The coach and the ex-con

At Georgia Tech, an unlikely friendship dissolves amid allegations of NCAA violations, blackmail and sexual assault


For his 40th birthday last fall, Georgia Tech basketball coach Josh Pastner got a unique gift from his biggest fan.

It was a limited-edition T-shirt bearing some of Pastner’s favorite motivational phrases: “Positive energy only.” “Attitude of gratitude.” “Hope is a bad strategy.”

And this: “There are no secrets.”

Just six days later, the same fan began unleashing secrets that imperiled a basketball program — and coach — striving to reach the sport’s highest echelon.

Allegations by Ron Bell, a 51-year-old reformed drug addict and former prison inmate from Tucson, Arizona, also opened a window onto his unlikely and problematic friendship with Pastner. Bell had insinuated himself into the coach’s basketball programs and into his family. Then he accused Pastner of violating NCAA rules, Pastner said Bell tried to blackmail him, and Bell charged that Pastner sexually assaulted his girlfriend. Now they’re suing each other.

I’ve spent the past month trying to unravel the relationship between the ex-convict and the coach. One wavered between obsequiousness and obsession. The other seemed to revel in unconditional devotion, at least for a while. I could not fully reconcile the conflicting accounts of their friendship, or of their epic breakup. But it’s clear that Pastner granted Bell and his girlfriend, Jennifer Pendley, remarkable access to his teams, at Tech and, earlier, at the University of Memphis.

In doing so, Pastner either knowingly embraced Bell’s troubled history, or he unwittingly put a convicted felon in intimate contact with his players, his wife, even his children.

Bell and Pendley participated in practices and shared in pre-game meals. They traveled with the teams for road games. At least once, they rode the team bus.

In a YouTube video he shared with me, Bell appears, Zelig-like, in a line of Memphis players and coaches, shaking hands with Tulsa’s team on the sidelines after a game in 2016. In another video, Bell shouts out encouragement from behind the camera as Pastner shoots jumpers during practice. “There it is!” Bell exclaims as Pastner nails one from beyond the three-point line. “Butter!”

In photographs, Bell poses with Pastner, with Pastner’s players, with Pastner’s children, in Pastner’s home. Bell’s own home at the edge of the Arizona desert became a veritable shrine to the coach, recent visitors told me. Photos of Pastner decorated the living room, along with a basketball on which the coach inscribed: “Ron, you are a dear, dear friend! A brother from a different mother!”

In text messages and emails now contained in court records, Bell more than echoed the sentiment.

“I am your biggest and most ardent supporter,” Bell wrote in 2015. “The truth is, I am a better man with you in my life.”

When I first heard about the swirl of claims and counterclaims, it sounded like a mere falling-out between a public figure and an impassioned fan. I don’t normally cover sports, but I know that some people form outsize emotional connections with college teams. This is different. Bell was a fan of Pastner, not of his teams. The allegations, if true, may create a dilemma for Tech: stick by its highly paid coach, or jeopardize its global reputation as an academic institution untainted by the seamy side of college athletics.

Proving Bell’s accusations, however, requires more than establishing the depth of his relationship with Pastner. In a series of interviews, Bell promised to show me evidence of wrongdoing: emails, text messages, even an article of clothing that might contain the coach’s DNA. But then he said much of the most damning material will come out through the lawsuit he and Pendley filed against Pastner on Feb. 8 — a countersuit to one in which the coach accused Bell and Pendley of defamation, extortion and blackmail.

Pastner, who will earn $1.7 million in a disappointing second season at Tech, denies any wrongdoing.

“My family and I are victims of fraud and extortion, and the extent to which these individuals have gone to harm us is truly unfathomable,” Pastner said in a statement released by his lawyers. After a loss at home against Virginia last month, he declined to elaborate.

Pastner probably violated no NCAA rules by exposing his team to a former prison inmate, according to lawyers and others involved in intercollegiate sports.

Still, to some, the friendship with Bell casts doubt on Pastner’s judgment.

