It was 55 years ago, but Don “Monk” Meineke remembers every suffocating, surreal detail of that January night in 1954 as if it were yesterday.
After heralded basketball careers at Wilbur Wright High and the University of Dayton, the 6-foot-7 Meineke was playing for the NBA’s Fort Wayne Pistons and living with two teammates — Mel Hutchins and rookie Jack Molinas — in a bachelor-pad apartment on Monroe Street.
“It’s a Saturday evening — about 6:30 — and our coach (Paul Birch) knocks on the door and tells us Zollner (Pistons owner Fred Zollner) wants to talk to all of us about our travel arrangements to the All Star game the next week,” Meineke said.
Although he had been the NBA’s Rookie of the Year the season previous, Meineke hadn’t made this All Star team, so he told Birch he was going to a movie.
“He said. ‘No, I want you to come, too,’” recalled Meineke, who ended up riding with Birch and talking about their under-performing club that had been picked to win the eight-team NBA.
“We got to Zollner’s mansion and the maid lets us in to a room where (Zollner) stood in front of a big Henry VIII chair,” Meineke said. “He wore white silk pajamas and had a long silver cigarette holder. He didn’t say a word, just went over, threw a log on the fire, turned down the lights and finally goes: ‘Okay Guys, we know you’re dumping games. Come clean.”
“On cue, the FBI, the detectives from Fort Wayne and the NBA president walk in.”
They first went to Molinas, their prime target and, to this day, likely the greatest fixer of basketball games in hoops history.
After Molinas was arrested and led out in cuffs, the authorities turned to Meineke.
“They put me in the back seat of a car with an FBI guy next to me, took me to a little interrogation room at the jail and then took turns just pushing me.
“Finally, the guy looks at me and says. ‘Don, we wire-tapped your phone, your house, your car and every road game you played. We want the truth.’
“My career was on the line and my heart was dropping….”
Meineke’s voice suddenly wavered a bit as he rehashed the scene the other day. This was, he said, the first time he’d ever discussed the incident in a sit-down, one-on-one interview.
On Monday, May 18, he plans to stand up in front of his old buddies at the Agonis Club and tell them the truth.
HE WAS BORN BENT
"This story makes Pete Rose look like a choir boy," Meineke said quietly. "In my view — especially for all the lives it ruined — it's bigger than 1919 World Series fix, bigger than Art Schlichter, Maurice Clarett, Michael Vick. It's one of the worst stories in the history of sports.
“It involves fixing and dumping high and colleges games and NBA betting. It involves over 200 players and referees on the payroll. It involves University of Dayton basketball. It’s about the mafia, pornography, prison and murder.”
At the center of it is Molinas, who coupled his New York moxie and smooth basketball skills with a genius IQ and a larcenous heart.
Or, as sportswriter Neil Isaacs, once put it, Jack Molinas was “born bent.”
Meineke agreed: “When he was 12 years old, he bet $8 on the Yankees. In high school (Stuyvesant), he threw the championship game for something like $800. In college (Columbia University) he dumped games for $10,000, then bet them and made more.”
Charley Rosen, who wrote the 2001 book entitled “The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball,” — a work that also skewers Meineke — summed it up:
“To Molinas, playing a rigged ball game was more exhilarating. than playing it straight. Was it time to kick a pass out of bounds or get called for a three seconds violation? Or should he go on a scoring binge …Molinas loved the idea of playing so many secret games at the same time.”
The Pistons made him the fourth overall pick in the 1953 NBA draft, gave him a $9,600 contract with a $500 bonus — both big back then — and, until he blossomed , made him Meineke’s back-up.
Along with Hutchins, the three unmarried players shared their $75-a-month place and often hosted parties that included guys from the other teams. “Jack was a lot of fun,” Meineke said. “He spoke four languages, was a gourmet cook and he always was looking for action.
“He’d see two drips of water on the window pane and bet you which rolled down first.
“I remember one night after we played the Lakers, he said, ‘Monk, I bet you a steak next game I score 25 points. He didn’t say 24 or 26, he said 25. I was starting in front of him, so I said sure, then forgot about it.
“But sure enough, with two minutes left, he’s on the foul line and gives me that big, toothy grin and makes one shot, then the next And by God that was 25 points and I had to buy a steak.”
But the seemingly harmless hustling took a far more serious turn, Meineke claims, when Molinas later asked both he and Hutchins if they wanted to “make $200 to $300 extra” every time they played.
