You’re coming of age in postwar New York. You’re urban to the core: Jewish, Irish, Italian, African American, and soon, Puerto Rican; the taxonomy matters, yet it doesn’t. A lot of you are first-generation and swell with pride at being a different kind of citizen than your immigrant parents. You play stoopball and stickball and touch football, shoot pool or shake pinball machines. All noble pursuits. But there is one game that binds you more than others. It’s basketball. The city game.
Sure, your dad takes you to Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, or Ebbetts Field, and you cheer the Bombers, the Giants, and Dem Bums. But you sit in the stands, far removed from the players, not like posting up or boxing out some guy in a three on three at an outdoor blacktop court in Canarsie, or Inwood, or Harlem, or in a league at the Y, Jewish or Christian, the PAL, or a settlement house. If you want more, you go to Madison Square Garden for a college hoops doubleheader with your buddies, not your dad, and root for NYU, Manhattan College, St. John’s, LIU, or CCNY. You sit in the nosebleed section clutching a Nedick’s and a hot dog, all of which costs 15 cents on top of the scalped ticket for $2.50. Maybe your older brother or a cousin plays for one of the schools. It’s totally a big deal and a bro-tastic evening before it ends at a subway station or bus stop along Eighth Avenue after talking nonstop basketball in the surging crowd leaving the Garden.
And the deal becomes bigger if your playground hoop skills and high school reputation bring a visit from an assistant coach at one of the colleges, or even, in rare instances, the exalted head man himself: Clair Bee at LIU or Frank McGuire at St. John’s. But a third member of the triumvirate, Nat Holman, the forever coach of CCNY since the 1920s, believes recruiting is beneath him and leaves it to assistants. Your parents won’t understand the enormity of the visit, or the perks being offered, or the deference you show the visitor, but this could be the jumping-off point (every pun intended) of your life.
For elite players, the rewards include scholarships, fudged entrance exams, grade-friendly courses, shadow jobs on campus, summer bell-hopping, busing, and league play in the Catskills, games at the Garden and other national arenas, and a leg up on business contacts and pro sports opportunities way above those available to other undergrads.
But for seven athletes at City College of New York — five Jewish, two black, two of them veterans — what should have been a time of basking in national glory after winning both the NIT and NCAA tournaments as underdogs in 1950 (the NIT was more prestigious in those pre-March Madness days) instead imploded in a spiral of shame, expulsion, ostracism, and legal entanglement for their complicity in a point-shaving scheme.
The shock waves reverberated through New York City’s educational establishment, rocked an already corruption-plagued police department, indirectly cost Mayor William O’Dwyer his job, and trained a harsh spotlight on the mobbed-up bookies who crafted the “spread,” with its finely targeted web of payoffs that netted hundreds of millions. (Use a rough multiplier of 10 to convert to today’s handle.) Newspapers, and there were lots more of them in those days, feasted on the story after the Brooklyn Eagle broke it open. Of course, New York’s hardy legion of diehard bettors didn’t mend their ways or seem chastened by the situation.
The CCNY players and twenty-six other collegians reaped a whirlwind that would color and consume the rest of their days. Characters had been tarnished, prospects for pro careers erased, connections to family, campus, and neighborhood sundered. It meant the beginning of decades-long efforts by each to reconstruct their lives, with varying degrees of effectiveness. While players from colleges outside the metropolitan area (Kentucky, Bradley) were also involved in rigging scores, this was truly a New York story — one that began in the playgrounds, graduated to the campus gym and Madison Square Garden, and finally landed in the courts.
Matthew Goodman easily could have written “The City Game” as a jeremiad, penning a morality tale about college basketball (much wider than the fledgling NBA back in the day) and sports in general, presided over by sketchy coaches and fringe characters. But as a Brooklynite and dedicated fan, he has, happily, opted for a richly researched and bittersweet period piece about the big town he so obviously loves.
Goodman is nimble enough to wring redemptive value from terrible cases of situational ethics and lapses of judgment, and does so without allowing rationalization to creep in. Manipulating games by shaving points to beat the spread while still winning is still wrong. Deeply, inexcusably wrong. No justifications are to be found in “City Game,” except for quotes from the players or summaries of their thinking at the time.
A key outcropping of the drama, City College of New York, seemed the unlikeliest location to become the petri dish for point shaving. With a rich academic tradition already established, CCNY expanded to its uptown campus on Harlem’s St. Nicholas Heights in 1907 to accommodate a swelling enrollment of immigrant sons and daughters. The cluster of acclaimed Gothic-designed buildings showcased an institution providing tuition-free, high-quality education taught by top-notch professors to a student body that was 90 percent Jewish by the 1930s. Students represented the cream of an interborough crop that couldn’t get into the Ivys because of quotas, and CCNY became known by its acronyms of Circumcised Citizens of New York or, more delicately, Christian College Now Yiddish. The student body was highly politicized (Trotskyites vs. Stalinists), passionate against fascism (ardently Republican in the Spanish Civil War), and more inclined to debating societies and chess clubs than athletics.
