University of Kentucky
"The Point Shaving Scandal"
Adolph Rupp and Harry Lancaster
read about UK's involvement
in the basketball fix scandal
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From "Kentucky Basketball's Big Blue Machine"
by Russell Rice
The Darkest Hour
Nicholas "Nick the Greek" Englisis came to the University of Kentucky with five other New York high school football players, saw first time duty for coaches A. D. Kirwan in 1944 and Bernie Shively in 1945, and was dropped from the squad after Paul "Bear" Bryant became head coach in 1946.
If Nick had been a better football player, perhaps he would have shared more in some of the satisfying rewards and bonuses that alumni and boosters were showering upon UK athletes for jobs well done on the field of athletic combat. However, it was his lot to observe the businesslike, almost professional atmosphere of college athletics and to store that knowledge for the day when he would join forces with his brother, Tony, and the gambling element in his native Brooklyn.
Nick met Ralph Beard when Ralph was on the UK football team for a brief spell during Ralph's freshman year in 1945. Nick apparently got to know some other people in the Wildcat basketball program pretty well, so well in fact that a Louisville newspaper ran a photograph of him sitting on the end of the UK bench during an SEC tournament in that city.
So when it came time for Nick to approach the UK basketball players about winning games by a few more points than the "spread" allowed by gamblers, it took only a little friendly persuasion to first bring Groza into the fold, then Beard, then Barnstable.
"The thing about it is that you convince yourself you are doing no harm at the beginning," Barnstable would say later. "You get $15 or $20 from the school for playing a good game and you figure it won't hurt to take some bigger money for winning with something to spare.
"So you take the money (to go over the spread) and then you are offered some real money for "shaving" (winning by less than the spread) points. There's a lot of smooth talk and you talk yourself into the idea that it wouldn't you or the school to win by a small score. You are a little confused and you don't know exactly what's going on and the next thing you know you are in it deep - too deep."
"Barney" never knew when he was talking to a would-be fixer. "Everywhere you went, strange people would try to talk to you in hotel lobbies," he said. "they wanted to know if you thought you'd win or if you thought you'd win by 10, and a lot of other things..."
In addition the UK players were attending school in a city that is steeped in the tradition of thoroughbred racing and thoroughly indoctrinated into pari-mutuel wagering. Lexington is historically a gambling town.
The undisputed "king" of Lexington bookmakers at the time was Ed Curd, a nationally known gambling figure who operated in comparative security above the Mayfair Bar on Lexington's Main Street. He was friendly with the "right" persons, made his contributions to charity - Rupp had gone to Curd's home to solicit for the local children's hospital - and operated a 340 acre farm near Lexington. His name was mentioned at least twice in the Senate Crime committee investigation as Lexington's betting commissioner.
It was Curd to whom "Phog" Allen referred in 1944, when the Kansas coach charged that headquarters of a nationwide gambling ring was a room above the Mayfair Bar, where a gigantic handbook each Saturday during the football season handled as much as $500,000 on college games. Allen also charged that Lexington was probably the biggest high school and college gambling center in the country and that bookies from racetracks after World War II were among into the intercollegiate field and the situation was bound to get worse. The Mayfair Bar was only about five blocks from Alumni Gym.
The first game in which UK basketball players were involved with the gamblers was against St. John's, December 18th, 1948 in Brooklyn. They were paid for going over the spread in that game and in games against DePaul, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, Bowling green, Bradley, and Xavier; and Tulane and St. Louis in the Sugar Bowl. Once they were in that deep, it was easy for Englisis to coerce them into shaving points in a game against Tennessee on February 18th, 1949, and in an NIT loss to Loyola that year.
Kentucky officially became involved in the gambling scandal on the night of October 20, 1951, when investigators from the office of the New York district attorney seized Barnstable in Louisville and Groza and Beard in Chicago, where Rupp was coaching a team in an all-star game. The first person to break the news to Rupp was Lon Varnell, who was to meet Rupp in their hotel room after Rupp attended a wedding anniversary dinner with a Peoria couple. When Rupp telephoned to say he would be a little late, Varnell said, "Adolph, I have some bad news for you. You had better come over to the hotel as soon as you can."
When Rupp arrived at the hotel and heard the news, he said, "I don't believe it. Call the newspapers and radio stations."
As Rupp paced the room and wrung his hands, Varnell placed the calls.
"It's true," he told Rupp. "every bit of it. And it may be worse than it seems."
"Oh, my God!" Rupp shuddered. He stretched out on the bad and sobbed. It was 3 o'clock in the morning. At 6 o'clock, he called Bernie Shively.
