Cover Image: The City Game

The City Game

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City College of New York was created over a century ago to educate some of the brightest and most promising of New York’s young adults who came from poorer families. It gave them a top-notch education for free, and graduates could go on to success they likely wouldn’t have seen had City College not existed. Students lived at home and took the subway in to classes every day; the school didn’t have a lot of extras. But it did have a basketball team. And in the post-World War II years when the National Basketball Association was new and football wasn’t the phenomenon it is today, college basketball drew the crowds. City College’s team played in Madison Square Garden, “where the stands rose up from the court sheer and high and each night were filled with eighteen thousand spectators, many of them serious gamblers who cared less about whether a particular team won than whether it had covered the point spread,” Matthew Goodman writes in The City Game.

And that is the focus of this book: Goodman explores the extraordinary basketball team of City College, who in the 1949-1950 season won not just the NIT championship but the NCAA tournament, a feat never accomplished by any other team at any other time. The story would be interesting just stopping there, but the bigger and more complex tale is that all of the starters were arrested the following year for point shaving. Gambling in New York City was bigger than sports, and the network surrounding and supporting it was huge and extended to the highest reaches of the police department and certain elected officials.

The book goes back and forth between the college, the team and its coaches and players, and the world of gambling in New York, the criminals running the show and paying off corrupt policemen and politicians, and the district attorney determined to bring it all to light. The first half sets the stage for the team’s amazing and surprising feat in winning the two championships, and then the story really hits its stride when the two elements (gambling and City College players) combine. Each player is reluctant to participate in point shaving, but they’re young and their families are poor, and they give in and take some money to alter the point spread. They only get a few modest payments for changing a few games, but when the D.A.’s investigation finally comes to a conclusion, they get the worst penalties compared to the small part they played in the huge racket, and each must pay a huge price the rest of their lives for the choices they made as young players.

The City Game is an intriguing look into a part of New York’s history, one rife with gangsters and gambling, corruption common in high places, running rampant through all levels of law enforcement. It’s a sympathetic look at young men from disadvantaged backgrounds, sons of immigrants, Jews and blacks, who worked hard and earned a tremendous amount of money for other people but saw none of it themselves. 

It’s fascinating in particular that the same issues brought up in 1950 are still the same 70 years later: Is it fair that 18- or 20-year-olds (who too often are economically disadvantaged and/or in ethnic minorities) are generating millions of dollars for others when they get none of those riches and only have the hope that perhaps they can strike it big later on in professional ball? Should the situation be changed to actually pay them at some level, rather than either simply give them full scholarships to college, or to keep pretending that colleges or booster clubs aren’t too often doing illegal things to get around those rules barring them from being paid? Little has changed. 

The players who are the main characters in The City Game were largely honorable, hard-working, dutiful to their families, eager to do well. But they (very) briefly got caught up in a system that profited everyone but them, and their dreams were cut short. Goodman follows them through the heartbreaking time of their arrests and punishments and onward through what they chose to do with their lives for the next decades, and the impacts they made, such as teaching and mentoring at-risk teens, but they were all disappointed not to be able to achieve the dreams they had before the scandal occurred. 

It’s hard not to applaud what they did end up doing with their lives, even in the wake of their public shaming and loss of potentially playing more years of college and NBA basketball. And it’s hard not to wonder again why there isn’t some way to change our approach to the system that takes too many talented young people who come from nothing and presses them first through the no-pay-at-all college years and then some into professional ball, which earns them millions but doesn’t necessarily give them the preparation they need for that kind of instant economic change. A thought-provoking and sobering book.
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A great read. I had no idea about the gambling arena and how it so directly affected college basketball in the '50s.  Chronological order of events assists with the understanding of how each individual's decision impacted teammates and the world of college basketball as a whole during this time period.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publishers for providing a copy of this book to read and review.  Opinions expressed in the review are my own.
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Well researched and well written.  Really makes the details and in-and-outs of both criminal investigations and college basketball recruiting interesting.
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I am a basketball fan, thriving on high school, college, and NBA action. I’m drawn to the speed, incredible skill and chess-like maneuvering of the game. I couldn’t wait to read this book and I found it just as thrilling as any NBA playoff game. Author Matthew Goodman’s book promised a story of “Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team” and it delivered. 

When I tell you I’m from Cleveland, you will understand how I could relate to this book. Cleveland- sports proud and blessed with fans who root for their home team, “this year will be the year.” Except it never was the year for a Cleveland championship, until 2016, when the stars aligned and one star in particular, LeBron James, led Cleveland to an historic NBA championship. Sounds like the plot of The City Game, so let’s tip-off and see how the book plays out. 

