When ‘Goodfellas’ collided with BC basketball
More than 3 decades on, a point-shaving scheme still affects the accused and players now on the court
Searching for “the Judas of Boston College basketball’’ requires zigzagging down an icy rural road near a creek in a western Pennsylvania valley where a man might leave his past behind.
A light snow swirls in the night, 35 winters after Rick Kuhn inspired a prosecutor’s Judas reference by conspiring with mobsters to betray his school, his teammates, and his sport. The only clue that Kuhn occupies a bungalow here, deep in deer country, is a worn basketball hoop rising from the snowpack.
Few in town seem to know that Kuhn once fell in with the notorious “Goodfellas” gangster Henry Hill in a plot to manipulate the outcome of BC basketball games for corrupt gamblers. Kuhn received a 10-year prison sentence, the longest ever for an American athlete convicted of sports racketeering.
“No, I didn’t know about him,’’ Ligonier Township constable Robert Amicone said, echoing others in the community.
In one of collegiate sport’s darkest hours, Kuhn ensnared BC’s respected basketball captains Ernie Cobb and Jim Sweeney in the scandal, forever altering their lives, staining the Jesuit institution they represented, and producing a cautionary tale about the seductive power of the multibillion-dollar sports gambling industry.
Hill later confessed the BC conspiracy to agents investigating the signature crime of his mob crew — the robbery of $5 million in cash and $1 million in jewelry from Lufthansa Airlines at Kennedy International Airport in 1978, then the largest cash robbery in US history. The crime was immortalized in the movie “Goodfellas.’’
Federal prosecutors in January renewed interest in both cases — the point-shaving and the robbery — when they charged reputed mobster Vincent Asaro with participating in the Lufthansa job. The stolen loot was never recovered, most of the gangsters involved in the heist were murdered, and agents recently digging for evidence in the case allegedly discovered remains from a decades-old mob hit.
“Those could have been my bones,’’ Sweeney told the Globe, in his first newspaper interview about the BC scandal. Sweeney said Hill trapped him in the conspiracy by threatening him and his loved ones.
Suddenly, retrospectives on the BC saga are in vogue. A film documentary is in production for ESPN’s “30 for 30’’ series. Cobb, in his first interview about the case in 30 years, said he is working on a movie and a book about his life. Sweeney said he is close to a national television deal for an animated sports media program inspired in part by the scandal. And Daniel Simone’s forthcoming book, “The Lufthansa Heist,’’ takes a new look at the BC crime, which the Goodfellas gangsters committed the same winter as the Lufthansa caper.
Sweeney, Cobb, and Kuhn have not spoken to each other since those days of infamy. Their paths have diverged, Sweeney prospering in Florida, Cobb coaching high school basketball in Arizona after playing professionally in Israel, and Kuhn quietly making his way in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Time has distanced them from the dangerous decisions of their youth. But mercy has eluded them at BC, where they remain outcasts despite Cobb’s exoneration on the charges against him and Sweeney’s appeals for reconciliation.
“Jim Sweeney, Rick Kuhn, and Ernie Cobb betrayed the trust of their teammates and the responsibility afforded them as student athletes at Boston College,’’ school spokesman Jack Dunn said. “Their actions separated them from the BC community, and they need to seek forgiveness from their teammates, whom they betrayed and who paid a price for their actions.’’
Cobb, an NBA prospect who was BC’s 1979 Eagle of the Year as an “outstanding citizen,’’ admitted accepting $1,000 from the conspirators, though he insisted it was not for helping to fix games. A jury acquitted him of sports bribery charges.
Sweeney, who acknowledged taking $500, was named the 1980 Eagle of the Year, a Rhodes scholar candidate, and the Naismith Award winner as the nation’s best player under 6 feet tall, before the scandal was exposed later that year.
Sweeney said he acted under duress, and he was never charged. His testimony, offered without the protection of immunity, helped prosecutors convict Kuhn and four others, including a murderous underworld leader, Jimmy “The Gent’’ Burke, portrayed by Robert De Niro in the classic film.
“It was an incredible scandal,’’ said Kevin Mackey, BC’s assistant coach at the time. “Let’s face it, it was Goodfellas, the FBI, federal laws broken, a pristine campus sullied — all of that.’’
