. Put– put everything down, man. You gotta put it down, all the– all that we owe for the rest of the year. What’s your salary, expenses, everything–
T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:27:35) Right.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:27:37) Gassnola’s invoices were for innocuous-sounding things, like tournament and camp fees. But they were also inflated. When Gassnola paid Nicole $30,000 in New York, he charged Adidas $50,000. The remainder went to buy tickets to the college football championship game and to the Super Bowl, which he says he gave to friends and colleagues in the business.
(00:28:02) When he paid her in Las Vegas, he took $7,500 extra in part for gambling money in the casino. All along, according to Gassnola in multiple records, he kept Jim Gatto at Adidas abreast of what he was paying Nicole. Here’s Gassnola under questioning from the court transcript again.
ACTOR FOR ELI MARK: (00:28:24) Did there come a point in time when you spoke with Jim Gatto about this meeting you had with Ms. Player where you gave her $30,000?
ACTOR FOR T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:28:32) You know, Jim and I had conversations all the time. One of my conversations was… Billy Preston’s family is in a good place.
ACTOR FOR ELI MARK: (00:28:40) And when you say “Billy Preston’s family was in a good place,” what would you be referring to?
ACTOR FOR T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:28:46) That they had gotten money from us, and that they are in a good place.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:28:50) Gatto, an Adidas executive, was fully aware that these payments were taking place. He was checking in to make sure that Billy Preston was still in the Adidas family. After handing Nicole an envelope full of cash in Las Vegas, Gassnola began sending money by wire transfer instead. In February 2017, he had his fiancée wire $20,000 to TK’s account. And in June, he wired $15,000 from his team’s account directly to Nicole. Wiring money directly to TK and Nicole gave investigators a clear paper trail to follow.
ACTOR FOR ELI MARK: (00:29:33) Why were those payments by wire instead of by cash like the prior ones?
ACTOR FOR T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:29:37) Because I got lazy.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:29:40) Prosecutors also had the benefit of text messages, including one from Gassnola to Nicole on September 22nd, 2017.
ACTOR FOR T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:29:48) “Have money for you, $4K. Gonna send it late today, early tomorrow when I get out of Atlanta.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:29:54) That message came just a few weeks after this one.
ACTOR FOR NICOLE PLAYER: (00:29:59) “All is well. Got Billy a car. Gonna drive it down to KU on Saturday.”
ACTOR FOR T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:30:05) “What kinda car did you get him? You’re a great Mama.”
ACTOR FOR NICOLE PLAYER: (00:30:09) “I got him a Dodge Charger.”
ACTOR FOR T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:30:11) “Love it.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:30:14) At the time, Billy says he noticed his mom seemed to be more flush with cash, but he didn’t ask why.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:30:21) It got to a point to where, like, I’m– I asked myself, I said, “My mom, like, low key got, like, got money.” (LAUGH) Like, my mom, like, we low key doin’ real, like, real good, like, at this time. It’s, like, whenever I call my mom and asked her for a couple dollars, she– she sent me more than what I asked for. I’m at the point to where I’m, like, “Where is this, like, where’s it comin’ from?”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:30:43) Gassnola says the total paid to Billy’s parents was about $90,000. Nicole says it was half that. Nicole says she wasn’t even aware of all the payments, including the money wired to TK. And Nicole also says “Gassnola promised a lot more than he delivered.”
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:31:04) I used to hit T.J.’s phone, like, “Bro, when are you gonna come with my money?” You know what I mean? And it was always some slick, greasy, “This is comin’ outta my pocket. It’s, I’m buildin’ a house from the ground up.” It was blamed on, “Hey, my wife, you know, went into labor, and blah, blah, blah.” You know, all of this, like, it never came through. Nobody ever told me that I was about to be penny pinched until the end of time.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:31:25) I asked Nicole, “What did she do with the money from Gassnola?”
