By PAUL DOYLE, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
12:42 PM EDT, October 5, 2013
As the final second ticked off the clock, Tate George gathered a pass, turned and dropped a 15-foot shot that propelled UConn over Clemson in the NCAA Tournament.
Throughout Connecticut, the buzzer-beating shot became known simply as "The Shot" and Tate George became an icon. In the spring of 1990, there was no bigger sports celebrity in a state starving for a sports celebrity.
"He couldn't go into Henny Penny [convenience store] or 7-Eleven because he would be mobbed. … He was getting bombarded," said Central Connecticut coach Howie Dickenman, an assistant at UConn in 1990.
The Shot changed George's life. He was selected in the first round of the NBA draft by his hometown New Jersey Nets, getting a $4.7 million deal over five years.
But he never lasted that long. He spent three seasons in New Jersey before being let go in 1993. He kicked around in the minor league Continental Basketball Association until he played three more games in the NBA with Milwaukee in 1995, his career finally ending back in the CBA in 1997. He got about $2 million of his NBA money.
All the while, George seemingly was an example of a professional athlete wisely planning for life away from the game. Fresh out of UConn, he created his own charity and became a presence in the Connecticut business community while appearing as a pitchman on local commercials.
Yet as he sat in a Trenton, N.J., courtroom last week, George, 45, was portrayed nationally as a professional athlete who squandered his opportunity and lost his way. He was accused of bilking investors in his real estate firm of more than $2 million in a Ponzi scheme. He was found guilty Monday on four felony counts of federal wire fraud after a half-day of jury deliberations and a three-week trial. He faces six to nine years in federal prison, prosecutors said.
As he took the stand, George was alternately emotional and defiant. He broke down Wednesday when talking about his mentor and investor, Howard Trachtenberg, and he told the court he had lost his reputation. But the next day he tangled with a federal prosecutor and insisted he has done nothing illegal.
It was the Tate George folks in Connecticut met so many years ago — charming, confident and always looking out for himself.
"Tate has always been smooth," Dickenman said. "He knows how to communicate with people. He has a charisma about him where, you like him."
George's relationship with UConn has not endured.
He left the school for the NBA in 1990 and remained visible in the state and somewhat connected to UConn during the 1990s. When his career began to sputter and he joined the CBA, George had a heart-to-heart talk with Jim Calhoun, his former college coach. George told The Courant in 1995 that Calhoun counseled him to put his business interest and charity work — he established The Dream Shot Foundation not long after leaving UConn — aside while he concentrated on basketball.
His basketball career was over two years later, then his contacts with Calhoun and the UConn program grew scarce.
George was absent for Calhoun's alumni charity basketball games in 2002 and 2004, although he appeared in 2006. Calhoun said that he has spoken to George perhaps three times over the past seven or eight years, and that the conversations were superficial.
"I don't know if I've actually sat down and talked to him for about six years, at least," Calhoun said last week. "I really haven't. He's not the only player that that's ever happened to. There's been varying and different reasons. Gerry Besselink, my first captain, lives in Finland and that's the reason. Nadav Henefeld, Doron Sheffer, I've talked to them probably more than I've talked to Tate, even though they live in Israel.
"It varies. I try to stay in touch with all of my players as much as I can. Some go their own way, getting involved, as we all do, in their own lives. Some reappear. I can say, in Tate George's case, I have seen Tate very, very little in the past 10 years."
In George's case, Calhoun didn't view the detachment as anything unusual. George was always confident and seemed to have a plan beyond basketball, and he had a large network of supporters.
So when George left Storrs, it wasn't surprising that he drifted away.
"Tate was a good player for us," Calhoun said. "He had a great family structure, he had friends. He had a support system on the outside, so he wasn't one of those guys you [worried] about. Tate was a good player; he did have a swagger, he had a lot of confidence in himself and he parlayed that into an NBA career."
George's place in UConn history was sealed by The Shot, which advanced the Huskies into the Elite Eight of the tournament. It was something of a coming-out party for the program. Yet his connection to UConn became part of his current trial when another former Husky, Charlie Villanueva, testified that he lost $250,000 in an investment through George into a Bridgeport project that never materialized.
Villanueva, who signed a $35 million contract with the Detroit Pistons in 2009, testified that it hurt to be bilked by another UConn alum.
"It's $250,000," Villanueva said. "That could have gone to my son's education."
George and Villanueva, who were both at the 2006 Calhoun charity game, were from different eras of UConn history. But George has kept some contact with players from his generation. Some have reached out to him recently, and George sent an email to ex-teammates in which he maintained his innocence after he was first charged in 2011.
Scott Burrell, who threw the court-length pass to George to set up The Shot, was a freshman when George was a senior and did not know his ex-teammate well. Burrell, now an assistant coach at Quinnipiac, was one of the former teammates on the receiving end of George's email blast.
"It's very sad to see it [the trial] happen," Burrell said Sept. 22 at a tribute event for Calhoun. "You don't know if he's innocent, guilty until the trial [ends]. It's sad to be in that situation. The last time I saw him, he said it wasn't true."
