When Kevin Pendergast arrived at Notre Dame to study and play soccer in 1989, he was a suburban kid from well-to-do Simsbury, Conn., who thought over and under were just prepositions. He was a Parade High School All-America forward in his sport, a National Merit Scholarship finalist and an aspiring singer. The future lay bright before him.
Then he met a bookie while visiting a classmate's home in Indiana. Soon, Pendergast says, "gambling became the center of my life." He bet on sports and played $25 and $50 hands of blackjack at a riverboat casino. His betting tapered off in his junior year after he earned a spot on the football team as a place-kicker, but he squeezed in action at the casino.
When Dion Lee arrived at Northwestern on a basketball scholarship in 1991, he knew plenty about gambling. It had been a part of his life in the projects of Louisville, where he played card and dice games and wagered on playground basketball. "We'd play five-on-five for $20, sometimes $100 a head," Lee says. "Northwestern was my chance to get away from the projects, the gambling and all of that." But then, like Pendergast, Lee met a bookie. His losses from sports betting piled up; in November '94 his mother traveled from Louisville to Evans-ton, Ill., with $2,000 to pay his debts. A month later Lee was one of two athletes caught in a university probe into campus gambling, and he was suspended for six games. A few weeks after his suspension ended, he met Pendergast—by now living in Chicago and working as a bartender and rock musician—through a mutual friend.
Deep in debt from betting, Pendergast saw Lee as a way out. Working with a couple of other gamblers, the unlikely pair schemed to shave points in three games. Pendergast was to place the wagers, and Lee, a 6'5" shooting guard, was to recruit another player (he chose starting center-forward Dewey Williams) to make sure Northwestern lost by more than the spread. "Why did we do it?" Pendergast wonders. "I knew it was against the law, but I didn't think I had a lot to lose." Says Lee, "I ended up right back in what I wanted to leave behind."
It was dumb, and it was doomed. Only one of their shaving attempts succeeded. The first, in a Feb. 15, 1995, game against Wisconsin, ended in a push when Northwestern's 14-point losing margin equaled the spread. A week later, Lee and the Wildcats lost to Penn State 89-59, falling far short of the 14-point spread. Three days after that Pendergast met Lee at a restaurant near campus and handed him an envelope containing Lee's share of the winnings—$4,000, from which Lee paid Williams approximately $700.
On March 1 Pendergast and Lee tried again. If Lee could make sure the Wildcats lost by more than 25� to Michigan, Pendergast would pay him $8,000. Although Lee kept passing up shots and throwing the ball away, Northwestern lost by 17. "That was my last wager," says Pendergast, who admits having lost at least $40,000 on the shaved games. "It was the best thing that happened."
Pendergast and Lee's scheme was uncovered by a federal investigation, and they pleaded guilty last April to conspiracy to commit sports bribery, as did Williams in June. They all face possible jail time. (Sources close to the probe say that six to 12 members of the 1994 Northwestern football team could be indicted soon for sports gambling and perhaps trying to shave points.) As part of their plea agreements Pendergast and Lee tell their stories as cautionary tales to groups of college athletes, coaches and administrators. Both are working to put their lives in order. "I know I'll always be a compulsive gambler," Pendergast says. "I'm trying each day to do the right thing."