THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Saturday, May 11, 1996 TAG: 9605110442 SECTION: SPORTS PAGE: C1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY HARRY MINIUM, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: NORFOLK LENGTH: Long : 193 lines
GAMBLERS’ MESSAGE: IT’S IN YOUR SCHOOLS EX-CRIME BOSS, FORMER GAMBLING ADDICT BRING CHILLING MESSAGE TO NORFOLK SCHOOL OFFICIALS
Norfolk school officials must have been relieved Thursday when police announced they were unable to prove allegations that a Maury High School basketball game had been fixed.
But if there was a sense of complacency, it dissipated later that evening.
For two hours following the press conference at Lake Taylor High, more than 150 coaches, principals and administrators listened to a powerful presentation on gambling and point shaving, courtesy of the National Basketball Association.
The NBA’s message: gambling is in your schools, drug dealers are influencing your athletes, and if this game wasn’t fixed, others will be unless you take action.
Horace Balmer, the NBA’s vice president for security, showed a stark video produced by the four major sports leagues that is seen by every rookie entering the NBA, NHL, NFL and Major League baseball. The video showshow organized crime has entrapped athletes into shaving points with sexual liaisons, gambling and drugs.
Balmer, a Norfolk native and Booker T. Washington graduate, had two speakers flown to Norfolk whose messages were even more disturbing. Michael Franzese, a former mob boss who fixed professional and college games for organized crime, and Arnie Wexler, who for 23 years was a compulsive gambler.
Franzese, who served 7 1/2 years in federal prison for racketeering, said games on all levels are fixed by the mob, including high schools.
“You have no idea how easy it is to influence these kids to shave points,” said the New York native, who was a captain in the notorious Colombo family.
“I talked to the NBA rookies earlier this season . . . and it’s amazing how many confided to me that they have gambling habits. I’m not going to mention their names, but if I did, you would know them.
“I personally got involved in compromising games with players, and it all came through their gambling habits.”
Wexler, who is now a counselor, said gambling in high schools is rampant everywhere, including Norfolk.
“In a city of this size, you’ve got 12,000 or 13,000 compulsive gamblers and no Gamblers Anonymous here,” he said. “The closest meeting you’ve got is in Virginia Beach.
“You think high school games aren’t fixed? A New York City kid confided to me he had shaved points. The day he was being scouted by some Division I scouts, he shaved points. He ended up at a Division III school.
“Your kids in Norfolk need help. There are 1.5 million adolescents nationally who are compulsive gamblers. You’ve got to do something to help these kids.”
Wexler and Franzese overcame their shady pasts with help from their wives and families. But their testimonies, which drew enthusiastic ovations from coaches and administrators, revealed how deadly a combination gambling, the Mafia and drugs can be.
Franzese was a prodigy in the New York Mafia. His father, Sonny, was second in command of the Colombo family and Michael became a family “soldier” in 1975.
In 1980 he made captain. He was involved in union racketeering, gambling and, as he put it, “a number of other things that organized crime people do.”
He recalls taking over a New York City auto dealership when the dealer went into gambling debt. The dealer was providing cars to professional and college athletes and helping them to place bets, all at Franzese’s urging.
Some of those players went deep into debt and Franzese forced them to fix games.
“In a tight game, we would tell them, `Don’t hit the ball in the bottom of the ninth,’ or, `Don’t catch a pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter,’ ” said Franzese, who was involved in the Boston College game-fixing ring of the 1970s.
“And they did it. They had no choice.
“We were able to fix (horse) races. Not the big ones, like the Kentucky Derby. But some races are fixed.”
In 1985 he was indicted for racketeering. He had been indicted and acquitted six times before on the same charge, but not this time. He accepted a plea bargain, which resulted in a 10-year prison sentence and a $15 million fine.
In 1987, he severed his ties with organized crime.
“It was not a question of joining the witness protection program or testifying against any of my former associates,” he said. He is said to be the first Mafia crime boss to walk away from the mob and live to tell about it.
Franzese said he is writing his life story for a made-for-TV special on ABC. Meanwhile, he does seminars for the NBA and other major leagues on the dangers of gambling and organized crime.
“I was real interested in coming to Norfolk because of the commitment to young people I made in prison,” said Franzese, who lives in California. “I came across more young people doing barrels of time, guys doing 30 and 40 years. Most were in gangs and had gambling problems.
“A lot of guys I saw in prison came right out of high school. They were real tough and macho outwardly, but let me tell you something: at 2 o’clock in the morning, when that cell door shuts and these kids realize this is their life for the next 20 years, you see a different image.
