Josh Pastner, Georgia Tech accused of underplaying violations by jilted friend
Ron Bell says the Yellow Jackets' second-year coach knew about extra benefits given to players
Ron Bell, an Arizona resident and longtime friend of Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner, has told CBS Sports he's the person who provided benefits in violation of NCAA rules to Georgia Tech basketball players Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson.
Georgia Tech announced last Thursday that it self-reported the violations to the NCAA and suspended both players indefinitely, but it did not, at the time, identify Bell. It instead only acknowledged that the same person was responsible for all violations, and that he was neither a booster nor a Georgia Tech employee.
According to the school, Jackson accepted benefits totaling less than $525 while Okogie accepted benefits totaling less than $750. Bell turned over documents to CBS Sports that show he spent $233.40 on a plane ticket for Okogie, sent him three pairs of shoes totaling around $444 and ordered him two shirts totaling $56. Bell also provided CBS Sports with documents that show he spent $233.40 on a plane ticket for Jackson, sent him two pairs of shoes totaling around $271 and ordered him Knicks apparel worth $80. Those documents add up to around the estimates Georgia Tech self-reported, and any incongruities could be chalked up to estimation differences, which are allowable by NCAA rules.
But Bell insists they do not tell the full story.
He said he also spent "about $500" on groceries for the players when they stayed at his house from May 9-13, and he provided photo evidence of Okogie and Jackson in his swimming pool. The NCAA should also be considering, he said, a 220-mile roundtrip ride from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to Bell's house in Tucson, which Bell said he provided for both players, as an impermissible benefit. And after adding up other various expenses, including a $120 meal Bell said he had with Okogie and Jackson at a Houston's in Atlanta, the 51 year-old who works in the real estate business concluded he's definitely given Okogie more than $750 and Jackson more than $525 in impermissible benefits.
"It's not even close," Bell said
Georgia Tech officials said last week that Pastner, the reigning ACC Coach of the Year, had no knowledge of the violations until Oct. 2, and that he immediately self-reported them to Georgia Tech's compliance office. Asked if that's true, Bell answered "absolutely not." He said Pastner "100 percent" knew Okogie and Jackson were staying four nights at his home while it was happening.
Bell, a recovering addict who spent nearly four years in prison from 2009 to 2013, said the only significant thing about Oct. 2 is that it's the last day he spoke to Pastner. Bell said he believes Pastner self-reported the violations when he did because, after a falling out between the two, he threatened to expose Pastner during a phone conversation that day.
"And basically what [Pastner] told me is, 'Nobody is going to believe you because you were in prison, and I've never been to prison, and I have a great reputation, and I don't cheat,'" Bell said. "And I said, 'You don't cheat?' Yes, you do. Yes, you do.'"
An examination of Bell's phone records by CBS Sports showed that Bell and Pastner spoke 10 different times for a total of 105 minutes on Oct. 2. The first call that day originated at 11:07 a.m. ET. The 10th and final call that day originated at 10:15 p.m. ET. Bell's phone records do not show any evidence of calls between the two men since that day.
Pastner, who is in China preparing for Friday's season-opener against UCLA, was offered the opportunity to address each of Bell's allegations. He released the following statement, through his athletic department, to CBS Sports early Tuesday: "As I have throughout my career, I remain committed to following NCAA rules. Any allegations that NCAA rules weren't followed will be investigated thoroughly by our compliance department while I focus on coaching my team."
The relationship between Bell and Pastner goes back two decades -- to when Pastner was a basketball player at the University of Arizona. Bell said he'd been close to the Wildcats' program since he was a student at the school in the 1980s because, he said, he's the nephew of Ernie Lorch, a longtime and controversial New York AAU figure who coached future NBA players such as Metta World Peace, Elton Brand, Chris Mullin and Kenny Anderson. Bell said his uncle was close with then-Arizona coach Lute Olson, which led to him connecting with Olson on campus and developing a friendship.
"So [several years after I left Arizona] I get a call from the [Arizona] basketball office, and they said, 'You have to come down,' because I'm Jewish, they said, 'You have to come down and meet this Jewish kid," Bell recalled. "They said, 'I think you'd get a kick out of him.' ... So I went down, and I went to practice, and I met Josh."
Pastner graduated from Arizona in 2000 and was a member of Olson's staff from 2002 to 2008. Bell said Pastner used to leave him tickets for games "all the time" while he was an Arizona assistant. During much of this time, Bell admits, he was battling a prescription drug problem that he said lasted nearly a decade. And he's long credited Pastner as the person who encouraged him to get clean, as detailed in a February 2016 story in The Commercial Appeal in which Bell proclaimed Pastner "saved my life."
Bell said he's been clean since Aug. 29, 2006. However, he violated his probation from a previous arrest in 2008, which records show triggered a prison sentence of 50 months. Bell was released in the summer of 2013, at which point he said he rekindled his friendship with Pastner. He traveled to Las Vegas to watch Memphis, the team Pastner was coaching at the time, play for the first time, against Baylor and Indiana State, in November 2014. He said he sat at the games with Pastner's wife, Kerri.