All these years later, the lessons of the BC case endure. On Sunday, the 68-team field for the NCAA’s annual “March Madness’’ tournament will be selected, triggering a betting frenzy that is expected to generate roughly $2.5 billion in illegal wagers. Concerns about the annual spectacle of athleticism and avarice moved the prosecutor who put Kuhn behind bars — and played himself in “Goodfellas’’ — to warn today’s athletes to ignore BC’s history at their peril.
Edward McDonald, then an attorney for the federal Organized Crime Strike Force and now a private lawyer, said corrupt gambling figures continue to operate in the shadows. BC also weathered a football gambling scandal in 1996.
“A lot of kids could find themselves in the same boat as Rick Kuhn,’’ said McDonald, who graduated from BC a decade before the scandal. “If they’re not vigilant, they could end up having their lives destroyed by doing something stupid.’’
Win some, lose some
For Kuhn, basketball was his second sport. Before he arrived in Chestnut Hill, he had spent two years collecting paychecks as a lefthanded pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds farm system.
A career-ending shoulder injury returned him to basketball, and as the 6-foot-7-inch Kuhn entered his final season at BC in 1978 under coach Tom Davis, he was a marginal player with little going for him, on or off the court. According to trial testimony, Kuhn was a poor student with a taste for illegal drugs, notably cocaine and Quaaludes.
“Rick was an aimless kid who didn’t see any real future for himself,’’ McDonald said. “I guess he was pretty easily led astray.’’
Time was expiring on Kuhn’s chance to cash in on his athletic career when a high school friend connected him with Paul Mazzei, an ex-convict in Pittsburgh. A high-stakes gambler, Mazzei saw gold in Kuhn and his teammates secretly influencing the outcome of BC’s games so those involved in the con could bet with near-certainty of cashing in.
Mazzei needed a large network of bookies for the scheme to work, as well as underworld protection. He turned to Hill, a former prison pal connected to New York’s Lucchese crime syndicate.
The ex-cons found a willing conspirator in Kuhn, who soon was recruiting teammates, beginning with Sweeney, an honors student who rarely drank and served as a lector at the campus church. At 23, Kuhn was BC’s oldest player. Sweeney, the team’s point guard, was a 20-year-old junior. And despite their many differences, Kuhn and Sweeney had become pals.
“Of all my teammates, I was closest to Rick,’’ Sweeney recalled over lunch near his home in Clearwater, Fla. “He was definitely misguided in certain areas, but he was a friendly guy and a decent player, and he had more life experience than I did.’’
A week before Thanksgiving 1978, Sweeney agreed to have dinner at the Logan Hilton with Kuhn’s out-of-town friends. Waiting at the hotel was Hill, and Sweeney said he soon realized that Kuhn had committed him to the game-fixing conspiracy without his knowledge — and that there was no way out.
Hill allegedly coerced Sweeney by telling him he knew where his parents lived and that his girlfriend Maura, now his wife, was in Spain on a semester abroad.
“How would your honey feel if she came home to see you wearing a bracelet with your [genitals] hanging from it?’’ Sweeney quoted Hill as saying.
Sweeney said he was frightened but also painfully naive about his new acquaintances. He’d brought along a small box of chocolate samplers to thank Kuhn’s friends for dinner. The chocolates stayed in his pocket.
Hill, who died in 2012, later turned informant and testified against everyone charged in the BC and Lufthansa cases. He made the BC episode a national sensation in 1981 when he accepted $10,000 from Sports Illustrated for a cover story that began, “I’m the Boston College basketball fixer.’’
Hill cast Sweeney as an eager participant who readily accepted $500 as an opening good-will gesture. “The players struck me as overambitious,” Hill wrote in the article. “They couldn’t wait.’’
Sweeney denies the allegation, saying he has long been harmed by falsehoods in Hill’s account, some of which were exposed in court. Several years ago, Sweeney said, a marketing partner dropped him after searching the Internet.
“He said I had ties to the Mafia and he didn’t want his wife and children around me,’’ Sweeney recalled.
Sweeney could have spared himself the indignity had he reported the conspiracy at the time. He said he failed to do so for several reasons, including fear (“Henry Hill wigged me out’’), his friendship with Kuhn, and his poor rapport with Davis, which made him uncomfortable communicating with the coach.
