CRAWFORD | From Pitino, more detail on Louisville, adidas and recruiting
It is taking some time, but a clearer picture of how Rick Pitino, adidas and the University of Louisville interacted with each other is beginning to come into focus.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In the golden age of game shows, “Concentration” was a hit. Contestants would have to match pieces on a game board from memory, and when they did, those pieces were removed to reveal parts of yet another puzzle underneath.
Every time Rick Pitino does an interview, or shares information with The Washington Post or someone else, another couple of cards are pulled away, another section of the underlying puzzle is revealed. It's the same with any legal filing, any fulfillment of a lingering open-records request.
On Wednesday, some relatively minor revelations came by way of The Post. Raise your hand if you didn’t know that adidas had funded prep phenom Romeo Langford’s AAU team. Anyone? Raise your hand if you didn’t know that adidas had provided gear to Langford’s New Albany High School team. I mean, the logo was right there on them.
It should come as absolutely no surprise that adidas executives were putting their heads together to figure out a way to keep Langford in three stripes and away from Nike and Under Armor, who no doubt had meetings of their own about how to land him.
What did surprise me a bit was that they would do that in a meeting with Rick Pitino. On the University of Louisville campus in January of 2017, Pitino, then the Louisville coach, says he met with James Gatto, then the adidas global basketball marketing director and now the lead defendant in a federal college basketball pay-for-play case, and T.J. Gassnola, then an adidas consultant, now a key witness for federal prosecutors in the case after pleading guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges.
That meeting alone isn’t in itself proof of anything wrong. Pitino says he is being upfront about what was discussed and why it happened. On the Ramsey and Rutherford radio show on 790-WKRD AM Wednesday, Pitino asked, “What person who is guilty of anything turns over all their information to the (Washington) Post?”
“The way they phrased it,” Pitino told The Post, “it was [whichever shoe company] was going to pay the dad’s AAU program the most money, gets it. That’s the way the world works, which is completely legal, by the way.”
Legal? Yes. But this isn’t the high-minded coach who in 2014 went on at some length about the “need to get the shoe companies out of the lives of young athletes.”
That was a coach who was perturbed that his recruiting pool was smaller because adidas didn’t cast as long a net as, say, Nike.
The coach in this story, however, is one who by 2017 clearly is comfortable swimming in that pool. He went from playing lifeguard to swimming the backstroke.
Moreover, the visual of these two high-level adidas guys on Louisville’s campus, one already having pled guilty, another under a substantial federal indictment, talking strategy about a Louisville recruit, well, it doesn’t look good. It doesn’t quite match the narrative of adidas as the less-aggressive of the shoe company powers that Pitino seemed to put forward in May of 2016 when he noted – perhaps accurately – that adidas had never helped steer a player toward Louisville.
Some have suggested that statement is untrue, because weeks earlier Pitino had sent Gatto a text noting that another adidas employee was helping connect Langford with UCLA, and Pitino hoped adidas wouldn’t do anything to hurt Louisville. Note – Pitino didn’t ask for any help from adidas with Langford (at least not in this text message), he only said he didn’t want to be hurt by adidas.
(Why would he do such a thing? Well, adidas had hurt Louisville before, coming through with a lucrative endorsement offer that swayed Louisville signee Sebastian Telfair to go to the NBA instead of coming to college years before. Losing Telfair, incidentally, kept Pitino in the market for a point guard, a spot he filled a year later with the addition of a California recruit named Andre McGee, but I digress.)
Regardless, back up for a minute and look at the puzzle underneath all of these little revelations. Gatto, Pitino, recruit. That’s not a picture that helps Pitino, his claim that he never discussed improper payments to a player with anyone notwithstanding. Even if you take that statement as fact, it’s still not a picture that helps Pitino, Louisville or adidas.
And, of course, it’s not yet the whole picture. Maybe, there’s something in there that we can’t yet see. Maybe we need to wait for all the cards to be pulled away. Maybe there's no "maybe" about that. This point needs to be stressed. It's fun to jump to conclusions all day, but in the end, you don't know until you really know. Everything else is opinion.
Pitino himself, via attorney Steve Pence in a lawsuit against adidas filed last fall, acknowledged his relationship with Gatto and made no effort to hide it.
“Coach Pitino knows and has communicated with Gatto,” the suit said. “That is not surprising, because adidas has outfitted the University of Louisville men’s basketball team for several years, and the university signed a $160 million, ten-year contract extension in 2017. At no time have Pitino and Gatto discussed – overtly, covertly, in code, through nuance, or in any other way – the provision of improper benefits to any University of Louisville basketball player or recruit.”
So we watch, wait, and keep digging, keep turning over cards. A couple of weeks ago, in separate scandal, WDRB discovered through a year-old open records request finally fulfilled that on the day he is alleged to have (as an assistant coach at Missouri-Kansas City) contacted Katina Powell for services to a Louisville recruiting target in town for an AAU Tournament, Andre McGee called Powell six times, and after three of those, within minutes, called then-Louisville assistant coach Mike Balado.
It’s proof of nothing. U of L had that information, as did the NCAA, and neither found Balado guilty of wrongdoing. But it also brings that scandal closer to the basketball staff than perhaps had been publicly known previously. And another couple of cards come off the board.
In a motion for summary judgment against a lawsuit by Pitino that became public earlier this week, U of L attorneys called Pitino’s assertion that he didn’t know what was happening in his own program a “hollow claim.” Are they kidding? This from a university that has argued pretty strenuously for years that Pitino in fact did not know about all of these things.
It's a ludicrous and, perhaps, self-destructive argument for university attorneys to make. Regardless, another couple of cards come off the board.
We can’t solve these puzzles yet, but over time, if enough cards keep coming off the board, we’ll get there. That’s just the way the world works.
Copyright 2018 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.