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From the archives | July 24, 2006

There’s no stopping cash flowing to amateurs

This article is from the Boston Globe archives. It was originally published on Monday, July 24, 2006.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. It’s a sleepy Saturday afternoon in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, and Rakim Sanders, a 16-year-old hotshot from a Rhode Island housing project, has created a buzz at a Boys and Girls Club on the edge of town.

Recruiters from major colleges across the country have trekked in April to the gym on a dead end street in northwest Arkansas to pay respect to Sanders, a sleek, 6-foot-5-inch shooting guard. Assistant coaches from Boston College and the University of Connecticut anchor a group watching Sanders from one end of the basketball court while rivals from Providence, Syracuse, and other Division 1 powers stand vigil at the opposite end.

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As New England’s top college basketball prospect in the high school class of 2007, Sanders a high-scoring junior at St. Andrew’s School in Rhode Island has received scholarship offers from BC and Providence and has been projected by a basketball trade publication as a 2010 selection in the NBA draft. (Two weeks later, on May 1, he verbally commits to BC.)

Sanders also is the jewel of the Adidas-backed New England Playaz, an elite travel team based in Springfield. And he will receive a special benefit from the Playaz after he performs at the Real Deal on the Hill Tournament in Fayetteville, a major weekend showcase that attracts the nation’s top college recruiters and scouting services.

Playaz president Thomas J. “TJ” Gassnola has paid for Sanders to travel not only from New England to Fayetteville, as Gassnola has done for the entire team, but also to fly after the tournament from Arkansas to Orlando to vacation with his brothers and sisters at Disney World. Gassnola then will pay for Sanders to fly home from Disney World.

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Never mind that NCAA rules bar amateur teams such as the Playaz from paying for anything but “actual and necessary travel, room and board, and apparel and equipment for competition and practice.”

Gassnola, who has a lengthy criminal record and rich history of financial delinquency, says he also will slip his star player $100 to spend during his Disney vacation.

“The kid has no money, so I’m helping him out,” Gassnola says. “You want to throw me in jail for that? Go ahead.”

Since Sanders will not be subject to NCAA rules until he enrolls in college and since no other agency closely regulates such activity the chances of anyone facing sanctions for Gassnola’s special gift to Sanders are remote.

“It’s all loosely regulated, at best,” says Robert Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. “We may just have to hope for some sense of voluntary compliance by the individuals who are making [the system] so lucrative and rewarding.”

`Michael’ motivation

So it goes in the shadowy corners of the high-stakes scramble by multibillion-dollar sneaker conglomerates to adorn America’s basketball stars of tomorrow in their brands. Each of the three major companies Nike, Adidas, and Reebok spends millions of dollars sponsoring “grassroots” teams like the Playaz and other youth programs, hoping their teen sensations one day will become endorsement giants, a la Michael Jordan (Nike), Tracy McGrady (Adidas), and Allen Iverson (Reebok).

“The theory remains the same: We’re all looking for the next Michael,” says Sonny Vaccaro, who revolutionized the market by signing Jordan for Nike in 1984 and now serves as Reebok’s senior director of grassroots basketball.

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Dreams are made and dashed at national camps and tournaments like the Real Deal, where big-monied sneaker companies and college coaches often determine the future of the nation’s most promising amateur athletes. It’s a basketball meat market, and the stakes are enormous for everyone: company-sponsored recruiters like Gassnola who have scoured gyms and playgrounds to deliver the best players they can enlist for the showcase; players like Sanders, whose futures can hinge on their brief auditions before the nation’s top college coaches; colleges like BC, whose fortunes can rise or fall on the players in whom they decide to invest lucrative scholarships; companies like Adidas, whose bottom lines can be determined by how many of the players they sponsor make it big.

If the companies or their representatives play fast and loose in the process, they rarely answer for it, as team officials such as Gassnola operate in a subculture in which pioneers like Vaccaro and Nike executive George Raveling set the standards, for better or worse.

Raveling, who followed Vaccaro as head of Nike’s grassroots program, has acknowledged giving $100 to Amare Stoudemire’s mother, Carrie, in 2000 while she was jailed on theft charges (Nike was wooing Amare before he turned pro). Stoudemire has since signed endorsement deals with Nike worth an estimated $33 million.

Vaccaro acknowledges that as an Adidas executive in the 1990s he bought street clothes for NBA player Lamar Odom when Odom played for an Adidas-funded youth team (Odom later signed with Nike). Vaccaro also says in an interview near his multimillion-dollar home in Calabasas, Calif., that he has provided players money for expenses not directly related to basketball, which critics decry as improper preferential treatment and the NCAA could consider a violation of its rules on amateurism.

