I've never been invited to one of those high-end poker games hosted by Helly Nahmad's pals, but I do know he's a gambling man. My sole encounter with Nahmad—who, along with a Star Wars cantina's worth of goons and sharpers, was recently indicted for allegedly operating a gambling and money-laundering operation out of his eponymous art gallery—occurred in the spring of 2010.
The Knicks had just bumbled their way through another disappointing season, and a few days afterward the team's starting point guard, Chris Duhon, pulled up to the curb of my Upper East Side gym, Sports Club/LA. This, in itself, wasn't unusual—the gym attracts many professional athletes and celebrities. Metta World Peace often brought his son, Ron-Ron, for boxing lessons. Troy Murphy, now retired, would spend long summer hours in the café, emitting fart noises from his cell phone. George Clooney occasionally showed up to practice his accurate (though flat) jump shot.
Sports Club/LA also catered to less upstanding citizens. Accused rapist and Academy-Award-winning songwriter Joseph Brooks worked out there before he committed suicide and left a quarter-million dollars to his physical trainer. Luis Jacas, whom we all knew as DJ, launched long-range set shots and ill-advised full-court passes before going to prison for masterminding an ambitious credit card scam.
But as far as I know, Duhon wasn't a member. Rather, he was there at the invitation of Nahmad to help settle a $50,000 bet.
The bet, I was told, had been forged on the Knicks' plane on the way to a game in Toronto. Two of my acquaintances from the gym—wealthy Wall Streeters whom I'll call Tom and Andrew—were there as VIP guests, along with Nahmad. Compared with their NBA flight mates, they may have been short in stature, but not of ego. Tom talked up Andrew's hoops skills, while Nahmad said he didn't think Andrew could score a single point on Duhon. They agreed to wager $50,000 to find out. (I'm told Nahmad agreed to pay Duhon $10,000 to make it worth his while, though I never saw any money change hands.)
Word quickly spread among us rec players. As Duhon signed in at the reception desk, we watched a pale and doughy Nahmad confer with Tom about the rules of the bet. We debated among ourselves how the game was likely to go. Sure, Duhon had stunk it up for the Knicks, but he was a former McDonald's All-American who set the all-time steals record at Duke. Meanwhile, Andrew's basketball career had topped out with collegiate intramurals. His jumper was shaky. Still, he was young, athletic, and only an inch or two shorter than Duhon, and he'd have at least 10 chances to score a single point, since they were playing no-make-it-take-it to 11. I liked his chances, but not to the tune of $50,000.
Duhon shot for ball and missed. Andrew took the ball at the top of the key, turned his back, and began a slow crawl toward the hoop, with Duhon bumping him each step of the way. When he was 15 feet from the basket, Andrew attempted a turnaround jumper that clanged off the rim. But he chased it down, dribbled it back outside, and sank a mid-range jumper. Game over. He and Tom exchanged high fives.
But Nahmad insisted the point didn't count. Duhon, who was already sitting on the bleachers unlacing his shoes, had made no attempt at the rebound, thinking that once the shot had been missed Andrew's possession was over, which is apparently how more skilled players often play one-on-one. After 10 minutes of arguing, when it had become clear that no money was likely to change hands, they agreed to a new bet for the original stakes. But this time they'd play make-it-take-it, and an increasingly confident Andrew would have to score three points before Duhon scored 11.
Duhon scored first on a mid-range jumper. But on the next point, some 25 feet from the basket, he attempted a cross-over dribble that he somehow managed to lose out of bounds, the sort of turnover that a competent middle-schooler is unlikely to make but one that was all too familiar to Knicks fans.
Andrew promptly scored the next three baskets, all turnaround jumpers over Duhon's outstretched hands. As the gym regulars rushed over to congratulate Andrew on his victory, Duhon, betraying no emotion, returned to the stands and unlaced his shoes for the final time. Perhaps it was the last competitive game he'd play as a Knick. That summer, he'd sign a new, four-year, $15-million contract with the Orlando Magic, where he'd end up as the third-string point-guard. He's now riding the pine in Los Angeles.
A week later I ran into Tom at Pastis. He'd split the money with Andrew and was still gloating, and I made him buy me drinks. As for Nahmad, I never saw him again. Backing Duhon, it now appears, was just one of many bad bets.
Paul Wachter, the co-founder of againstdumb.com, has written about sports for Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, and Bloomberg Businessweek.