"Shive, what'll I do?" he asked.
"Adolph you had better get here as quickly as you can," Shively said.
Rupp caught a plane within an hour, walked into Shively's office after arrving in Lexington, and was greeted by Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones.
"Tough, eh?" Rupp said.
"Sure is, coach. I just feel sorry for them. I've been sick at my stomach all day," Jones replied.
As the judicial process went in action against 31 players from seven schools who were then involved in the spreading scandal, Judge Saul S. Streit in New York called college football and basketball a sordid big business, with commercialization and overemphasis of both rampant throughout the country. He named Maryland, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A & M, Southern Methodist, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Kentucky as examples of schools that were overemphasizing football and basketball.
When investigators from the office of the New York district attorney arrived in Lexington, seeking to question two or more UK athletes who were not members of the current basketball team, attorneys representing the players refused to permit interrogation of their clients, whom, they said had violated no laws. After a six-day stay the investigators left, claiming removal of doubt and suspicion from innocent UK players had been prevented by the refusal of others to submit to questioning.
On the day before Christmas 1951, Bill Spivey requested that his name be omitted from the university's athletic eligibility list until he was cleared of any connection with the scandal. He later told a New York grand jury that he was innocent of any involvement, but that he was approached at a Catskills Mountain resort by a man who said he had arranged fixes with Barnstable and Hirsch, and that the man had later renewed the proposition to him in Lexington. Spivey did not report the incidents because he did not want to get the other players in trouble.
The UK Athletics Board suspended Spivey's eligibility after a four-hour session March 1st. Then came that trial and release in New York on the charge of falsifying his testimony when charged with conspiring to fix UK games; then that well-publicized voluntary lie detector test.
Before year's end a New York grand jury would charge Hirsch, Barnstable, and Line with accepting bribes to shave points in the UK-DePaul game (UK won 49-47) played December 21, 1949 in Louisville, and the UK-Arkansas game (UK won 57-53) played January 2nd, 1950, in Little Rock. Neither Kentucky nor Arkansas had laws against bribery in connection with sports events.
The months-long investigation and revelations concerning the scandal definitely had an effect on the Kentucky team that season, but the Wildcats still had some fine moments. While the two New York investigators were in town, the 'Cats defeated St. John's 81-40, and DePaul, 98-60, in the Coliseum. The loss was the worst suffered by the Redmen in 43 years of basketball. Thirteen thousand fans gave Solly Walker a bigger ovation than any visiting member of the team. The Associated Press reported that he was subjected to no embarrassment during the game or during the visit to Lexington.
St. John's Solly Walker, first African-American to
play in Memorial Coliseum, dribbles around Lou Tsioropoulos
as Frank Ramsey watches the action. UK won, 81-40,
but lost to St. John's, 64-57, in a rematch in the
NCAA Eastern Regional.
Voted No. 1 on Christmas Day, the Wildcats defeated UCLA at home and Brigham Young in the first round of the Sugar Bowl before falling 61-60, to St. Louis in the championship game. A few spectators behind press row kept yelling, "Beat the game-fixers" and "Oh, you little shavers, are you shaving tonight?"
En route to another conference championship, they were subjected at times to rather uncomplimentary remarks. However, Tennessee's "Heckler's Row" was silent, and the fans applauded when the Kentucky players were introduced. The student newspaper, fraternities, and sororities had conducted a campaign to avert reference to the scandal. Rupp called that one of the finest things he had observed in thirty years of basketball...
The absence of a good tall man was felt numerous times that season, but most of all in the second round of the NCAA tournament, where the Wildcats lost to the same St. John's team they had defeated earlier in the season. Bob Zawoluk, 6-foot-6 center, scored 32 points for the Redmen. It is likely the Wildcats would have repeated as national champions.
Before dealing suspended sentences to Beard, Barnstable, and Groza, and placing them on indefinite suspension, Judge Streit issued a 63 page statement detailing the rise of UK in the collegiate athletic world and how it costs for maintaining basketball and football teams jumped far in excess of the normal and average cost of the operation and maintenance of a first-rate professional football or basketball team.
He charged that UK subsidized unqualified athletes in violation of amateur rules, unqualified students got in school through athletic scholarships, and that cribbing by some star athletes was encouraged and tolerated by UK officials. He traced the scandal at Kentucky and the plight of the defendants to the inordinate desire by the trustees and alumni of the University for prestige and profit from sports. Eighteen pages of the report were devoted to Rupp, whom Streit accused of aiding and abetting in the immoral subsidization of the players.
