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Monday, July 23, 2007

Hoops and Horses

- The astounding investigation of NBA referee Tim Donaghy is a reminder that cheating and chicanery is not limited to horse racing. Where there's money to be made, a dedicated minority is going to play outside the rules, no matter what the game. There's just no getting around that. Dishonesty will never be completely eliminated from racing anymore than it will be in the society at large.

You always here people yelling "Hey ref, whaddya have a bet on the game?" I must admit that I've screamed that myself, probably at Kerry Fraser during Rangers games. However, though I can be susceptible to the odd conspiracy theory, I never really thought he bet on the games. But now....I mean, I'm of course not suggesting that Kerry Fraser fixed games, but....well? Who the hell knows?

I used to gamble on games nightly, and basketball was my favorite sport to bet, especially the college variety. I believed that, as opposed to the NFL in which every game was so carefully scrutinized, there were so many college games that you were bound to find some bad lines from time to time. I carefully handicapped the matchups in Sports Eye, which had the equivalent of past performance charts for virtually every game in the country; perhaps they still do. Looking for an edge, I concentrated on the more obscure conferences, like the Big Sky, the Missouri Valley Conference, and the Ivy League. The latter was just about the only league playing on Friday nights, so at first I bet them just out of addiction. But I soon got really into it, and I remember doing pretty well with Penn, Yale, and especially Princeton. I loved watching Pete Carril's team play; his Princeton teams from that era are what I think of when I recall how pure the college game was until it was first eroded by dunking and three-pointers, and then ultimately nuked by the shot clock. I held my own betting on those games for awhile, but things eventually went really south and got out of hand. At one point, I lost something ridiculous like 12 games in a row, and 19 out of 20. So I stopped, and I haven't bet on a game since 1981.

But before that, I remember a game from the 1978-79 season; a buddy and I went to St. John's to see the Redmen, as they were so politically incorrectly known at the time, host Boston College, another team who, like Princeton, would pass the ball around for two minutes if necessary to find the perfect pass and shot. (I guess that could sound boring and perhaps you had to be there.) We had read about how great this guy Ernie Cobb was, and partly because of that, we bet on BC. Man, were we disappointed. Cobb was just awful; he took terrible shots and missed them badly, and just wasn't into the game, so it seemed. I remember saying to my friend that it looked like he was dumping the game. He sucked that badly.

It was a few years later that Cobb and two teammates were charged with shaving points during that season. Cobb was acquitted at trial (one player and four others were convicted). And the St John's game was not on the list of those he was accused over. But since that scandal broke, I've always figured that, in that case, my first impression was the correct one. And that you never really know what is really going on inside a person's head and bank account.

With all the security and suspicion inherent in the post 9/11 world, we're still a very trusting people at times. We put our kids on school buses driven by people we know nothing about, eat food prepared by strangers behind closed doors, tell the post office when we're going to be on vacation. And some of us wager on games whose integrity, on the part of player and officials alike, we assume are assured. It may take awhile before the NBA regains that trust, especially if, as speculated on in print, the investigation expands to other players or officials (oh man), or if David Stern knew about it during the season.

When we gamble our hard-earned money on horse racing, the crazy part isn't that we bet on horses. After all, I find that these animals are remarkably honest. What you see in the past performances is more often than not what you get in the race, allowing of course for a certain margin of improvement or decline. It's the humans that insert the dishonesty in the game. The next time you think you see a jockey stiffing a horse or an animal that seems juiced, well, most likely, you're just being a sore loser. But the sad truth is that you might be right. And unless we find a way to limit human beings' participation to mucking the stalls, there will always be a handful looking for an edge. And that's a slam dunk back door layup.


Brett said...

So true in so many ways.

Anonymous said...

I have a similar story, Alan, and not surprisingly it revolves around BC. In the early 1990s, I was betting on college football, like $25 a pop like the smalltime chumps we were (and still are). Anyway, me and a buddy bet on BC over Pitt. BC was favored in the game and I still remember it very well. There was a handoff to the Pitt RB and this BC linebacker had him dead to rights in the backfiend but instead of tackling him from behind (he was practically on top of him), he just ran after him until the RB cut upfield and got a big gain. Both my buddy and I looked at each other and were like "what the f-" Never forget it. Then a few months later, the scandle hits and the linebacker was indicated. We got jobbed. We still laugh about it today.

Anonymous said...

An exerpt from the above article: "After a 20-13 loss to Pittsburgh several players were confronted by Henning and the team's student captains."

They must have seen the same thing we did: A linebacker clearly trying not to tackle somebody. It was that blatantly obvious. Of course, the idiot ESPN announcers didn't pick up on it.