By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The other day, when the madness of March began, Long Island University found itself matched up against James Madison in a play-in game, a game that had very little interest to anyone not connected to either school or Indiana, which was penciled in to beat the winner.
But seeing LIU out on the court brought back some childhood memories to those dinosaurs of us who remain walking the Earth and remember certainly the greatest player ever to play at that school, maybe even the greatest player ever to play the game of basketball, and certainly the greatest player ever to never have gotten a chance to reach his potential.
This is the sad story of Sherman White, one a young sports columnist-to-be saw up close and personal, one with a story that is as alive today as it was then because the athletes remain at the bottom of the economic feeding chain that is collegiate athletics, meaning they remain vulnerable to the same temptations that nearly destroyed the game in the early 1950s.
Sherman White had led the nation in scoring in 1950 as a junior with an average of 27.7 points a game, this is an era of the two-handed set shot, in an era long before anyone dared dream of a 3-point line, and when at a time just three years after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color line, which should give you some idea of where the African-American athlete stood at the time.
White was 6-foot, 8-inches tall and and in his obituary from two years ago when he died at 82, it said he was adept at rebounding, jumping, handling the ball and running the court, playing a different game than others at the time.
He had grown up across the Hudson River from New York City in Englewood, N.J., where he led Dwight Morrow High School, which was where this then 7-year-old would go to school, to an unbeaten 1947 state championship.
He was a local hero, lined up to becoming the New York Knicks’ No. 1 draft selection, the professional team ready to offer the rookie a lucrative contract of $17,000 for his first year. It may not sound like much in today’s zillionaire athlete economy, but at that time the NBA’s top player, George Mikan, was earning $22,000.
The year was 1951, and it was just months before Bobby Thomson would hit his “Shot heard ’round the world” to win the pennant for the New York Giants, just days after White had been named the Sporting News’ college player of the year that he was arrested for accepting bribes from a professional gambler for shaving points.
He and several teammates were charged with accepting bribes to affect the outcome of several games in 1950 and 1951, including an NIT loss to Syracuse, this being a huge thing coming in an era when the NIT actually was a bigger tournament than the NCAA.
White led detectives to $5,500 bribe money, almost all he received, taped behind his dresser in his room in a Brooklyn YMCA.
The scandal would soon spread nationally, which many of the nation’s best players, including Ralph Beard and Alex Groza at Kentucky, arrested and convicted … all of them paying a huge price as they were banned from the NBA.
White always claimed that it was peer pressure that led him into shaving points, not greed.
“It wasn’t the money; it was peer pressure; I was naïve,” he said in a 1984 interview with Pulitizer Prize winning columnist Dave Anderson of The New York Times, the first interview he gave on the subject.
And, he claimed, that the system was as complicit as the players.
For example, the coaches have a responsibility.
“After that N.C. State game, me and Eddie almost got into a fistfight,” White said of Eddie Gard, the LIU playmaker, referring to a game before he had been involved in the scandal. “His passes were down at my feet. I played with the guy seven days a week; I knew him like a book. I didn’t realize they were dumping. I complained to Clair Bee.”
Clair Bee was the LIU coach, a Hall of Fame coach who was born in Grafton and whose grandfather, Efraime Bee, was a member of the first West Virginia Legislature.
“Much as I respect Clair Bee, you tell me that he didn’t know the difference between a guy controlling the game and not controlling the game.
“You tell me Nat Holman,” he said, referring to the CCNY coach, “would not know whether these guys were playing up to par or not playing up to par. When you’ve got five guys playing bad at one time, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that these guys were doing something that was wrong or something that was not right. It’s too late in the game to throw stones, but I never hear nobody talk about the coaches.”
But they all had a good thing going, just as did the schools and the gamblers. Today, really, it’s no different, only far more money going to everyone but the players.
It hasn’t changed. Just the other day there was a tweet on Twitter from one of WVU’s active basketball players complaining that he’s tired of having an empty bank account. He probably isn’t alone.
White spent 9 months in jail but managed to salvage his life, although he would admit there was “a hole in my heart” because he could not play in the NBA. A neighbor of mine adopted him, so to speak, gave him a place to play in the Eastern League, had a touring team called the New Jersey Titans that included many of the New York City players involved in the fixes.
White became a respected citizen who helped kids learn basketball and life, winding up with the courts at Mackay Park in Englewood named for him … but he could not change the system to make it tougher for gamblers or agents or alumni to reach the kids financially.
Could it happen again?
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.