04/04/2002 12:00AM

The real story behind 'Big Shot'

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"Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie," the made-for-cable docudrama about the 1994 Arizona State basketball point-shaving scandal, gets a thumbs-up from one Las Vegan, Jimmy Vaccaro.

Vaccarro, a Las Vegan since 1975 and a gambler much earlier than that in his native Pittsburgh, loves to see how his field of expertise is portrayed on film. And "Big Shot" has particular relevance for Vaccaro, because he was the sports book director for Mirage Resorts in 1994 and played a role in uncovering the Arizona State scandal.

The movie premiered on FX last Sunday and is scheduled to be shown again several times this weekend.

Vaccaro offers an insider's view of what really happened, and how close the movie is to reality.

"The most glaring thing in the movie for me was when the young kid [student bookmaker Benny Silman] said 'no one knew what we were doing, this could go on forever,' " Vaccaro said. "Little did he know. As early as the Oregon State game [the first fixed game], I talked to three college kids who were betting large amounts against Arizona State. They weren't very sophisticated. I had a hard time explaining to them what the point spread was, and they didn't understand the 11-10. They didn't know they had to bet $16,500 to win $15,000.

"I talked to [sportsbook managers] Jack Franzi, Art Manteris, and Nick Bogdanovich. We've all been around the block. It was very reminiscent of the Tulane scandal about a decade earlier."

The problem for the bookmakers was they only had suspicions, not proof. After the second fixed game, it was three weeks before the next unusual flood of money against ASU. The team lost outright as a 9-point favorite over USC, but there still wasn't enough proof.

"There's no law against betting against bad teams," Vaccaro said, "and 9-point favorites lose every Saturday during the college basketball season. You can't cry 'fix' every time a team plays poorly. If that was the case, you would say Indiana and Maryland were both fixing the national title game [Monday]. They both played terrible."

Vaccaro decided he had to do something. The Mirage was watched closely by gaming regulators because it took the biggest bets and had the highest handle in town. When Vaccaro heard a rumor that the same bettors were coming to town, he called the Mirage's lawyers on March 4, 1994, and asked what he should do. He said he didn't hear back from them.

Vaccaro said he arrived at work the next day around 8:30 a.m. and looked to see what wagers had been made. He saw a $17,000 bet had already been placed at the Golden Nugget (part of the Mirage family) on Washington +11 against Arizona State. A short time later, the same college students were at Treasure Island (another Mirage property) and bet more, even though the line had already dropped to +9. The students then moved to the Mirage and camped out in the lounge behind the sports book, awaiting the 2 p.m. tipoff.

Meanwhile, Vaccaro had called the Gaming Control Board and a conference call was set up with bookmakers and Pac-10 commissioner David Price. Vaccaro says Price thanked the bookmakers for contacting him with the information.

The people who knew the fix was in - and as the movie showed, that number grew rapidly - were spreading money all over town. The Stardust opened the game at ASU -11 and it got pounded to -5. The Imperial Palace opened ASU -10 and it got bet down to -6 before the IP took the game off the board.

The large betting syndicates caught on quickly. Some were following the money, but a lot of big players were trying to arbitrage and set up middles. The movie showed everyone betting on Washington to force the line down, but Vaccaro said the line moved slower than you would think. He said he knew he would get money on ASU at -7 if professional bettors knew there was -9 available elsewhere.

"From a bookmaking standpoint, it was a very fun day, but it wasn't so fun later," said Vaccaro, who took a lot of heat from gaming regulators for not acting sooner.

Vaccaro says a meaningless game like ASU-Washington would normally attract $30,000 to $50,000 at the Mirage on a typical Saturday. Some people have disputed the FBI's figure that $900,000 was bet on that game, but Vaccaro said the Mirage properties booked $580,000 by themselves. The line dropped all the way to 3 1/2 at the Mirage before closing at ASU -4.

As history (and the movie) shows, ASU missed its first 14 shots and the rumors really started buzzing.

"They picked the perfect team to do this with," Vaccaro said. "They were terrible except for two scorers, [Stevin] Hedake Smith and Isaac Burton. And this team couldn't stop anybody. It's not a stretch that you could bet against them three straight times and win without any funny business going on."

Of course, Washington was a bad team, too. Despite playing terribly, Arizona State still led 25-23 at halftime.

The halftime sequence in the movie is one that Vaccaro has a hard time believing. In the movie, ASU coach Bill Frieder tells the team at halftime that the Pac-10 has been notified by Vegas casinos of a possible fix.

Vaccaro cites anecdotal evidence that Frieder wasn't aware of anything suspicious until the following day. Numerous media reports have stated that Frieder flew to Vegas and spent all day on March 6 betting the horses at the MGM (where Bally's is now located). But Vaccaro says Frieder came to the Mirage first.

"I almost had a heart attack," Vaccaro said. "Bill is a sharp gambler. He can count cards. He bets the horses all the time. He isn't stupid enough to show up in a Vegas casino the day after he's told a game of his might be fixed. That just makes no sense. I went and sat behind him and whispered, 'Bill, you really don't want to be seen here.' He looked at me like he didn't have a clue what I was talking about. I said, 'They think your game was fixed.' He gave me a puzzled look and said, 'But we won by 18 points.' "

Yes, Arizona State played much better in the second half and won 73-55 to cover the spread and make losers of all those who bet against it. The Pac-10 and Nevada Gaming Control Board were unable to prove anything with their initial investigations, and it took three years before arrests were made.

Vaccaro said that at one point on March 5 he checked his computer and saw that the "worst-case scenario" was the house winning $21,000 on that game, because of the volume of wagers on both sides was so big.

Silman was absolutely correct in a line uttered many times in the movie: "The house never loses."