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:31:29) Spent it. I lived off of it. Wasn’t nothin’ major that I did. I didn’t go on a trip. I paid some bills, relaxed a little.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:31:41) Did you do anything special with it? Did you– did you and Billy do anything? Did you get him anything? Did you–
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:31:45) Billy was at school. Nope. On the grand scale of things, it’s not any money when you really– by the time I caught up on all the things I needed to catch up with, you’re right back to broke. It didn’t change my life.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:31:59) When I interviewed her, Nicole said she wanted to make clear one thing she did not directly spend the money on: Billy’s Charger. She said she financed the car for $20,000 with help from her mother, whose name was on the title. It can be easy from the outside to pass judgment on a parent who breaks the rules like Nicole did. But ESPN’s Myron Medcalf thinks about this a little differently. He compares young athletes to talented kids in other fields like when teenage pop singers make it big with the support of their parents.
MYRON MEDCALF: (00:32:37) It’s an American story. Weird thing happens when you start bouncin’ a basketball. Weird dynamic comes in. Maybe you all could help me figure it out. But all of a sudden, when that kid who’s had the same support from Mom, who took him to practice, got him his first basketball, took him to Saturday morning basketball when nobody cared.
(00:33:00) And now he’s 17, and he’s projected to be a lottery pick, and now she’s evil? Now she just wanted a meal ticket. Maybe, if that’s what you believe. Or maybe there’s somethin’ about basketball that we don’t apply to young talent anywhere else. Let’s talk about those Black kids the same way we talk about the white kids who are makin’ hits right now on TV and are tourin’ the world as superstars in music.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:33:31) For Nicole, it goes back to the economics of college basketball. And it’s a version of an argument that many people have made over the years against the NCAA’s amateurism rule.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:33:44) Ultimately, at the end of the day, I look at this thing in two ways. One, I could have very well said, “No.” I coulda said, “No, this is not for me.” But, two, I feel like it’s predatory. And I feel like, at the end of the day, you catch anybody down on their luck in a tough time, and you dangle somethin’ in front of their face.
(00:34:11) I mean, it just– it just is what it is. And I’m not makin’ any excuses for it. I just feel like the entire system is corrupt and predatory. I feel like they– they prey on impoverished families, and most of those impoverished families happen to be people of color.
(00:34:34) I was astonished to find out how much money college coaches made. It was heartbreaking for me, ’cause here I am bein’ persecuted, I mean, nailed to the wall, crucified for $45,000. The coach makes seven figures, and everybody on that bench after him makes six figures, until you get to the person in a uniform. And they say, “Oh, well, he has a good quality education.” But he always called and needed somethin’. “Mama, I’m hungry. Mama, can we this, Mama, can we that?” It– it doesn’t make any real sense to me, the entire system. (MUSIC)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:35:36) Every university in the NCAA has compliance officers on staff. Their job is to make sure the school, its employees and its students are following the rules. After all, if a student gets caught accepting money under the table, the school might have to vacate wins, pay fines, and kick the player off the team. Billy’s car accident on Veterans Day 2017 started the questions inside the University of Kansas. “Where did Billy get the car? Could his family really have paid for it?” The university started by asking Billy.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:36:14) The first question that comes up is, “Where did you get the Charger from?”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:36:18) To Nicole, those questions had a lot to do with assumptions about what kind of kid drives a Dodge Charger.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:36:25) It’s almost to me, I don’t want to say racist per se, but it wasn’t a BMW, wasn’t a Mercedes.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:36:34) A few days after Billy’s accident on Tuesday, November 14th, a lawyer and an NCAA compliance officer from the University of Kansas flew to Houston to meet with Nicole. She invited them in, and they sat on her couch. Then they asked Nicole whether she’d taken money for Billy to play at their school.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:36:54) They asked me straight up, “Have you ever got any money, or has anybody ever?” And I told ’em the truth. I was, like, “Yeah.” And they were, like, “Who?” And I said, “T.J. Gassnola.” And they basically told me that they had already knew that.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:37:08) What were you feeling at that moment?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:37:10) I think I had kinda felt like I had messed up with the wire. I feel like I had made a cardinal mistake, you know what I mean? I just felt like, “Oh, it’s a paper trail.” I wasn’t ashamed, ’cause I’m not the type of person that, I mean, if I do somethin’ I gotta, you know, I gotta walk in it, you know what I mean? I just felt like I just kinda, like, “What was I thinkin’?”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:37:33) What did you think about Billy at that point?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:37:36) Oh, my heart sank. It sank. It literally sank.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:37:48) The immediate fall-out came that same evening as Billy got ready to play in his first official game as a Jayhawk in the State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:38:02) Hey, get your popcorn. You know what time it is. Game time. Let’s get it. Whoa, we’re gonna do this. (UNINTEL) Lewis to the blue bloods.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:38:10) I had my whole uniform on, already dressed up. I got my shoes on. We done stretchin’ and everything. I’m literally sittin’ in m– by my locker, usin’ my phone, just waitin’ to go out. And, you know, Coach Self and Coach Townsend, they walk in with, like, a mopey look on their face, like, you know.