Memphis finished a disappointing 18-14 that season, missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years, and subsequently endured an offseason in which prized recruits Austin Nichols and Nick King both transferred. Then came the 2015-16 season that featured early losses at home to UT-Arlington and Ole Miss. And when Memphis dropped to 3-3 in the American Athletic Conference after a loss to East Carolina on Jan. 24, 2016, Geoff Calkins, a columnist at The Commercial Appeal, published a piece declaring Pastner's seven-year run at Memphis "over."
"The day that article came out," Bell said, "Kerri called me and said, 'You've got to come out here. He's not doing well. Everyone has turned against him. He really needs you here.'"
Bell said he and his girlfriend, Jennifer Pendley, were in Memphis three days later, and they spent much of the rest of the season around the program. Bell was at practices and games (even in the handshake line after games), at Pastner's radio and TV shows, at team meals and postgame press conferences. He created a Twitter account to passionately defend Pastner. He attacked any and all critics.
"Ron Bell's a friend," Pastner said during his press conference after a 63-59 win over Cincinnati on Feb. 6, 2016. "He drove 1,500 miles from Tucson to come to this [week's games]. He's a big fan, all the way from Tucson."
Pastner made a video after one of his weekly television shows in which he described Bell and Pendley as "part of our family and part of our team."
Later that same night, after that video was made, Bell said he sat in Pastner's car talking "for more than an hour" while Pendley waited in a separate car. He said Pastner gave him an envelope with $500 in it. When he returned to the car, he said he showed the money to Pendley.
"I asked Ron, 'Is that for our hotel?'" Pendley told CBS Sports. "And Ron told me, 'No, that's for the players.'"
Asked if he ever provided impermissible benefits to a Memphis player, Bell said he sent "about $300" in gift cards to Markel Crawford "for groceries." Bell provided a document to CBS Sports that shows he also sent a pair of Nikes to Crawford last February, during Tubby Smith's first season at Memphis, that cost $117.99.
"Markel has had a rough life," Bell said.
An attempt to reach Crawford for comment was not immediately successful.
Bell said the only other time Pastner gave him money in person happened after he became the Georgia Tech coach. He said Pastner would also sometimes send envelopes with "$200 or $300" in them to his home. Pendley said she saw those envelopes and even once opened one herself. When asked if there's any proof -- an incriminating text message, email, anything -- that Pastner gave him money for any reason, proper or improper, Bell could not provide it and simply said, "Josh isn't that stupid" to send a text like that.
Regardless, Bell insisted everything happened as he explained, and he said he started providing impermissible benefits to Okogie and Jackson to fulfill a vague request from Pastner. He said Pastner was concerned about players transferring because of the transfers he endured late in his tenure at Memphis. "So [Pastner] told me, 'I need you to make sure my players are happy and that we're winning games. Whatever it takes,'" Bell said. "And I said, 'Whatever it takes?' And he said, 'Whatever it takes.'"
Bell spent lots of time around the Georgia Tech team last season, which doubled as Pastner's first year at the ACC school. He was at practices, games, team meals and on team busses, which is how he said he developed relationships with Okogie and Jackson, a duo that combined to average 28.2 points and 7.6 rebounds for a team that advanced to the NIT title game. Bell provided CBS Sports with text messages he exchanged with Pastner, Okogie, Jackson and even associate athletic director Marvin Lewis in an attempt to show just how close he was with the program. He did so after he explained he was offended by Georgia Tech's public response last week that suggested the impermissible benefits were provided by somebody who is not connected to the program.
"I'm not connected?" Bell said. "I had credentials to be anywhere I wanted to be."
Bell said that after last season, when Crawford announced he was transferring from Memphis, he tried to recruit the talented guard to Georgia Tech to reunite with Pastner. Bell provided a document to CBS Sports that shows he bought two plane tickets -- one for Crawford and one for Crawford's brother -- to travel from Memphis to Tucson on April 27. The tickets were $419.10 each. But Crawford committed to Ole Miss on April 20. So Bell said he canceled the tickets, and Crawford never actually made the trip.
So the obvious question here is, why?
Why would Bell turn on Pastner -- the man he once described as a brother, the man he many times said saved his life -- in such a vindictive and public way? Asked that question several times, Bell explained it in a variety of ways. He 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." And Bell also said the FBI scandal that has engulfed multiple schools, including his alma mater (Arizona), made him realize he was complicit in something with which he is no longer comfortable.
"I just started to realize [Pastner] is not a friend," Bell said. "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.' And he said, 'Are you threatening me?' And I remember it like it was yesterday. I said, 'Josh, I don't make threats. Everything I say I'm going to do, I do it.'"
Kenny Anderson, a Georgia Tech alum and the No. 2 overall pick of the 1991 NBA Draft, has become friends with Bell over the past year after realizing he played AAU basketball for Bell's uncle in the 1980s. He told CBS Sports on Monday he has no knowledge of what Bell or Pastner did or did not do. But when asked if he believed Bell would make up stories to falsely incriminate Pastner, he said, "I don't think so. And you can quote me on that. I don't think so."
A Georgia Tech spokesperson released the following statement to CBS Sports early Tuesday: "Georgia Tech highly prioritizes NCAA compliance and will investigate any allegations regarding NCAA rules violations thoroughly."
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