Before Kobe Bryant, before Michael Jordan, before Julius Erving, there was Sherman White.
In his prime in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Sherman White was simply the best basketball player on the planet. At 6’ 8”, White was the first big man with the skills, quickness and savvy of a guard. White was also a sky-walker who could execute both slick and powerhouse dunks. But at the time, dunking before or during a game was considered to be rude and even insulting, and risked being revenged by an elbow to the dunkster’s chops.
In any case, White’s classic game and mirror-smooth inventions helped turn the game black.
These days, he’s the best basketball player nobody under the age of 60 has ever heard of.
Unfortunately, a complicated set of circumstances and false starts eventually led him to Long Island University (LIU), a dread naught basketball factory under the direction of Clair Bee. The key word is “unfortunately” only because generations of past-and-present LIU players had a tradition of accepting payments from Mafia-backed gamblers to either manipulate point spreads or else 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. Englewood was a very small town. My childhood was healthy, loving and secure. I was very naïve.”
Midway through his junior season, when he was averaging 22 points per game, three of his older teammates — Eddie Gard, Adolph Bigos and Dick Feurtado — realized they couldn’t alter the outcome of games without White’s cooperation. And White was too naïve to resist their arguments to join their cabal: 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, 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. Yet the clincher occurred when a couple of Mafia hitmen threatened him at gun point.
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, when all the bets were off, he simply dominated games. Throughout his college career, White was among the leaders in field goal percentage, and in his senior year he was scoring 27.7 points per game. His 63 points scored in a game still stands as an LIU record. Nobody was surprised when The Sporting News named him college player of the year.
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 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 the pay-for-play prostitutes. Remember the Chicago Black Sox? And the stubborn game-fixing rumors that plagued the NFL after World War Two? 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 a representative from 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. While his white LIU co-conspirators all received suspended sentences, White was sent to prison for eight months. To partially compensate him for his jail-time, and to prevent White from revealing what he knew about point-shaving in other colleges and in the NBA (among both players and refs), the Mafia paid him a few hundred dollars. 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, NJ) and participating in pickup games with him.
I also had the privilege of playing with White on several occasions. Due to the friendship between my college coach, Mike Fleischer, and one of White’s Eastern League teammates, the Hunter College varsity was given the (illegal) opportunity to engage in several scrimmages with White and several other EL veterans.
Needless to say, although they routinely trounced us, the lessons we learned were extremely valuable: Employing elbows and hips against certain pressure points in certain situations to gain significant advantages. How to box out. How to get around being boxed out. And so on.
Aside from White’s otherworldly skills, I was most impressed by the lack of joy he demonstrated. In fact, as he fooled, whipped and embarrassed me at every turning, he seemed almost sad. And that’s precisely why, many years later, I wrote three books dealing with the various undergraduate point-shaving scandals.
In other days-and-ways, Sherman White would’ve become an NBA All-Star and a shoe-in to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It should also be noted that by unofficial count at least six honored members in the Hall 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 (on August 4, 2011). But we must do so even as we celebrate his on-court brilliance, his all-around compassion and above all, his dignity.