Sweeney said he resented Davis initially pressing him to relinquish his athletic scholarship because he considered him a substandard player, and their relationship never recovered. Davis did not respond to interview requests.
“I was caught in the perfect storm,’’ Sweeney said. “I probably could have acted more wisely as a 20-year-old kid. But when I look back on it, I really don’t know what else I would have done. I was getting squeezed on a number of fronts.’’
The conspirators said they never intended for BC to lose games. Indeed, BC finished the 1978-79 season at 21-9, qualifying for the ECAC Regionals. Rather, the scheme was to win by the right score, so the mobsters could beat the betting lines.
“If we win, we win, and if we lose, we win,’’ Kuhn concluded, according to the 2000 book, “Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball.’’
Yet the plot proved as ineffective as it was insidious. A preliminary test backfired when BC defeated Providence Dec. 6, 1978, by 19 points; the mobsters had bet on BC to win by 10 or fewer.
Irate, Hill directed Kuhn to recruit Cobb, who had scored 25 points in the game and would rank among BC’s all-time leading scorers. The gangsters figured they needed Cobb so they could control his scoring when necessary.
What happened next was later hotly disputed. Prosecutors alleged that Cobb agreed to join the scheme before the Eagles played Harvard Dec. 16 at Boston Garden. Not true, Cobb said.
Cobb admitted receiving $1,000 from his girlfriend, who had taken an envelope containing 50 $20 bills at the Garden from a conspirator after BC defeated Harvard, 86-83, to clinch a gambling win for the Goodfellas. But Cobb said he took the $1,000 for nothing more than accurately predicting the outcome of two previous games: BC’s victories over Stonehill and Bentley to start the season.
“I felt I hadn’t done anything wrong to get that money,’’ Cobb testified, “so I spent it.’’
Cobb also was accused of conspiring to fix two other BC games, against Rhode Island on Jan. 10 and Fordham on Feb. 3. But he testified that he repeatedly spurned requests to “lay down’’ — or, deliberately play poorly — for the gamblers.
No other BC player was implicated in the conspiracy. Nor was any BC employee involved, and the basketball coaches reported seeing nothing suspicious.
“I have no question that Ernie took the money,’’ said Mackey, now a scout for the Indiana Pacers. “But Ernie would not miss a basket on purpose. He was a tremendous talent and he was going to score his points no matter what.’’
Mackey said the BC staff knew nothing about the conspiracy until the news broke nearly two years later.
“The FBI investigated all of us,’’ Mackey said. “I would go to places where I hung out and they would tell me, ‘Kevin, the FBI was here asking about you.’ ’’
In all, Kuhn and the mob crew were charged with trying to fix at least six games. McDonald said the government never tried to prove the players manipulated the outcomes of those games. Kuhn’s crime was participating in the conspiracy, regardless of his performance.
“In the end, it appears that the players duped the organized crime figures by playing their hearts out for their school,’’ a former FBI agent who investigated the case, Ed Guevara, wrote recently on Sweeney’s behalf.
The scheme paid off for the mobsters at least four times, when BC played Harvard Dec. 16, UCLA Dec. 23, UConn Jan. 17, and Fordham Feb. 3. The gang lost money on three other games, against Rhode Island Jan. 10, St. John’s Feb. 6, and Holy Cross Feb. 10.
The worst defeat came when Holy Cross upset BC, 98-96, in a regional telecast. Hill said he and Burke, the gang’s leader, lost nearly $100,000 on the game, and Burke was so enraged that he kicked in his television screen. Hill, too, was livid.
“What I’m looking to do next is strangle some basketball players,’’ he wrote.
Kuhn was never harmed, but he faced another tough challenge at trial. In McDonald’s closing statement to the jury, the prosecutor described Kuhn as a Judas who “sold himself and his school right down the drain for some cocaine, some Quaaludes, and a few thousand dollars.’’
Kuhn did not testify and was convicted on all counts.
Sweeney also was tarnished for taking $500 from Kuhn after the Harvard game. He knew what the money was for.
“My regret is, I eventually spent it,’’ Sweeney said. “I should have given it to charity and had the charity give me a note saying I donated it. That was absolutely wrong.’’
