"That was the worst fix in the history of fixing games. How can you have a fix and go broke or lose $10,000 or $20,000? What kind of fix is that?" - gambler Paul Mazzei, one of five men convicted in the Boston College point-shaving scandal of 1978-79, in the upcoming 30 for 30 film: "Playing for the Mob" (9 p.m., Tuesday, ESPN).
The Boston College point-shaving scandal was a sensational story that went as viral as it could in the early 1980s. It had all the sexy storylines: the mob, a rat, gambling and athletes on the take. Hollywood great Martin Scorsese framed his 1990 classic "Goodfellas" on the gangsters involved. But, 35 years later, some still wonder who was really in on the fix.
Joe Lavine, an award-winning documentarian and director of the upcoming 30 for 30 special "Playing for the Mob," first learned of the Boston College scandal from a Sports Illustrated cover story exposing the scheme in February 1981. It fascinated the young filmmaker, who had grown up in Trenton, New Jersey, reading about one of the players implicated, a star high school athlete named Jim Sweeney.
After seeing "Goodfellas," Lavine was convinced. He wanted to tell the Boston College story in a long-form documentary. His reporting began in full in the mid-1990s. He eventually teamed up with co-director Cayman Grant, who had interviewed the rat in the story, gangster-turned-informant Henry Hill, just months before Hill died of a heart attack in June 2012.
In March 2013, Lavine pitched "Playing for the Mob" to ESPN's 30 for 30. Production began in September; the 80-minute documentary airs Tuesday on ESPN. Even after completing the documentary, Lavine still isn't sure what exactly went down.
"The only people who can really answer that are the people who were accused," he said.
The story: Three Boston College players -- leading scorer Ernie Cobb, forward Richard Kuhn and Sweeney, the team's point guard -- were fingered by Hill for participating in the point-shaving scheme. Kuhn acknowledged his role and was the only player convicted, Cobb admitted to accepting $1,000 and Sweeney said he took $500. But both deny willingly participating on the court. Cobb was indicted, but acquitted. Sweeney was never charged. Kuhn received a 10-year sentence.
Pittsburgh gamblers Paul Mazzei and brothers Anthony and Rocco Perla, as well as infamous New York mobster Jimmy Burke were convicted, thanks to Hill's testimony. Those guys were definitely in on it, but were all of the players?
There are two versions to this story: the gamblers' and the players'. And they don't line up.
The gamblers believe they had multiple players, in addition to Kuhn, actively attempting to shave points. Sweeney and Cobb say that wasn't the case, and nothing but vague conversations had taken place regarding the scheme.
The gamblers' stories also differ on how much money was won or lost on the nine games that Hill claimed were fixed during the 1978-1979 season. In the documentary, Anthony Perla and Hill say they won hundreds of thousands of dollars; Rocco Perla and Mazzei say they each won amounts only in the thousands.
Levine said veteran Las Vegas sportsbook managers told him they remembered some buzz about Boston College games at the time, but they didn't see enough "red flags" to cause them to halt betting and take the games off the board. Almost all of the action was placed with local East Coast bookmakers. Multiple gamblers who were active on the East Coast in the late 1970s and early '80s told ESPN that there were plenty of bookmakers who would take $5,000 to $10,000 on a college basketball game at the time.
The scheme tipped off against Providence on Dec. 6, 1978. Boston College was a five-point favorite. The gamblers were expecting a close BC win, but the Eagles blew out the Friars 83-64, costing Hill and company big bucks. The days after the Providence game were the most frightening of the entire ordeal for Sweeney. Kuhn had introduced him to Hill's bunch before the season in a room at the Boston Logan Airport Hilton. They reviewed the Eagles' schedule and pinpointed nine games with fixing potential. Sweeney compares the encounter to dealing with playground bullies.
"You just tell them whatever they want to hear so you can get away," Sweeney said. "In my own youthfulness, I just thought it would go away. They were expecting me to do something that I had no intention of doing." After the Providence game, Sweeney says Kuhn warned him that he "was going to get us killed," if he didn't start participating.
