Of Basketball, Betting, and Books

March 15, 2007 | 1 book mentioned 3 min read

I think it is appropriate that a cartel of organizations, many of which you have heard of and one or two of which you may have even been a part of, self-sloganizes with the term ‘Madness.’ This cartel relies on the complicity of its member organizations to achieve a singular goal: making large amounts of money. Of course, as Pablo Escobar could have told you, trading in such a market, to the enrichment of a few, also involves the exploitation of many. However I speak not of Colombian cocaine, but of American college sports, headquartered far from Medellin, in Indianapolis. It is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, it is March, and business is very good.

March Madness means that the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is upon us, along with its redheaded stepchild, institutionalized gambling. This is the real madness of the tournament: American businesses losing billions of man hours to the ubiquitous office pool (I should know, I ran the operation, back when I worked in an office), and dollars changing hands like so many dominoes and darts in the back rooms of bars. Devilish pursuits, and oh-so-American. As March Madness becomes more and more imprinted on the national calendar and the collective sports zeitgeist of millions of young men and women, most of whom can part with a ten or a twenty for the possibility of a big score, and the certainty of some televised excitement, as Vegas chews away on ever growing mouthfuls of greens, and as the cartel piles up larger and larger stacks of the same each year, the NCAA continues to be Teflon to the accusations that its practices are nothing short of exploitative toward the very individuals responsible for its undeniably superior product: the athletes. Don’t the athletes want, sometimes need, and even deserve a cut of all that action? Have they ever decided to rise up and take what is rightfully theirs?

Yes, yes, yes, and, oh my, yes. And here we should get to the bookish side of things, because, if you’re like me, you may be spending some time in front of the TV in coming days. College basketball was plagued by a number of scandals in the 50s and early 60s that threatened to undermine, indeed, destroy the integrity of the game. In 1951, Kentucky and CCNY (then one of the best teams around) were the main schools implicated in a point-shaving operation that involved seven teams, dozens of players, and the orchestrated outcome of as many as 86 games. As a result, CCNY, the only team to have ever won both the NCAA and NIT tourneys in the same year, all but abandoned their program. But only a few short years later, on the upper west side of Manhattan, the father of modern basketball point shaving would rise from those ashes. His name was Jack Molinas, and he played for my own dear alma mater, Columbia.

coverThe Wizard Of Odds: How Jack Molinas Nearly Destroyed the Game of Basketball, by Charley Rosen, is a solid read, one of the best examinations of the machinations that went on in college gymnasiums all over the country in the years after the CCNY scandal (you didn’t think the bookies just packed up and left town, did you?). It is also a fascinating character study of a man who pulled more strings than a master tailor, while managing to cut himself loose of every lifeline to salvation. A lean, tall Greek kid from the Bronx, Molinas would bet on raindrops dripping down a window pane. He was said to have a genius level IQ, but it was his incredible talent on the basketball court, combined with his intellect, that enabled him to single-handedly control the outcomes of the games in which he played. Molinas would know the point spread before stepping on the court, and often would lead his team to the win, while making sure that they failed to cover the spread, according to the pervading winds as judged by the bookies who would then give him his cut. This is simple point shaving, but Molinas elevated it to an art form.

There is plenty more to the story, such as his expulsion from the fledgling National Basketball Association, then desperate to free itself from the specter of gambling that was so plaguing the college game, after his rookie season, for gambling transgressions. After that, Molinas practiced law, while helping the mob orchestrate the next great college basketball betting scandal in 1961.

It doesn’t take a genius IQ to recognize how the machinery of college athletics is vulnerable to sabotage in the form of gambling-fueled game orchestration. This is why the NCAA has such draconian rules involving student athletes and gambling. Would March Madness be March Madness if there was any question as to the competitive integrity of the contests? While this thought is frightening to some, it was the singular goal to which Jack Molinas devoted his life. Score one for the little guy.

is a writer, musician, and amateur sportsman in Manhattan, living on the Harlem side of Morningside Park near Columbia, where he recently picked up a degree from the Journalism School.

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