In answer, the university did not contend that its record was above criticism. But it affirmed that, in establishing an athletics program, it should be answerable to the people of Kentucky, the NCAA, and to it's regional associations, and that it's policies would not be dictated by Streit. Disturbed because the attack had not one reference to the organized gambling in New York and the criminals who produced the scandal, it felt the blame for what had happened should be shared by the public that persisted in gambling and in protecting gamblers; by overzealous alumni, real and synthetic, who placed athletic victories above other considerations; by radio stations, newspapers, and magazines that had featured college sports out of all proportions to their importance; and by college and university administrative officials and coaches throughout the land.
The university also felt it was significant that there were no basketball fixes in America before the game was featured in Madison Square Garden and that no school, whether located in New York or elsewhere, was ever touched by scandal until it's teams had participated in one or more games in that arena.
While the SEC was accepting an invitation to investigate the situation in Lexington, UK officials announced an 11-point plan to slant the athletic program campusward. Basically the university pledged itself to observe strictly all regulations of the SEC and the NCAA and to use every endeavor to see that persons either inside or outside the university did not violate those regulations. It called upon its coaches to emphasize standards and ideals than victories.
The university had expected some disciplinary action from the conference, but it was not quite prepared for an August 11th, 1952, Executive Committee decision that ruled the Wildcats out of conference basketball for one year for participating in intercollegiate basketball and in tournaments in violation of conference rules and regulations in the area of subsidizing players during the period between October 1st, 1946, and the close of the 1951 basketball season.
Kentucky did not appeal the penalty, but its president, Dr. Herman L. Donovan, said UK was not admitting anything that had not been the practice in other schools and conferences. "The thing that hurt us most was the fact that some of our players took bribes," he said.
Three months after the SEC ruling, the NCAA asked its member schools not to play UK in basketball during the 1952-53 season. The specific violations cited by that body in its ruling were:
1. Members of the 1948 basketball team were given $50 each by persons not connected with UK when the team left for the NCAA.
2. Team supporters again gave the players $50 each before UK participated in the 1949 NCAA.
3. Six players were given $50 each before playing St. John's in New York in 1950.
4. Several players were given $25 to $50 after the Sugar Bowl games in 1951.
A few days after UK canceled its 21-game basketball schedule, Dr. Donovan told UK alumni he had ordered an investigation of Rupp after the scandals, and that he believed Rupp's woes were due partially to the fact that Rupp was the best basketball coach in the country. Donovan said he and other UK officials knew about and had approved the $50 given to basketball players after two appearances in the Sugar Bowl "because when UK first appeared in football bowls, we learned that it was customary among all schools going to bowls to give their players extraordinary spending money." He said Rupp knew of money given to basketball players after the Sugar Bowl games, but had no knowledge of monthly payments made by alumni to other players.
The punishment meted to UK by the NCAA was far harsher than any penalty that had been inflicted upon a member for violation of NCAA rules. It amounted to a fine estimated at $100,000. Donovan could have avoided the penalty by dismissing Rupp, but the UKI president believed Rupp to ban an honorable man, and he refused to make him a goat of him.
Deeply hurt by all that had transpired, Rupp said:
"No one has fought for cleaner sports and tried harder to keep them from gambling than I have, and if anyone had anything on me, I would not be sitting at this desk, and I would not embarrass the university by remaining here."
Pointing to his record he asked, "Now, who has done that before? If I were suspicious, what boys would you trust? What was the guy who wasn't winning at Northwestern or SMU or some of those other places - thinking about? We walk off with all the trophies they had, and I was supposed to know about it. How stupid can you get?
Since there was no evidence that Rupp was involved in any way with gambling on games or conspiring to manipulate the final scores, it is obvious that he was completely innocent of such matters. He once said, "I would rather lose a million dollars than lose a basketball game," and he was such a hard loser that it would have been out of character for him to condone manipulation of the point spread; he literally meant it when he once said, "I bleed every time the other team makes a basket." The scandal hurt him so deeply that it would be 20 years before he would speak to those UK players who were involved.
There was some talk of Rupp retiring that year, but he said it was his duty to remain. "The boys needed me worse than ever," he said, "and it would have looked awfully bad if I had walked out on the heels of this thing."
"I'll not retire until the man who said Kentucky can't play in the NCAA hands me the national championship trophy.
Bill Spivey (77) plays defense during the UK-Syracuse game in the
consolation game of the of the 1950 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
UK won, 69-59. Other Wildcats are Frank Ramsey (30),
Shelby Linville (11), and Walt Hirsch (19).