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“I would do that, absolutely,” Vaccaro says of regularly giving players money for food and other expenses unrelated to basketball. “There’s no hard-line rule against it and it would be asinine to put one in because you couldn’t monitor it.”

Vaccaro acknowledges the sneaker companies participate in a system that exploits amateur youths for financial gain.

“It’s a cesspool,” he said, “but everybody’s involved in it: the sneaker companies, the NBA, the colleges, and the high schools.”

Vaccaro, Gassnola, and others justify the practice in part by citing the profits that sneaker companies, colleges, professional teams, television networks, agents, and others make on teenagers, many of whom are poor.

“I live in a beautiful place and I’m pretty damn successful,” Vaccaro says. “For a lot of these kids, it’s a rough life.”

A number of coaches whose players Gassnola tried to lure away see it differently.

“We don’t want to be associated with street agents, and that’s the best way I can think of to describe him,” says Mike Crotty, director of the Belmont-based Middlesex Magic, whose players pay to participate.

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Guiding light

Sanders says he just wants to survive financially. He was 11 when his mother died in 2000. His sister, Nyisha, who was 18 at the time, has since raised him and four other siblings at a low-income project in Pawtucket, R.I. Sanders’s basketball ability helped land him at St. Andrew’s, a small private school with a strong basketball program, and he hopes his athletic skills carry him further.

“I just want to get into college and not have my sister have to pay for it,” Sanders says after leading the Playaz to victory in their first two games of the Real Deal’s 17-and-under division. “Making it through school for free, that would be the best thing for me.”

Gassnola, who has lured away numerous players from summer teams in Greater Boston, including the Nike-backed Boston Amateur Basketball Club, has reached into Rhode Island for Sanders and a point guard, Andrew Hanson, one of 12 children from a Narragansett family who also attends St. Andrew’s.

The Playaz have picked up a pair of 6-8 forwards from Springfield: Garrett Kissel, whom Gassnola helped enroll at St. Andrew’s, and Travon Wilcher, whom Gassnola steered to Lee Academy in Maine. The team features two other talented guards: Sedale Jones, a prolific scorer from Pittsfield High School, and Dominique Price, a star for Holy Name in Worcester. Gassnola’s second-leading scorer is 6-3 Corey Bingham, a 2005 Globe All-Scholastic at Lynn Tech who joined Wilcher at Lee Academy.

Gassnola also helps some of his players choose colleges, as he did last year with former Lynn Tech star Antonio Anderson. With several top Division 1 teams pursuing him, Anderson selected Memphis, whose coach, John Calipari, Gassnola considers a close friend.

“I’d take a bullet for the guy,” Gassnola says.

Calipari’s assistant, Derek Kellogg, has been Gassnola’s best friend since they attended Cathedral High School together in Springfield.

“I told Antonio, `You need to go to a place where you’re comfortable, with people I know, because I can’t call [North Carolina coach] Roy Williams, but I can call Cal,’ “ Gassnola says. Calipari and Kellogg did not respond to interview requests.

So far this year, the 10-member Playaz squad has competed in New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Arkansas. Before the summer ends, they will play in Washington, D.C., Georgia, North Carolina, New York, Nevada, and California, with all their expenses paid.

Nearly every member of the Playaz appears poised to secure a Division 1 basketball scholarship, and most say they have joined the team to try to enhance their recruiting positions.

“TJ gets us out to the bigger tournaments,” says Sanders, who joined Gassnola last year after playing for the Rhode Island Breakers since he was 12. “He gives me a better chance to showcase my talents.”

Bingham, who will spend two post-grad years at Lee Academy, credits Gassnola with helping him attract interest from his top choices: the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, St. John’s, and Miami.

“You get way more exposure with the Playaz,” Bingham says.

Wilcher, an athletic shot-blocker, already has generated interest from UMass, URI, and Wyoming. But his stock appears to climb during the Real Deal tournament as several recruiters, including one from UConn, ask Gassnola about him. (He verbally committed last week to UMass).

Wilcher says he might not have made it out of Springfield if Gassnola had not helped him academically by guiding him from Central High School there toward Lee Academy.

“I probably wouldn’t be qualified to play right now if it wasn’t for TJ,” Wilcher says. “Now I’m in the correct classes.”

A new member of the Playaz, 6-7 Josh Herritt, commutes from Stamford, Conn., in the hope of gaining more recognition. Herritt plays for King & Low-Heywood Thomas, a small private school little noticed by college recruiters. He hopes to play for a Division 1 program, perhaps in the Ivy League.