Among those who testified against George was Nick Nassiff, whose family operated a Willimantic sporting goods store where George worked between his junior and senior year at UConn. George befriended the family during his time as an employee and they rekindled the connection when George ran into family members in Florida in 2005.
Nassiff, who now works as a planner for the state of New Jersey, was looking for a job in urban planning and George offered an opportunity with his company, The George Group. Nassiff, who was subpoenaed by the government, testified that he realized after the fact that he had passed on misinformation to investors. He said he eventually left the company because real estate projects never seemed to reach completion.
But when asked about how his family developed a relationship with George, Nassiff offered some insight into George's personality.
"We were all enamored with Tate," Nassiff said.
A former employee of the store who worked with George said the UConn basketball player was charming with customers, but wasn't an especially hard worker. The former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said George also carried himself with a swagger — when other employees asked him about his post-college plans, George casually said he would play in the NBA.
And this was after George's junior season, when he averaged 7.3 points and was not viewed as an NBA prospect. He had played for an NIT-winning team in 1988, but his NBA assertion seemed absurd.
Even Calhoun admits he didn't see George as an NBA player until his senior year.
"I couldn't really see it until his senior year, when he started making shots and became a much better shooter," Calhoun said. "Then I could project him. He was a good player, made some big plays in the tournament and got himself into the NBA. … I always thought he was very confident in himself, but he's not the only player like that. You can't be good at this game without having some confidence."
George's charisma and charm were always evident. In the spring of 1989, George talked about his relationship with Craig Bryden, a hearing-impaired teenager from Wethersfield. After George sank decisive free throws in an NIT victory over California, he said he had been thinking about Bryden.
"Tate was my favorite UConn basketball player," said Bryden, now a married father of three living in Enfield. "I called him out of blue using relay call. Tate offered to give me tickets for the NIT game. ... We hit it off since then and became friends."
George stayed in touch with Bryden after entering the NBA. When Bryden was attending college in North Carolina, George provided tickets to games in Charlotte or Atlanta.
"He used to treat me and my buddies out to eat after the game," Bryden said. "Great times we had together. He was always the same guy after he graduated from UConn and played in the NBA."
The relationship faded after Bryden graduated from college and George's NBA career ended. They last communicated a few years ago, Bryden said on an AOL messenger chat.
"I remember him telling me he is really proud of his daughters," Bryden said.
George hasn't lived in Connecticut for more than a decade, but his ex-wife and two daughters remained in the state. He has been based in Florida and New Jersey, forging relationships with two business mentors.
In Florida, Trachtenberg became an investor and adviser. Trachtenberg is a former New Jersey chiropractor and was named in testimony as a millionaire financial backer of The George Group.
Back in New Jersey, Enrique Riley has been a constant presence in the courtroom and is one of George's closest friends. Riley is a deacon at a Brooklyn, N.Y., church who has worked for George as a paid real estate consultant.
Riley, who told The Courant he works with George "24/7," is also referenced in a video George made as a pitch for a reality TV show. The 2009 video, available on YouTube, features George talking about his business and personal life, and includes some notable appearances — Newark mayor and Senate candidate Cory Booker is heard praising George ("The best of the Bricks, right here."), and current UConn coach Kevin Ollie is shown talking to kids at a basketball camp. Ollie and George were not teammates at UConn, nor did their careers overlap in the NBA. A UConn spokesman said Ollie had "no comment on George and his difficulties."
There is also footage of George walking through New York City with his daughters, bickering with his ex-wife on the phone, chatting with friends in a barbershop and mingling with former NBA teammates. The promo is supposed to show George as a compelling figure and potential reality TV star.
But the testimony in his trial is painting another picture. He faces possible prison sentence of 20 years if he's convicted of taking millions of dollars from investors and using money to furnish his lifestyle. Prosecutors say money went to his former wife and his girlfriend, to a $7,100 renovation for his mother's New Jersey home, for a car, for private school tuition, and for a $3,000 party for his daughter.
George has countered by saying he was entitled to the money he used from investors because he took it as a "developer's fee."
Back in Storrs, there are few people in the athletic department left from the era of The Shot. Some have said privately that they are not surprised by George's troubles, that he was always "looking for something" from people.
For Calhoun, there is a sense of sadness because "Tate is one of my former players." And Calhoun said that despite George's distance from the program, he was always part of the extended UConn family.
"When I recruit them, I try to recruit them for life," Calhoun said. "Sometimes things work out exceptionally well with your relationship. … Other kids I haven't spoken to in a lot of, lot of years. It just works out that way. But a lot of it has to do with time, circumstance, a lot of other things."
How does Calhoun view the charges against George?
"Everybody has two sides; everyone makes mistakes," Calhoun said. "Kids make unfortunate mistakes in life. It's lousy when other people have to bear the burden of that. ... It's very unfortunate for him, and everybody involved. It's just unfortunate because he had a lot of potential to do a lot of good things and I hope that anyone who was affected by it, gets whatever they need to get back. It's just an incredibly difficult, unfortunate situation.
"Beyond that, I stand up for my kids, but there's no way I'm going to stand up for somebody who possibly could have done some of the things they described he did."
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