In his prime in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, he was simply the best basketball player on the planet. These days, he’s the best basketball player that nobody under the age of 60 has ever heard of.
At 6-foot-8, White was the first big man with the skills, the quickness, and the savvy of a guard. He was an Elgin-Baylor-and-a-half, a brute who could also run like a deer. When Dr. J was still wearing Doctor Dentons, when Earl Monroe was only a grain of sand, Sherman White’s classic game and mirror-smooth inventions helped turn the game black.
Unfortunately, a complicated set of circumstances and false starts eventually led him to Long Island University (LIU), a powerhouse basketball factory under the direction of Clair Bee. The key word is “unfortunately” only because generations of LIU players had a tradition of accepting payments from Mafia-backed gamblers to either shave points and manipulate point spreads, or else to deliberately lose games.
White was born in Philadelphia, but raised in Englewood, New Jersey.
“Englewood is just across the Hudson River from New York City,” he once told me. “It might as well have been a thousand miles away. It was a very small town. My childhood was healthy, loving, and secure. I was very naïve.”
Too naïve to resist the arguments of his older teammates: Five hundred bucks a game is a fortune! You got a girlfriend and you want to marry her, right? Besides, if you play straight you’ll ruin it for the rest of us! Look how much money the school is making because of us!
And the clincher: Hey, everybody’s doing it! Dozens of guys in dozens of schools from coast to coast! Don’t be a sucker!
In addition, White was unduly impressed by the fancy clothes his teammates wore, the new cars they drove, the lovely women they escorted to expensive nightclubs, and their suave sophistication.
So White went along, deliberately missing clutch shots, fumbling passes and rebounds, dribbling the ball off his foot, and on defense biting on the merest eyebrow fake.
Even so, he dominated games when all the bets were off. Throughout his college career, White was among the leaders in field goal percentage, and in his senior year he was scoring over 27 points per game.
Meanwhile, the neophyte NBA was struggling to survive with franchises in burgs like Anderson, Indiana; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and Waterloo, Illinois. Even the teams in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York were drowning in red ink. That’s why the Knickerbockers were drooling at the prospect of adding White to their roster.
But, alas, on January 18, 1951, an enterprising sportswriter named Max Kase had collected sufficient evidence for the “Fix” to be emblazoned on the front page of the New York Journal-American.
When the dust cleared, and the indictments were made public, dozens of players at CCNY, Toledo, Bradley, Manhattan, and Kentucky were also accused of turning tricks with gamblers.
Sports America was shocked. Professional athletes were supposed to be pay-for-play prostitutes. Remember the Chicago Black Sox? And the stubborn game-fixing rumors that plagued the NFL after World War II? But since undergraduates were deemed to be simon-pure, dedicated amateurs who competed just for the sport of it, fans and media commentators felt personally betrayed.
At the same time, another fix was in. There was solid evidence that players at several other colleges were likewise involved. Photos of St. John’s players hob-nobbing at the Copa with Salvatore Sollazzo, the money behind all of the payoffs in the New York metropolitan area. Phones had been tapped and incriminating evidence of St. John’s players making deals with Sollazzo’s representative were recorded on brittle 78 rpm discs.
But Frank Hogan had graduated from Holy Cross, was currently serving as Manhattan’s district attorney, and was in charge of the persecution. After a top-secret consultation with Cardinal Francis Spellman, evidence against St. John’s and several other Catholic schools was either disregarded or, in the case of the discs, “accidentally” knocked off a table by an elected city official and destroyed.
And, whereas the other charged fixers were isolated and interrogated for long periods of time, the St. John’s players were accompanied by priests and lawyers as they underwent brief and cursory interviews with Hogan’s staff.
In the end, White’s lawyer failed to show up for his trial and he was sent to prison for eight months – a sentence that none of the white point-shavers suffered.
There was another rumor that the Mafia bought White’s silence to prevent the fixing at other colleges and in the NBA (among both players and refs) from being implicated. Still, the only employment White could find after his release was in a slaughterhouse.
He wound up playing on weekends in the Eastern League, selling liquor, and eventually working as a counselor to at-risk kids in his area.
Meanwhile, whenever NBA teams played in New York, several of the top players would pay homage to White by journeying to his home (in Orange, New Jersey) and participating in pickup games with him. (I also had the privilege of playing with White on several occasions.)
But lessons were not learned. Another even more widespread college scandal erupted in 1961. And just a few years ago, the FBI had proof that players at a top-rated college were doing business, but the case was scuttled when agents botched their investigation.
Could it happen again?
With so much money up for grabs and so few college players able to turn pro either in the D-League, the NBA or overseas, it’s inevitable that another betting scandal will come to light.
Yet times have changed. A few years back, John “Hot Rod” Williams publicly admitted to accepting money from gamblers while he was playing at Tulane. Even though he never returned the money, Williams swore that he never played less than his best – and was given a free pass. This was the exact same circumstance that got Ralph Beard expelled from the NBA back in 1952.
It should also be noted that by unofficial count at least six honored members in the Hall of Fame committed the same crime that Sherman White did.
Still, we must put aside all of these injustices and mourn the tragedy of Sherman White’s life and of his passing. But we must do so even as we celebrate his on-court brilliance, his all-around compassion, and above all his dignity.
So long, Sherman. Thanks for the run.