The cover of this book shows a scene from Madison Square Gardens and that’s where most of the hoops action in this book takes place. City College of New York played most of its basketball games there. City College was a beacon of hope for its students- who were mostly poor and from proud immigrant families. Their dreams and hope for the future made City College a vibrant place. The City College basketball team is the focus of this story, and the basketball season of 1949-1950 was the miracle year for the Jewish and African American players. It was a time of segregation, yet this team achieved the pinnacle of success, not once, but twice that year. They were heroes, at the top, then it all crashed down.

Author Goodman’s book is filled with research and facts that bring the players, their families, teachers and coaches, and the times to life. In a parallel story, we also learn of the scandals and corruption in the police and political world of New York City and how illegal gambling poisoned the times. This book is written in the “creative fiction” style, so while it is dense and factual, the story reads like a thriller. You will feel like you are living in the New York of 1950 and experiencing the sights, food, and energy of this melting pot city. You will also enjoy your “seat” in Madison Square Gardens as you root for the City College Beavers.

Who were to blame- the players, the coaches, Madison Square Gardens, New York City, the system? This is a good book to read, and to discuss. Thanks to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for a digital review copy. This is my honest review.
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If you check the record book of basketball history, something will strike you about the 1949-50 season. City College of New York is listed as the winner of the National Invitation Tournament, at the time the most prestigious such event in the country. CCNY also is listed as the winner of the NCAA Tournament, which was headed toward the No. 1 event in the game but hadn't gotten there yet.

This is not an error. The Beavers are the only team that won both championships. The two events weren't held at the same time back then, so it could be done.

Yet CCNY is also remembered for something far more sinister. The Beavers were discovered to have been part of a huge scandal that rocked the sport, particularly as it was played in New York City at the time.

There have been other scandals in sports over the years. But in this case, college basketball probably lost its innocence. That's why it's good that Matthew Goodman has gone back and taken a long look at the story in "The City Game."

(Footnote: The title is the same as a classic Pete Axthelm book on basketball in New York, that really put street basketball on the sports map. I'm not sure that was a good idea, but the connection to City College does give the title a slightly different spin here.)

College basketball had a very different look back in the late 1940s, as New York was the center of the hoop universe. Top teams would come in to play New York City's best in Madison Square Garden. (By the way, those out-of-town squads often would stop in Buffalo on the way to pick up another game and paycheck, setting up a golden era for the sport there too.)

But something else was a big part of the basketball scene in New York in that era: gambling. The stands held plenty of gamblers who were willing to be on a variety of aspects of the game, but they concentrated on point spreads. That means that if a certain team was favored by a particular number of points, gamblers would bet on which side of the line that the final score would fall. Goodman provides enough detail that you can almost smell the popcorn in the Garden while reading it.

Mix large amounts of money with a sports event, and the temptation for cheating grows. In this case, the college kids were seeing many dollars change hands while they received nothing, so an offer to keep the size of a victory down under the designated point spread was quite tempting. Several players on New York City teams were offered money, and some accepted it. That, in short, is Goodman's story - the fast rise and fall of the CCNY team.

The Beavers were a good team, one of the best in the country, but not an overwhelming favorite to win titles. The author reviews the principal players for CCNY, to give the story a more personal touch. While other players and colleges that were involved in the scandal are briefly covered, the focus of the book is on the so-called "Harvard on the Hudson." City College was a free school open to anyone who could meet the academic qualifications, which were very high. 

Goodman also takes the time to go on a parallel track of a legal investigation into corruption in the New York City police department and other municipal areas. The payoffs were extensive, reaching quite high into the executive branch of government. It's not as interesting as the human side of the scandal, but it's necessary to the story.

Nothing was ever the same once the point-shaving scandal broke. The players involved wore an imaginary scarlet letter on their chests for years to come. CCNY deemphasized basketball, and its coach, Nat Holman, lost his honorary title of "Mr. Basketball" to Bob Cousy later in the 1950s. Assistant coach Bobby Sand, one of the few good guys in the story, couldn't teach for quite a while.

Some of this might be familiar to readers, even though it is 70 years after the face. The subject has been covered in a couple of other books, plenty of newspaper and magazine articles, and an HBO documentary.

Still, "The City Game" remains something of a cautionary tale even in this day and age. Now that the Supreme Court has taken away some of the apparent limits on sports gambling, the temptations for athletes - particularly in college - will be greater than ever in the near future. In other words, there's no reason to think this won't happen again. That gives a book on something that happened around 1950 quite a bit of relevance to today.
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Highly detailed exploration of City College and the forgotten college basketball giant. This book serves as a history lesson for both the college basketball enthusiasts and does an excellent job of exploring the lives of the young men involved. Furthermore, the book beautifully illustrates the vibe of New York City during this time period.
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A Rhond the scenes look at a basketball team that captured everyone attention .A group of championship college athletes a team that not only won but were friends tight friends.Then the scandal hit money had changed hands this was a large scandal in its day and the same issues are being discussed today.A very interesting look at a group of young men winners brought down by thisscandal.#netgaley#randomhouse.
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I've been a rabid college basketball fan practically since birth (go UConn!), so I was very interested in the book's description. I know my obscure college basketball trivia pretty well, so I wanted to learn more about this story.