(00:38:29) And then that’s when they called me in. They– they– they called me, they said, “Billy, yeah, we– we need to talk to you really quick.” And that’s when everybody on the team did, like, the “Ooh, like, you– you in trouble time.” “Like, what’s– what’s goin’ on, Bro? I’m just ready to play, Bro. Like, please don’t tell me anything where I can’t go out there and play.”
(00:38:48) Like, so that’s the first thing they tell me. He was, like, “Yeah, you know, due to the, you know, the car wreck and it bein’ reported to the NCAA. And, you know, they– they– they just called us and said that you can’t play. Like, you’re ineligible, like, to play.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:39:04) Back in Houston, Nicole heard the news that Kansas was going to hold Billy out of the game.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:39:10) Kurtis Townsend called me first. He told me that they were gonna go talk to Billy, and that– he would tell me what happened afterwards. When he called me back, he said my son just broke down and cried, fell to his knees. And– I’m not a crier. I don’t think I cried harder than I cried that day. And I– it was just, I don’t know, it just kinda all came crashin’ down, you know?
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:39:42) How was it that Billy found out about the payment? Was it, it was from Kurtis?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:39:47) He called me and asked me what happened. They let me explain it to him. And I told him the truth. I didn’t have a choice but to tell him the truth.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:39:56) How much did you tell him?
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:39:59) I told him about the $15,000 wire. That’s all I told him about. It wasn’t until afterwards that I told him other things.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:40:07) I asked my mom, like, “Basically, like, did– did Adidas give us money to go here?” She was, like, “Yeah, they did.”
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:40:12) It’s– it was probably one of the worst days of my life. It changed a lot of our relationship, the relationship with him.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:40:23) When we was in the locker room and I was sick, like, I’m– I’m just, like, I’m supposed to be playin’ right now. Like, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be on this floor right now, like, doin’ what I do.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:40:35) (IN PROGRESS) –Alexander forces up a three, and Kansas will win it. The Jayhawks prevail after losing on their two previous match-ups to Kentucky here at the Champions Classic. They beat Kentucky tonight 65-61, to be–
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:40:52) That same day, Nicole and Gassnola had a text exchange read again by actors here.
ACTOR FOR NICOLE PLAYER: (00:40:59) My kid can’t play.
ACTOR FOR T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:41:01) This is fucking awful. I can only say I’m sorry so much. Is he okay?
ACTOR FOR NICOLE PLAYER: (00:41:07) He’s distraught.
ACTOR FOR T.J. GASSNOLA: (00:41:09) I don’t know what to say. I always was just tryin’ to help you all, to avoid this exact fucking situation.
ACTOR FOR NICOLE PLAYER: (00:41:15) I know.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:41:18) Nicole tried to cover her tracks. According to Gassnola, she asked him to contact KU officials and tell them that he never gave her money. He even had his attorney write a letter to that effect, even though it wasn’t true. She also suggested telling university officials they were in a romantic relationship, hoping that would give her cover for accepting money. But that wasn’t true either. Nicole also tried with Billy. In text messages that would later become evidence, she coached him on what to say to school officials.
