Corruption Mars College Basketball In New York

A game-fixing scandal leaves Gotham with a bitter legacy


For those who wonder why the country’s largest sports market hasn’t hosted a March Madness final since 1950, the answer lies in a game-fixing scandal that left a dark chapter in the history of Big Apple sports.

“It was the death knell of college basketball in New York,” says Matthew Goodman, author of the well-received book, ‘The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team

The book dials back the years to an era when the biggest city in America was plagued with police corruption, organized crime, and illegal gambling.

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A Mecca for college hoops in the day, New York’s Madison Square Garden (MSG) was the nation’s premier venue for showcasing and recruiting basketball talent.

Both the NCAA and the NIT, its more prestigious rival at the time, had organized their championships in Gotham. The 18,000-seating capacity at MSG filled up regularly with double and triple-headers that generated windfall gate receipts for the arena and for the teams.

Even the pros took a back seat when schools came to town. “When the schedules of the Knicks and college basketball conflicted, the Knicks were the ones that had to move to the Armory,” notes Goodman in a phone conversation with Sports History Weekly.

But the game’s tremendous draw in the Big City had its sinister underside. Illegal betting was pervasive with an estimated $300,000 wagered on each match, and much of it from inside the Garden. An open secret, point spreads were even printed in newspapers.

It all came to a head in 1951 when Junius Kellogg, a 6’10” top scorer for Manhattan College, blew the whistle on what became the biggest corruption story to ever hit college athletics.

A native of Virginia playing on a scholarship, Kellogg refused a $1,000 bribe offered by a former teammate to shave points off the spread of an upcoming game at MSG.

Kellogg reported the incident to the District Attorney’s office, which sent him back wearing a wire to record evidence. The scandal exploded, ultimately revealing that from 1947-50, 86 games were fixed in 23 different cities, involving 32 players from seven colleges.

Four of the seven schools were located in the New York area: City College of New York (CCNY), Long Island University (LIU), New York University (NYU), and Manhattan College. The others were the University of Kentucky, Bradley University, and the University of Toledo.

Officials discovered that fixers were secretly paying college players to throw off points at certain matches during the season. The key money man was Salvatore Sollazzo, a jeweler and gambler with a criminal record.

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On February 19, 1951, the front pages in the New York press screamed:

“3 CCNY Stars Jailed in Fix. LIU, NYU Men, Big Bettor Also Held in Cage Bribery”- Daily News

“3 City College Aces and Gambler Held in Basketball Fix”- New York Times

Ten fixers, some with links to the underworld, ended up in jail with Sollazzo spending the longest term of 12 years. But the most explosive revelation for New Yorkers was the involvement of members of CCNY’s basketball team.

Historically unheralded, the Beavers were a Cinderella team that won both the NCAA and the NIT titles the same year in 1950, a combined feat that no other college had ever achieved.

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Seven CCNY players received suspended sentences after pleading guilty to shaving points in three games during the 1949-50 season.

Kentucky coach, Adolph Rupp, was convinced his players were clean but three of them were actually embroiled in the mess and two, Ralph Beard and Alex Groza, had their futures in the NBA derailed.

Perhaps the most ruined of the promising careers was that of LIU’s Sherman White, considered New York’s leading player and possibly the best in the country.

The 6’8” prodigy would have been the Knicks’ first round draft choice but he ended up serving 9 months in jail and barred from playing in the NBA.

For his book, Goodman interviewed the surviving members of the CCNY squad and families of the deceased. “They all had different motivations for doing what they did,” explains Goodman.

Ed Roman, CCNY’s star forward, never spent the money. He hid the cash in the basement of his parents’ house and was saving it to help with the mortgage.

Floyd Layne, the Beavers’ shooting guard, used $110 of his cash payments to buy his mother a washing machine.

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Irwin Dambrott, the team’s Captain who later turned down an offer by the Knicks and became a dentist, only participated in a single point-shaving scheme.

None of the illicit activities compromised the Beavers’ winning record, since bets were made on point differentials and not on the win-loss outcome.

Still, despite their seemingly innocent entanglements in what emerged as a city-wide corruption web that was exploited by everyone from game promoters to beat cops, the media reacted with outrage and the young men spent the rest of their lives in the shadow of the scandal.

Junius Kellog, the upright hero of the game-fixing racket, went on to join the Harlem Globetrotters, though his career was cut short in 1954 by a car accident that left him paralyzed.

Dispirited and saddled with depression, he was later recruited by the Pan-Am Jets, members of the wheelchair basketball league who were owned by Pan American World Airlines.

He coached the team and became the company’s goodwill ambassador. In 1964, he guided the U.S. to a gold medal at the Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan.

The institutional fallout for the colleges implicated in the fiasco was consequential and enduring.

The NCAA suspended Kentucky’s basketball program for the 1952-53 season. CCNY de-emphasized sports and a decade later dropped down to Division III. LIU shut down its entire athletic curriculum for 6 years and didn’t return to Division I until the 1980s.

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Though suspect, St. John’s University was one of the local programs that escaped public scrutiny and punishment. Goodman believes that a cozy relationship that existed between the team’s coach and the District Attorney (Frank Hogan), in addition to closed-door intervention by the Archdiocese (Cardinal Spellman), ensured that St. John’s remain unscathed.

For the city of New York, MSG lost the privilege of hosting an NCAA final as the tournament abandoned Manhattan and the east coast for its Midwestern and Western roots.

The NIT stayed on, though with time it lost its premier stature to become college basketball’s ‘consolation’ prize.



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