The Devils In The Details: ASU’s Point-Shaving Scandal Gets The Netflix Treatment

Compelling new documentary revisits some of college basketball's darkest days
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Is there any head hoops coach who’s gotten a rawer deal than Bill Frieder? In 1989, after the University of Michigan grad led his alma mater to its fifth straight NCAA men’s basketball tournament — where they’d advanced to the Sweet 16 the year prior — Frieder announced that he’d be leaving Ann Arbor to take the head coaching job at Arizona State University.

Frieder figured he’d be afforded the opportunity to coach the Wolverines in one last tourney. He figured wrong: Michigan Athletic Director Bo Schembechler fired Frieder immediately, labeling him a turncoat and handing the postseason clipboard to top assistant Steve Fisher — who promptly went out and won the NCAA title.

At Arizona State, Frieder assumed the reins of a program that Arizona Republic reporter Kent Somers described as “a sleeping giant most of us thought was never going to wake up” and coached them into the NCAA tournament in his second season. More importantly, he put the Sun Devils on the national recruiting map, attracting blue-chip schoolboy ballers like Dallas product Stevin “Hedake” Smith. 

Smith’s nickname, pronounced “headache,” was bestowed upon him by his mother. It would prove prescient, as Smith was at the center of one of the biggest sports betting scandals of all time, greasing the skids for Frieder’s 1997 exit from Scottsdale at the age of 55. That’s relatively young in coaching years, but Frieder, now 79, hasn’t seen the bench since.

The ASU point-shaving scandal, which transpired in 1994, is the subject of a compelling 69-minute documentary, Hoop Schemes, that’s part of Netflix’s “Bad Sport” series. (For those who are unfamiliar with this story, this review is chockablock with spoilers.)

If you want to fix a basketball game, the point guard’s the player you want in your pocket — and Smith ran the Sun Devils’ show. Six feet, two inches tall and built like a tank, he was a marvelous scorer who still ranks seventh on the school’s all-time scoring list. As the scandal’s financier, Joe Gagliano, describes it in the movie, campus bookie Benny Silman told him that Smith “dictates everything on the court, and I got him.”

“I was the point guard. I was in control,” adds Smith. “I had different techniques. I could walk the ball up the floor, start the offense late, put players in situations where they couldn’t score.”

More succinctly, as Smith’s backcourt and point-shaving running mate Isaac Burton puts it, “When you have a point guard who isn’t playing well, the team is gonna suffer. When you have a point guard who’s point-shaving, the team is really gonna suffer.”

‘There were times I didn’t eat’

Smith first landed in Silman’s pocket because Smith owed Silman $10,000 in gambling debts and lacked the liquid assets to pay it off. So, after securing the financial backing of Gagliano, then a recent ASU grad “making an absurd amount of money at a young age” trading bonds in Chicago, Silman told Smith they’d pay him $20,000 per game to fix two contests that the Sun Devils were heavily favored to win at home. 

The point guard had the option of keeping all that money for himself or cutting a trusted teammate in on the deal. He took the latter tack, securing a reluctant Burton’s participation by breaking out an envelope filled with hundred-dollar bills. 

“There were times I didn’t eat,” says Burton of his motivation for joining Smith’s scheme. “I’m not making this up: We’d walk into other people’s dorm rooms and ask for something to eat.”

Gagliano proceeded to take his life savings — $500,000 — to Vegas and spread it around several sportsbooks with the help of his father and two friends. 

“I remember thinking, ‘Vegas is the betting capital of the world. It’s gonna be easy to bet $500K a game.’ I’m telling you it’s not,” he says in the film, echoing the sentiments of many a high roller. “These large corporations are as greedy as can be. They don’t want to lose money to you. The risk involved was creating the red flags that other people would get wind of what I was doing.”

