The powerful story of a college basketball team who carried an era’s brightest hopes—racial harmony, social mobility, and the triumph of the underdog—but whose success was soon followed by a shocking downfall
“A masterpiece of American storytelling.”—Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Devil in the Grove
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST SPORTS BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
The unlikeliest of champions, the 1949–50 City College Beavers were extraordinary by every measure. New York’s City College was a tuition-free, merit-based college in Harlem known far more for its intellectual achievements and political radicalism than its athletic prowess. Only two years after Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier—and at a time when the National Basketball Association was still segregated—every single member of the Beavers was either Jewish or African American. But during that remarkable season, under the guidance of the legendary former player Nat Holman, this unheralded group of city kids would stun the basketball world by becoming the only team in history to win the NIT and NCAA tournaments in the same year.
This team, though, proved to be extraordinary in another way: During the following season, all of the team’s starting five were arrested by New York City detectives, charged with conspiring with gamblers to shave points. Almost overnight these beloved heroes turned into fallen idols. The story centers on two teammates and close friends, Eddie Roman and Floyd Layne, one white, one black, each caught up in the scandal, each searching for a path to personal redemption. Though banned from the NBA, Layne continued to devote himself to basketball, teaching the game to young people in his Bronx neighborhood and, ultimately, with Roman’s help, finding another kind of triumph—one that no one could have anticipated.
Drawing on interviews with the surviving members of that championship team, Matthew Goodman has created an indelible portrait of an era of smoke-filled arenas and Borscht Belt hotels, when college basketball was far more popular than the professional game. It was a time when gangsters controlled illegal sports betting, the police were on their payroll, and everyone, it seemed, was getting rich—except for the young men who actually played the games.
Tautly paced and rich with period detail, The City Game tells a story both dramatic and poignant: of political corruption, duplicity in big-time college sports, and the deeper meaning of athletic success.
Goodman (Eighty Days) effectively combines interviews and extensive research to definitively recreate the unfortunate story of the 1949 50 City College of New York basketball team, which won an unprecedented two college championships in the same year (the NIT and the NCAA) before being tainted by a point-shaving scandal involving several of its stars. Through his conversations with the five surviving team members (Herb Cohen, Floyd Layne, Ron Nadell, Arthur Glass, and Leroy Watkins), Goodman traces the Beavers' path toward success, and their eventual downfall. Goodman explains how a decade earlier, a "securities analyst and aspiring bookmaker" named Charles McNeil came up with the concept of the point spread, which enabled sports bettors to gamble on what the margin of victory would be; point-shaving enabled the athletes to try to win the game, while making some intentional mistakes that would keep the final score different than predicted. The appeal of easy money to impoverished players such as center Eddie Roman was too much to resist (and as Goodman notes, point-shaving was endemic in college basket all throughout the country). Goodman closes with the argument that "the commercialization of big-time college sports had fostered a culture of gambling" that corrupted players, coaches, and administrators. Fans of college hoops will devour Goodman's excellent history.