“Unfortunately, in today’s environment, it’s all about exposure and Josh needed to get some,” says his father, Dave Herritt. “TJ came to watch him play and it has worked out for all of us.”

Overseeing operation

Since NCAA rules bar individuals who have been charged with a felony from coaching in tournaments it certifies, Gassnola has not coached the Playaz since he formed them in 2004 (a jury found him not guilty in 1997 of felony assault and battery and unarmed burglary). He has left the coaching first to Mike Jarvis II, now the head team manager at Duke, and since then to Shawn Bloom, who played at Salem State after starring at Minnechaug Regional High School in Wilbraham, Mass.

While Bloom directs the team, Gassnola stands amid the college recruiters at one end of the court, alternately cheering and chastising his players. After the Playaz win their opening game in the tournament, Gassnola peels a $100 bill off a roll he pulls from his pocket and hands it to Hanson, instructing him to buy food for the team.

“Anything we need, TJ gets it for us,” Bingham says.

The Playaz dine at local restaurants between games, sleep at the Quality Inn, and travel about town in a rented van. Before the summer ends, Gassnola will have spent several thousand dollars per player, each of whom is outfitted with a full line of Adidas gear, including two game uniforms, warmups, and sneakers.

Gassnola, who describes himself as a real estate entrepreneur, also supports a 15-and-under travel team, which has not traveled to Fayetteville. He says he funds the program with his own money as well as contributions from Springfield-area businessmen and three NBA players he declines to identify. He says the program costs about $100,000 a year.

“TJ does everything,” Hanson says. “All he wants me to do is run the team [on the court], and he said he’ll take care of me.”

Adidas is pleased with Gassnola because the Playaz are wearing its brand in a national showcase, where more than 175 colleges and 40 recruiting services are represented, with television cameras recording much of the action.

Gassnola’s goodwill ebbs, however, when the Playaz fail to overcome a lackluster start in their third game of the tournament and suffer a 1-point loss to a team from Memphis.

“That’s it,” he says, fuming, to Bloom. “Take away their cellphones, their iPods, everything. I’m kicking [butt].”

Despite the sullen interlude, Gassnola gets plenty of attention from college recruiters, who recognize the influence he wields. When he first walks into the Boys and Girls Club, he exchanges a hug and handshake with Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who quickly hands his cellphone to Gassnola.

One of Pearl’s assistants is curious about Kiwan Smith, a 6-8 star Gassnola brought to the tournament the previous year. Gassnola had pushed the 17-and-under age limit with Smith, who is 21 and was barred from another tournament last year because of his age. (Tournaments often permit limited age exceptions, which is how the BABC’s 15-and-under team recently won AAU national, regional, and state championships with four players who are 16.)

As for Smith, questions also arose about his character: He pleaded guilty in 2004 in Schenectady (N.Y.) County to a Class D felony of third-degree criminal possession of stolen property (an SUV) and was sentenced to five years probation. But the more pressing matter seems to be that Smith, who attends Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, has yet to meet NCAA academic eligibility requirements, diminishing Tennessee’s interest.

Still, one coach after another, including Kansas State’s Bob Huggins, makes a point of schmoozing with Gassnola. With dozens of major college prospects participating, organizers charge the coaches $250 each for team rosters (178 colleges are registered). And even though the NCAA bars the coaches from speaking with players coaches may only observe the players but are allowed to speak with organizers like Gassnola Huggins has turned out with many of his contemporaries, including Pearl, Williams, Calipari, Kentucky’s Tubby Smith, and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.

In the past, Gassnola has helped at least one college recruiter break the rule barring communication with players. The Record of Bergen County, N.J., reported in 2002 that Gassnola, then an associate of the Playaz Basketball Club of Paterson, N.J., handed his cellphone to Demetris Nichols, of Dorchester, whom Gassnola had enlisted with the Playaz, so Nichols could speak with a Syracuse recruiter who was standing in the same gym during a tournament.

When a Record reporter asked Gassnola whether the NCAA would ever be able to stop such prohibited communication, he replied, “They can’t do a [expletive] thing about it.”

Traveling show

In Fayetteville, the Reebok-sponsored tournament has drawn 156 teams from coast to coast, despite Nike advising its teams to boycott the event because of its rival’s sponsorship. Several Nike-sponsored teams, including the Illinois Warriors, who win the tournament, have ignored the company’s ban, a measure of the event’s significance on the recruiting calendar. An additional 83 teams that sought to pay the $450 entry fee were wait-listed.

Izzo said it’s “imperative” for recruiters to attend such talent shows. One problem, he said, is the outsized influence many sneaker-company operatives have gained, sometimes for the worse.

“Some of the coaches are real good, like in high school,” Izzo said