Mavs Ex 'Headake' Smith Offers Cautionary Tale on Sports Gambling
The Sun Devil is worried about the Devil. Because …
*The NBA hosts summer leagues and an All-Star Game in Las Vegas, and its commissioner talks openly about relaxing restrictions on wagering on its games.
*The NHL has a franchise in the world’s betting mecca.
*The NFL’s Raiders will belong to Sin City in the Fall.
*ESPN has begun airing shows catering specifically to sports gambling.
*In the past year, seven states – Mississippi is the closest to Texas – have passed laws legalizing sports betting.
Stevin “Headake” Smith’s rise for concern is founded in an evil experience, one in which the former Arizona State star and Dallas Mavericks’ guard allowed greed and gambling to destroy his career and sidetrack his life. Smith turned what should have been a $20 million job into a $20,000 bribe. Traded multi-year contracts for a one-year prison sentence. Tarnished an All-American reputation into one wholly un-employable.
Now, the Dallas native who 25 years ago was at the heart of the one of America’s most infamous point-shaving scandals cringes at what he says will be the next victim of sports betting: Sports.
“It’s a dangerous road for all these leagues,” Smith said recently from his Metroplex home. “You just never know who’s in on the fix. Could be a player. A coach. A ref. People just don’t understand. And now that there are loose laws and teams moving to Las Vegas, man, it’s like open season.
"Something’s going to happen at some point. No doubt.”
As America reopens in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it re-calibrates what Smith says is an ominous, dangerous direction.
Before the national stay-at-home orders, fans watched XFL games with announcers – and on-screen scoreboard graphics – keenly aware of and even promoting point spreads. During the lockdown, desperate bettors wagered real money on virtual, video-game NASCAR races. And now?
“It’s going to be hard for me to enjoy games,” Smith says, “because I can see how much the point spread is going to be in play.”
Amidst the buzz of a changing, cash-fueled culture, Smith is telling his cautionary tale to anyone who will listen.
His current congregation: The Dallas kids in his N.O.W. (No Opportunity Wasted) Organization and the basketball players at Mountain View Community College, where he is the assistant coach.
His sermon: The deal he made with the Sun Devils.
Smith got his “Headake” nickname from his mom, Eunice, who loved her problem child but couldn’t fit the proper spelling on Texas’ then-six-letter limit license plate. Sturdy physically (6-2, 200) with spectacular skills as a scoring point guard, he flourished in Pleasant Grove, starred at Spruce High School and chose Arizona State over UNLV.
Even before arriving in Tempe, Smith was introduced to the perks of life as a coddled, coveted, college star. While being recruited by Arizona State, a limousine showed up at his house with courtside seats to a Mavericks game. It was sent by Roy Tarpley, who wanted to personally endorse his former coach at Michigan, Bill Frieder, who was then the ASU coach.
Says Smith, “I caught on to the system pretty quick.”
He tore up the Pac 10 Conference, averaging 19 points and six assists, earning all-conference honors as a freshman in 1991 and leading ASU to its first NCAA Tournament in more than a decade. He was a team captain, an All-American and the school’s all-time leading scorer and record-holder for most 3-pointers. Along the way he broke records held by Fat Lever, Alton Lister and Byron Scott, and was destined to be a top-10 NBA draft pick.
As a senior in 1994, he was named ASU’s Male Student Athlete of the Year, beating out a golfer named Phil Mickelson and a quarterback named Jake Plummer.
“I had it all, right in front of me,” he says. “I beat out those guys, had a 3.5 GPA and was going to get drafted high. I’ve still got the trophy in my house, but … ”
On the way to fame and fortune and the NBA, Headake had an epic brain fart.
Though the extent of his gambling in Dallas was shooting dice for a dollar or two, he got into a debate with a campus friend about the final score of the upcoming game between the Phoenix Cardinals and Smith’s beloved Dallas Cowboys. The friend called his bookie and placed a $100 bet for Smith.
The Cowboys didn’t cover the point spread, Smith lost and a month later – betting on everything, even hockey, to make up for mounting losses – owed the bookie $10,000.
With a lucrative, multi-million-dollar contract just months away Smith was suddenly seduced by greed, dangled by the economics student from Brooklyn, Benny Silman. He was a connected bookie who made the quick trips to Vegas and had relationships with bank-rolling ties to mob families based in Chicago and New Jersey. Silman proposed a way for Smith to not only pay his $10,000 debt, but also make another $10,000 for himself.
It was an offer Smith couldn’t – at least didn’t – refuse:
Score all the points you want.
Win all the games you need.
Just keep the final score within the point spread.
Already lavished with illegal, under-the-table, around-the-rules cars, jewelry, clothes, cash and an apartment by ASU boosters, Smith lunged for another layup. On Jan. 28, 1994, the Sun Devils were 15-point favorites at home against Oregon State. Smith scored 28 points in the first half, tied a conference record with 10 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 39 points. The secret – the “point shaving” – was with his orchestrated, step-slow defense that allowed the Beavers to score easy points and, in turn, keep the game relatively close.
The result: Arizona State won, but only by six points. The mob bettors, tipped off that Smith would shave points, happily collected on their Oregon State plus-15 wagers. After the game, Silman presented Smith with a Nike shoe box filled with 100 $100 bills.
