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Fresno Reels Amid Probe of Point-Shaving Allegations

Sports: Controversy centers around two basketball players and two businessmen. Any wrongdoing is denied.

March 27, 1997|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRESNO — It had the feel of a perfect fit, this fast-growing farm town aching for a national winner and the legendary basketball coach seeking one last chance at redemption, one last shot at restoring his luster.

Fresno and Jerry Tarkanian. The land of Armenians and the wandering Armenian son come home after a 37-year road trip that saw "Tark the Shark" become college basketball's most winning and most investigated coach.

"It's Tark Time," crowed the Fresno Bee headline in April 1995, the day he penned the deal. The whole town, sensing at last its chance for glory, went nuts.

But two seasons into his comeback, Tarkanian is once again trying to fend off allegations that could not only cost him his basketball program but also rob this city, which wants to be so much more than a raisin town, of a big piece of its pride. This time, the FBI is investigating allegations that two players at Fresno State University conspired with local gamblers to shave points in several games during this season.

It was the Armenian community that two years ago persuaded university officials--jittery over Tarkanian's reputation for playing loose with National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rules--to bring him back home. And now it is members of that same ethnic community, a pawnshop broker and a car salesman, who are alleged to have conspired with two of Tarkanian's players to betray the 66-year-old coach in the worst possible way.

"Point shaving is the worst thing that an athlete can ever do," Tarkanian said. "It would destroy the program. It would destroy me personally. It would kill me. I couldn't live with that. . . . If it's true, I'll quit."

With so many hopes in this irrigated flatland pinned on Tarkanian's last hurrah, it is no wonder that the wagons are circling the coach and the team. The same Fresno Bee that handed out free "Tark Time" T-shirts and printed full-page posters of each starting player is now being pilloried by much of the town for pursuing the point shaving story. One Bee reporter has had his life threatened.

The timing of the allegations could not be worse. So much good seems within such easy reach--an 18,000-seat on-campus basketball arena, national television exposure, and a stunning lineup of talent waiting in the wings that Tarkanian has lured from inner cities across the country to this improbable spot.

Now, the next season of great expectations may never come.

Tarkanian, his voice hoarse and fingernails chewed, is hoping that the whole thing will go away. But in recent days, FBI agents have contacted the pawnshop broker suspected of putting together the plot and interviewed owners of a local nightclub where players and gamblers are said to have consorted.

The FBI has jurisdiction in the case because point shaving is a federal crime that could result in prison terms for gamblers and players. Meanwhile, the federal grand jury has subpoenaed the pawnshop's records after it was revealed that one of the players had visited the shop to look at jewelry. Federal authorities have declined all comment on the case.

But in a three-week investigation by The Times, a detailed picture has emerged based on dozens of interviews with Bulldog coaches, players, fans, boosters, nightclub owners and members of Fresno's bookmaking underworld. It is a picture of friendly ties between the two basketball players at the center of the allegations, sophomore guard Chris Herren and senior guard Dominick Young, and the two businessmen now under FBI scrutiny.

As far back as late January, The Times has learned, a large illegal bookmaking ring in the San Joaquin Valley took several bets from gamblers who detailed the workings of the entire alleged scheme.

"It was no secret," said one member of the bookmaking ring. "Once word leaked out about Fresno State games being fixed, people inside and outside our organization were using that knowledge to place bets."

Herren, 21, is a three-point shot wizard and transfer from Boston College who grew up tough in the blue-collar town of Fall River, Mass., where his high school exploits were chronicled in the recent book "Fall River Dreams." Averaging 18 points a game this season, Herren is considered a future National Basketball Assn. draft choice if he can keep in check a substance abuse problem that family and friends say plagued him at Boston College.

Young, 23, a native of Chicago, was thought to be high on pro scouting lists as well, but a series of disappointing performances this season dropped his stock. Earlier this month, after the Bulldogs lost in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament, he dropped out of school.

In public statements and through their attorneys, Herren and Young deny that they took part in any scheme to shave points. They also deny any personal or business ties to the two men who are the focus of the FBI investigation: Dan Jelladian, the 23-year-old pawnshop broker, and Kirk Vartanian, the 27-year-old car salesman.

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