09/08/2004 11:00PM

Losing one of the good guys


LAS VEGAS - This college football Saturday will seem incomplete for a lot of people in the Las Vegas sports betting community.

Handicapper Mike Lee suffered a massive stroke last Sunday and died Wednesday at Valley Hospital in Las Vegas. He was only 55.

Lee was well known in the local community, but those outside Vegas might have seen him on the "Proline" or "Sportsdesk" handicapping shows on the USA Network. His 1981 book "Betting on Bases" is considered a classic, and according to Howard Schwartz of the Gambler's Book Shop is the best-selling baseball betting book of all time and still relevant in its concepts more than two decades after its release. Lee's "Moneymaker" newsletter was also a success, and his work also appeared in more newspapers, newsletters, and web sites than can be listed here.

In an industry in which the label of "champion handicapper" is overused and often misrepresented, Lee was the real deal. Taking on the elite handicappers of the day, he won the 1985 Castaways Challenge football contest, the forerunner of the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest. He then went on an incredible run in the SuperContest, finishing ninth in 1986, fifth in 1988, and then won it in 1989.

So what happened in 1987? The players' strike caused the contest to be canceled.

He had other achievements, most recently winning the Sunset Station All-Star Handicappers Challenge in 2000, finishing fourth in the SuperContest that same year with a record of 50-29 (63 percent) and one push, and finishing as runner-up in the 2002 Stardust Invitational, compiling an 18-10 record (64 percent) in four appearances.

While he excelled in all sports, his passion was college football, going back to his days at the University of Alabama. But that was only part of why this time of year was his favorite. He made an annual trip to Del Mar with his companion of 15 years, sports-betting writer Lynda Collins. That was a rare getaway right before the onslaught of football season.

Sports betting was his vocation, but Lee was a huge horseracing fan and was quite proficient at finding live longshots. I saw it as a very good sign when we both independently came up with Volponi before the 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic. Lee would often e-mail names of horses to me to bet, though it was usually when he came across one that included the name of my wife or kids and used it as an excuse to ask about my family.

Unlike many in his profession, Lee was modest. He certainly would have been embarrassed by me rambling on about him like this. He wasn't one to thump his chest when he was hot, and was also willing to laugh at himself when he was not. He knew that picking winners took a lot of hard work, but that even when you thought you had it figured out, you still often needed the bounces to go with you.

Lee is survived by his son, Steve, two grandchildren, and, of course, Collins and their pooch, Ms. Del Mar Dog. Lee and Collins made annual treks to Del Mar, and he loved it there so much that he is being cremated and his ashes will be spread in the nearby Pacific Ocean, where the surf meets the turf.

A memorial service was being planned for Friday. That might seem rushed to some people, but it seems appropriate to me because the last thing Lee would have wanted was to keep his friends and family from enjoying their football weekend.

College football picks:

UCLA (-2) at Illinois

This line opened at UCLA -6 1/2, and bettors have been pouring it in on Illinois as if they've seen Sunday's newspaper. It's even dropped to -1 1/2 at some Vegas sports books. The movement is obviously based on UCLA's 31-20 loss to Oklahoma St., combined with Illinois's 52-13 rout of Florida A&M. But ask yourself this: If a racehorse hangs tough and loses to stiffer stakes competition and then goes against a horse that romps in a claiming race, who would you bet on? I side with the battle-tested one, and that's why I'm on UCLA. The Bruins will be dropping in class and should have an easier time running against Illinois's defense. Illinois is also not at the level of Oklahoma St., and the UCLA defense should fare better. And, finally, I think the oddsmakers had the line right to begin with and we're getting more than 4 points' worth of value.

PLAY: UCLA for 1 unit.

Arizona St. (+2) at Northwestern

Here's another game where the point spread isn't likely to come into play. I think the oddsmakers have the wrong team favored. This should be a shootout (as reflected by the total of 59 1/2 points), and ASU quarterback Andrew Walter & Co. should just be too much for Northwestern to match score for score.

PLAY: Arizona St. for 1 unit.

Fresno St. (+13 1/2) at Kansas St.

Kansas St. is traditionally tough at home and against non-conference opponents, but Fresno St. isn't a creampuff opponent that KSU usually schedules, like Division I-AA Western Kentucky, against whom the Wildcats were less than dominating last week in a 27-13 win. Fresno St. upset Washington, 35-16, on the road last week, and coach Pat Hill has his team thinking it's a world-beater like it was a few years ago, when the team was nationally ranked. The Bulldogs are likely to fall short of the national title again because of the BCS system, but they should be competitive in a game that I projected would have a line around 8 or 9.

PLAY: Kansas St. for 1 unit.

Season record: 1-1 for net loss of 0.1 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).