“Crime & Punishment” – it’s one of the most popular tags here on Fun While It Lasted. These are the stories of sports teams & owners brought down by their own criminal mischief. Typically, these stories revolve around financial scams and embezzlement, such as Mickey Monus’ looting of millions of dollars from his Phar-Mor pharmacy chain to fund the World Basketball League or the fugitive mortgage broker Philip Breen’s adventures with Other People’s Money in the Senior Professional Baseball Association.
Drug trafficking is a less common theme in pro sports, although not unexplored (see our article on the front office cocaine ring at the Denver Comets). Today we have our second entry in the Cocaine Chronicles, with a dash of arson thrown in for good measure. Meet the Philadelphia Kings of the Continental Basketball Association.
Larry Lavin began selling cocaine as a undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1970’s. By the time he enrolled in Penn’s dental school, he was a full-fledged dealer with an increasingly sophisticated distribution network in Philadelphia. Between 1978 and 1984, the FBI estimates that Lavin and his associates – a white-collar cabal of dentists, lawyers, accountants and others known as “The Yuppie Conspiracy” – distributed up to 110 pounds of cocaine per month in 14 U.S. States and Canada. By 1980, Lavin had earned more than a million dollars cash from dealing. Under pressure from his fiancee to go straight, Lavin began seeking means to launder his cash holdings into a seemingly legitimate income stream. A Philadelphia attorney introduced him to Mark Stewart.
Mark Stewart dabbled in various enterprises in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. He was the business manager for Freddie Shero, the two-time Stanley Cup winning head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. He promoted the occasional boxing card. He got involved with money-losing real estate development deals, which he subsequently sold as fraudulent tax shelters to Shero and others, including Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Jerry Robinson and running back Reggie Wilkes. Lavin initially placed $500,000 with Stewart’s various enterprises which then paid Lavin a modest laundered salary in return.
Infused with Lavin’s cash, Stewart went on a shopping spree, starting a limo company and promoting a soul music label among other projects. In June 1980, Stewart persuaded Lavin to purchase the decrepit Philadelphia Arena at 45th & Market Street in West Philadelphia for $100,000. Larmark, Inc., one of Stewart’s laundering entities for Lavin’s cocaine sales, became the owner of record. The arena, opened in 1920, had a long history hosting boxing, wrestling and ice hockey, but had fallen into disuse after the construction of the Spectrum in 1967. Throughout the 1970’s, it was used mainly to house Philadelphia’s public television station. Stewart renamed the building Martin Luther King Arena as a community relations move aimed at the arena’s primarily African-American neighbors.
Martin Luther King Arena re-opened as an entertainment venue on June 20th, 1980, offering a closed-circuit feed of the “Brawl in Montreal” boxing match between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. But Stewart couldn’t get his newly installed satellite equipment to work. The showing had to be cancelled, leading to a mini-riot by the boxing fans lined up outside.
Later in 1980, Lavin gave Stewart $25,000 in drug money to help purchase the Lancaster (PA) Red Roses of the minor league Continental Basketball Association. The small city of Lancaster, nestled in Pennsylvania Dutch country, had hosted a series of minor league basketball teams – all known as the Red Roses – dating back to 1946. The latest incarnation of the Red Roses started up in 1975. Stewart relocated the franchise to the Martin Luther King Arena and dubbed it the Philadelphia Kings as part of his ongoing MLK tribute act. Stewart hired long-time Philadelphia 76ers star Hal Greer to run the building and serve as the Kings Head Coach and General Manager.
Greer was one of the all-time great figures in Philadelphia 76ers history. The guard from Marshall University played his entire 15-year NBA career for the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers franchise, earning 10 All-Star appearances and retiring as the 5th all-time leading scorer in NBA history. During the 1967 playoffs, Greer averaged nearly 28 points per game as the 76ers won their first NBA title.
The Kings also signed former NBA star Cazzie Russell. The New York Knicks made Russell the #1 overall pick in the 1966 NBA Draft out of the University of Michigan. He went on to win an NBA title with the Knicks in 1970 and earned an All-Star nod with the Golden State Warriors in 1972. His NBA career ended in 1978.
By January 1981, the Kings were two months into the CBA season. Russell was a bright spot, averaging 19 points a game to that point. Kings leading scorer Norman Black earned a call-up on a 10-day contract to the Detroit Pistons of the NBA. Otherwise, the Kings were a disaster. The Anchorage Daily News reported that Philadelphia Kings attendance through the first two months averaged approximately 150 fans per game in a city that already had the NBA, Villanova and Temple college basketball, Flyers hockey and Eagles football during the winter months.
At the end of the 1980-81 CBA season, the franchise was sold and relocated back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where it became known as the Lancaster Lightning. Russell moved with the team and became its Head Coach for several years.
In the summer 1981, Lavin and his partners stopped giving money to Stewart. The Kings had been a disaster and the arena had become a financial sinkhole. Stewart hatched a plan with two employees of his Celebrity Limousine Service (another Lavin-funded entity controlled by Stewart). The conspirators paid $12,500 to a Pagans motorcycle gang member named James “Horrible” Holt to burn the building down. On October 4th, 1981, Holt torched the Martin Luther King Arena. The blaze destroyed the building’s roof, but did not bring it down. The damaged building sat vacant and unoccupied until August 1983 when a second suspected arson finished the job, burning the building to the ground.
Hal Greer was honored with induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1996, the NBA named Greer to its 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, honoring the Top 50 players in league history.
Cazzie Russell coached in the CBA throughout the 1980’s. In November 2011, he will be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
Mark Stewart was indicted in January 1985 for selling the fraudulent tax shelters that resulted in large IRS debts owed by Flyers coach Freddie Shero and Philadelphia Eagles players Jerry Robinson and Reggie Wilkes. In September 1986, Stewart was indicted on arson charges for the 1981 fire at Martin Luther King Arena. During the same year, Stewart pleaded guilty to helping Lavin launder his money and was sentenced to four years in prison. Stewart’s arsonist, gang member James “Horrible” Holt was murdered in 1984.
Larry Lavin was arrested in 1984. Lavin and his wife and child went on the run, living under assumed identities for more than a year in Virginia. He was arrested in 1986 and pled guilty later that years to conspiracy, drug distribution and tax evasion charges. The Yuppie Conspiracy and the Lavin-Stewart partnership was chronicled in the 1987 book Doctor Dealer by Mark Bowden, later the author of Black Hawk Down. Bowden’s book was a key source for this article.