INTERROGATED BY FBI
“They had me in that interrogation room for a couple of hours,” Meineke said. “I remember going to the bathroom and splashing water on my face. I wanted to keep my senses. And then they’d come with the questions again:
“Did you bet on any NBA games?”…”No.”
“Did you know Jack Molinas was betting?”…”Yes.”
“Did he ask you if you wanted yo bet?”… “Yes.”
“What did you tell him?”… “No, it’s not right.”
Although Meineke was released, he was sent to New York with the the team’s three All Star players because he was told the Manhattan district attorney wanted to talk to him.
In his book Rosen surmised: “The implications were unmistakable. Zollner and Birch had turned up evidence that (Larry) Foust, (Andy) Phillip, Hutchins and Meineke were tainted by the same scandal that besmirched Molinas.”
Meineke disputes that assertion and said once he was in New York, no authorities ever talked to him.
Molinas, though, was permanently barred from the NBA and after that Meineke said he heard just twice from him:
“When we were in New York, he’d call me to leave him tickets. I told him I couldn’t, but I said, ‘You’re my friend. I can meet you after the game.’ So we’d designate a corner — say like 48th and Broadway — and he’d pick me up in a big limo. He’d have a college kid driving and he be back with some beautiful girl that looked like Ava Gardner and we’d go to the 21 Club.”
Meineke played one more season with Fort Wayne and another with Rochester before retiring for a year and then coming back in 1957 for a final season with the Cincinnati Royals.
In all he played 343 NBA games before returning to Dayton. Six weeks ago — at a very-fit looking 79 years of age — he finally retired from the security business he ran.
After his banishment, Molinas played several years in the Eastern League, got a law degree and began showing up at college campuses, Meineke said, buying players “with money and girls.”
He also was said to have drugged a boxer before a match, fixed a shocking device to a race horse and, Meineke said, got a guy from Con Ed to alter the power to a gambling house so the clock slowed just enough that he could bet races that had just ended.
Between 1957 and 1961, Rosen said Molinas — who was tied to mobsters Vincent “The Chin” Gigante and Tommy “Ryan” Eboli — had his hooks into at least 27 college programs, including St. Johns, UConn, Alabama, St. Joseph’s, Bowling Green, NC State, Seton Hall, LaSalle and NYU. At least 67 games were found to have been fixed. and some 37 players were arrested.
“He ruined a lot more lives than that,” Meineke said. “I bet at one time he had 200 players, referees and bookies on his payroll.”
Among the casualties was Dayton Flyers freshman sensation Roger Brown, who — along with Connie Hawkins, another New York City schoolboy sensation — had been befriended by Molinas.
During Labor Day weekend in 1960, Brown was driving Molinas’ Pontiac convertible around New York City when he was in a fender bende. That led to problems that eventually would get him forced out at UD and banned for several years from the NBA. In the process, UD was put on NCAA sanctions for flying him to New York for his hearing and some other minor infractions.
Molinas was arrested again in 1963, spent five years in prison and then moved to Hollywood, where he trafficked pornography and lived with a 19-year-old porn star.
In 1974, after his business partner Bernard Gusoff was beaten to death, he collected on the $500,000 life insurance policy. Finally, a year later, he was shot dead in the backyard of his Hollywood Hills home. Many speculated a mob hit.
ON THE DEFENSE
Molinas was said to be the inspiration of Burt Reynolds’ movie “The Longest Yard.” And some 10 years ago, Meineke got a letter saying Spike Lee was interested in a Molinas film.
He heard no more about that, nor did he talk to Rosen, who ended up using a transcript of telephone interview with Meineke done 33 years ago by the late New York sportswriter Phil Berger.
“I’d say maybe 85 percent of the book is on the money,” Meineke said. “Some of it though was just Jack trying to cover his rear end and that (ticked) me off.”
In Rosen’s book, Molinas claimed Meineke also bet games and later called him with inside information. Rosen also quoted Hall of Fame player George Yardley, who said that the league quietly forced a few of the players suspected of “doing bususiness” with gamblers into retirement.
Meineke scoffs at that: “After I retired, I returned to play a full season with the Royals. If the league had concerns they wouldn’t have allowed me to return.”
As for Monday’s speech — he’ll be introduced by Don Donoher — Meineke said, “I feel like I’m going into the finals of the NCAA Tournament. I’m excited and a little nervous, but that’s the way it was with any big game. You always want to do your best.”
Unless, of course, you were Jack Molinas.Tweet