Original Old School: Hard Knock Life

In case you didn’t cop the latest issue of SLAM (and it’s still not too late), here’s the Old School feature that ran in it. —Ed.

Stevin “Hedake” Smith finished his career at Arizona State in 1994 as the leading scorer in the school’s history. Yet his last few games in college, and his stifled pro career, were a mess.

Five years later, the FBI knocked at his door in Dallas. That knock changed everything. Before the knock, life seemed to be carrying Smith in one direction. After the knock, he navigated a nightmarish world of guilt and remorse, including a prison sentence. Back then, in the early ’90s, tons of people wanted a piece of Hedake Smith. Today, he’s being sought out for different reasons; he’s emerging as a voice to tell his story, a cautionary tale of impatience, greed, hypocrisy and crushed dreams.

Hedake Smith got his nickname from his mother, Eunice, who thought her only child could often be a headache. She couldn’t get the proper spelling to fit on her Texas license plate, though, because of the six-letter limit. At Spruce High School in Dallas, Smith was good enough that he had his choice of practically any college basketball power in America. In the end, he chose Arizona State and coach Bill Frieder over UNLV.

A powerful and poised point guard, Hedake Smith seemed destined for greatness. He was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman Team in ’91 after leading ASU to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade. He led the Sun Devils to the NIT Tournament the next three years. While at ASU, he set records that still resonate. He is still ranked in the top five in scoring, and is second in career steals and fourth in career assists.

After his junior season, Hedake was chosen to the Under-22 USA World University team. The squad was loaded with future NBA players: Theo Ratliff, Monty Williams, Eddie Jones, Bill Curley, Cherokee Parks, Wes Person. But it was Hedake Smith who was chosen team captain and led them in scoring in the Gold Medal round.

As the Pac-10’s leading returning scorer, Smith’s senior year now held incredible promise. There was talk of him being a Lottery pick. ASU had a long history of landing players in the NBA: “Jumping Joe” Caldwell, Fat Lever, Lionel Hollins, Alton Lister, Byron Scott. But Hedake Smith would break all their scoring records as a senior.

Between classes and ball at ASU, Smith met a student named Benny Silman, who found the quick and cheap flights from Phoenix to Las Vegas enticing. Silman began placing bets on sports, but soon learned he didn’t need to fly to Vegas to be involved. There was a bookie right on the ASU campus he could work with. Soon enough, Silman began taking bets on sporting events himself.

Although Hedake and Silman’s accounts of how they agreed to begin working together conflict, they concur on this: Hedake Smith, as a senior at ASU, agreed to shave points off the betting line, although he refused to lose games on purpose.

Any college or pro basketball game has a betting line established before the contest by gamblers in Las Vegas. This is no secret: They’re published in virtually every newspaper in America, although betting on these games is illegal in 49 states.

If Arizona State plays, say, North Park College, only a fool would bet on the underdog. In order to make betting on the game more enticing, Las Vegas attaches “points” to the underdog. What if bettors could have 30 points with North Park to start with? Now the gambler’s decision is difficult, and choosing a good bet involves a nearly scientific analysis.

Here’s how point shaving works: Gamblers find a good player and pay him-not to lose games so much as to ensure (as in the North Park College example) that Arizona State wins by 29 points or less.

That seems simple enough, almost harmless. It gets more pressurized when the “betting line” is fewer than 10 points.

Point shaving first rocked college basketball in the 1950s at the University of Kentucky and CCNY, then a major basketball power. Five other teams, including Bradley, LIU, and NYU, were involved. Kentucky even had its entire ’52-53 season canceled by the NCAA as punishment. In the 1960s, two of the greatest high school and playground players in New York history, Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown, were victims of point-shaving schemes. In the ’70s, Boston College got caught. In the ’80s, Tulane University shut down its own program after it became clear gamblers got to their star, John “Hot Rod” Williams. Most recently, Florida’s swashbuckling Teddy Dupay was implicated in a gambling investigation and declared ineligible, ending his college career before the ’01-02 season.

On January 28, 1994, Arizona State was set to face Oregon State. ASU was a 15-point favorite, so this was a safe choice for the fixers.

ASU won by just 6, but nobody would have believed Hedake was shaving points: He knocked down an astonishing 10 three-pointers, tying a Pac-10 record, and finished with 39 points.

And that night he was $20,000 richer. He hid the cash in a Nike shoebox in his laundry room. “I took the money,” Smith says today. “But I gave everything I had on the court that night.”