ACTOR FOR NICOLE PLAYER: (00:41:51) I don’t care what they say to you. You don’t know. If they ask you about a person, say, “I don’t know. I would have to see their face.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:41:59) Nicole said the FBI accessed the contents of her phone, and she turned over her bank records. But she says she was never actually questioned. Remember, Gassnola said she had been taking money from other people before him. And sources with knowledge of the FBI investigation said the same.
(00:42:19) Nicole has repeatedly said, “That isn’t true.” But none of that was ever vetted in court. Gassnola did testify at trial that, “Bill Self and the rest of the coaching staff at the University of Kansas didn’t know about the payments he made to Billy’s family.” Gassnola did testify at trial that “Bill Self and the rest of the coaching staff at the University of Kansas didn’t know about the payments he made to Billy’s family.” After the game in Chicago, Billy began an agonizing wait.
BILL SELF: (00:42:54) Yeah, I think we’re– we’re very hopeful that we are nearing the conclusion to the point where maybe we can find somethin’ out in– in– in– in the relatively near future. But I don’t think that’s gonna be by Wednesday.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:43:07) The University of Kansas launched its own investigation into Gassnola and Nicole to decide if Billy could play.
BILL SELF: (00:43:14) Confident we’ll have some news– soon. But that’s not, and I’m not sayin’ today positively.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:43:21) Weeks went by, and after every game, Bill Self would take questions from reporters about when Billy would be back on the team.
BILL SELF: (00:43:29) You know, I’ve said for a while now, sooner rather than later, and I can guarantee it will be sooner rather than later.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:43:37) I’d never get a answer. Like, every week, every weekend, it’s the same thing. It’s just pushed back a week to the next weekend. And they never told me why. They would just tell me that they always– they’re still decidin’ or they’re still havin’ meetin’s about it. They still, you know, figurin’ it out.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:43:53) In late December 2017, the university finished its investigation and handed its findings to the NCAA. After that, it would be up to the NCAA to make a final decision. For an athlete like Billy, riding the bench week in and week out had a psychological cost.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:44:14) Man, that– that whole time I was just depressed. I just wanted to play, like, not even just play. I wanted to play in college. Like, I can still travel, I can still practice. I just couldn’t play in a game. And every weekend goin’ by and I just can’t play, like, it’s eating me up inside. Like, I’m tired of sitting, Bro. I came here for a reason. I’m, and I’m in field house every game on the sidelines just watchin’ my teammates, the fans go crazy. And I can’t do nothin’ about it.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:44:41) By late January of 2018, Billy had watched 17 Jayhawks games from the sidelines with no sign that he’d ever play again for Kansas. But Billy also knew that in order to be a serious prospect for the NBA draft, he had to play to get some game tape for scouts. So he started looking elsewhere. He got an offer from a pro team in Bosnia. They would pay him $100,000 for four months of playing time. Billy called Coach Self, who tried to talk him out of it.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:45:21) He personally thinks me leavin’ and goin’ overseas– especially to where I was goin’ wasn’t a good idea. Like, he just felt like, you know, that situation could get worked out just a matter of time. And I just felt like I didn’t have time. So, like, when I’m listenin’ to him talk, you know, I was just, like, “Coach Self, I– I– I hear you, I really do.
(00:45:42) “But it’s been, like, four weeks, and you’ve been tellin’ me the same thing. And ain’t nothin’– ain’t nothin’ changin’. So, you know, I feel like this probably is the best thing for me to do.” But I could tell in his voice and just the things he was sayin’, he didn’t want me to leave.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:45:56) On January 20th, 2018, Billy announced that he would be leaving the University of Kansas without playing a single official game as a Jayhawk. Bill Self spoke at a press conference later that day.
BILL SELF: (00:46:11) (IN PROGRESS) –where they had to do somethin’. And– and– I was hopin’, we were all hopin’ that– that the– that closure would come before they had to do somethin’. But I– I– they– they– they said they were, you know, frustration had set in, and they were tired of waitin’. So I– I– I totally understand.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:46:27) What was it like driving outta town that last time?
