Why you should care

Because even one of sports gambling’s finest fixers could not rig his own life to turn out the way he wanted.

Few men lead the kind of life that demands to be re-enacted by Leonardo DiCaprio, but it’s only a matter of time before the basketball-loving actor lands on-screen as NBA legend turned pornographer Jack Molinas. And if you thought Howard Hughes, the Wolf of Wall Street or Catch Me If You Can’s Frank Abagnale lived colorful lives, they’ve got nothing on the man the New York Times labeled the “Mephistopheles of college sports.”

In his 43 years, the charismatic New Yorker and Ivy league graduate not only became an NBA All-Star but also left his mark, as biographer Charley Rosen puts it, as a “lawyer, and master of the stock market … a big-time gambler … a jailbird, a pornographer, a loan shark and quite probably a murderer.” Oh, and Molinas, with an assist from the Mafia, also spearheaded point-shaving schemes in dozens of collegiate basketball programs.

In The Wizard of Odds, Rosen shows how Molinas, a middle-class Jew from the Bronx, discovered two of his greatest passions at age 12: basketball and gambling. The young prodigy, who could read English and Spanish at age 4, was, according to one sportswriter, “born bent,” a compulsive gambler and con artist, always angling for an advantage. The handsome teenager with a 175 IQ was also unusually tall, hitting 6 feet 4 by age 14.

Just as Molinas could dominate the court when he wanted to, he would almost single-handedly corrupt the sport as well.

By the time he was a basketball standout, first at Stuyvesant High School and then Columbia University in the early 1950s, Molinas had figured out how to marry his two great loves — and was soon throwing games, shaving points, playing just hard enough to win or evade suspicion. And with the help of a mob-backed bookmaker, Molinas began a lifelong flirtation with the dark side of American sports.

It was a dark time — with the threat of communism and nuclear annihilation hanging over America — and Molinas was not the only pro athlete looking to enhance his meager wage through extracurricular activities. But he was better at it than most, and better at basketball too. In his one and only season in the NBA, with the Fort Wayne Pistons in 1953, Molinas was an All-Star forward, appearing to score almost at will in an age when a tall white guy with a good hook close to the basket and a one-handed push shot from the outside could still dominate the sport.

But for the talented Molinas, as Rosen puts it, “playing in a rigged ball game was more exhilarating than playing it straight.” And just as he could dominate the court when he wanted to, he would almost single-handedly corrupt the sport as well. Even after the NBA clued in to the fact that he was shaving points and gambling on his own team — which got him arrested and banned from pro basketball in 1954 — Molinas simply moved his operations off the court. He earned a law degree, tightened his mob connections and started his own bookmaking business. Throughout the late 1950s, he was a one-man collegiate corruption machine, waving cash and prostitutes in front of the NCAA’s best players, and turning the burgeoning sport of basketball into a three-ring circus.

Former Columbia and Fort Wayne Piston basketball star Jack Molinas, is shown at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., June 4, 1958.

Former Columbia and Fort Wayne Piston basketball star Jack Molinas at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 4, 1958.

Source AP

In the end, Molinas’ actions led to the arrests of 37 players across almost two dozen college programs. Undeterred, he tried to fix much more than basketball — a boxing match by drugging a fighter, and a horse race by shocking the animals with a remote electronic buzzer. Eventually, the authorities caught up with him again, in 1963, and he served five years for bribery and conspiracy.

Once freed, however, Molinas returned to his old tricks, and even taught himself some new ones, including trafficking in pornography and Taiwanese furs. By 1975, his life had become a California cliché — the kind with mob ties. The former basketball star had a comfortable house in Hollywood Hills with a pool, a porn-star girlfriend, pickup games with basketball greats like Wilt Chamberlain and a $500,000 insurance check payable to him when his fur-trading business partner suddenly turned up dead, under suspicious circumstances no less.

And then, that August, Molinas himself turned up dead early one morning, faceup on the patio beside his pool, a bullet to the head. Police never ascertained if it was a gangland hit for unpaid debts, retribution for his partner’s murder or just one giant case of what goes around finally getting back to coming around.

Molinas’ short, sordid tale of gambling, murder and debauchery continues to raise more questions than answers, perhaps today’s most pressing being: How good is Leo’s one-handed push shot?

Comment

Topics:

OZYFlashback

Tales from the past to titillate and educate while giving you a lens on the present and future.