“It’s just a common-sense thing,” John Gerdy, a former compliance director for the Southeastern Conference, said in an interview. “You don’t need an NCAA rule book to tell you that you don’t need a guy like that hanging around your program.”

Making connections

Ron Bell says Josh Pastner saved his life. Twice.

But long before that, Bell told me, they bonded over two common threads: Both are Jewish, and both love basketball.

Bell, who grew up in New York, said he was a student at the University of Arizona in the 1980s when the school hired Lute Olson as its basketball coach. Bell said he leveraged a family connection — his uncle ran a highly regarded Amateur Athletic Union team in New York — into an acquaintance with Olson. After Pastner arrived in 1996, Bell said, someone in the basketball office arranged a meeting.

I found it difficult to confirm many parts of Bell’s story. Olson retired more than a decade ago and is now 83 years old. I tried to reach him through the Arizona athletics department, but an official there told me communication with the former coach is “hit or miss.”

Then, as I looked into Bell’s background, I noticed that in the 1990s, when he says he befriended Pastner at Arizona, he actually lived in the Atlanta area. Bell didn’t move back to Arizona until 2004, after Pastner graduated. During Pastner’s years on the team, Bell said, he flew out several times a year to attend games.

About the time he returned to Arizona, Bell said, he became addicted to medicines prescribed for his chronic back pain. This addiction, he told me several times, was the sole cause of his legal issues.

On his criminal record, however, I found that Bell had been in and out of trouble since he was 19 — a good 15 years before his addiction began. In Arizona and Georgia, he was charged with burglary and theft, criminal damage to property and terroristic threats. Several cases ended with dismissals. Twice, though, judges placed Bell on probation. His drug charges began in the mid-1990s and continued until 2007 — when, he said, he reconnected with Pastner.

By then, Pastner was on the rise. Sports-section profiles of the young coach all seemed to follow the same narrative: A precocious basketball strategist, Pastner persuaded his father to start an AAU team in Houston when he was a child. By age 13, he was sending college coaches scouting reports based on what he saw at AAU tournaments. By 16, he was coaching his father’s team. As a high school senior, he sent 1,000 handwritten letters to college basketball programs, marketing himself as a rare commodity: a player-coach.

Only Arizona’s Olson offered him a spot, and Pastner was a freshman on the team that won the school’s only NCAA basketball championship in 1997. Pastner played sparingly — 98 minutes in 34 games over four seasons — and averaged less than 1 point per game. Still, after earning a master’s degree in education, he joined Olson’s staff in 2002 as an assistant coach.

One day five years later, Pastner was walking through the McKale Center, Arizona’s on-campus basketball arena, when he came across Ron Bell. In court papers, Pastner’s lawyers say he doesn’t clearly remember the encounter and isn’t sure he had met Bell before.

Bell told Pastner he was addicted to painkillers and was so despondent that he was ready to kill himself, Pastner’s lawyers said. Bell denies he was suicidal. Regardless, Pastner gave Bell $40 and referred him to a rehabilitation program run by a Jewish social-services agency in Tucson.

This, Bell told me, was the first time Pastner saved his life.

‘Class act’

Pastner left Arizona in 2008 to become an assistant coach at Memphis. A year later, at age 31, he accepted the school’s head coaching job.

Bell, then in his early 40s, followed a different path. He told me he has been clean, free of painkillers, since Pastner helped him in 2007. But Bell’s past crimes caught up with him in 2009, when he stood before an Arizona judge, charged with fraudulently attempting to obtain prescription drugs. At least twice, according to court records, Bell called in phony prescriptions, claiming to be a doctor. The second time, the pharmacist recognized his voice and alerted the police.

The judge called out Bell’s “extensive prior criminal history” and his “deception and manipulation.” She sentenced Bell to 7 ½ years in prison.

Bell got out in 2013, about three years early. A few weeks later, he reached out to Pastner in Memphis.

“You are a good guy, Josh,” Bell wrote in one of his first emails. “To this day, I still have never met anyone in Tucson or in the ‘basketball community’ that has ever had a bad thing to say about you. That is truly something to be proud of. Unfortunately, that is something I cannot say about myself. You are the epitome of a ‘class act.’”