Price to be paid
By the time the FBI came for them, Kuhn, Sweeney, and Cobb had left Boston. Their secret had been safe until Hill, arrested on drug charges in 1980, entered the witness protection program and disclosed the conspiracy.
For BC, the fallout was humiliating. At Holy Cross, fans mocked the point-shaving scandal by playing the Gillette theme song and waving razors at BC players. In the national media, BC endured a storm of embarrassing coverage, some generated by the school’s alumni, including the Globe’s Lesley Visser (class of ’75).
“In covering both the games and the scandal, I realized that good men can make bad mistakes and good schools can make bad decisions,’’ recalled Visser, who was 25 at the time. “I had a heavy heart in covering the trial.’’
McDonald said he nearly stepped aside as chief prosecutor because he “felt compromised, being a BC grad.’’ But he recalled the Rev. Donald Monan, the school’s president at the time, asking him to stay.
“He wanted to be able to say that one of BC’s own was prosecuting it,’’ McDonald said.
McDonald triumphed by securing a 20-year prison term for Burke, his prime target. (Hill later helped prosecutors secure a life sentence for Burke in the slaying of an alleged Lufthansa accomplice.) Kuhn and the others received sentences ranging from 10 to four years.
Then Cobb found himself in the crosshairs. Once Kuhn had exhausted his legal appeals, he agreed to testify against his former teammate in exchange for a reduced sentence.
FBI agents had first interviewed Cobb in 1980 while he was competing in training camp with the New Jersey Nets. The Nets quickly dropped him.
“The shame of it was, I was definitely going to make the team,’’ Cobb said. “They were only going to make one more cut, and nobody was ahead of me.’’
Thus ended Cobb’s NBA dream. He was indicted in 1983 and tried in ’84, more than four years after he graduated from BC as Eagle of the Year. Determined to clear his name, Cobb rejected offers to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for no jail time, and a jury sided with him over Kuhn and the other convict offering testimony in exchange for sentence reductions.
“I was young, and I really believed in the court system,’’ Cobb said from Phoenix, where he coaches the boys’ basketball team at South Mountain High School. “I had total confidence that I would be exonerated. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized innocent people are found guilty.’’
His basketball heart still beating, Cobb launched his renaissance in Israel. He married there, had children, and played professionally into his 40s.
“It would have been fantastic if I had an NBA career,’’ Cobb said. “But I guess God had another plan for me in the Holy Land. It was a tremendous blessing in terms of my integrity and growth and who I am today.’’
Cobb, who grew up in poverty, raised by a single mother in Stamford, Conn., was barely literate in his adolescence. Now, in addition to coaching basketball, he teaches English and special education and is working toward a doctorate degree.
“I love what BC did for me; they gave me a great education,’’ he said. “I think BC was as much as a victim in the scandal as I was.’’
Yet Cobb feels estranged from the school.
“I look in the archives, and it seems like the history of BC started after I left,’’ he said. “I guess the scandal is something they want to forget.’’
While Cobb prefers to focus on the sunshine — “It’s miraculous that I came from where I did to where I am today’’ — his friends wince at the damage to his reputation.
“The scandal is still held over his head, even though he was acquitted,’’ said Ron Brienes, who is producing Cobb’s movie. “He paid a steep price not only by losing his NBA career, but, more important to Ernie, his name.’’
Angelo Pizzo, who wrote the screenplays for “Hoosiers’’ and “Rudy,’’ has agreed to tell Cobb’s cinematic story. Pizzo considers Cobb’s life an inspirational lesson in perseverance.
“It’s not just a great sports story,’’ Pizzo said in a statement, “but a great story.’’
Before Sweeney became a pariah at The Heights, he ranked among the school’s most highly honored student athletes. In addition to the Rhodes nomination and Eagle of the Year honors, he became the first BC athlete to win an NCAA scholarship for a postgraduate fellowship.
“Everybody loved Jimmy,’’ Mackey said. “He pushed all the right buttons at BC.’’
By his senior year, Sweeney’s leading supporters included Davis.
“Jim Sweeney is the most outstanding young man with whom I’ve worked during 19 years of coaching,’’ Davis wrote to the Rhodes committee. “His honesty, courage, and overall leadership abilities are quite simply among the best in the country.’’
