NBA teams worry over card game gambling

Jan 25 2010 - 6:24pm

Just because the game has ended and the team has boarded a flight doesn't mean the rush of competition has died down.

Instead of jockeying for position on the basketball court, players often put their competitive energy into card games.

Those games aren't new to the NBA or sports in general. As long as there have been road trips, there have been players wagering among themselves to kill time as they move on to the next city.

With thousands of dollars being exchanged in some cases, a poker game between teammates could lead to friction on and off the court.

Some teams have taken steps to prevent problems by banning gambling on team flights. Other teams find it is not a concern but would step in if it became one.

Gambling in the NBA has come into the spotlight since Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas brought guns to the locker room in what he has said was a joke that started over a gambling debt from a team flight.

Players, coaches and team executives seem to agree that gambling among teammates is part of the culture of professional sports.

"I'm not a very good sociologist," said Denver Nuggets coach George Karl. "I think there's a lot of camaraderie there. There's probably a point (where) it can get out of control, but I think it's almost been a tradition of the NBA."

Whether it's having shooting contests, card games or more unusual contests, there will always be opportunities to wager.

Provided no one takes matters too far, no one seems to have a problem with that. The Arenas case, however, has become the prime example of what can happen when a friendly game of cards becomes personal.

Wizards guard Javaris Crittenton reportedly won $25,000 playing the card game Bourre (pronounced boo-ray) and said he'd shoot Arenas in his surgically repaired knee as the two argued over the debt.

Arenas, whose fondness for gambling goes back to his admission that he sometimes played online poker at halftime of games, reportedly placed four unloaded guns at Crittenton's locker to give him the option of picking which gun he could shoot Arenas with.

Arenas has since pleaded guilty to one count of carrying a pistol without a license. He'd already been suspended indefinitely by NBA Commissioner David Stern.

An assistant U.S. attorney involved in the case said last week that the government will not seek more than six months in prison when Arenas is sentenced in March.

The Arenas case led the Wizards, New Jersey Nets and Miami Heat to ban gambling on team flights.

As of now, there is no league-wide initiative to ban gambling among players.

"Historically, this has been a team issue, and we have teams that currently ban gambling during team activities," NBA spokesman Tim Frank wrote in an e-mail.

There are some, though, who support the league stepping in. Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson said that since the team traded Stephen Jackson, there aren't card games on team flights.

"It's not a bad thing not to allow gambling, money on the table, card games," Nelson said. "Maybe the league ought to think about doing something that way. It would probably be a good thing."

Nelson acknowledged that he's played more than his share of hands.

"When I was with the New York Knicks, I got in their game and won $3,000 as a coach," Nelson said. "So it wasn't a bad game then. But the point is everybody's not an adult yet, so you have to be careful. Sometimes that's an expensive poker lesson when you're in a game over your head."

Sacramento Kings coach Paul Westphal doesn't prohibit high stakes games among teammates. He laughed recalling his days of playing backgammon with Pat Riley on team flights.

In previous coaching stints with Phoenix and Seattle, Westphal said he never had a rule against games among teammates. He said if he ever saw games becoming too personal he'd step in.

"To me, you have to be mature about it, and you have to play for fun," Westphal said. "When you start trying to bankrupt your teammate, that's a gambling problem. If you have a friendly game to pass the time, I think (that) among mature people, there's nothing wrong with that."

The Arenas situation showed what can happen when a friendly game gets out of hand. There have been other examples of what happens when a game goes bad for NBA players.

Before an exhibition game in 2000, then-Toronto Raptors forward Charles Oakley became the debt collector when it came to Philadelphia's Tyrone Hill. Oakley slapped Hill on the side of his head and was fined and suspended for a game later that season for throwing a ball at Hill's head during a shootaround.

Hill in 2001 reportedly paid Oakley $54,000 that he owed him from a dice game.

"A gentleman pays his debt within a week or two," Oakley was quoted as saying about the payment.

In another case, Jerry Stackhouse allegedly punched Christian Laettner in 1999 after believing Laettner had cheated him out of $2,000 in a card game.

Former NBA star Antoine Walker owed $905,050 to three Las Vegas casinos in 2009. He reached a deal to pay off the debt after facing three felony charges for writing bad checks.

NBA legends Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley have also been known to enjoy some high-stakes wagering.

Perhaps the only way to curb gambling would be if more players took Kevin Martin's approach.

He might be the highest-paid King, but he's not trying to make his money grow with the roll of dice.

"I like my money," Martin said. "I don't like to give my money up."

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