Now, though, Hedake Smith was hooked: He could play great, even set records, and still shave points and get fast cash. He would wind up taking money for shaving points in three more games. He even convinced his backcourt mate, an all-league player named Isaac Burton, to get involved, and Smith funneled money to Burton.

The radically shifting betting lines and patterns in Las Vegas helped alert authorities that something was not right at ASU. Published newspaper reports and television interviews brought the possibility of a gambling scandal to light, and rumors of who was involved were rampant. There were team meetings, threats from the coaches-and then the season was over. Hedake Smith, a certain first rounder going into his senior season, had averaged 18.5 ppg and 5.1 apg in his last year of college and now just had to wait for the NBA Draft in June.

He invited friends and family over to watch the Draft at his mother’s home in Dallas. By the middle of the second round, Smith was still waiting to hear his name. The party slowly fizzled until he was on the couch, alone, and the second round was over. It wouldn’t be the last time he found himself sitting alone, wondering why.

Rumors of his involvement in the point shaving were taken seriously by NBA teams and killed his chances to be taken in the Draft. Yet he never confided what he’d done to anyone-not even his mother Eunice.

Instead of the NBA, Smith went to Spain,
Turkey and France-among the top countries for professional basketball-before landing in the CBA. In ’97, the Dallas Mavericks called Smith up to the League for a 10-day contract. That went pretty well, so they offered him another one. Over that time he played in eight games for the Mavericks, averaging seven minutes per game. He scored six baskets in his first-and last-NBA season.

Then, in the summer of ’97 there was the knock on his door. It was the FBI.

His mother, who answered, was scared and confused. “What have you done?” she kept asking him.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” Hedake said. “I’ve got it under control.”

The FBI didn’t arrest him. They took him to a park and unfurled a poster with dozens of faces and names. He only recognized two, but nearly all of the gamblers shown would have known damn well who Hedake Smith was.

Still, Smith glossed it over to his own mother, even as the realization of what he’d done in ’94 crept back into his heart. “It’s nothing, Mom,” he kept saying. “I got caught up in something, that’s all.”

Part of his shyness in confessing to his mother was protective in nature; she had been diagnosed with colon cancer and was undergoing treatment. She didn’t need more anxiety.

He never even told his best friend, former ASU forward Lester Neal, what he’d done. He simply suppressed the past-and the fear of what might happen. “I knew I’d made the biggest mistake of my life,” he says.

His arrest soon afterward killed his hopes of returning to the NBA. And he hadn’t even come clean with his own mother, who was continuing treatment for cancer. “I knew that she was supposed to stay positive,” he says, “and the truth would have been devastating. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell her.”

Soon he’d have no choice. Hedake Smith pled guilty to conspiracy to commit sports bribery, waiving his right to a trial.

Before he was sentenced, but after his arrest, Smith wrote a confessional piece for Sports Illustrated (with editing suggestions from Don Yaeger) detailing what he’d done and how the temptation of fast money had lured him, even with a likely NBA career just months ahead.

In one section, Smith explained what life was like at ASU before his senior year. He wasn’t exactly a hardship case. “During my time at Arizona State,” Smith wrote, “I had been well taken care of. I always had a nice car while I was in college-a Cherokee, two Mustang GTs, a Rodeo, a Sierra K1500. I had jewelry, clothes and a nice apartment my senior year. I always had cash in my pocket. But I had those things because I was well liked by certain Arizona State boosters, not because I was a gambler.”

In ’97, even after his arrest, Smith did not understand the irony: Arizona State’s boosters had encouraged him to illegally feather his nest with stereos, leather furniture and posh automobiles. That was all fine. But when Smith took the lesson a step further-well, it brings to mind the scene in the classic film, Casablanca: “I am shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on here,” Inspector Renault says to Humphrey Bogart’s character.

While it was not shocking that a great NCAA player was receiving some extra benefits, the extent of the perks-a quarter-million dollars worth of cars alone-was stunning. So was the forum for Smith’s coming clean, as Sports Illustrated was still the king of sports writing. Coaches, players and reporters alike knew that NCAA investigators would get involved after Smith’s very public revelations. More surprising than Smith’s claims, though, was the manner in which the NCAA saw fit to react.

Smith never considered fighting the charges, although he could have stressed the 10 three-pointers he hit in a game he was accused of fixing. “I could not honestly say I did not do it,” he says. “Even though I played pretty well in most of those games, I did take the money.”

