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Student Outreach Is The Only Bet Jordan Spencer Will Make

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One month ago, it seemed as though Jordan Spencer had reached a career crescendo. The 6’2” point guard had just led his team, the Milton Keynes Breakers, on a 30-game winning streak, culminating in a victory in England’s NBL D2 championship over the Solent Kestrels.

A little more than 18 minutes into the game’s broadcast, an announcer shared that Spencer had told him prior to tipoff that the Breakers would not only win, but that he would get a triple-double. He made good on his word by posting 26 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists an was named the game’s MVP.

Nearly three years before this crowning achievement, however, Spencer had bottomed out. He’d become addicted to sports betting, having lost some $50,000 between 2018 and 2021. He first was exposed to this form of wagering while attending college in South Dakota, but didn’t try his own hand at it until he bet on the pro team he played for, the London Lions.

At the time, he had no idea such a wager was against league rules, but by the time he had to face the music for this violation, drugs and alcohol were part of the equation, and his gambling addiction, he said, found him betting on table tennis and the like.

“Everything crazy you could gamble on a sport, I was doing it,” he recalled.

The long journey to South Dakota

Milton Keynes wasn’t the first of Spencer’s teams to reach the roundball mountaintop. As a sophomore, he was a crucial member of Augustana University’s NCAA Division II national championship.

Just how does a British kid wind up playing college ball in Sioux Falls, South Dakota? 

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“Back then, it was just YouTube,” he said. “I emailed every single D1 school in the country by myself. I got some feedback and opportunities, but never any true offers. Augustana, a JuCo, and a pro team came to the U.K. to do a basketball camp, and by the end of the camp, a coach at Augustana offered me a scholarship.”

By the time Spencer showed up in South Dakota, however, the assistant coach who’d recruited him had moved on to another job.

“I didn’t know the coach, didn’t know the place,” he said. “I was just kind of dropped there halfway through the season in 2013 and redshirted.”

This wasn’t Spencer’s first exposure to the United States, to be sure. At the age of 16, he spent a year living with extended family in Los Angeles, where he played for Bishop Montgomery High School. But landing in South Dakota “was a culture shock, for sure,” he said.

“It was minus-50 with the wind chill,” he continued. “I didn’t know anyone. The people were very different than what I was used to — not very diverse. But everyone was super friendly there, super nice. It took me a few months to settle and accept where I am, getting involved with people. They wanted me to come in and play straightaway, but I wasn’t ready.”

As a redshirt freshman, Spencer said, “I had the ability to start, but I wasn’t showing that.” Luckily for him, Augustana’s starting point guard came down with the flu. Spencer was inserted into the starting lineup, had a fabulous game, and wound up being named Freshman of the Year in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.

The Vikings would go on to win the DII national championship the following season, and Spencer remains the program’s all-time leader in assists, assists per game, games started, and minutes played.

Next stop: London.

Red or black, win or lose

Spencer witnessed some of his classmates betting through bookies while at Augustana, but the extent of his own gambling involved crossing the state line into Iowa and visiting tribal casinos.

“I’d go there with $100, put it all on red or black, and I’d win or lose,” he said.

But when he got back to London, he said, “I had a lot of school friends on group chats and they were winning on soccer. And my friend told me I could bet on my team. As things progressed, it started to go into the NBA, then the worst time was betting on my own games to win. I had a feeling there might be something wrong, but because I was betting on us to win, that was fine.”

Spencer was a major contributor for the Lions during the 2018-2019 season, averaging 12 points and six assists while starting all but one of the team’s 31 games. But at season’s end, FIBA and the British Basketball Association correctly deduced that he’d violated league rules by betting on his own team.

Upon receiving a letter from the governing bodies informing him of his punishment, Spencer initially thought his career was over. Instead, he was banned from the British Basketball League and national team for a year and had to pay a fine of nearly $2,000.

The fine, he said, “hurt me the most because I was already in debt” from gambling.

By this time, Spencer had come clean to his family, who took over his finances for a few months as he decamped to play for a pro team in Germany while serving out his BBL suspension. Still, he kept right on betting, albeit not on his own squad.

“I found out a way to gamble in Germany, and then from there, I started doing it by myself — lying to my parents about the team not paying me the full amount,” he said.

His suspension served, he again played for the Lions, but was soon released.

“I’d never gotten cut from a team,” he said. “I went and got professional help from GA (Gamblers Anonymous). My last bet was in 2021, so it’s quite fresh.”

A fortuitous Canadian talk

As part of his punishment for betting on the Lions, FIBA wanted Spencer to deliver a talk about his wayward experience with gambling. But then COVID happened, so he produced a five-minute video for the Olympics website instead.

Someone who saw Spencer’s video invited him to speak at a symposium in Canada that was attended by the NCAA’s managing director of enforcement, Mark Hicks, who came away impressed.

“What an impressive kid — crazy story, like these all are,” said Hicks. “I think I had to run out and get on a flight as he was finishing, so I reached back out to the people at this conference and they got me his contact information, so I reached out to him on WhatsApp and we connected. I just talked to him on the phone and told him I was proud of him and was really impressed.”

By this point, Hicks had relayed his feelings about Spencer to John Millington, a senior director at EPIC Global Solutions, which specializes on getting recovering gambling addicts in front of at-risk audiences. Millington and Spencer quickly connected, with the latter signing on as one of EPIC’s lived-experience facilitators.

This summer, as he takes a brief break from basketball, Spencer has plans to speak at the NCAA’s College Basketball Academies in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where he will educate recruitable high school athletes on the dangers of gambling.

“I don’t think EPIC has done a ton in the high school space, but I keep screaming every chance I get that we are hearing our athletes are coming into college having already bet,” said Hicks. “This is as much a high school issue as it is a college issue. You don’t typically have integrity issues in high school because you don’t have legalized betting in high school sports, but culturally and socially, young people are getting involved in aspects of gambling at an earlier age. Getting that message out to a younger audience is pretty impactful.”

Empathy for Jontay Porter

When he was disciplined for betting on his own team in London, nobody asked whether Spencer had a problem with gambling. They only knew that his gambling had run afoul of league rules.

Similarly, he said “there was no real education” about gambling within the pro club, just like there was none when he attended Augustana. Such sentiments are consistent with a recent ESPN analysis which found that most university athletic departments don’t address the potential legal pitfalls of gambling.

With EPIC, Spencer is now in position to help remedy that. This past October, the 29-year-old delivered a presentation to several student athletes at his former college, an experience that was as alarming as it was rewarding.

“It’s way more than we can imagine, how many kids are involved with [sports betting],” he said. “The amount of advertisements, the amount of risk nowadays is a lot higher than when I was in school.”

Like Jontay Porter, Spencer was punished — albeit far less severely — for gambling on games, infusing him with a unique sense of empathy for the former Toronto Raptors big man, who was issued a lifetime ban from the NBA for his indiscretions.

“We haven’t heard [Porter’s] side of the story,” he said. “From a human standpoint, I would like to know what he was going through. When I was going through it, nobody really asked me what was going on. They just knew I was gambling on games.”

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