Bell and Pastner exchanged emails through the 2013-2014 basketball season. Then, in July 2014, Bell told Pastner he had been diagnosed with cancer and needed radiation treatment. He thought he was dying.

To boost Bell’s spirits, Pastner invited him to Las Vegas to watch Memphis play in a tournament.

“I need you around to see me take a team to the sweet sixteen and beyond,” Pastner wrote.

This, Bell told me, is the second time Pastner saved his life.

“Many times,” Bell later wrote to Pastner, “I wanted to take too much of my medication and finish myself off so I wouldn’t have to suffer through the pain I was in every single day. Well, I could never up end doing that because I ALWAYS had you and the Memphis Tigers to look forward to.”

Pastner’s lawyers now question whether Bell was in danger of dying – or whether he had cancer at all.

When I asked Bell to verify his diagnosis, he said he had medical records from prison. But he had been free almost a year when he told Pastner he was sick. Last week, he declined to discuss the illness.

Pastner’s lawyers asked Bell’s mother, from whom he is estranged, about the diagnosis.

Her answer, quoted in Pastner’s lawsuit: “Every word out of Ron’s mouth is a lie.”

Paying forward

During practice on Feb. 2, 2016, Pastner called his Memphis players into a huddle for a pep talk. From Ron Bell.

Bell gave me a video that shows him checking notes on his phone as he exhorts the players to redeem a disappointing season with a strong finish. Then he talks about how much the team and the coach meant to him as he beat cancer.

“This guy right here,” he says, looking at a beaming Pastner, “saved my life.”

Bell and his new girlfriend, Pendley, then 43, had just arrived in Memphis after a 1,400-mile drive from Tucson. Over the next month, they became fixtures around the basketball program. They traveled with the team to Houston and Tampa. They gave the players goodie bags filled with Pendley’s homemade cookies. The couple became so ubiquitous that Pastner introduced Bell at a post-game press conference.

Pastner welcomed the visitors, but he made sure school officials knew why they were hanging around. “Long story on how I saved his life,” Pastner wrote to the school’s NCAA compliance staff on Feb. 8. “So he is paying it forward and supporting me and the team.”

The same day, Pastner cautioned Bell to stay within bounds.

“Just remember,” he wrote to Bell, “you cannot give anything to a player, not even cookies, a meal, a T-shirt, a dollar bill, gear, or anything else without my approval. That way I know if it is allowable or not per NCAA rules. Just want to remind you on that.”

Bell and Pendley arrived near the end of what turned out to be Pastner’s final season at Memphis. Pastner’s teams had won just two NCAA tournament games over six seasons. The previous year, Memphis didn’t make the tournament. Attendance at home games dropped, and sports columnists and talk-radio hosts suggested it was time for Pastner to go.

It was in this context, Bell alleged, that Pastner began relying on him for tasks that clearly violated the rules. If players wanted shoes that weren’t available through the basketball program, Bell bought them, he said. If they wanted clothing, he bought that, too, he said. Anything to keep the players happy.

I should note here that I’ve seen nothing indicating Pastner knew what Bell purportedly did for athletes at Memphis or, later, at Georgia Tech. When I asked Bell about it, he said Pastner was too smart to leave a paper trail linking him to violations.

On Feb. 28, 2016, as Bell and Pendley prepared to return to Tucson, they went with Pastner to a Memphis television station, where he taped his weekly coach’s show. Afterward, standing in the television studio, Pastner recorded a special message: “I want to say to Ron and Jennifer: You guys have been part of our team for the last month. We love you both. The entire Memphis and Tiger Nation and all the Tigers – we love you both.”

When Bell got into Pastner’s car after the taping, he said, the coach handed him an envelope containing $3,000 in cash. Pastner has denied the exchange. But Bell said it was intended to buy gifts for the Memphis basketball players.

Original gangster

Bell is nothing if not forthcoming about his drug addiction and his time behind bars. Barely five minutes into our first telephone conversation, he told me about the time he hit a bully over the head with a food tray in the prison cafeteria, only to be pummeled immediately afterward.

