North Carolina state basketball coach Jim Valvano always seemed to have the rim shot to go with the punch line, that ability to get the laugh out of the crowd even when the joke bombed. He could always get himself the benefit of the doubt when trouble found him. "I'll be the first to admit if I've been part of the problem," he said after the release of the school's critical internal investigation into the Wolfpack basketball program last August. "One of the reasons I'm still here today is because I want very much to be part of the solution." It sounded great: defiance leavened with just the right amount of contrition. Always saying the right thing, that was Valvano's knack.
But on Monday, after a week of turmoil that included allegations of point-shaving by former N.C. State star Charles Shackleford and as many as three other Wolfpack players, his problems suddenly had accumulated to the point that Valvano's vaunted glibness would no longer suffice, that he likely would be elsewhere when a resolution to his latest troubles is reached. The experience left Valvano first shaken, then angry, then apparently prepared to give up the fight, even if his backers at N.C. State didn't seem prepared to quit on him. He received nearly a two-minute standing ovation in Reynolds Coliseum on Sunday afternoon, when cheerleaders passed out yellow ribbons in the shape of a V to the sellout crowd of 12,400 that had filed in for State's 93-91 loss to Wake Forest.
"I am perfectly ready to accept what the university thinks is best," Valvano had said two days earlier. Privately, however, he made plans to leave his coaching position—one that, with sundry fringe benefits such as a sneaker deal and a TV show, pays him $800,000 annually—as soon as State's sanctions-truncated season ends with the ACC Tournament in Charlotte this weekend. As university officials mulled over the $500,000 buyout clause in his contract, Valvano might have wished he had left State before last December. That's when the NCAA put the school on probation for two years because players sold shoes and complimentary tickets.
The latest imbroglio began on Feb. 27 when the Greensboro News & Record reported that the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) was looking into allegations of point-shaving by former Wolfpack players during the 1986-87 season. The next day ABC News said that Shackleford, now a forward for the New Jersey Nets, and three unnamed teammates had been involved in a conspiracy to shave points in as many as four games during the '87-88 season. ABC also identified Robert Kramer III, 32. the owner of an East Orange, N.J., home-improvement business, as the mastermind of the alleged '87-88 conspiracy. Shackleford received money from Kramer, ABC reported, to disburse to the other players involved—allegedly up to $ 1,000 per man for each fixed game.
Kramer called the point-shaving allegations "totally preposterous." Shackle-ford held a news conference on Saturday—two days after being arrested in Orange, N.J., on a disorderly person charge stemming from alleged possession of marijuana—and said, "I never shaved points."
Kramer and Shackleford did admit that Kramer, a native of North Carolina and a self-described N.C. State fan, lent Shackleford about $20,000 over an eight-month span in 1988 "out of friendship." About $6,000 of that total was lent while Shackleford was still in school, an apparent violation of NCAA rules. Kramer has said he made the payments after learning from Shackleford that Shackleford had improperly accepted $40,000 from agent Larry Gillman and was considering turning pro after his junior season at N.C. State because he needed money.
Last week Shackleford's current agent, a business associate of Kramer's named Salvatore DiFazio, produced canceled checks purporting to show that his client had paid back both Gillman and Kramer. Even so, the payments place in jeopardy NCAA tournament revenue that the Wolfpack earned for itself and the ACC during Shackleford's college career; the school may be required to return nearly $1 million.
According to the News & Record, one of the games under investigation by the SBI was a 67-62 N.C. State loss to Division II Tampa on December 27, 1986; as it happened, Valvano missed that game because of the flu. The only game cited by ABC was an 86-82 Wolfpack win over Wake Forest in the '87-88 regular-season finale. N.C. State had been favored by 15 points. Wake center Ralph Kitley, who was averaging 6.4 points at the time, spun around the Wolfpack defense, Shackleford in particular, for a career-high 22 points. ABC interviewed a suburban Raleigh businessman, Angelo Carvana, who said that Kramer had told him to bet the N.C. State-Wake game because it was "taken care of." Kramer has denied Carvana's assertion.
Kramer, who moved from North Carolina to New Jersey in the early 1980s, has been dogged by legal problems. In February '88, April '89 and September '89, federal authorities hit him with tax liens, and more than $25,000 in back taxes is outstanding. In February '88, the Tropicana Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas sued Kramer for trying to pay gambling debts totaling $10,000 with three checks drawn against a closed account with the Franklin State Bank in Union, N.J. The case was settled seven months later. (Kramer said last week that he gambles on occasion in Atlantic City and Las Vegas casinos but doesn't bet on basketball.) Kramer also was arrested last September in his house in Denville, N.J., for possession of marijuana. The charge is pending.
Shackleford and Kramer, who met through a mutual acquaintance, say they became close during the 1987-88 season. Shackleford twice gave Kramer complimentary game tickets and lived with him briefly in Denville before joining the Nets.
The original version of Personal Fouls, a book by Peter Golenbock about North Carolina State's basketball program that made headlines when it was rejected by one publisher and again when it finally hit the bookstores last August, contained a charge that an N.C. State player threw a 1987 first-round tournament game against Florida to avoid the possibility of being drug-tested by the NCAA if the Wolfpack had won. The allegation did not appear in the version of the book ultimately published, but Golenbock, in an interview on NBC last Saturday, said that the player was Shackleford. DiFazio has called that charge "crazy."
Howard Shaw, the police chief of Denville, says that an investigation he has conducted has led to 11 states and that "big-time bookmakers" are involved. But Shaw said that he had no evidence of point-shaving. Several Las Vegas bookmakers said that there was no unusual movement in the line on the N.C. State-Wake Forest game on March 6, 1988. They said there was no line at all for the Tampa game.
Shackleford was an erratic performer—a fact that would make it difficult to determine, from his play alone, whether anything was amiss. "I don't know of anyone ever raising that issue [that Shackleford's poor performances might be intentional] who watched him play here," Valvano said last week. "All players—even the best players—have some great games and not-so-great games. So let's not leap to conclusions that a coach would know that [point-shaving was going on]."
Prompted by the charge in Golenbock's original manuscript, the university conducted its in-house investigation but turned up no evidence of point-shaving. Nevertheless, in the wake of the NCAA probation and last week's allegations, Valvano found many of the state's daily newspapers holding him responsible for a program that appeared to be out of control and demanding his ouster. The campus newspaper, The Technician, went even further. It called on the university to shut down its basketball program.
Shackleford (33) was erratic as a collegian, so it was hard to tell if anything was amiss.
Valvano joined those pointing fingers at him.