Except for basketball.
All campus cliques and factions seemed to rally ’round the beloved Beavers. Even their cheer, the “Allagaroo,” was unique. (Allagaroo garoo gara/ Allagaroo garoo gara/ Eeyah eeyah/ Sis boom bah/ Team! Team! Team!”). When they beat Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky powerhouse for the NIT crown, it wasn’t just a brash upset, it was good vs. evil, Rupp’s arrogant, all-white team pitted against a racially mixed, mostly Jewish, urban contingent. And more of the same when they humbled Ohio State for the NCAA crown that year.
Coach Nat Holman brought an impressive resume to the proceedings. After a brilliant New York high school and CCNY athletic career, he enjoyed a dual star turn as his alma mater’s young head coach while playing with the Boston Celtics. Holman was also familiar to the public via endorsements (Vitalis, Wheaties, Planters Peanuts), clinics in the Catskills, and speaking engagements. Aloof, imperious, and impeccably dressed, he rarely addressed his charges by name and ultimately would bail on them during their greatest crisis. After the scandal, he would be suspended, reinstated, suspended again. In 1954, he was reinstated for good with back pay. He coached until 1958.
But his assistant, Bobby Sand, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of CCNY and a tenured economics faculty member, was cut from different cloth and paid a much steeper price for his intense loyalty to the team. Sand acted as the unheralded brains of the outfit, controlling the bench on timeouts and substitutions. Where Holman favored the deliberate, weaving play developed decades before, Sand believed in the fast break and an opportunistic offense. Head coaching offers came his way, but his wife’s illness and his love of CCNY compelled him turn them down. The investigation would snag Sand over a letter-writing technicality on behalf of a player. Fired as an assistant, he also lost his classes, and remained in CCNY tenure purgatory for a decade before being vindicated, restored to teaching, and, best of all, being named head basketball coach at Baruch College, formerly CCNY’s downtown business school, in 1971.
And what about the players themselves, the magical combination of undergrads who became the only team ever to win the NIT and NCAA titles in the same year, before dual titles were disallowed? All paid a price, albeit to varying degrees. Norm Mager was cut by the Baltimore Bullets after his arrest and wound up as a salesman in his father’s cleaning business, developing social agoraphobia outside of work. Al Roth re-enrolled in CCNY after his suspension, earned a degree, and did well in the construction business, but would either deny his identity or hesitate to give his name while pitching a client. Irwin Dambrot, the only senior, went on to practice dentistry in Queens. Although he shaved only one game, his remorse was so great that he kept referring to the incident as a shande (Yiddish for shame) for the rest of his life.
Goodman’s most developed profiles, however, concern Ed Warner and Floyd Layne, both from Harlem, and Eddie Roman of the Bronx, the son of Jewish immigrants. Warner and Layne were the only black players on the team and Warner the only one to receive jail time (four months) for participating in the scheme. He never re-enrolled in CCNY and went on to become notable for both his basketball and his drug-dealing exploits in Harlem. After getting hooked himself and serving a prison term, he stayed clean and settled into a more sedate life as a basketball referee and elder statesman of the community.
Roman, like Warner and Layne, was rebuffed in repeated attempts to play in the NBA. The three joined minor league basketball teams and traveled by car on weekends to compete in the backwaters of Pennsylvania. Roman, who had been scholarly his whole life, went on to obtain advanced degrees and taught for many years in New York’s notorious 600 schools for challenged students before dying of cancer. His good friend, Floyd Layne, devoted his life to youth work with a tireless passion and may have achieved the most redemptive and sweetest closing chapter of all the players. CCNY trustees chose him as head basketball coach (he picked Nat Holman to introduce him) and guided the team through the 1970s and ’80s.
Why did they do it, these “nice” college boys who had special skills on the court? Eddie Roman wanted to relieve his immigrant mother’s financial worries. Norm Mager felt that Holman had mistreated the players while he basked in the limelight. Floyd Layne buried his cash in a flowerpot and never touched any of it, except to buy his mom a washing machine. And no outcomes of games were changed in terms of won and lost. But as Goodman makes clear, something incalculable was lost in the life of each participant.
“The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team;” Matthew Goodman, Ballantine Books, 430 pp., $29
Jonathan E. Lazarus is a retired editor of the Star-Ledger and a proofreader for the Jewish Standard. His basketball is confined to playing H-O-R-S-E with his grandchildren — except not during the pandemic.