At Georgia Tech, where Pastner became the head coach in 2016, Bell’s criminal record was common knowledge, he said. The players even gave him a nickname: “O.G. Ron,” a reference to “O.G. Original Gangster,” a 1991 album by the rapper Ice-T.

Bell and Pendley spent a few weeks at Tech in late 2016. The photo stream on Bell’s phone documents their status as insiders. They were on the team bus as it arrived at the University of Tennessee. They were inside Tech’s locker room at McCamish Pavilion, the school’s basketball arena. They went to Pastner’s home. Pastner’s wife, Kerri, and their children visited Bell and Pendley in Arizona.

One video I’ve seen shows the coach’s three little girls taking turns on Bell’s lap to tell him what they wanted for Christmas. In another, Pastner’s youngest daughter tries to get acquainted with Bell’s dog, Hershey.

Bell had transformed from fan into friend.

By early 2017, however, the bond between Pastner and Bell was cracking. Bell complained that an administrator in the Tech basketball office had treated him rudely and that others had questioned why Pastner let him hang around. “Step back,” Pastner responded, and for a while Bell complied.

“I must be at my best,” Bell wrote to Pastner. “I must rise to the occasion. That’s because I would never hurt you, your name or your family.”

Impermissible

The more I tried to understand Bell’s friendship with Pastner, the more I wondered about Bell’s relationship with Pendley.

They met three years ago on an online dating site called Plenty of Fish. Bell soon moved into Pendley’s house in a Tucson suburb. Last April, Pendley gave Bell a half-interest in the property, which she bought in 2014 for $220,000.

The deed was recorded three days after Pendley’s family in Ohio asked the police in Arizona to check on her well-being. The family, a police report said, suspected Bell was taking advantage of Pendley for her monthly trust-fund checks.

Pendley told officers Bell monitored her phone and had been verbally abusive. She seemed “hesitant” to say more, the police report said. “She indicated that she can’t talk right now about it but will when she ‘gets proof.’”

The report doesn’t say whether Pendley followed up.

This was one of 15 times officers visited Bell and Pendley between 2015 and 2017, a police database shows. Some of the calls were for “threats,” the database shows, others for a “neighbor problem.” Bell used these episodes for an airing of grievances: one neighbor’s leaves blew onto his lawn, Bell complained, while another let his child practice the piano with the windows open.

Last May, two other visitors arrived: Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson, basketball players from Georgia Tech.

Bell bought the players’ airline tickets, picked them up at the Phoenix airport and entertained them for four days in Tucson. A photo shows them lazing in Bell and Pendley’s backyard pool, floating on inflatable rafts in the Arizona sun.

The players’ trip violated NCAA rules, which forbid athletes from accepting “impermissible benefits” not available to other students. Bell told me Pastner wanted to keep Okogie from transferring. Jackson came along to keep his teammate company.

Pastner has said he didn’t know about the players’ trip. Others familiar with college basketball told me coaches try to keep up with the whereabouts of their players, especially stars like Okogie. But Okogie and Jackson went to Arizona shortly after the spring semester ended, just before summer classes began. It was during a period when the NCAA allows no organized basketball activities. And the players later said Bell asked them to keep their trip a secret.

Over the summer, as Pastner’s birthday approached, Bell designed a gift: a T-shirt with the coach’s quotes arranged around Georgia Tech’s trademarked logo. Tech’s athletics department acknowledged giving Bell permission to use the logo.

The school usually keeps a tight rein over its symbols. Around the time Bell made the shirts for Pastner, Tech prevented a Maryland high school from decorating a water tower with its mascot. Tech could not abide the similarities between the high school’s yellow and green hornet and its own yellow and black yellowjacket.

But with Tech’s permission, Bell printed 40 shirts and gave them to Pastner, his players and a select few others. Kenny Anderson, the former Tech and NBA star, posted a picture on Twitter of himself wearing the shirt.

On Pastner’s birthday, Bell went on Twitter and called the coach a “leader among men.”

