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.