A Boardwalk Basketball Grift Conjured Out of Thin Air

There are a million stories on the boardwalk. Here is one.

The summer of 2022 was two days old when a specialized state investigator headed for the South Jersey beach community of North Wildwood. Among his particular skills: finding the scams and cons that lurk behind the sunburns and the melting frozen custard of the boardwalk.

He represented a small agency called the Legalized Games of Chance Control Commission — the L.G.C.C.C. for short, or maybe just the commission. They’re the people who make sure that when you step right up, you have a fair shot at winning that musty plush toy you suddenly want more than life.

While pounding his beat, the investigator stopped at an amusement booth offering a familiar basketball challenge: Make the shot, look big in front of your partner or your sugar-addled kid, and take home a stuffed something to put out with the trash by fall.

Anyone who has whiled away time on the gaudy midway of life knows how these things can go. Leaded milk bottles impossible to knock down. Darts too dull to pop a balloon. Basketballs with too much air arcing toward distant hoops about the width of a dinner plate.

The investigator tested the air pressure of the three balls available for suckers — er, customers. All were inflated to well more than double the manufacturer’s specifications and were “thus not in accordance with the Basketball Game’s Certification of Permissibility,” according to state documents.

A deflating day, then, for Christine Strothers, the operator in name of this and a few other boardwalk games. She had at least one prior offense in the realm of amusement violations, having paid $16,500 in penalties in 2021.

A registered nurse, Ms. Strothers is married to Brett Strothers, who, according to local news reports, pleaded guilty in 2016 to a federal charge that he and a brother, Evan Strothers, had bought thousands of counterfeit sports jerseys to give as prizes at booths they operated on the boardwalk in Wildwood and North Wildwood.

According to state officials, applicants for amusement-game licenses must disclose any criminal history and submit to a criminal-background check. Evan Strothers had licenses from 2008 to 2015. Ms. Strothers received her first amusement license in 2018.

A month after finding those overinflated basketballs, the same investigator visited two basketball booths operated by Ms. Strothers in Wildwood. All five balls he inspected there were inflated beyond specifications, making them quite likely to bang off the rim and deny glory to the would-be Steph Currys of the boardwalk.

Investigators returned three more times to the booths, where money was exchanged for the fleeting use of overinflated balls. In one case, an employee saw the approaching agent and shoved 10 displayed basketballs under the counter, as if to be able to say, What basketballs?

Six of the 10 had too much air.

In the wide-open world of grifts and schemes, an overinflated basketball may not rank with identity theft, Facebook come-ons from a Nigerian prince or even a hurried game of three-card monte. That does not make it right, according to Cari Fais, the acting director of New Jersey’s Division of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the Legalized Games of Cha — the commission.

“It offends people’s sense of fair play,” Ms. Fais said on Friday. “No one should walk away from the boardwalk feeling that the games were rigged against them or their kids.”

Fairness is the commission’s core mission, she said. It regulates games of chance operated by nonprofit organizations: your church carnivals, casino nights and 50-50 raffles. It also oversees the games in places like amusement parks, arcades — and boardwalks.

Last year, commission investigators conducted nearly 7,000 inspections, most of which involved checking on those infuriating crane games, in which the mechanical claw never seems able to pick up the box containing an iPhone. Most games are aboveboard, Ms. Fais said. But not all.

“Basically, the investigators are making sure that the games haven’t been modified to disadvantage the player,” Ms. Fais said. “The crane machines with prizes too heavy for the claw to pick up. Or overinflated basketballs that ricochet off the backboard.”

The Case of the Overinflated Basketballs wended its way through the New Jersey system. The violations also included a few minor offenses, including one instance of the old bait-and-switch: displaying large plush animals that could not be won.

In the end, Ms. Strothers, who did not respond to requests for comment, declined to attend a hearing on the state’s findings, and the commission entered a default judgment against her. It was a blow for the integrity of the Jersey Shore experience, according to Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin.

“The Jersey Shore is one of the biggest draws in the state for families looking for fun and recreation, and we are making sure those families are not being scammed out of their hard-earned money,” Mr. Platkin said in a news release.

When summer returns, the Jersey boardwalk will again have many games of chance to relieve you of your money and make you believe that a stuffed pink unicorn would look great in your living room. Tossed rings will clink and fall between bottles; guns will limply squirt water into the mouths of clowns; mushy softballs will knock over nothing.

But there will be no basketball games operated by Ms. Strothers, who has been barred from obtaining an amusement-games license for at least 10 years. She has also been fined $15,500 — $500 for each of the 31 basketballs customized for us suckers.

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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