Pendley wrote: “May all your wishes come true.”

A nobody

On Oct. 2, six days after his birthday, Pastner was in New York on a recruiting trip – and dealing with a problem. Bell was complaining again that a basketball administrator was still disrespecting him and seemed to be keeping him away from Pastner. Bell thought it might be because he hadn’t given the woman one of the T-shirts he made for Pastner’s birthday.

“Please take a deep breath,” Pastner texted Bell from New York. “One breath at a time. No need for anger or resentment. Let’s all just get along.”

Pastner and Bell talked by phone 10 times that day, a total of 105 minutes. It was during the final conversation — 33 minutes as Pastner waited to board a flight home — that Bell first claimed he knew about NCAA violations at Tech and was prepared to make them public.

Bell and Pastner have not spoken since.

Georgia Tech notified the NCAA that two players had accepted improper benefits. In a press release, the school said the gifts came from “an individual who is neither employed by Georgia Tech athletics nor a booster” – in other words, as Bell put it later, a nobody.

Stung by Tech’s dismissive tone, Bell asked for money to buy his silence, Pastner’s lawsuit said. Bell told Pastner to “settle this amicably,” or else “the texts, emails, videos, etc., will be released.” The material, he told Pastner, would “ruin your choir-boy image.”

Bell later told a lawyer for Georgia Tech he had spent $20,000 helping Pastner, according to court records. But his story, he suggested, might be worth $1 million.

Neither Pastner nor Tech agreed to pay Bell. He soon went public, telling CBS Sports on Nov. 7 that Pastner gave him money to spend on players and asked him to help recruit an athlete enrolled at Memphis — major violations of NCAA rules.

The NCAA took no action against Pastner. But it suspended the players who visited Bell: Okogie for six games, Jackson for three.

An NCAA investigator called Bell on Dec. 6, three weeks after suspending the players and a month after the CBS story ran. For the first time, Bell revealed his most serious allegation.

Pastner, he said, had sexually assaulted Pendley.

#MeToo

Bell accused Pastner just as similar allegations against prominent figures in entertainment, the media and politics reached a tipping point. But Pendley told her doctor about the alleged assault last summer, according to court papers, months before #MeToo became shorthand for sexual misconduct by powerful men.

In their lawsuit, Bell and Pendley said Pastner assaulted her on Feb. 9, 2016, when the couple accompanied the Memphis team to a game in Houston. That evening, the suit said, Pastner visited their room in the team hotel and, while Bell was in the shower, masturbated in front of Pendley and tried to make her perform oral sex.

Pastner allegedly assaulted or harassed Pendley about a dozen more times over the next 10 months. The lawsuit said he repeatedly groped her, made lewd comments and, at a team dinner in Knoxville, Tennessee, tried to grab her genitals under the table. Before a home game at Tech in 2016, the lawsuit said, a security officer saw Pastner corner Pendley in a stairwell and run his hands over her breasts and vaginal area. The officer did not intervene.

Pendley didn’t tell Bell about Pastner’s conduct until last October, according to court records. But for more than a year and a half, Bell said, Pendley had saved a piece of evidence: the T-shirt onto which she says Pastner ejaculated in Houston.

Pastner’s supporters told me he is not the kind of man who forces himself on women. I heard no other claims of assault or harassment. Certainly, the conduct that Pendley describes would belie his reputation; Pastner supposedly doesn’t smoke or drink, curse or use caffeine. A choir boy, as Bell said.

At the same time, Pendley describes the alleged assaults in excruciating detail, and does so consistently. Her record is as clean as her alleged assailant’s.

Pastner denied any misconduct. He recently said he, not Pendley, is the victim.

Whatever happened between Pastner and Pendley, if anything, the split between Pastner and Bell is irrevocable. Bell seems intent on destroying Pastner’s career, offering up tales of purported rules violations and threatening to press criminal charges for sexual assault. For his part, Pastner got a judge to order Bell to stay away from him and his family.

Bell, Pastner found, can be just as zealous an enemy as he was a fan.



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