By Michael Hogan
In the 1940s, college basketball was king. The local heroes of New York University, City College of New York, Long Island University, St. John's, and Manhattan College played to packed crowds at Madison Square Garden, which held over 16,000 fans, while the still second-class New York Knicks of the upstart NBA often played at the 69th Regiment Armory, which held only 5,000. Arena owners were focused first and foremost on maximizing profits, and college basketball was a more established and dependable draw. At the time, the Garden was the mecca of the college basketball world, hosting the NIT Tournament each year from when it began in 1938 and hosting the less prestigious NCAA championship seven times between 1943 and 1950. However, a scandal was brewing behind the scenes that would soon alter the public's view of the innocent college hoopsters and upend the balance between college and professional basketball.
CCNY Coach Nat Holman
[public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
In 1950, the City College of New York Beavers became the first and only team to win both the NIT and NCAA tournaments. Their success was unexpected. Disney's Cinderella was released in February 1950, and according to ESPN's College Basketball Encyclopedia, the term Cinderella was first used as a popular reference to a sports team when it was applied to the 1950 CCNY Beavers. While their more heralded counterparts were recruited to play at big time programs like Kentucky and Bradley, the young men of City College attended "The Harvard of the Poor" for the opportunity to play under former Original Celtics star Nat Holman and a high-quality education that came without the perks of more well-known college basketball factories.
At the conclusion of the 1950 season, the Beavers were recognized as a respectable team, but no one could have expected the success that was about to come. They began their improbable postseason by upsetting powerhouse Kentucky 89-50 in the NIT quarterfinals and then defeating Bradley 69-61 in the finals. Ten days later, they defeated Bradley again, 71-68, to win the NCAA tournament.
A newsreel from the time (above) refers to the team as frustrating, but doesn't explain why. Maybe they won games by smaller than expected margins, but they were still the champions of both major tournaments. What the fans and commentators didn't know at the time was that a major college basketball scandal would break about 10 months later that would shed light on their frustrations. In January 1951, the New York District Attorney's Office arrested two Manhattan College players and three bookies for bribery and conspiracy. The following month, three CCNY players were also arrested as the scandal continued to grow. In March, three additional City College players were arrested. In total, 32 players from seven colleges would be arrested for fixing 86 games over a three year period.
The CCNY players were never accused of throwing games, but there were certainly involved in intentionally winning by margins lower than the point spread to help bookies make money. An interview with the author of The Game They Played, below, provides additional information on the scandal and also shows highlights demonstrating the poor play produced by point shaving (highlights begin at 37 seconds).
A budding basketball powerhouse, City College would never recover from the point shaving scandal. In some ways, I feel I can relate. As a University of Minnesota student in 1997, I traveled to San Antonio to watch Bobby Jackson lead the Golden Gophers in a thrilling comeback victory against UCLA to win the Midwest Region and earn a spot in the Final Four. While the Gophers lost their next game and didn't advance to the NCAA Finals, Minnesota students and fans were still immensely proud of our team. I can clearly recall how the crowd in my dorm's television lounge grew larger and more boisterous with each regular season victory. The frenzy continued into the NCAA tournament and the Final Four, but we would later be disappointed to learn that the team's records would be invalidated due allegations of tutors doing homework for players. Two years later, I remember sitting in a half-empty University of Minnesota Student Union theater, watching the shorthanded Gophers lose to lower-ranked Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA Tournament due in part to suspensions that had just been announced.
The disappointment of City College students must have been much more significant due to the team's unprecedented double championship and the fact that the scandal directly impacted the competitiveness of games that were played. CCNY students had watched their team achieve the impossible and then watched with horror as their heroes were exposed for collaborating with bookies and cheats.The 1952 City College yearbook explains:
We watched as one of the greatest teams in the history of basketball developed as frosh, matured through the adolescent stage during its sophomore year, then bloomed into full maturity at the close of that season, sweeping through unprecedented NIT and NCAA tournament championships, acclaimed throughout the country as New York's "Cinderella Kids." And then we looked on with unbelieving shock, disappointment, and in many cases bitter anger and resentment as the bubble suddenly burst.In addition to impacting the Beavers, other programs were also left reeling. Players from Manhattan College, Long Island University, New York University, Bradley University, Toledo, and Kentucky were also eventually implicated. Madison Square Garden, also a major fixture in the scandals, was also impacted. While the Garden continues to host the NIT tournament, it has not hosted the NCAA Final Four since 1950. (Note that I have yet to read anything indicating that tournament games were impacted by the scandals; only regular season games were affected.)
Madison Square Garden, c1890
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The NBA banned players who were involved in the scandals as collegiate athletes. These bans impacted a number of teams, but no team took a more significant hit than the Indianapolis Olympians. The core of the team, founded in 1949 as a replacement for the Indianapolis Jets, was comprised of the gold medal winning 1948 Olympic basketball team. Two of the team's stars, Alex Groza and Ralph Beard, were both suspended by the NBA in 1951 after they admitted to shaving points while in college at Kentucky, and the team eventually folded after the 1953 season. However, despite the bans, the NBA's long term prognosis was significantly improved as fans began to pay more attention to the professional game. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Knicks' regular season attendance improved from about 152,000 in 1950-51 to almost 250,000 for the 1955-56 season.
The City College point shaving scandal reminds us that sports and gambling have always been linked. As a Dallas Mavericks fan, I still cringe when the subject of the 2006 NBA Finals is raised. I will never forget groaning along with other Mavericks fans at the Game 5 watch party at the American Airlines Center in Dallas as we watched Dwyane Wade take trip after trip to the free throw line in Miami. Rule changes were made before the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons that benefited aggressive guards and certainly played a role in the 2006 NBA Finals. However, doubt will always linger in the minds of many as to whether Las Vegas somehow affected the final outcome.
In the case of City College, we know definitively that gamblers impacted the results of many games. However, in an odd turn of events, modern day NBA fans have these very same gamblers to thank for setting in motion a series events that would ultimately contribute to the establishment of the NBA a member of the pantheon of the nation's greatest sports leagues.
As always, feel free to contact me with edits or errors (Email: champsbelt at gmail.com; Twitter: @champsbelt). You might also be interested in reviewing the following selected sources for additional information on the scandal.
CUNY Library Website: Nat Holman: The Man, His Legacy, and CCNY.
Wikipedia entry on the CCNY Point Shaving Scandal
Wikipedia entry on Adolph Rupp
Wikipedia entry on the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship
Hoopedia entry on the CCNY Beavers
Previous posts on champsbelt.com
Berman, Zach. Chaney recalls scandals of 1951 CCNY was among 7 schools caught shaving points. Philadelphia Inquirer. July 28, 2007.
Goldstein, Joe. Explosion: 1951 scandals threaten college hoops. ESPN Classic, Nov 18, 2003.
Cohen , Stanley. The Game They Played, by Stanley Cohen
ESPN and Bill Bradley. ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Men's Game
Neft, David S., Cohen, Richard M. The Sports Encyclopedia, Pro Basketball