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How The Fix Gets In

PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 7: Jontay Porter #34 of the Toronto Raptors arrives to the arena before the game against the Phoenix Suns on March 7, 2024 at Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2024 NBAE (Photo by Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images

The Jontay Porter betting story took a weird yet instructive turn Tuesday, one which we can presume won't be heeded by enough people to serve as the cautionary tale it ought to be. To sum: It's not the greed that wrecks you in gambling, it's the desperation.

According to a complaint filed in a Brooklyn court, Porter, the former Toronto Raptor banned for life from the NBA for conspiring to fix results on prop bets involving his performances, had run up massive gambling debts and agreed to feign illness or injury to allow gamblers to bet the under on his stat lines and win what federal agents estimated to be over $1 million.

According to the complaint, the player owed “significant gambling debts” to at least one of the alleged conspirators and was encouraged to settle them by doing a “special” — strategically bowing out of games so that wagers could pay off for those in the know, who could bet on him underperforming expectations.

“If I don’t do a special with your terms. Then it’s up. And u hate me and if I don’t get u 8k by Friday you’re coming to Toronto to beat me up,” the player said in an encrypted message early this year, according to the complaint.

Associated Press

Porter allegedly tipped off the gamblers of his plan to claim illness during a March 20 game against Sacramento, and on the day he was banned he allegedly texted the group chat and told them that they “might just get hit w a rico”—referring to a racketeering charge—and asked if they had deleted all the information on their phones.

One of those co-conspirators, Long Phi Pham, also known as “Bruce,” was arrested Monday while trying to board a flight to Australia on a one-way ticket while holding a bag containing $12,000 in cash, $80,000 in cashier checks, and several betting slips, according to the complaint—the veritable "kick me" sign of jurisdictional elopement. While the line "also known as 'Bruce'" may cause some amusement (the alias seemed clever enough in that it is completely panache-free but not so perfect that he got to the plane in time), the story here is how Porter was driven to throw his participation in games not to cash out but to extricate himself from a jam of his own making.

Therein lies the problem with athletes gambling. It's not chasing the money as much as it is being exploited for one's personal jeopardies. The fact that the NBA was the first American league to embrace wagering as a moneymaker is an interesting sidebar, and it means that the league entered into gambling with no possibility of loss, but its players don't have that luxury. They are young and therefore bulletproof until they find out that they are only young, and today's foible can become a catastrophe when a Bruce comes out of the woodwork.

It's why stories like that of Tucupita Marcano, who was just suspended for life by MLB, are not just brushed away with radio-chat-show-host derision. Every picture is a story, and every story has a thousand brushstrokes. They all have recklessness at their base, but fear is not far behind. Being compromised is not just a matter of cash flow, and being extorted won't be limited to prop bets. Drug issues, legal entanglements, family problems … they're all rich ground for shoe-squeezing by the Bruces among us.

The leagues have introduced gambling into the everyday existence of everyone within their purview, from fans on up, and yet demand that their players be impervious to their own messaging. Porter is the thin edge of a potentially disastrous wedge, but the owners have factored in the opinions of fans re: game fixing in their own gambling—throwing down on any potential damage to the reputation of their product in exchange for that sweet sweet DraftKings money.

Just like everybody else in sport, as it turns out. The only question is what damage an actual result-fixing scandal would do, and we've already had examples of that in college sports with no noticeable effect. Maybe we're all prepared to rationalize thrown games as the price of other people doing business because we've swallowed every other indignity with a shrug and a new streaming subscription.

So are there lessons? Sure, but they're lessons you should already know. One, all games are vulnerable and from more angles than you can possibly conceive. Two, prop bets and parlays are non-charitable donations to strangers unaccustomed to acts of charity, especially if they involve non-rotational players. Three, memorize those gambling help numbers. Four, make sure your toilet can accommodate cellphones in an emergency.

Five, and most important, don't ever do business with anyone who claims to be "Bruce” but is not.

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