So Gagliano and his cohorts made sure not to exceed $9,900 on any one wager, just below the $10,000 threshold that would trigger a casino transaction report, or CTR. On game day, despite the fact that ASU was a double-digit favorite over Oregon State, a cautious Gagliano instructed Smith to win the game by no more than six points, as he would be betting the farm on the underdog Beavers and wanted to guard against any late line movements. 

Smith played brilliantly, leading the Sun Devils to a 42-27 first-half lead and finishing with 39 points. The final score? 88-82, Arizona State.

“I could not even begin to fathom that Hedake could get the game to land right on six, but Hedake had the skill to make it happen,” says Gagliano.

‘I didn’t save a dime. I spent all of it.’

Two days later against Oregon, the Sun Devils were again double-digit favorites — and Smith was again told not to win by more than six, with Gagliano looking to expand his bankroll to $2.5 million. Spreading this sort of dough around Vegas on a relatively pedestrian game might typically attract some unwanted attention, but it happened to be the day before the Super Bowl, so the wagers were comparatively small beer.

Smith’s teammates, save for Burton, played out of their shoes, so Smith countered by performing lackadaisically before twisting his ankle. Without Smith to control the tempo, Burton “got really nervous” about his ability to secure the desired result. But Smith came out with a heavily taped ankle and limped through the second half — and ASU again won by exactly six points, 84-78.

Had the story ended there, which was the original plan, knowledge of the ASU point-shaving scandal might still be limited to the handful of men who were involved. But there’s a telling scene after the Oregon State win where, while Gagliano calmly refers to his $1.2 million payout as “intoxicating,” Smith describes the comparatively paltry $10,000 he’s just earned as “f–kin’ amazing.”

“I would just wake up in the morning and go shop,” says Burton, when asked what he did with his earnings. “I didn’t save a dime. I spent all of it.”

He went so far as to trick out a dumpy Toyota Tercel, while Smith made a down payment on a new GMC Typhoon. Not suspecting that the fix was in, teammate Wayne Fontana figured Smith’s newfound wealth came “from a sports agent advancing him some money.”

At this point, Gagliano says, “I truly believed with every fiber in my body that I was done” fixing games. But then he got a surprise call from Smith, who wanted “to bet on himself” against eighth-ranked UCLA as four-point road dog. Shifting to the role of bookmaker, Gagliano took Smith’s $20,000 wager, asking him if he had the money to pay up if he lost. Smith replied, “I’m not gonna lose.”

Gagliano knew right then that Smith had blown every penny from those first two fixes.

‘No such thing as a six-point shot’

In the film, Smith denies placing this wager with Gagliano, but his actions during the UCLA game suggest otherwise. He played spectacularly, and his Sun Devils were tied with a minute to go. But the Bruins mounted a six-point lead in the final minute, leaving only a few meaningless seconds for ASU to inbound the ball before the horn sounded.

Here, Gagliano points out the obvious: There’s no such thing as a six-point shot. But there is such a thing as a three-point shot, and it just so happened that a three-pointer would reduce the final margin to within the magical four points. So Smith proceeded to go coast to coast and launch a trey as time expired and he looked like he’d just lost the NCAA tournament championship after the shot barely rimmed out.

“He seems distraught about it,” says Fontana. “I’m like, ‘Who cares, Hedake? We wouldn’t have won if you’d made the shot.’”

“Now he knows that Benny and I have him for the game on Saturday,” says Gagliano, who definitely could have afforded to simply forgive the debt — and certainly now wishes he did.

Arizona State was favored in that Saturday’s game against USC, but Smith wasn’t taking any chances, fouling out and leading the Sun Devils into the tank with a 68-56 upset loss.

“I remember that game being terrible,” says Fontana. “And Hedake just didn’t play well.”

By this point, reporter Somers had received a tip that Smith might be involved in point shaving, but says he “could never nail anything down.” However, according to Gagliano, a menacing ASU bookie everyone called “Big Red” was instrumental in blowing the scheme wide open.