Sweeney said he realized what he was dealing with at that point. He began turning his winter coat inside out, from blue to tan, while walking around campus. Sometimes he pulled the hood up on his coat. Other times he wore hats to try to hide his identity. He was terrified.
Meanwhile, the gamblers were livid that the Providence game had not gone as planned. Wary of their arrangement, they began looking to add another player onto the payroll. They approached Cobb, the team's top player, and came away feeling that they had a deal. Cobb says in the documentary that any discussions of the scheme were vague, but he did acknowledge receiving an envelope with $1,000 cash in it. The envelope arrived after the Harvard game on Dec. 16 at the old Boston Garden.
The Eagles were 12-point favorites over Harvard that night, and Rocco Perla, Hill and Mazzei were in attendance. Boston College was expected to roll the overmatched Crimson, but managed to squeak out an 86-83 win. The gamblers, who were on Harvard, were pleased.
The scheme would carry on for six more games. Boston College covered the spread in some and failed to cover in others. For fixed games, the results were unreliable for the gamblers. They eventually planned to get out, but not before one last score.
The gamblers targeted the BC-Holy Cross rivalry game on Feb. 10, 1979, in which Boston College was about a three-point underdog. The gamblers took favored Holy Cross and relayed instructions to Kuhn and Sweeney to lose by more than three points. Conflicted on how to handle the situation, Sweeney admits he intentionally fouled out early in the second half, but says he can't recall the steps he took to get himself disqualified. Even without Sweeney, their senior point guard, the Eagles hung tough and ended up losing by only two 98-96. The gamblers got crushed.
The point-shaving was over at Boston College. A federal trial was next.
Attorney Leonard Sharon represented Mazzei in the federal trial that began in the fall of 1981 in New York City. The case captivated the public, making the national news. Sharon sat between Kuhn and Mazzei in court and came away feeling unsure about how the trial played out.
"Knowing what I know about betting and knowing what I know about college basketball, to think that people would invest a lot of money in only a part-time power forward to fix games is ridiculous," Sharon said. "How many touches is he going to get in the game? How many crucial touches? It's beyond my sensibility to believe that Ricky Kuhn was the only one involved."
Lavine questioned prosecutors he interviewed for "Playing for the Mob" if they found evidence from watching the games of intentional mistakes, errant shots, unforced turnovers or lack of effort. "They told me unless a player admits it, it's impossible to prove if something is a mistake or if something's done on purpose," Lavine said.
Then-Boston College coach Dr. Tom Davis testified that he never suspected anything. Current Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was a student aid for the team and agreed with Davis.
"There was absolutely nothing that I saw take place that year as a student aid that would have led me to believe that anything was going on in the way of fixing games," Pearl told Lavine in "Playing for the Mob." "It is only in hindsight that you look back and say 'I wonder why he wasn't aggressive' or 'how could he miss those two free throws late,' but you just never would have suspected anything along the lines of those guys fixing games."
Sweeney, in a Wednesday phone interview, said he carries no guilt. Even when the story was bubbling across the nation, sometimes with what he characterized as "outlandish" accusations of his role, he said he just bit his tongue and moved forward with his life.
Sweeney says he has never bet on sports and rarely gambles. Before being introduced to Hill's gang, he said point spreads weren't a part of his world and betting was never discussed among the team.
Money wasn't an issue for Sweeney, either. His parents sent him $10 a week, $5 of which he put in his bank account. He also worked odd jobs, including a $3.15-per-hour gig officiating basketball games. He says he always had plenty of money to take his then-girlfriend (now-wife) Maura on a 25-cent trolley ride.
"Why would I work for $3.15-an-hour if I was pulling in all this thousands of dollars?" Sweeney added. These days, Sweeney lives in Clearwater, Florida, with Maura. After running a successful computer and electronics business, Sweeney now devotes time to his sports blog, Mike on Sports, which features an animated microphone character.
Kuhn, who did not participate in "Playing for the Mob," lives in rural Pennsylvania. Cobb is a high school basketball coach in Arizona.