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movie review

‘Playing for the Mob’ delves into BC scandal

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Jim Sweeney wants everyone to know he didn’t do it.

One of three Boston College basketball players snared in the point-shaving scheme that scandalized the Jesuit school and led to the convictions of the notorious “GoodFellas” gang, Sweeney swears he’s innocent.

“I’m very happy talk to about it,” he says. “I always have been.”

Sweeney gets his chance in the new documentary “Playing for the Mob,” which screens Saturday at the Boston Film Festival. Produced as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” film series (it airs Oct. 7 on the sports network), “Playing for the Mob” tells the story of how Sweeney and two teammates, Rick Kuhn and Ernie Cobb, got mixed up in mobster Henry Hill’s ploy to manipulate the outcome of BC basketball games in 1978 and ’79.

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“I always ask people what they know about it,” says Sweeney, who lives in Florida but will attend Saturday’s screening and panel discussion at the Revere Hotel. “Because there’s a lot of erroneous information out there.”

Indeed, there is. Aside from a detailed account of the ruse (and the resulting legal proceedings) published last spring on the front page of the Globe, the point-shaving scheme is not an oft-told or well-understood tale. And that suits Boston College, which has long tried to distance itself from Sweeney and the others and did not participate in the movie.

“They’ve turned the page,” says Joe Lavine, who codirected “Playing for the Mob” with Cayman Grant and will also attend the screening. “I don’t know if they’re embarrassed or ashamed or what, but BC has turned the page.”

Jack Dunn, director of public relations at Boston College, responded in an e-mail to the Globe: “While this issue represents an unfortunate chapter in BC athletics, it occurred 35 years ago at a different time in our history. We are focused today on the present and future and not on the alleged actions of three individuals from the 1980 team.”

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Lavine’s interest in the story started with his fellow Trenton, N.J., native Sweeney. In 1981, he read about the case in Sports Illustrated, and was “flabbergasted” that Sweeney, something of a high school sports legend in his state, was identified in the piece as one of the masterminds. Even more compelling was the involvement of Hill, a wiseguy who was played by Ray Liotta in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster movie, “GoodFellas.” (Liotta narrates “Playing for the Mob.”)

“I decided that, given the opportunity, I’d love to tell this story,” says Lavine.

Jim Sweeney.
Jim Sweeney. ESPN Films

His narrative goes something like this: Paul Mazzei, an ex-con with an appetite for gambling — and ties to Hill and New York’s Lucchese crime syndicate — approached Kuhn about the possibility of influencing the outcome of BC basketball games. Enticed by the prospect of making money, and feeling more than a little threatened if he didn’t comply, Kuhn agreed, and he allegedly talked to Sweeney and Cobb about fixing games. The team wouldn’t have to lose, he explained, just win by a margin agreed upon by the mobsters placing bets.

During a meeting with Hill at the Logan Hilton just before Thanksgiving in 1978, Sweeney quickly realized that Kuhn had promised his participation. And, he says, Hill further coerced him by threatening to cut off his genitals and hang them around his neck if he didn’t obey.

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BC finished the 1978-79 season with a record of 21-9, qualifying them for the ECAC Regionals. But, as the film makes clear, the team won some games by more or fewer points than the predicted spread, results which benefited Hill and his associates, one of whom was the murderous Jimmy “The Gent’’ Burke, played in “GoodFellas” by Robert De Niro.

In the end, authorities learned about the point-shaving scheme, but not because of anything that happened on the court. It was Hill who told investigators, and then entered the US Marshals’ Witness Protection Program. An interview with Hill recorded before his death in 2012 is in the film.

Kuhn received a 10-year prison sentence — the longest ever for a US athlete convicted of sports racketeering — while Cobb was acquitted of sports bribery charges. Sweeney was never charged, though his testimony did help prosecutors convict Kuhn and others, including Burke.

Sweeney went on to marry his college sweetheart and to enjoy a lucrative career selling computer parts. For a long time, he said no to all book and movie projects about the point-shaving story because, he says, he worried they would glamorize the gangsters and not get the story right.

Paul Mazzei and the late Henry Hill in the documentary “Playing for the Mob.”
Paul Mazzei and the late Henry Hill in the documentary “Playing for the Mob.” ESPN Films

“I’m happy with [‘Playing for the Mob’],” he said. “It’s my story.”

But he’s upset with BC, which he says won’t respond to his overtures to reconnect with his alma mater. (Last March, a BC spokesman told the Globe that “Jim Sweeney, Rick Kuhn, and Ernie Cobb betrayed the trust of their teammates and the responsibility afforded them as student athletes at Boston College.”)

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“BC aspires to be the worldwide leader in Catholic education, and the best way to be a leader is to step out and be courageous,” says Sweeney. “I think this is a monumentally huge missed opportunity for BC.”

For more information, go to www.bostonfilmfestival.org/schedule.shtml.


Mark Shanahan can be reached at Shanahan@Globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.