Parts of this book were very interesting, particularly in its second half. However, I agree with the reviewer who called it "slow and a bit dense" to start. Many parts seemed like filler material designed to make the manuscript book length.

Three stars--This story is interesting, but it seems like it would make a tighter and more compelling piece of longform journalism. Making the story a full book feels like a bit of a stretch.

Thanks to Random House-Ballantine and NetGalley for giving me a DRC of this book, which will be available for purchase on November 5th.
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A bit slow and dense, especially at the beginning. I honestly just skipped the entire first chapter, because I really didn't need pages upon pages about the architecture of City College.

Once the story got going, though (which felt like it took forever and almost caused me to DNF), it was a pretty interesting story. Nothing about it was particularly mind blowing, but the connections were compelling enough to keep me going.

6/10 would recommend.
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Well written, extremely informative book about a subject that is likely unknown to many sport's fans, yet still current given the discussions around payment of college athletes.
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Community College in New York City and the basketball team that won two major championships. Cityy and school pride, the players heroes. Playing their games at Madison Square to huge crowds, they were a team of composed of young men from working class parents. It was also the time of Tammany Hall and rampant corruption. Mobs and gambling, shaving points to beat the spread, money in many pockets, riches to be had. 

This is book about basketball, a team that beat all odds, but it is also a book about young men who got caught up in something bigger than themselves. About corruption that included the highest circle of the police, and the men, including 28 young rookies straight out of the academy, that followed the threads to unravel something that will ruin and expose many. A justice system based on who you were, and who you know. Not too much different now, though many years have passed.

Loyalty, friendship, motives and goals, young men who will give their all for the school and city, but ultimately pay a heavy price. Well written, kept my interest throughout, and I came to like these young men, care about their future. I also decided I like reading about basketball, though this book is much more, more than watching the game.

ARC from Netgalley.
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The 1949-50 basketball team from the City College of New York accomplished a feat that will never be done again. They won both the National Invitational Tournament  (NIT) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tourney in the same season. At that time, they were held at different times rather than concurrently as is done now. These championships came at a time when college basketball was much more popular than the professional game and also at a time when gamblers have a large influence in the sport. Through these gamblers, City College was found to have participated in a point shaving scandal along with several other college teams. This City College team, its players and both the good and bad times for them is captured in this outstanding book by Matthew Goodman.

What is the most striking feature about the book and the writing is how a reader will have a deep connection with the City College players, especially Eddie Roman and Floyd Layne.  Roman is Jewish and Layne is black, making them the perfect symbols to represent the student body make up of City College, which was tuition free and comprised mainly of black and Jewish students who were gifted intellectually but would not otherwise have been able to pursue higher education.  Goodman starts the book off by introducing the reader to Roman and his family and ends it with a wonderful success story achieved by Layne in a surprising twist.  In between, the reader will be taken back to that era of smoke-filled arenas and students cramming the cheap seats while the gamblers, politicians and businessmen filled the lower bowls with other items to take care of than watching the games. 

While the writing about the basketball was very good and the recap of that special season for City College was easy to follow (and to cheer for them), the coverage of the point shaving scandal is even better.  The reader will get information from several viewpoints – the City College players who accepted bribes to shave points, the gamblers who set up the players and the informants who provided the information prosecutors needed to charge the players and gamblers.  On the latter, the story of Joseph Gross and his flip-flopping on his willingness to testify was especially entertaining.  Between his arrogance when he was arrested and his speedy exit from the courtroom when he was supposed to testify, he is just one character of many with whom readers will become very familiar. 

However, that quality is best illustrated when writing about the City College players and their lives.  Whether Goodman is sharing their family life, their basketball prowess, the shame they felt when arrested and deposed, or their various degrees of success after City College, the reader will feel like they have known these men for a long time. The best section in the entire book is when the players are arrested at Penn Station after disembarking a train after a road game – the emotions of not only the players but Coach Nat Holman are on full display.

One more quality about the book that makes it an outstanding read is how several issues that are still discussed today are raised in this book.  Only two of the City College players that were arrested served jail time – both of them African American.  Several times it was pointed out that nearly everyone involved – the schools, the arenas, the gamblers – were making money off college basketball except the players.  These are issues that are still being discussed today. 

For these and many other reasons, this is a book that should be picked up by either college basketball fans or readers who want to learn more about the history and times of New York City in the 1950’s as the dialogue has an authentic feel.  

I wish to thank Ballentine Press for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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