One winter night I was walking down M street and saw a friend of mine named Jerry half-sprawled across the hood of his car pounding it and shrieking to the heavens.
I thought he had lost his sanity, but when he had regained a semblance of composure he explained that something even worse had happened. Jerry had bet $500 on the New York Knicks, a seven-point favorite over Portland, and was happily listening on his car radio as the Knicks had the ball and an eight-point lead with seconds to play.
As the buzzer sounded, Earl Monroe playfully tossed the ball at his own basket and it swished through, blowing the point spread for the Knicks and sending Jerry into delirium.
A rational man might have learned something from that experience, namely, the futility of wagering seriously on basketball. Ball basketball betting is a virulent sickness. I happened to falsh back to that scenario on M Street as I heard Jerry tell me in impassioned tones Saturday night that he had a three-star mortal lock in the final of the Big Sum Invitational Tournament.
Basketball, especally college basketball, is perhaps the most purely degenerate of all gambling games. A horeseplayer can at least derive some esthetic enjoyment from his sport. A pr o football fan may wager for the understanable reason that he wants to enliven his Sunday television watching. It is hard to imagine a wholesome motivation for betting Oral Roberts plus 3 1/2 against Creighton, especially when the bettor can't name a player on either team.
Yet basketball is beloved by many gamblers beacuse it offeres such bountiful opportunities for action. On a busy night a basketball sickie can get his money down on 40 different games and stay in action from the tipoff of first game of a Palestra doubleheader throught the last bucket at Long Beach State. He can follow the progress of his wagers by making calls every few minutes to the New York Sports Phone, which updates scores through-out the night. (Any man who does not have at least a hundred (212) 999-1313s on his monthly phone bill cannot call himself a gambler.)
Despite the excitement it can offer, basketball has a couple of fatal drawbacks as a gambling game. It is practically impossible for a bettor to keep track of all the major college teams and collect the information necessary for an intelligent bet. And even if he does make a rational judgement, the point spreads of basketball games are too frequently decided in irrational ways.
Every bettor has his own horror stores. When you bet a six-point underdog (as I did last season), see your judgment verified as your team carries its opponent into overtime, and then loes by seven, you realize that basketball is dangerous to one's mental health.
Thus did I decide to abstain from any hoop action in 1978-79. and my resolve lasted into the third week of the season, until Jerry started expounding on the Big Sun Invitationa. "Auburn is a cinch to cover the spread against Navy," he said. "They've got a six-foot-nine monster who's like a vacuum cleaner under the boards and Navy doesn't have anybody to match up to him. Auburn plays a zone defense that's going to limit Navy to perimeter shooting, and Navy's only going to get one shot."
How could I resits? I stepped in on Auburn, minus six points.
With 27 seconds to play, the situation was hopeless. Auburn led by only 59-57, and a Navy player was at the foul line in a one-and-one situation.
He missed, Aburn got the rebound, and when the somke had cleared the final score was 63-57, a miraculous reprieve, and perhaps an omen. This could by my year in college basketball. I'll know better after the Wolf Pack Classic.