On Jan. 2, 1958, Kansas opened as a 9-point favorite at home against Oklahoma State. Lem Banker had learned that KU star Wilt Chamberlain, kneed in the groin by a Kansas State player three days earlier, would not play against the Cowboys.
Today, it is quaint to hear Banker call Oklahoma State “Oklahoma A&M,” the institution’s name until July 1, 1957. He wagered on State and kept doing so as the line dwindled; he would risk $5,000 on the outcome.
Kansas lost, 52-50 — Banker’s biggest score up ‘till then.
In the late 1960s, he was informed that three Memphis State starters would not play. But the stand-alone, sawdust-floored Las Vegas books had not yet opened.
Itching for action before that news became public, he bet $30,000 with visiting Minneapolis bookmaker Dave Bonie, whom Banker calls “Bones.”
Banker won. Bones would not pay. Banker told pal Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the Rose Bowl sportsbook operator tied to the Chicago Outfit.
“The money will be in your account tomorrow morning,” Lefty assured Banker.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Banker said. “I got up. Sure enough. Thirty grand was in my account, because of Lefty.”
The start of college hoops initiates a visit to the 92-year-old godfather of sports gambling, in the Rancho Nevada Estates home in which he has lived since 1967. On walks he’d sometimes pass Jerry Tarkanian who, upon moving into the neighborhood — 100 yards away — in 1973, fashioned a basketball into a mailbox. They never said much; “because of the gambling thing,” Banker said.
Time has not been kind to the former workout fiend, who weighs about 90 pounds today. A poor back relegates him to a pea-green recliner. Banker, however, has bathed in the sunshine described so eloquently by Emerson, drank the wild air. He still possesses a wink of the eye that would gratify Kerouac.
The Bronx-born Banker visited Las Vegas in 1957 and soon made it home.
“The only safe place to bet sports,” he said. “Back in Jersey, you had to pay off the cops. I wanted to be honest, try to make a living at it.”
It was not easy. In his 1986 sports betting book, Banker admitted requiring about 20 years to earn a reliable income from the endeavor. He stuck with it because he enjoyed the lifestyle, and he always had luck when he needed it.
Like in 1964, when USC’s football team played host to top-ranked Notre Dame. He had bet most everything he had — about $10,000 — on the Trojans plus 10 points. The Irish led, 17-0, at halftime, but USC won, 20-17. A loss could have forced Banker to get a real job. Instead, he weaved a legendary career.
Typically, he waits about a month — “an exercise in discipline,” he wrote — to bet on college basketball. He’d grade results, adjust power rankings, reward home-court advantages frugally. He believes oddsmakers overreact to injuries, so he’d seek value in such situations.
A road underdog winning outright impresses him. He favors teams that win and cover. Deliberate teams that can hold the score down, he wrote, make great underdogs. Like a favorite? Get in on it early. Lean toward a ‘dog? Wait.
“Most customers will bet the favorite,” he said. “The bookmaker will take a bet, and move [the line] up, so …”
When in doubt, pass; make mind bets and keep track of that mental ledger. He goes against public opinion with gusto. He is partial to coaches Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Roy Williams (North Carolina) and Jay Wright (Villanova).
Charting 170 teams, he wrote in 1986, was challenging. But those were the good ol’ days.
“I had runners all over,” he said. Today, with double that amount of programs, Banker said it would be too difficult. He shakes his head.
“If I had to start all over again, I’d be in another business,” he said.
Selections with projected numbers courtesy of veteran Vegas oddsmaker Kenny White:
Villanova at Ohio State -2: Blind wagers on ‘Nova last season would have been profitable, which masked a road issue; the Wildcats dropped their final four true road games. That continues in Columbus. OHIO STATE
LSU at VCU, Total 147: A ranked foe visiting the Siegel Center might be the perfect scenario for third-year VCU boss Mike Rhoades and his experienced, defensive-minded Rams to keep this score low. UNDER
Purdue at Marquette -2.5: Can the Boilers allow 5-foot-11 senior guard Markus Howard to go for 30 he tallied 38 in an easy opener against Loyola and still cover? Nope. MARQUETTE
UNLV at UCLA, Total 137.5: It’s a triple felony that these two programs first met in 1993. The Bruins have won all five games, including the two inside Pauley Pavilion. That continues, but it will be messy. UNDER
Last week: 1-2