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The Coolest Guy

February 2024
2min read

…and The Sad Truth About How He Got His Car

It was the late spring of 1959, and my mother had just finished sewing nametags on all my clothes. That was great. It meant I was going to camp. Like most 13-year-old boys, I was impressionable, given to aspirational yearnings, and perhaps more trusting and less savvy than today’s kids. Then I met Gary Kaufman.

Pinelake Camp was in the Catskill Mountains, three hours north of my Brooklyn home. Bunk 16 contained ten campers and one counselor, Gary Kaufman. He was the coolest guy I had ever met. Besides being very nice, he was handsome and what people then called suave, and he had a limitless supply of girlfriends. If that wasn’t enough, he drove a brand-new red Corvette and was on the basketball team at his college. The fact that I’d never heard of that college did nothing to lessen the impact. It was in California, hence exotic and desirable. Two more exotic virtues completed the picture: Gary listened to jazz and was an excellent golfer. We campers worshiped Gary Kaufman.

One day he told us that a good friend of his was coming to visit the camp and would be spending the night in our cabin. This person had been down on his luck, Gary said, and we should treat him nicely. Then he added that our guest had played basketball in the NBA. Gary Kaufman had a friend who’d played in the NBA? And he’d be staying with us? This was beyond comprehension. Treat our guest nicely? Of course we would; only gods played in the NBA.

Sure enough, the friend came. It was late in the day. He was six feet six inches tall, unquestionably larger than life. Gary introduced him, and he shook hands with each of us before he and Gary went off. They came back long after we’d gone to sleep, but the next morning our guest ate breakfast at our table and then gave us a basketball clinic. I vividly remember practicing bounce passes with him. He left shortly afterward, and the summer progressed, with Gary continuing to lead the kind of life that only he and Hugh Hefner shared.

Two years later, in 1961, all hell broke loose in college basketball. Thirty-seven players from 22 schools were implicated in fixing games or shaving points. The center of the activity was our amiable guest, Jack Molinas. He had befriended good ballplayers in schoolyards and playgrounds, cultivated their trust, and eventually bribed them.

I pored over the articles. After all, I knew Jack; we had bounced passes together. I learned that he had been banned from the NBA for betting on the games he was playing in. No wonder he was “down on his luck.” Then I came upon an article that mentioned Gary Kaufman. I was stunned. I’d never thought about how Gary got to be cool. He just was. He had a sports car because he was cool. It never occurred to me to wonder about how someone who must have been from a working-class Brooklyn family would acquire a car simply through suavity. But now I wondered if all those girlfriends were also payments.

Gary Kaufman testified against Jack Molinas in what was almost certainly a deal with the prosecution. To protect himself, he turned against the friend who had been “down on his luck” and whom we should “treat nicely.”

Jack Molinas served five years in Attica and died in 1975, shot in the back of the head in a likely mob hit.

Historians sometimes talk about the assassination of JFK as the end of innocence for my generation. For me, it came two years earlier when the person I longed to become turned out to be a criminal.

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