Cheat­ing in pro sports is for chumps, ex­cept when it’s done right.

AS THE SON OF BOOT­LEG­GERS IN DE­PRES­SION-era North Carolina, Ju­nior John­son learned all the tricks to build­ing a hum­drum-look­ing car with the mus­cle to out­run any po­lice cruiser. He took that knack for sub­terfuge to the re­gion’s dirt tracks, where ev­ery griz­zled gear­head lived by the same credo: If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’. John­son adopted a dif­fer­ent view. “If they ain’t got a rule for it,” he says, “how can they say you’re cheatin’?”

Over the next four decades, the driver and team owner gave the guardians of NASCAR an aw­ful lot to dis­like about his cars—though rarely for break­ing a rule. Noth­ing (at the time) said you couldn’t get your ve­hi­cle up to the re­quired pre-race weight by slip­ping a solid-lead hel­met in­side it. Or by fill­ing the frame rails with BBS, then us­ing a string mounted to a lit­tle trap­door to jet­ti­son them onto the track dur­ing the pa­rade lap. John­son’s most out­ra­geous creation was dubbed the Yel­low Banana: a ’66 Ford Galaxie

Cheat­ing is for chumps. But it takes a cer­tain ge­nius to de­feat a foe with hook­ers and Stickum. Just ask L.T., Lester Hayes, and Ju­nior John­son.

that he chopped and re­assem­bled into a wildly aero­dy­namic mis­sile with up­swept rear quar­ter-pan­els, a left side three inches lower than the right, and a wind­shield sloped so far back, it took the whole crew to slide the driver in­side.

“Say what you want about that car,” John­son says, “but it passed in­spec­tion.” He laughs.

“It wouldn’t by to­day’s rules. Hell, even the rules they had the fol­low­ing week. But those rules are only there be­cause of me.”

Wel­come to the vast, gray nether­world of games­man­ship—the sto­ried realm of hus­tlers, card­sharps, and wily vets; of Red Auerbach and Jimmy Con­nors; of champs and chumps. Few things in life in­spire more vit­riol than out­right cheat­ing. Say it ain’t so, Lance! Say it ain’t so, Mcgwire, Sosa, Bonds, Cle­mens, A-rod! We hate guys who break the rules (Richard Nixon) but find some­thing oddly ad­mirable, even en­dear­ing, about those with a ge­nius for bend­ing them (JFK). We’re not talk­ing about ju­ve­nile stunts like yelling “Ha!” at a base­ball player about to catch a pop-up (A-rod). We’re talk­ing about schemes that re­quire in­ge­nu­ity and artistry. Think of Ty Cobb’s sharp­ened base­ball spikes. Tear-away jer­seys. Lawrence Tay­lor send­ing a pair of hook­ers to a ri­val’s ho­tel room the night be­fore a big game with in­struc­tions to wear the poor guy out. Spies with tele­scopes holed up in the score­board to in­ter­cept the op­pos­ing catcher’s signs.

At its best, games­man­ship de­mands a con­nois­seur’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the rule book. Con­sider star cor­ner­back Lester Hayes’ lib­eral use of Stickum to snare er­rant passes. Not il­le­gal! (At least not un­til the aptly named “Lester Hayes rule” came to be.) Some­times all that’s re­quired is in­vok­ing an ob­scure reg­u­la­tion at the ideal time—a weird spe­cialty of base­ball man­ager Jack Mckeon. Once, to change mo­men­tum in a los­ing game, he got an ump to stop play and force the Mets’ Ja­son Is­ring­hausen to con­form to code by us­ing a Sharpie to black out the white let­ter­ing on his glove. “[Man­ager] Bobby Valen­tine got hot over that,” Mckeon says, chuck­ling. “Call it mind games if you want, but if I can take ad­van­tage of know­ing a rule, I’m go­ing to do it.”

To many, games­man­ship is a sur­vival skill, the key to out­wit­ting an ad­ver­sary, psych­ing out an op­po­nent, main­tain­ing the up­per hand on your home turf. Who wants to leave it to fickle fans to pro­vide that cru­cial edge? Not Hay­den Fry, leg­endary coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes, who had the visi­tors’ locker room painted pink in an odd at­tempt to sap the fight from his team’s ri­vals. Nor the count­less oth­ers who have tin­kered with base paths, pitcher’s mounds, sight lines, the height of the grass, the speed of the ice, the fire alarms at nearby ho­tels, and sta­dium air cur­rents, which have a funny way of keep­ing a base­ball aloft or ground­ing a field goal kick.

In re­cent years, foes of the San An­to­nio Spurs have dis­cov­ered a rat­tlesnake in a locker, a swarm of flies in the dress­ing room, and a bat on the loose in­side the arena. So is it any wonder that the A/C at the AT&T Cen­ter mys­te­ri­ously crapped out in Game 1 of last June’s NBA Fi­nals? The fact re­mains that the home team’s locker room was tricked out with pow­er­ful cool­ing fans.

If that sounds like crazy con­spir­acy talk, check out the hand­i­work of Bill Veeck. In 1951, as owner of base­ball’s St. Louis Browns, he signed 3′7" Ed­die Gaedel to a con­tract, out­fit­ted him in a jersey sport­ing the num­ber ⅛, and sent him to the plate to pinch-hit—with a strike zone the size of a belt buckle. Gaedel walked on four pitches and was re­placed by a pinch run­ner. The next day, the league voided his con­tract and de­clared that, hence­forth, no such deal may go into ef­fect un­til it’s re­viewed by the league of­fice.

Veeck went right on search­ing for loop­holes. As an owner of a mi­nor league team in Mil­wau­kee, he in­stalled an out­field fence that could be raised or low­ered to counter the com­pe­ti­tion’s lineup. When he bought the Cleveland In­di­ans, he went even fur­ther, rig­ging the fences so they could be moved in or out by 15 feet. Veeck’s se­cret weapon was “the Michelan­gelo of groundskeep­ers.” Be­fore each game, Emil Bos­sard sculpted the pitch­ing mound to fa­vor Cleveland’s starter. He’d an­gle the pitch of the foul line to ben­e­fit the In­di­ans. “But where Bos­sard’s wiz­ardry re­ally shone through,” Veeck wrote, “was in the way he tai­lored our di­a­mond to the in­di­vid­ual needs of our in­field­ers. We did not have one in­field at Cleveland; we had an in­field seg­mented into four sec­tions.”

As for the Spurs, their faulty A/c—sorry about those leg cramps, Lebron!—comes up short on orig­i­nal­ity. In Game 5 of the 1984 NBA Fi­nals, the heat at the old Bos­ton Gar­den soared to­ward 100 de­grees. Lak­ers Hall of Famer Ka­reem Ab­dul-jab­bar was forced to the bench to suck on an oxy­gen mask while the Celtics cruised to a 121–103 vic­tory.

But, hey, maybe this is just co­in­ci­dence. Af­ter all, what are the odds that 30 years later, an­other team with a long run of be­ing crafty and suc­cess­ful would con­sider pulling the same stunt as the one as­cribed in leg­end to Celtics pres­i­dent Arnold “Red” Auerbach. The cigar-chomp­ing rogue and games­man ex­traor­di­naire logged 16 cham­pi­onships as a coach and team ex­ec­u­tive. For the record, that’s the most in NBA his­tory. ■


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