Silman told Gagliano that Big Red had caught wind of the point-shaving and wanted in. Gagliano says he told Silman, “You’re gonna mess it up,” but got involved by rationalizing, “These guys are gonna do it with or without me. And if they do it without me and get caught, I’m screwed.”

He also thought to himself, “Ten million in cash sounds so much better than $5 million.”

‘There’s something screwy going on here’

The Sun Devils were facing a struggling University of Washington squad and opened as 12-point favorites. Smith didn’t bring Burton in on the fix and had Silman take the $20,000 he stood to gain and bet it on Washington to beat the spread, hoping to double his money. But when Gagliano arrived in Vegas and went to place a big bet, he was told there was some guy named Big Red who’d just made a similar wager, and that there were a bunch of kids in ASU garb making smaller bets on the Huskies. In a matter of hours, the line had dropped from 12 to 3.

“Typically a line changes 10 times before the game,” says Joe Lodge, who was then an assistant district attorney in Arizona. “In that game, the line changed 44 times.”

This was not lost on Vegas oddsmakers, who alerted the Nevada Gaming Commision, which, per Lodge, “contacted the FBI and said, ‘There’s something screwy going on here.’”

When Washington raced out to a double-digit first-half lead, that premonition was confirmed as Gagliano — who’d instructed Smith to make the game land on 3 — dozed off in his hotel room. In the locker room at halftime, Frieder informed his charges that he’d received a call from the FBI and that the game was under investigation. Fearful of being exposed, Smith played lights out in the second half, leading the Sun Devils to a 73-55 win.

When Gagliano walked down to the sportsbook to confidently check the final score after his nap, he was horrified beyond belief.

“Hedake wound up winning the game by 18 points, which meant for me that every bet I’d made was a loser,” Gagliano says. “I’d just lost millions and, oh by the way, now the worst-case scenario with red flags and attention is gonna happen.”

And happen it did. That Monday, a number of stories detailing unusual betting on the ASU-Washington game ran in news outlets nationwide. Smith dropped out of class and returned home to Dallas, confident that he was a shoo-in to be selected in the NBA draft. But with his integrity in question, he went undrafted.

“My dream ever since I started playing was to make it big and get the f–k out of the ghetto,” he says toward the end of the film. “But now it was over.”

Then things really got bad. 

‘It’s gonna happen again’

Gagliano got a call from the FBI informing him that he was the target of a criminal prosecution. He wound up being sentenced to 15 months in prison, while Smith got a year and a day, Burton got probation, and Silman received just under four years for setting the scheme in motion.

“That’s why they need to start paying students,” a teary-eyed Burton warns at film’s end. “They have to, because it’s gonna happen again.”

“We were making the school all that money and we didn’t get compensated at all,” adds Smith, echoing a sentiment publicly expressed by former Michigan star Chris Webber and others. “They were the ones who were behind the scenes with millions of dollars. We were the ones out there on the court.”

Twenty-seven years on from the ASU point-shaving scandal, college athletes are finally free to profit from their name, image, and likeness, thanks in no small part to the dogged legal efforts of Ed O’Bannon, one of Burton and Smith’s opponents in that fateful UCLA game. But that doesn’t mean the playing field has been properly leveled.

The disparity between how college athletes are compensated relative to what universities make off their on-field or on-court exploits is still laughably broad. And while participants in baseball and hockey — the two whitest of the four major professional sports — are allowed to go pro straight out of high school, football and basketball players must toil for a year or two at the college or G-League ranks before becoming eligible to compete at their sports’ most lucrative levels.

Hoop Schemes only teases at this modern-day version of indentured servitude and leaves the NIL fight entirely untouched. Those are missed opportunities, but all in all, the documentary does a riveting job of detailing the greed and desperation that shamed a sport and its system and led to a lifetime of regret for the principal players, who are portrayed with just the right ratio of sympathy and culpability.

Photo: Shutterstock

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