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Ex-hood to pros on gambling: Fuhgedaboudit
In his 15-year rise to infamy as an organized-crime kingpin in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Michael Franzese knew athletes. He'd mingle with them at posh Manhattan nightclubs. He'd share knowing glances with them from the stadium's expensive seats. And on the not-so infrequent occasions when an athlete's gambling debts would spiral beyond control, Franzese would confront a sporting hero in not-so-heroic confines. In the dim light of a dingy Brooklyn bar, over the cacophony of a street-corner payphone, the mob underboss would read a passage from the mafia's brutal playbook. Even the dimmest jocks comprehended the sinister X's and O's.
"Back then the athletes weren't making the big money and when they couldn't cover their bets, you'd read 'em the riot act," Franzese said. "You'd say
, `Listen, you can't pay, but you're going to help us win our money back.' That's just the way things were done. The athlete, if he was a baseball player, would have an 0 for 4 or a dropped ball or whatever — just a couple of games of consistently poor play.
"And if you have one guy in a starting position that is consistently messing up over the course of a couple of games, he can give you, as a bookmaker, the edge you need."
Some of the folks who run professional sports have urged fans not to believe Franzese's street-wise stories. Last year, when an HBO documentary that relied heavily on Franzese's knowledge of illegal gambling claimed that members of the New York Yankees threw games in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a Yankees spokesman called Franzese "a discredited street hoodlum." But Franzese is credible enough to be repeatedly employed by Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NCAA to speak to players about the perils of gambling. Next month, for instance, he will address NBA rookies at the league's annual orientation camp, where his message will be blunt and his anecdotes stark.
He might tell the young NBAers about the time he watched a gambling addict's knuckles broken by a wrench-wielding mobster; about how that same addict, upon being released from hospital, went to place a bet with another bookmaker. Or he could recount the story of a former professional athlete who has written, but not yet published, a tell-all book about the gambling exploits of an athlete "we all know and love."
Said Franzese: "I tell these guys that as athletes, they're targets for people like me."
People like Franzese, of course, aren't supposed to be alive; violators of the mafia's no-exit policy are usually punished by death. But it's been 16 years since Franzese traded the criminal life for his current incarnation as an author and public speaker (this after spending most of a decade in prison after pleading guilty to a 99-count racketeering indictment). And as of the other day, when he was interviewed over the line from his home in Santa Monica, Calif., his former associates had yet to exact revenge.
His life, these days, is largely consumed with promoting his latest book, Blood Covenant, the tale of his transformation from mobster to born-again Christian. He's a gifted storyteller, which explains why the book is worth reading, why his message is so disturbing.
"When I speak to athletes, I say, `I'm not trying to scare you, but what I'm about to tell you is scary,'" he said. "Gambling is everywhere. I've met a lot of (NHL) players and they gamble on everything — they're gambling like crazy. To me it's just an extension of their competitive nature. They normally don't have to worry about covering a bet unless they just really go crazy. But they still gamble and gamble a lot.
"At what point does it catch up with you? I don't know. And how many of these guys do take some serious losses throughout the season? I think there's a number that do. More than you'll ever hear about."