Then the scandal broke. Sweeney’s name has since been removed from the school’s display of Eagle of the Year winners.
“I understand there is culpability on my part,’’ Sweeney said. “I could have done things differently, and as a result of what happened, I brought embarrassment to the university.’’
But, he wonders, do his decades of good citizenship before and after the scandal count for anything? Can the school’s Jesuit leaders forgive him?
Even as Sweeney felt helpless to escape the conspiracy, he said, he tried to protect his team’s integrity.
“I was a captain and the ballhandler,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to let this [cheating] happen on my watch.’ Isn’t that the irony of ironies?’’
Sweeney said he could teach BC’s current athletes about the risks of corruption.
He recently replied to “a friend of BC basketball’’ e-mail from coach Steve Donahue by noting that “BC never contacted me after the trial regarding my purported involvement and never inquired to learn anything from me about the ordeal to guard against it happening again.’’
Sweeney said Donahue has yet to respond.
Dunn, the BC spokesman, suggested the school doesn’t need Sweeney’s help to fight corruption. All BC athletes are reminded of BC’s gambling scandals and warned about the enduring temptations and dangers, Dunn said. In addition, athletes are required to review NCAA guidelines, which prohibit gambling by players and coaches. And they receive e-mailed alerts before the Super Bowl and March Madness about the ban on gambling, according to Dunn.
“We take this very seriously,’’ he said.
Monan, now BC’s chancellor, agreed to meet with Maura Sweeney, a BC graduate, in 2010, as she sought reconciliation between the college and her husband. But Monan declined to speak by phone with her husband, she said, and told her he continues to believe Sweeney willfully participated in the conspiracy.
Her subsequent appeals to BC’s president, the Rev. William Leahy, have gone unanswered.
Dunn, when asked about Maura Sweeney’s appeals to Monan and Leahy, said, “I would say to Maura that many alumni who faced difficulties as students have overcome them and moved on to lead good lives. We hope and expect the same for Jim Sweeney.’’
The Sweeneys reached out to BC in part because Jim Sweeney expects his public profile to rise with his new entertainment venture. After building a thriving business in computer sales, he walked away several years ago to create a cartoon that centers on a sports media commentator (theemike.com).
The character appears in 30 comic books, and Sweeney said he expects the brand soon to reach a national broadcast audience. He described the character as a lighthearted model of journalistic integrity, a counterbalance to the kind of “irresponsible’’ reporting that Hill practiced in Sports Illustrated.
If the venture succeeds, Sweeney said, it will represent the fruit of “a lot of perseverance and maturity, a lot of growing up on my own. . . . I went through something [with the scandal] that steeled me as an individual.’’
Sweeney and Cobb said they bear no animosity toward each other. Neither was aware of the other’s involvement in the scandal at the time, they said.
As for Kuhn, Sweeney expressed conflicting feelings about helping to convict his former friend.
“Rick ensnared me in the whole thing, there’s no absolutely no question about it,’’ Sweeney said. “At the same time, my heart goes out to him.’’
With his sentence reduced, Kuhn served 28 months in prison. He was released at age 30, after he appeared before the President’s Commission on Organized Crime despite death threats from the mob.
Kuhn told the commission that he willingly entered the conspiracy but then felt threatened by the gangsters, who he believed would never let him back out.
“When I received a call from Henry Hill saying I couldn’t play basketball with a broken arm, it was then that I was sort of in over my head,’’ Kuhn told the commission.
Kuhn said he was promised $2,500 for every game he fixed, but the gangsters routinely shortchanged him. He said they also offered him “drugs, women, and cars.’’
Kuhn suggested that his harsh sentence not only failed as a deterrent — college gambling scandals continued — but inspired sympathy from some people.
“They forgot I had been convicted of a serious crime,’’ Kuhn said.
“Serious in what way?’’ he was asked.
“Serious that I broke a promise to Boston College and myself.’’
Kuhn apologized to everyone he harmed in the episode.
Five years later, he accepted McDonald’s invitation to address the nation’s top high school basketball prospects about decisions that could derail their dreams, and their lives.
Kuhn told a Newsday reporter afterward, “I sent myself to prison the night I thought I was bigger than the game, the night I agreed to get involved in the scheme.’’