“I can’t tell you how many were crying in my cell at night, and you want to cry with them, because you know their lives are over.”
Wexler, a Brooklyn native, began gambling when he was 7 – pitching pennies and playing marbles. At 14 he was betting with bookmakers and by 17 he was stealing to support his gambling addiction.
“I needed to gamble like any drug addict needs to stick a needle in his arm or any alcoholic needs a drink,” said Wexler, who has told his story on dozens of TV shows, including 60 Minutes.
“I went out with two girls before I was 21. On both dates I took them to the racetrack and lost. I decided girls were unlucky.
“I would bet on 40 ballgames on a weekend and would sit in my car and try to figure out what I was going to do after I won all 40. That’s the kind of optimism there is with a compulsive gambler. I thought gambling was going to make me a millionaire by the time I was 30.
“I bet on hockey for three months and didn’t even know the game was played on ice.
“On my first date with my wife, we went to a movie. The next 300 were to the racetrack.”
In spite of his gambling habit, he moved up the corporate ladder and became head of a clothier factory. Wexler stole from his company to pay gambling debts. He even sold stolen dresses to his wife to support is habit.
“I was doing illegal stuff in the stock market to support my gambling addiction,” he said. “Today I would be put in jail, but in those days they didn’t have computers, so they never caught me.”
During the 38 hours his wife was in labor with his first daughter, Wexler said he made two trips to the racetrack. When he made love to his wife, Wexler said she often swore she could hear a radio playing. He would tell her she was crazy.
“It was beneath the pillow,” he said. “I was listening to ballgames because . . . gambling totally controlled me.
“I don’t remember my first daughter walking and talking for the first time because I probably wasn’t home and if I was, my head was somewhere else. Gambling completely destroyed my marriage.”
He finally quit gambling at age 30. That was 28 years and 62 days ago. He and his long-suffering wife, Sheila, run a compulsive gambling counseling service from Bradley Beach, N.J. They put on seminars for casinos, racetracks and professional and college sports teams.
Athletes call him daily for advice on how to break their gambling habits. One athlete with an $800,000 salary was in debt so deeply to a Las Vegas casino that the casino’s owners were threatening to go to the player’s team. Wexler set up a payment schedule and is trying to ween the athlete from his addiction.
But he’s had failures, including former baseball player Denny McLain and football quarterback Art Schlichter.
“They just haven’t been able to stop,” he said. “People have their heads in the sand. The gambling problem is exploding. It’s everywhere, including your schools here in Norfolk, and it’s getting worse.”
Balmer said he brought the speakers to Norfolk because he still cares for his native city.
“I grew up on B Avenue near Church Street,” he said. “There wasn’t an indoor toilet until I was 14 years old. There was no television and no telephone.
“But the one thing I had that many children don’t have today is someone who cares. . . . I wouldn’t have made it without caring teachers and caring parents.”
Today, he said, the city needs to do more than just care.
“You have guys in BMWs, drug dealers right here in Norfolk who I consider to be small-time organized crime,” he said. “They have so much money that they can walk into your schools and take your athletes and threaten the hell out of them and make them do things they don’t want to do.
“The problem here is this: When I talked to three athletes here, the one question they asked me is, `Where do we go if we have a problem? Who do we talk to?’ ”
The answer: There is no place.
Balmer urged the city to start a help line, where kids can call anonymously if they are having gambling or drug problems. The police, schools and churches must all cooperate on such a venture, he said.
Franzese went a step further.
“A lot of inner city kids see the police as the bad guys,” he said. “You need to get the police into the schools full time, working with the kids, so they know the police are not bad guys, that doing the right thing is OK.”
Norfolk officials got the message, at least in part. Friday morning, Norfolk Schools Superintendent Roy D. Nichols Jr. instructed officials to begin planning an educational program for athletes. School spokesman George D. Raiss said the program will be in place by August.
A good start, Wexler said, but not enough.
“It will help, but what happens to the kids two months after they’ve been counseled?” he said. “There’s got to be a support system, and sadly, a lot of kids today don’t get that support at home.”
Balmer said he’s spoken to leaders of many school systems who promised to put such a program together, but few have followed through.
“A lot of school systems are not ready to do these things,” he said. “Because as long as life is going easy and we’re getting paid, we want to keep it that way.
“We’ve got to find a way to save some of these kids, but coaches can’t do the entire job. If the coaches don’t have a lot of help, forget about it. They can’t win.” ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
Horace Balmer, NBA vice president for security and a Norfolk native,
warned of a “small-time organized crime” element alive in local
KEYWORDS: GAMBLING SPORTS HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETE