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Billy Reed: When players and gamblers mixed and a reminder that basketball can never relax its vigilance


I know this comes under the heading of “ancient history,” but I remain fascinated by the 1951 point-shaving scandal that brought college basketball to its knees. I think it has become a cautionary tale about what might happen when players and gamblers mix, as they did back then in Madison Square Garden in New York city.

My interest mainly had been due to the University of Kentucky’s involvement in the scandal. At the time, Coach Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats were the unquestioned kings of the sport. Their team known as the “Fabulous Five” won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1948 and ’49, and they won again in ’51 with a team build around 7-footer Bill Spivey.

In my adult years, two of the UK players accused of taking bribes, Ralph Beard and Dale Barnstable, became close friends. Both were as honorable and trustworthy as anybody I’ve ever known. But Ralph let the scandal haunt him and Barney didn’t. They eventually had a falling-out over it.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

But since we are nearing the end of Black History Month, I’m going to focus on Sherman White of the City College of New York and Junius Kellogg of Manhattan, a couple of African-American racial pioneers who were among the best players of their era.

The story actually began in the early 1940s, when Ed Curd, a bookmaker so prominent that he handled the action of New York crime boss Frankie Costello, invented the point spread and the “vigorish” that went with it.

Up until then, a gambler’s only option was to bet on a team to win. Various bookmakers offered odds on the games, and gamblers shopped around for the best possible deal.

But the “spread” changed gambling forever. The idea was to make a gambling “line” on each game based on how many points a team should win or lose by. Let’s say UK was favored by 10 points over its opponent. It was possible for Big Blue fans to bet that UK would win by less than the spread but still win the game. The “vigorish” was a 10 per cent surcharge on every bet that went to the bookmaker.

The “spread” caught on immediately with the mobsters who controlled betting in New York. It was an open invitation for them to recruit key players who would make enough mistakes to assure their team went under the spread, but still won the game. For the players, it was easy money and they wouldn’t have to betray their coaches and fans.

In January, 1951, a former teammate approached Kellogg, a 6-foot-8 center, in his dorm room and offered him $1,000 to “fix” a game against DePaul. Although he could have used the money – he worked part-time at a custard shop to supplement his scholarship – Kellogg reported the incident to his coach, who reported it to authorities.

It landed in the lap of Frank Hogan, the city’s crusading district attorney, and he had Kellogg wear a wire in a subsequent meeting with his former teammate.

On Feb. 18, 1951, Hogan arrested seven men at Penn Station and charged them with fixing games by shaving points. Three of them played on the 1950 City College of New York team that became the first, and still the only, team to win both the NCAA tournament and NIT in the same season.

By the time Hogan was done, a total of 33 players and six college teams: CCNY, Manhattan, Long Island University, New York University, Kentucky, and Bradley of Peoria, IL.

Two days after the initial arrests, Hogan arrested
White, who led the nation in scoring in 1950-’51 with a 27.7 average, at the Carlton YMCA in Brooklyn. He immediately returned the $5,500 he had received from gamblers but was afraid to spend. He also agreed to miss the

White received much harsher punishment than his white teammates, including Eddie Gard, who had recruited him on behalf of crime boss Salvatore Sallazzo. The whites received only suspended sentences while White did some prison time and was barred for life from the NBA, where he would have been one of the first African-American stars.

Racism?

White was among the many who believed so.

Kellogg never played in the NBA, either, because he signed with the Harlem Globetrotters upon his graduation from Manhattan. But in 1954, he was in an automobile accident that left him paralyzed.

Today serious basketball historians regard Kellogg as the whistle-blowing hero of the point-shaving scandal, while White is remembered as perhaps its most tragic victim.

Could it happen again?

Well, it did at Boston College in 1962. By and large, however, college basketball is stronger than ever today, the scandals relegated to the cobwebs of history.

Considering today’s exorbitant NBA salaries, the best players would be foolish to risk their careers for relative chump change. In addition, gambling on games has been legalized by a few states in need of revenue.

The law-enforcement community monitors the game in search of unusual “action” on a contest. If a lot more money than usual is bet on a particular game or team, it’s a red warning flag that triggers an investigation.

Still, the game can never relax its vigilance because there could be players who have no hope of an NBA career, but can make some easy, tax-free money by shaving points.

This is the legacy of Junius Kellogg and Sherman White, who deserve to be remembered during Black History Month.


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