He drove 15 hours from Dallas to Phoenix with his mother and his then-girlfriend Delicia for the sentencing hearing. “We knew there’d be a crowd of cameras at the airport,” he says.

The most unexpected moment of the hearing occurred when the judge asked if anyone in the courtroom had anything to say about the defendant. This was when the NCAA decided it was time to get involved. They would not investigate ASU despite the Sports Illustrated piece. They’d go after Hedake Smith.

An NCAA representative cleared his throat, stood, and asked the judge to give Stevin Smith the maximum sentence: five years. Smith needed to be made an example of, he said. The judge must have thought that too severe. He sentenced Smith to 20 percent of the maximum.

That was still plenty for Smith to digest, as was his mother’s immediate reaction. “When the judge said he was sentencing me a year and a day,” Smith recalls, “my mom ran out of the courtroom.”

Hedake Smith served his sentence in a federal prison in Big Spring, TX. Any player possesses a keen sense of time. Twenty minute halves. Thirty-five seconds to shoot. Three seconds in the lane. One minute for timeouts, unless it’s a televised game and then it’s two minutes.

In prison, Smith learned, time was relative. “It was like the clock just stopped,” he says. The first three nights he could not sleep. The days were a dull daze of despair. And everyone seemed to know his story. He was embarrassed and depressed. And, Smith learned, he was unusual. “Shooting dice, playing cards, that’s the kind of gambling that black kids do,” he says. “Point shaving is a white-collar crime, I learned. That’s when I began thinking about reaching kids like myself so they could avoid the trouble I’ve been in.”

“Hedake, like any kid from the Pleasant Grove section of Dallas, got swallowed up by temptation,” says Val Rhodes, his high school coach who turned pen pal that season.

When he got out of prison, the NBA had lost interest. But top countries like France, Israel, Russia and Italy still wanted him, and that’s where he played out his career.

The irony of the Stevin “Hedake” Smith story is this: The NCAA recently invited Smith to speak for the NCAA Compliance Department at their Rules and Regulation seminar for Division I, II and III schools. Soon he will be going from campus to campus to talk about the dangers of gambling. Fair enough-nobody in America is better qualified than him, and he’s a powerful speaker. It’s probably a good move by the NCAA. “I’m ready to talk to any student athletes anywhere,” he says, “because they all need to hear my story and learn from my mistake.”

But this is the same crew who pushed the judge to give Smith the maximum five years, for the courts to make an example out of him-and ignored his claims of free cars and perks.

“It is NCAA policy to not comment on current, pending or potential investigations,” Stacey Osburn wrote from the NCAA’s media relations office about Hedake’s speaking for the NCAA-although Smith’s claims of extra benefits like five fancy cars in the early 1990s hardly makes his case “current, pending or potential.”

Hedake Smith, though, is sorry he even mentioned the cars and benefits now-he loved his time at Arizona State and holds himself responsible for everything that went wrong. And he is almost Zen-like in his acceptance of his past fate and the strange stance of the NCAA. “The NCAA didn’t make the mistake,” he says. “I made the mistake.”

In ’05, Hedake Smith got involved in the nonprofit N.O.W. Program that uses basketball as a lure to tutor and teach life skills to underprivileged kids in Dallas. “No Opportunity Wasted,” explains one of the best guards in the last 30 years not to make it in the NBA. Who else has as much authority on the subject of squandered chances? “Everybody makes mistakes, we all know that,” he says. “But can you bounce back? That’s why I tell any player who has the sense to hear me: Play the game. But don’t let the game play you.”

Other than his recalcitrance about telling his mother what had happened at ASU, Smith has faced his troubles and guilt head-on and has never shied away from blaming the guy in the mirror. And Smith never held a grudge against the NCAA for pushing for the most severe prison sentence. This past summer he spoke at Arkansas and Penn State in conjunction with the NCAA. More programs are planned at other DI schools.

Smith is only looking forward. “I want to reach out to the next generation, get in their heads. It’s so easy to get caught up in greed for what kids think might be easy money.”

Smith’s fearlessness in facing his own problems has appealed to more people than the NCAA. He married his longtime sweetheart Delicia in ’03 and has three beautiful daughters. His own mother has made peace with the trouble, and, well, the headaches, that her son has caused.

Today, Hedake Smith doesn’t have the bank or the portfolio of some of the stars he outplayed in college. Still, he can rest easy. He knows there won’t be that knock at the door ever again.