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Photos courtesy Stevin Smith

Smith's family, clockwise from top center: Stevin "Hedake" Smith, wife Delicia, daughters Aerian (age 15), Chloe (6) and Kayla (12).

Today Smith coaches at the N.O.W. Program (the initials stand for "No Opportunities Wasted"), a basketball-centered life-skills program offered to underprivileged kids in Dallas.

On the court: In 1994, Smith was captain of the ASU Sun Devils basketball team and the then highest-scoring player in the school's history.

With daughter Chloe, age 6. "All the jewelry, cars and everything, I couldn't care less about that today," he says. "I've got everything I need."

With wife Delicia. "I'm still Stevin 'Hedake' Smith," he says proudly. "Yes, I made a mistake, and I've paid for it. But there's one thing you can never do: You can never take away my accomplishments."

Published by Times Publications, February 2011

Stevin "Hedake" Smith believes he has a message for every kid entering college with the dream of becoming a pro baller. It's the message he wishes somebody had delivered at his university, Arizona State, back when he was charting his own career path.

“We only ever got to hear the winners,” Smith says. “The successful people — doctors, lawyers, professional athletes — with their glory-days speeches. ‘Cause that’s all that schools ever want you to think about: ‘Everybody’s gonna be successful.’ But they never have anybody come in and talk about the ‘what ifs.’”

That’s an area in which Smith can speak volumes. Back in 1994, “Hedake” (the nickname was given to him by his mother, who couldn’t fit “headache” onto a personalized license plate) was captain of the ASU Sun Devils basketball team and the then highest-scoring player in the school’s history. He had already led ASU to the NCAA Tournament twice and was an All-American and All-Pac 10 player. During that senior year he was voted ASU’s Male Student Athlete of the Year, beating out future golf great Phil Mickelson and future NFL star Jake Plummer. Sportscasters considered him a shoe-in for the upcoming NBA draft.

Certainly Smith seemed destined to become one of life’s “winners,” and in fact was already living large, accepting perks and gifts from ASU boosters that included a quarter-million dollars worth of cars alone, from two Mustang GTs to a fleet of pricey pickups and SUVs.

But he was also becoming a loser at high-stakes sports gambling, and had quickly gotten in debt to a campus bookie named Benny Silman to the tune of $10,000.

What if, Silman said, Smith could erase that debt by simply allowing his team’s next opponents to score a little more than usual? ASU wouldn’t have to lose the game, just not win by as wide a point spread as the Las Vegas bookmakers were predicting.

It was the one “what if” that would inevitably derail Smith’s dreams of an NBA career and land him in jail for accepting bribe money in what would become a major “point shaving” scheme bankrolled by two reputed Mob families in Chicago and New Jersey. After accepting Silman’s deal to even up his betting debt, Smith agreed to fix three more games in return for $20,000 per game. When suspicious betting patterns surrounding the ASU games caught the attention of the FBI, the entire ring was systematically indicted — including Smith and teammate Isaac Burton, whom Smith had brought in on the plan.

The crushing irony in Smith’s story is that, by almost every sports analyst’s evaluation, he would have easily earned all that money — and much more — had he only bet more confidently on himself. Smith had just played eight games on a trial contract with his hometown NBA team, the Dallas Mavericks, when the FBI came knocking on his door.

“I kept asking myself why I’d ruined my future for less cash than I would have made my first week in the NBA,” Smith recalled in an essay he authored for Sports Illustrated in 1998. “I replayed over and over how I’d gotten myself into this mess.”

The devil, Smith sees now, was greed.

“That’s what catches everybody: greed,” Smith says. “You want more, more, more.”

Smith contends that the fire is partially fueled by the speakers universities select to address young collegiates.

“You always hear about the dream. The dream!” Smith says, practically moaning the word in anguish. He points out that to some incoming freshmen, particularly those from the inner city attending on an athletic scholarship, that message can translate into “get money, get money.”

He hears that refrain now in the questions he gets while speaking at universities himself, appearing on behalf of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the same agency that, 13 years earlier, had petitioned the judge in Smith’s case to issue him the maximum sentence: five years. He wound up serving a year and one day. Smith laments that many of the kids he speaks to today at NCAA-sponsored rules and regulations seminars are still more intoxicated by what he got away with than sobered by what he lost.

“They ask me, ‘What did you do with all the money you made? How many cars did you have?’” Smith says with a sigh. “I tell ‘em what they want to know. Yeah, I had lots of cars, lots of jewelry.

“But that stuff cost me,” he always adds, cautiously. “It cost me my dream.”

Bittersweet Homecoming

It was halftime at the Arizona State vs. Washington game in March 1994, and ASU was losing by 11 points to the underdog Huskies it was favored to beat by 10.

This was the fourth game Smith agreed to point shave for Silman, and he was manipulating the points in his usual way: not by deliberately missing any shots himself — indeed, Smith’s scoring remained stellar during those games — but by pulling back on defense half a step, allowing the other team to score more, too.

But this time, the Sun Devils were missing more than their share of shots, and it appeared ASU would lose handily even without Smith’s help. At the same time, word had gotten out in Vegas that an unusual amount of money was being bet on Arizona State to lose: nearly $1 million, on a college match that would normally attract no more than $50,000 in wagers.

Smith believes coach Bill Frieder heard about the rumored fix from a Pac-10 official before halftime, as he recalls a particularly angry pep talk. Though his $20,000 pay-off was already all but in the bag after such a dismal first half, Smith suddenly sprang to action, scoring 13 points in a 24-0 run to open the second half and leading his team to a 73-to-55 win.

“I could have just stayed out of the game,” Smith says. “But I was like, ‘Forget this, my career is more important than that.’ We ended up in the second half coming out and destroyin’ em!”

