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Original Issue

The Bad Old Guy from the Good Old Days

The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game
of Basketball
By Charley Rosen
428 pages, $27.95

In almost every sports bar there sits a lonely old-timer who, if
you let him, will preach you a sermon about the athletes of
yesteryear. Back when athletic shoes were known simply as
sneakers, he'll say, and agent was another word for spy,
ballplayers gave their all without pay, slept only with their
wives and took no stimulant stronger than chocolate milk. You can
stop this sermon almost before it starts by mentioning one name:
Jack Molinas.

Sports has rarely seen a more poisonous combination of talent and
vice. Though Molinas played only half an NBA season (with the
Fort Wayne Pistons, in 1953-54), he was, according to former NBA
coach Hubie Brown, "flat out, one of the best players ever." His
hook shot was lethal, and, says his Pistons teammate Don Meineke,
Molinas was the NBA's "first forward who could handle the ball as
well as a guard." He was also a Columbia graduate with a genius
IQ who breezed through law school in his spare time and played
the stock market like a violin.

But Rosen's remarkably detailed book--based partly on a
manuscript that Molinas was working on before his death--proves
that Molinas's greatest gift was for self-destruction. He was
both sick and evil, not necessarily in that order, and truly
loved only one thing: gambling. Molinas preferred to wager on
sports but would take bets on anything else, including,
literally, which raindrop would be first to fall from a window
sill. As a player he began shaving points as early as high
school, and was only 21 when he was bounced from the NBA for
betting violations, including wagering on his own team. Over the
next two decades he fixed countless games, making fortunes for
bookmakers and for himself, which he wasted in orgies of spending.

Sometimes, Molinas bragged, he would arrange to have athletes
drugged on game day. More often he would seek out young guys who
were, as he put it, "not only outstanding players but also in
financial difficulties." Nothing delighted him more than to
discover a college kid who was struggling to pay the medical
bills for his wife's miscarriage or his baby brother's cerebral
palsy, to give but two examples. Molinas and pals would soften up
these players with 10s and 20s and then talk them into throwing a
game. If a life was ruined in the process, who cared?

Yet Molinas's brilliance and charm make him an entrancing
character--think Tony Soprano with a basketball--and Rosen's
book reads more like a novel than a biography. No Hollywood
screenwriter could have drawn him more colorfully. After a
much-deserved stint in prison, Molinas went into the pornography
business, producing such masterpieces as Caught in the Can and
Lord Farthingay's Holiday. Even his death seems scripted: In
1975 he was shot in the back of the head, almost certainly at
the behest of the mob.

Rosen leaves only one question unanswered: Could Molinas have
been saved? Had he gotten help for his gambling problem, would he
be alive today, perhaps with a plaque in the Hall of Fame? For
Rosen the answer is no--he condemns Molinas as a "villain." From
the grim portrait he paints, it's hard not to agree.