BILLY PRESTON: (00:46:30) Of course I was sad leavin’, ’cause I– I did want to play at KU. I wanted to actually play the whole year and win the NCAA championship. But since I couldn’t play, it was, like, I wasn’t just gonna stay there and watch. Like, you know, I still gotta, you know, like I said, look out for myself.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:46:45) Billy and Nicole packed up his dorm room and drove out of Lawrence. Billy got on a plane to Bosnia. There Billy discovered that his coach didn’t speak English. Only one of his teammates did, so that teammate would translate between Billy and the coach.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:47:04) Most times I just gave my coach a thumbs up, like, when he would say somethin’ just to let him know, “Okay, I got you. Thumbs up.”
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:47:10) In Bosnia, Billy felt about as far away from the life he’d planned as he could possibly be.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:47:18) In my backyard in the house that I had, it was, like, a big space just of snow, you know. Like, literally looked like you was just in Alaska or somethin’ like that. And it was just one house sittin’ in the middle of nowhere.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:47:31) Already at a low point in his life, he also felt a wedge driven between him and the one person who he believed had always had his back, his mom.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:47:41) It damaged our relationship. I didn’t talk to my mom for, like, a couple months. Yeah, it was all due to that.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:47:48) Billy was sidelined after just three games in Bosnia, shoulder injury. He left about halfway through his four-month contract. It was bad enough for Billy to have his name dragged through the mud because the NCAA was looking into a questionable car.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:48:05) But when Billy returned to the U.S. to get ready for the draft, his name was in headlines again. That’s because a federal criminal case had outed Kansas and T.J. Gassnola. Now Billy’s name was linked to a much bigger scandal. Coming up in our next episode, the roots of the bag game, and who else got snagged in the federal investigation.
MALE VOICE: (00:48:45) I called my wife, I said, “Hey Babe, I have no idea what’s goin’ on right now. But I’m pretty sure I’m gonna get arrested today.”
MALE VOICE: (00:48:51) A scheme to make a very large payment– to the family of a student athlete.
MALE VOICE: (00:48:56) Everybody’s in it, man. If this thing is dirty, we all got mud on us, man. All of us.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:49:02) That’s next time on The Bag Game. The Bag Game is based on reporting by me, Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach for ESPN’s investigative unit. Senior producer is Matt Frassica. Senior editorial producer is Eve Troeh. Line producer is Cath Sankey.
(00:49:25) Associate producers are Gus Navarro and Meghan Coyle. Production assistants are Diamante McKelvie and Isabella Seman. Archival producers are Meghan Coyle and Chi-Young Park (PH). Music by Braxton Cook, with additional composition, scoring and sound design by Hannis Brown. (MUSIC)
Reporter/Host: Paula Lavigne
Additional Reporting: Mark Schlabach
Senior Producer: Matt Frassica
Senior Editorial Producer: Eve Troeh
Line Producer: Cath Sankey
Associate Producer: Gus Navarro and Meghan Coyle
Archival Producer: Meghan Coyle with Chi-Young Park
Music: Braxton Cook with additional compositions by Hannis Brown
Scoring and Audio Mixing: Hannis Brown
Production Assistants: Diamante McKelvie, Anthony Salas and Isabella Seman
Executive Producers: Marsha Cooke and Brian Lockhart
Production Management: Tom Picard and Maria Delgado
Rights and Clearances: Jennifer Thorpe.
ESPN Films Development: Senior Director, Adam Neuhaus with Trevor Gill, and Tara Nadolny.
Vice President of Investigative Journalism: Chris Buckle
Investigative Editors: Mike Drago, David Duffey, Elizabeth Baugh and Laura Purtell
Fact checking: John Mastroberardino.
Additional production at Mixing Room Studios in Omaha, Nebraska.
Voice acting: Sam Borden, Terrika Foster, David Marr, Michael Philbrick, Sarah Spain, and Eric Neel
Special thanks to: Jorge Plana, Heather Mitchell, Greg Amante, Rayna Banks, David Lubbers, Nicole Noren, Jeff Borzello, Myron Medcalf, Nick Pietruszkiewicz, Tony Moss and Vic Seper
Legal Review: Dave Mayer, Alan Lau, Peter Scher and Callie Riotte