Smith had won the game, but had reneged on his agreement to Silman — who, Smith soon learned, had assured several Mob-associated gamblers he had the team captain in his pocket. Conscience had finally triumphed, but it was already too late.

“That’s the reason I got caught,” Smith says. “Because I wouldn’t do what I was supposed to do.”

Silman fled town — he was later caught and sentenced to eight years in prison. Smith was expelled just a few credits shy of graduation and returned to South Dallas, where he waited for the scandal to blow over and to hear his name announced in the NBA draft, BUT it was the FBI that ultimately came looking for him.

This past fall, Smith finally returned to Phoenix for the first time since the scandal, and he recalls an emotional landing at Sky Harbor.

“When I landed, I looked out the window and tears came to my eyes,” says Smith, who now lives in a Dallas suburb with his wife, Delicia, and their three daughters. “For 16 years, I never came back to Arizona. I was in denial about the situation. I was ashamed and embarrassed.”

Smith credits friend Lester Neal, who played on ASU’s basketball team from ‘91 to ‘94, as the person who finally persuaded him to make peace with his past.

“He said, ‘Hedake, it’s always gonna be there,’” Smith says. “‘You got to come on back and let it go.’”

Between baring his soul to FOX 10 News’ Jude LaCava and other local sports outlets, Smith used the opportunity to apologize to everyone he felt he’d disappointed, running down a My Name Is Earl-style karmic checklist.

“I apologized to the church I attended, to ASU, to the governor, to the mayor.” Smith says he also called and apologized to Frieder, who messily resigned after the scandal even though both he and the university had been cleared of any involvement.

“Some will forgive you, some won’t,” is all Smith will say about that conversation. “But at least I can sleep at night now knowing I stood up for what I did and apologized. As a man, what more can you do?”

Smith stresses it wasn’t all shame that kept him away from Arizona for 16 years. For much of that time, he was actually still playing ball — only overseas, in various minor leagues. Before the arrest, Smith played for teams in Spain, Turkey and France in the Continental Basketball Association. Upon release, Smith returned to France and also played in leagues in Israel and Russia.

Though it wasn’t the NBA, Smith says he enjoyed a respect overseas that had vanished overnight for him in America.

“In Europe, as long as you’re playing the game well, what’s in your past is behind you,” he says. “I was getting paid to play the game of basketball, and I was doing my job.”

For its part, ASU’s basketball program appears prouder today of Smith’s athletic record than shamed by his illegal exploits. While other colleges have seen fit to expunge the names of disgraced former players from their guidebooks, Smith, as Arizona Republic sports columnist Bob Young recently noted, is still listed among ASU’s elite “1,000-point club” and remains on the record books as a career leader in points and 3-point field goals.

“We don’t want to be in the business of making statistical changes to actual events,” explains ASU media relations director Doug Tammaro, who manages the basketball media guide and is the sole administrator associated with the sports program during Smith’s reign that remains there today. “Our records and facts list actual events that happened on a playing surface, and don’t account for any opinions or issues unless the NCAA had told us to do so.”

Smith feels that permanence of record is one of the greatest things about a career in sports, no matter how tainted that career may become.

“I’m still Stevin ‘Hedake’ Smith,” he says proudly. “Yes, I made a mistake, and I’ve paid for it. But there’s one thing you can never do: You can never take away my accomplishments.”

Can’t Always Get What You Want

To catch Stevin “Hedake” Smith on the courts today, you have to check in at the N.O.W. Program (the initials stand for “No Opportunities Wasted”), a basketball-centered life-skills program offered to underprivileged kids in Dallas.

That’s where the retired guard mentors defiant teens more interested in hoop dreams than passing SATs.

“It’s really an epidemic in our inner city,” says Mark Toliver, an ex-athlete himself who runs the nonprofit and recruited his longtime friend Smith to sign on full-time teaching “basketball I.Q.,” in Toliver’s words, following his retirement.

“Kids hear, ‘You can get paid for playing ball, and you can make a lot of money doing this,’ and it becomes all they strive for,” Toliver says.

Smith began college with the same mindset, and credits it partly for his downfall.

“When inner-city kids think about making money, they think about making money right then and there,” he says. Kids from poorer backgrounds are also more likely to take risks, Smith believes, because they often feel they have less to lose.

Additionally, Smith says, kids from oppressive backgrounds tend to see a wider gray area between what’s right and what’s wrong. In 2002, the FX network produced a made-for-TV movie on the ASU point shaving scheme titled Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie. In it, Keith Loneker, the actor who played the part of “Big Red,” the Mob henchman who reputedly beat up Silman after the ASU vs. Washington debacle, found himself sympathizing with Smith.

“The shaving points thing, I don’t see the harm in it,” said the Lawrence, KS actor and former football player to his local paper. “You don’t lose games. Really, you’re manipulating a system that’s manipulating you every day. It’s funny because with gambling and the point spread, people found ways to make money off of athletes. With shaving points, athletes found ways to manipulate what they were doing and make the money right back.”

That’s a persuasive argument, especially when preached in an environment where kids feel less than empowered. In the end, Smith gets through to the teens he coaches by leaning on an old school moral he learned from his mother.

“It gets down to needs and wants,” Smith says. “Get what you need, not what you want.” As the lesson goes, there’s also a certain enrichment in savoring the “wanting it” that’s shortchanged when the reward comes too soon — and too shadily. “If you’re doing something wrong, sooner or later you’re gonna get caught up.”

At 38, living in a comfortable four-bedroom house with his wife and daughters, Smith can finally say he’s content.

“Being able to feed my kids, pay my mortgage and put gas in my vehicle, that’s what’s important to me now,” he says. “All the jewelry, cars and everything, I couldn’t care less about that today. I’ve got everything I need.”

– end —