In some ways, Kuhn’s life after prison has not been easy. By 1990, he was married with two children, who are now serving in the military. But public records indicate he has spent much of the last 20 years in financial stress.
McDonald said Kuhn did not graduate from BC and has subsisted on odd jobs.
“I came to feel bad for him,’’ the former prosecutor said. “He really is a decent person.’’
McDonald said Kuhn received “a little money’’ years ago as a consultant for a proposed film on the scandal, but the film has yet to be made.
Kuhn’s trial attorney, Gary Zimmerman, said Kuhn has paid dearly for his crime.
“The case certainly curtailed his future opportunities,’’ Zimmerman said.
In 1994, a court ordered Kuhn and his first wife to satisfy unpaid bills of $36,684. Kuhn filed three bankruptcy petitions in 2002, fought a foreclosure attempt on his home in 2006, and was ordered by a judge last year to pay a $5,030 doctor’s bill.
Kuhn divorced in the ’90s and married Patti Jo Bean. They live with their teenage daughter on a small cottage lot Kuhn inherited from his father 50 miles from Pittsburgh.
“Rick isn’t home,’’ Patti Jo told a reporter who knocked at the bungalow on a wintry night last month. “Come back tomorrow; he will be home all day.’’
The next day, no one answered the door on numerous occasions. Finally, as dusk settled over the valley, Patti Jo returned. She said Kuhn would contact the reporter that night. He never did. Nor did Kuhn answer his cellphone or respond to letters.
“Rick is kind of quiet,’’ she said.
He is 58 now, far from wealthy but free to watch his daughter, Kari, grow. A high school sophomore, she shares Kuhn’s athletic interests and has played varsity basketball and softball.
Valerie Ray, the girls’ basketball coach at Ligonier Valley High School, said Kuhn has contributed as a community volunteer in basketball and softball. But Ray, like others in town, said she was unaware of Kuhn’s role in the BC scandal.
Kuhn also attends the local Catholic church and volunteers elsewhere in town, including the food pantry for the needy. He crossed paths there in December with the Rev. Monte Holland, who strode into the facility dressed as Santa Claus. It was an amusing and perhaps telling encounter.
Holland and his wife, Carolyn, who live less than three miles from Kuhn, said they knew nothing about his past. As Holland entered the room, Carolyn wrote in her community blog, Kuhn “walked enthusiastically up to Santa.’’
“Dad!’’ Kuhn shouted, “I’m your long lost son.’’
Kuhn was too big to sit in Santa’s lap, so Holland settled on Kuhn’s knee. Christmas was coming, and Kuhn, sporting his own Santa cap and salt-and-pepper beard, smiled brightly, as if the past were behind him.
The scheme to fix Boston College basketball games paid off for the mobsters at least four times, but ended after heavy losses during the Feb. 10 game against Holy Cross.
The scheme to fix Boston College basketball games paid off for the mobsters at least four times, but ended after heavy losses during the Feb. 10 game against Holy Cross.
Date: Dec. 16, 1978 | Opponent: Harvard | BC’s betting line: +12 | Score (BC first): 86-83 | Conspirators’ outcome: Win
Date: Dec. 23, 1978 | Opponent: UCLA | BC’s betting line: -15 to -18 | Score (BC first): 81-103 | Conspirators’ outcome: Win
Date: Jan. 10, 1979 | Opponent: Rhode Island | BC’s betting line: -10 to -15 | Score (BC first): 78-91 | Conspirators’ outcome: Lose
Date: Jan. 17, 1979 | Opponent: Connecticut | BC’s betting line: +5 to +6 | Score (BC first): 78-77 | Conspirators’ outcome: Win
Date: Feb. 3, 1979 | Opponent: Fordham | BC’s betting line: +15 | Score (BC first): 71-64 | Conspirators’ outcome: Win
Date: Feb. 6, 1979 | Opponent: St. John’s | BC’s betting line: -8 to -10 | Score (BC first): 76-85 | Conspirators’ outcome: Lose
Date: Feb. 10, 1979 | Opponent: Holy Cross | BC’s betting line: -2 to +2 | Score (BC first): 96-98 | Conspirators’ outcome: Lose
NOTE: Court records and published reports identified seven games in the conspiracy; witnesses at the time offered conflicting statements as to whether additional games were targeted.