It was the height of the Cold War, the time of the McCarthy witch hunts and the Korean conflict. But for Charley Rosen, growing up in the Bronx, there was only one story worth following: the college-basketball point-shaving scandal. It broke in January 1951, ricocheting from Manhattan College to CCNY, from LIU to St. John’s. By the time the dust settled two years later, young lives had been ruined, City College’s days as a basketball powerhouse were over – and Rosen would have the subject matter for two books, including his latest novel, Barney Polan’s Game.
“The scandals saved the NBA,” says Rosen, now 57, on a visit to the old Wingate Gymnasium at City College, where he led his Hunter College team to a narrow victory one night in 1959. “Nobody cared about the NBA – it was bush-league. College basketball was it. But once the college game was disgraced, what else could the fan turn to?”
Rosen himself has been turning to basketball for most of his life – as a star center at Hunter, as a minor-league player, and, after a detour to complete a master’s thesis on Chaucer, as an assistant to his friend Phil Jackson, who was then coaching the Albany Patroons in the Continental Basketball Association. Rosen went on to be a CBA head coach himself, living a nomad’s existence he describes in his 1992 novel The Cockroach Basketball League. He routinely led the league in technical fouls. “Too bad I didn’t learn to curse the refs in Middle English,” he says. “It would’ve saved me a lot of money.”
You can still sense Rosen’s anger whenever he talks about “the scandals,” though he doesn’t go as far as one sportswriter of the era who recommended boiling the point shavers in oil. As a teenager, Rosen ended up playing against some of them in midnight scrimmages at Bronx community centers. “They were such total innocents, most of them, and the culture crucified them,” Rosen says of the more than 30 players who were finally apprehended. Some of the ones who got away had connections in high places and legal support from their schools. Others, he hints, escaped into the NBA.
For Rosen, whose last novel, The House of Moses All-Stars, featured a barnstorming Jewish basketball team in the thirties, Barney Polan’s Game provides another view of America through the hoop. Which is why McCarthy and Korea are never too far from his characters’ minds. “You were either a pinko or you weren’t,” he says of the period. “Justice was simple. Morality was simple. In fact, that’s not the case.”