CLIFTON, N.J. -- Former Eastside High School assistant basketball coach Al Maldonado said he was "shocked" and "stunned" at the allegations against him and suspended head coach Juan Griles that emerged from this week's explosive NJ Advance Media report.
In an exclusive interview with SNY in his attorney's office on Wednesday afternoon, Maldonado, 54, spoke frankly and also broke down in tears as he discussed the report that six Eastside players were living with Griles in his Paterson condo.
"I was shocked," Maldonado, who wore an orange and blue tie to honor the Ghosts' colors, said in an interview with SNY. "I know what Coach Griles is about, I know what I'm about. Without getting into too much detail, some of the allegations that I [saw] in that article stunned me. In my opinion, [there was] a little bit of sensationalism. But my initial reaction was shock."
NJ Advance Media did not interview Maldonado for its piece, but he was anxious to give his side of the story to attempt to clear his name. He and Griles now have separate attorneys. Griles declined to speak with SNY at his home on Wednesday.
Asked if he was aware of the living conditions at Griles' condo, where three Nigerian and three Puerto Rican players reportedly lived and allegedly said they were not adequately fed, Maldonado said, "I have nothing to do with that."
Maldonado declined further comment on the goings-on at Griles' home, citing "an ongoing investigation" by the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services.
"Coach Griles is a friend of mine, I know where his heart is, I can say that," Maldonado said. "He cares about the kids, I've seen it."
Asked if he felt unfairly lumped in with Griles in this case, Maldonado began to tear up as he said, "One of the toughest calls that I've taken was from my father. And I don't want to disappoint him, and I know I didn't do anything wrong. And I apologize."
Asked if he can understand the level of concern the story has generated both in New Jersey and beyond, he said, "Based on the story, I'm not naive. I understand it, but hopefully when the investigation is all said and done, we will all have answers."
Maldonado, a longtime former assistant at Passaic High School, confirmed that two players on the team are the Godchildren of Griles and Maldonado. Juny Santiago, a 6-foot-4 senior wing, is Maldonado's Godchild.
Maldonado and his attorney, Matthew Trella, offered paperwork proving Maldonado is Santiago's guardian. Maldonado and Santiago are not under investigation by Youth and Family Services, Maldonado said. (Griles is the guardian of another player from Puerto Rico.)
"Two of them have been in our program [for] two years," Maldonado said. "Their parents are both in Puerto Rico. My Godson, his mom is in Puerto Rico."
He added that Santiago's mother is pleased with the quality of life her son is leading, and that he pays for all of Santiago's food and expenses in the U.S.
"In my situation it was just a situation of getting a young man out of a tough situation [in Puerto Rico] and she was very cooperative," he said. "It's her only child. She pays the expenses. I pay all the expenses here. I cover all the food. I've bought him clothing. I've bought him basketball gear, school gear. His mom does send money on a regular basis and every last dime I give to that young man. He's a very good kid."
He added: "When I sent for him in June he didn't speak any English. Now he can hold a conversation and what I'm most proud of, above and beyond any basketball achievements, is that he's honor roll."
Maldonado said he ultimately reached out to one of the NJ Advance Media reporters and told him, "What would be a better story for you, is if you're newspaper on their dime and myself on my dime flew to where I took that young man out of. Would it sell papers? I don't know, but it would be a better story."
He added: "His mother came here during the holidays. She stayed for a month in New York. The mother at one point with my wife just started crying uncontrollably...She was so proud and so thankful what I've done for her son to this point, that I shed a tear. I told her, 'I promised you in Puerto Rico that I'm going to see this through and I'm going to see this through.'"
Though the Ghosts are 14-3 and the top seed in the Passaic County Tournament and likely the upcoming North 1, Group 4 tournament, Maldonado said he didn't think any of the players on the roster were Division 1 prospects and that he hadn't seen any college coaches scouting the players.
"In my opinion, we don't have a Division 1 player on that roster right now," he said. "They're blue-collar kids."
As the storyline continued to move fluidly, Pete Vasil told SNY that he was not approved on Wednesday as the team's volunteer coach and that Shaniqua Bacote will now coach the varsity team as the district announced on Tuesday. A former head coach at Bloomfield Tech, Plainfield and Clifton, Vasil had said on Tuesday that he expected to coach the team from a volunteer position, with Bacote as his assistant.
"I didn't get a reason," Vasil said. "I asked. They didn't give me any reason."
Eastside is slated to play at Wayne Hills on Thursday although that game could get snowed out. They are also slated to host Clifton in the Passaic County Tournament quarterfinals on Saturday.
Maldonado said he will continue to root for the Ghosts going forward.
"There's a saying in Paterson," Maldonado said. "Once a Ghosts, always a Ghost. Eastside's a great community, from the administration down. The kids are super. It's unfortunate that maybe this gives it a little bit of a bad wrap, but I'm hear to tell you that I'm proud to be a Ghost."
The NJSIAA on Wednesday issued a statement saying it will continue to look into the situation at Eastside, and had no immediate ruling.
"While there is often a tremendous appetite for immediate action, it's important to note that residency issues may be extremely complicated and investigations by government agencies, law enforcement, or the courts will take precedence and may impact our ability to gather facts," the statement read in part. "We take these matters very seriously and will work diligently to collect information and, if appropriate, take action. "