Will Pastner's Career Survive Ex-Friend's Allegations?

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Copyright 2017 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


I don't know if this is actually a saying, but Josh Pastner might want to make a note of it: The best way to guard against a whistleblower is not to supply a whistle. There's a chance the NCAA investigation into the impermissible benefits afforded Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson won't go beyond what Georgia Tech has reported. There's also the chance it will.

Ron Bell, an extremely disgruntled former friend/ confidant of Pastner's, has spilled his story in excruciating detail to Gary Parrish of CBS Sports. Bell relates how he and Pastner met when the latter was an Arizona walk-on. As Parrish writes, Bell's uncle ran the Riverside Hawks, a famous AAU program in New York. (Kenny Anderson, the best player in Tech annals, was a Riverside Hawk.) Bell and Pastner bonded and remained close over the years, even after Bell — who has fought what he calls an addiction to prescription drugs — served a 50-month prison term for violation of parole.

So there's your whistleblower: a guy who grew up around AAU basketball and who spent more than four years in jail. Were it just Bell's word against his ex-friend's, Pastner might well win that fight. Trouble is, Bell has phone records and credit card receipts, which he provided to CBS Sports, and photos and even videos that show his proximity to Pastner's programs at Memphis and now Tech.

Heck, Bell has a picture of Okogie and Jackson floating in his Arizona pool. If you have any feel for hoops history, you'll flash back to Anderson Hunt, David Butler and Moses Scurry in Richie the Fixer's hot tub; that image brought down Jerry Tarkanian and UNLV.

Bell admits providing the self-reported impermissible benefits to the Tech players. He also claims the monetary figures Tech ascribed to these benefits — less than $525 for Okogie, less than $700 for Jackson — are too low. His most emphatic contention is that Pastner, who said he knew nothing about such benefits until Oct. 2, knew all along.

Bell claims in 2016, Pastner handed him an envelope bearing $500; Bell said this money was to be given to Memphis players. Where the NCAA is concerned, cash is problematic. Who's to say it was $500, as opposed to $5? Who's to say where the money went? Who's to say there was ever an envelope? Who's to say it wasn't, as Bell's girlfriend assumed, money for a hotel room for the two of them?

But the photos and the video in which Pastner describes Bell and his girlfriend as "part of our family, part of the (Memphis) team" and the receipts and the phone records — those tell a different story. There seems no question Bell once was tight with Pastner. (Parrish's story includes a link to Bell, wearing a Memphis shirt, participating in a postgame handshake line with Tulsa players Feb. 28, 2016.) There seems no question he was treated as more than the average fan.

About here, you might be saying: "We don't care about Memphis. What of Tech?" Bell provided CBS Sports with records of text messages with Pastner, Okogie, Jackson and assistant AD Marvin Lewis from last season. Parrish writes that Bell "was at practices, games, team meals and on team buses, which is how he said he developed relationships with Okogie and Jackson."

What led to the falling-out? Writes Parrish:

"(Bell) said he feels Pastner has failed to compensate him properly for the 'work' he's done. He said Pastner didn't call him on his birthday this year, which is something he interpreted as disrespectful. He said he has for a while had a bad relationship with Georgia Tech's program and operations manager, Ellie Cantkier, and that when the two had a disagreement recently he felt that Pastner 'took her side.'"

Parrish offers this chilling quote from Bell: "I told him, 'I hold your career in my hands. You're going to show me respect.' ... I said, 'I've been protecting you for two years. And if you don't watch yourself, if I start self-reporting, you're going to be coaching high school basketball.'"

(With friends like that, huh?)

The presence of Okogie and Jackson in Bell's swimming pool can, per Bell, be traced to what Parrish describes as "a vague request." Bell is quoted as saying: "(Pastner) told me, 'I need you to make sure my players are happy and that we're winning games. Whatever it takes.' And I said, 'Whatever it takes?' And he said, 'Whatever it takes.'"

That's surely too open-ended to rise — or sink, depending on your perspective — to the level of an NCAA violation. But there's a danger that, by allowing a non-Tech employee such access and having him turn state's witness, the hard evidence might be enough to build a failure-to-monitor case against Pastner. The greater danger is that, once the NCAA gets handed something it can use, it tends to overcompensate for all those times its sleuthing falls flat. (North Carolina, Miami, UCLA, et cetera.)

Tony Cole went on ESPN to say Georgia coaches paid his phone bill and bought him a TV. Within days, it was revealed Jim Harrick's son/assistant had been allowed to teach a class: "Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball." Included on the final exam was the deathless question: "How many points is a 3-point shot worth?"

Harrick Sr. didn't get run out of Athens because of a phone bill. He was shown the door because Harrick Jr. embarrassed a university still stinging from the memory of the Jan Kemp trial. If Cole hadn't told his story, the Harricks might have worked 10 more blissful-if-not-edifying years at Georgia. Once a whistle blows, the NCAA is given license to show up on campus and look wherever it wants.

I find it hard to imagine a way in which Bell's tale unseats Pastner as Tech coach. On its face, this seems more a friends-falling-out deal, albeit one of biblical proportions. My guess is a short suspension would be the absolute worst-case scenario. That, however, assumes we've already heard the worst.

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November 9, 2017


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