“I was just immature,” Smith says. “But I’ll say it to this day: Yes, I took the money. But I also played my butt off. I put 39 on Brent Barry that night, so it wasn’t like I just quit on my team.”
Smith was hooked.
He shaved points in three more games. He spread the wealth, alerting classmates to cash in on the rouse. He even recruited teammate Isaac Burton to join the scheme. But the radical amounts suddenly bet on Sun Devils games – one against Washington that typically attracted $50,000 drew more than $1 million and experienced 42 line-changes in one day – caught the eye of Vegas sportsbooks, who alerted the FBI.
His coaches and the feds, Smith later learned, immediately suspected the team’s best player – the conference’s leader in steals who was suddenly getting torched on defense. The student bettors he’d tipped off also turned on him, agreeing to provide details to the FBI in exchange for protection against Silman and his bookie buddies.
In his final point-shaving game, Smith produced a dazzling performance and led the Sun Devils to an 18-point win in a game he assured Silman and the wise guys would have a final margin of nine points or fewer.
The bookies – who represented bosses that lost more than $1 million on the game – met Smith at his apartment, and he promised to repay their personal $100,000 in losses when he signed his NBA contract.
He played well at the NBA’s pre-draft camp in Chicago and expected to be picked in the first round on June 29, 1994. Friends and family – all oblivious to Smith’s shenanigans – gathered at his house in southeast Dallas.
Congratulatory signs were hung. Fried chicken was cooked. The phone, however, never rang. The draft that started with the Mavs selecting Jason Kidd No. 2 overall and ended with the Sonics taking Serbia’s Zeljko Rebraca with No. 54 left Smith a tainted free agent.
He angrily drove into the Dallas night in the black GMC Typhoon that he’d purchased with point-shaving money, admitting he may never fulfill his dream of buying Eunice a new house.
Publicly, he pleaded confusion to the mysterious snub. Privately, he had it nauseatingly dissected.
Said Smith, “I knew that they somehow knew.”
Undrafted, Smith played in Spain and then the Continental Basketball Association. In the CBA Finals he, ironically, found himself in a game being officiated by Tim Donaghy, who years later would spend 11 months in federal prison after admitting to fixing point spreads in NBA games he officiated.
Smith bounced around in the CBA for three seasons, with nary a good night’s sleep.
“I knew what I’d done wasn’t just going to disappear,” he says. “I had nightmares, daydreams … I thought about it all the time.”
While Michael Jordan was authoring his Last Dance, in 1997 Smith played well enough for the CBA team in Sioux City, South Dakota that he was finally contacted by an NBA team. His hometown Mavericks.
Dallas’ 1997 season was one of the worst in franchise history. Jim Cleamons unsuccessfully tried to install Phil Jackson’s famed “Triangle” offense. New general managers Frank Zaccanelli and Don Nelson traded away “The Three Js” – Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson – in the span of six weeks. By the time Smith arrived, the Mavs were 22-44 en route to a hapless 24-58 record.
Smith flew first-class to Atlanta, where he was picked up via limousine.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Just my per diem was as much as I made in the CBA in one week.”
Smith, who wore No. 1 because his preferred 44 was taken by Shawn Bradley, signed his first of two 10-day contracts on March 21, scored 14 points in eight garbage-time appearances and was released by April 9.
On the heels of the call he’d always dreamed of came the knock he’d ultimately feared.
In the summer of 1997 the FBI showed up at Smith’s door, took him to Pemberton Hills Recreation Center and unfurled a poster with mug shots and timelines of the point-shaving scheme that stretched from the East Coast to the Arizona desert.
Silman was caught and sentenced to eight years in prison. Smith eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit sports bribery and served one year and one day behind bars in Big Spring Correctional Center, situated anonymously between Abilene, Odessa and the metaphorical tumbleweeds in the plains of West Texas. He didn’t sleep the first three nights.
“I had to accept that I was in prison for this white-collar crime,” he says. “I had to accept that I’d ruined my future for less cash than I would have made my first week in the NBA. After some time, I decided I’d reach other kids, so they could avoid going down the same road.”
Free from prison but shunned by the NBA, Smith finished his 15-season pro career laboring with teams in France, Israel, Russia, Greece, Italy and The Philippines. Upon retirement in 2008, he returned to Dallas and founded N.O.W. He hopes his next step is head coach at Mountain View.
“I’m not blaming anyone but myself, but I’m trying to be that mentor and father figure that I never had,” says Smith, now 48, a husband and father of three adult daughters.
He conducts anti-gambling seminars for the NCAA, speaking most recently at the University of Minnesota last November. And at N.O.W., he’s prepping potential stars such as Kaden Archie, a star at Midlothian High School who recently transferred from TCU to UT-El Paso.
“A smart man learns from his own mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others. I’m telling my story, being the example so these kids can grow up to be wise men,” Smith says. “Betting is everywhere in sports. Everywhere in society. Tiger and Phil playing golf on TV. Poker tournaments. NBA players trying half-court shots at shootarounds for hundreds of dollars. Kids have to be educated, have to prepared to handle that kind of environment so temptation doesn’t swallow them up like it did me.”
Turns out the worst bet Smith made, was not betting on himself.