Remembering The Boston College Point Shaving Scandal

Remembering The Boston College Point Shaving Scandal
BC were embroiled in one of the biggest betting scandals in sports history (Image: Boston College 1980 Yearbook)

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."

You probably recognise that line of dialogue. It’s from Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, a film widely considered one of the best ever and among the greatest examples of the gangster genre.

But you might not know that the mobsters portrayed in the film were responsible for one of the biggest scandals in basketball history, and that it was this scam, rather than the numerous robberies and murders, which saw the most powerful Irish-American gangster of all time incarcerated for the rest of his days.

The History Of Point Shaving

Point shaving is a form of fixing. The aim is to manipulate spread betting, rather than deliberately losing. The shavers only have to win by fewer points than the bookmakers think they will, not throw the game.

If bookmakers set the spread believing a team will by win seven points, the fixers bet against them and the corrupt team tries to win by six or fewer.

It’s very hard to detect. Red Auerbach coached the Celtics to nine NBA championships between 1957 and 1966, and knew all there is to know about basketball. “There’s no way you can tell if a referee or player is shaving points, absolutely no way,” he once told Sports Illustrated. [1]

The Boston College (BC) team of 1978/79 were far from the first to get entangled in a scam. In 1949/50, 33 players across seven teams shaved points. What made it worse was that the champion City College of New York were one of them.

Jack Molinas engineered a larger scheme in 1961, which resulted in 37 arrests of students from 22 colleges. Molinas had been suspended by the NBA seven years earlier for betting on games in which his team played. Leopards don’t change their spots.

The Boston scandal followed next, and wouldn’t be the last.

The Key Participants

responsible Robert De Niro (L) & Ray Liotta depicting Jimmy Conway (real name Burke) & Henry Hill in Goodfellas, 1990 (© PA Images)

Our story begins in the mid-1970s at a penitentiary in Lewisburg. Henry Hill – later played by Ray Liotta in GoodFellas - was serving time for extortion, and befriended a drug dealer called Paul Mazzei. The pair reunited once Hill was released in 1978, and Mazzei introduced him to his friend, Tony Perla.

Tony and his brother Rocco were pals with Rick Kuhn. A forward for Boston College’s basketball team, he wasn’t the strongest player and was more interested in partying. The Perlas figured Kuhn would be up for making a quick buck, and susceptible to their advances.

According to Hill in Wiseguy [2] - Nicholas Pileggi’s book which became the basis for GoodFellas - Perla had been cultivating Kuhn for over a year. "The kid wants to do business," said Tony. "I’ve bought him a colour TV and paid for some work on his car."

And while he was willing, he couldn’t engineer results alone, so Kuhn suggested they employ his friend Jim Sweeney. He was the polar opposite of Kuhn, which made him perfect in Hill’s eyes. “He looked like a little choirboy, a legitimate kid,” he said.

Sweeney was a self-confessed bookworm from an exclusive Jersey prep school, where he was all state in three sports.

Bruce Pearl, now a successful college basketball coach who studied at BC, says Sweeney was a perfect undergraduate. “If there was a poster of what a student athlete at Boston College is supposed to look like, it was Jim Sweeney.”

Hill also had to get approval from his bosses; Jimmy Burke, later played by Robert De Niro in GoodFellas using the surname Conway, and Paul Vario, portrayed by Paul Sorvino.

“When I got back and told Jimmy and Paulie about the scheme, they loved it,” Hill recalled in Wiseguy. “Jimmy loved to beat bookmakers and Paulie liked to beat anybody.”

Setting Up The Scam

Hill flew to Boston in December 1978 for a meeting with the men involved. “Kuhn and Sweeney knew exactly what I was there for,” Hill later told Sports Illustrated. “Sweeney was a businessman like me. First he and Rick wanted $3,500 a game, but I wound up chewin’ ‘em down to $2,500.”

“Sweeney took out one of those little schedule cards, circled the games he thought they could fool with, and gave the card to me,” said Hill. “They knew how to shave, because when I tried to explain to them, they said, ‘Naw, we know all that shit’.”

Yet when Sweeney retold his story for ESPN’s Playing For The Mob documentary in 2014 [3] he claimed to be stringing Hill along.

“I had told him I'm not interested in doing this. You just say, ‘yeah, I'll do it’ with no intention of doing it. You want to tell people what they want to hear, then you want to go away.”

Sweeney had no doubts regarding the severity of what he was involved in. “I knew that I was suddenly in a situation in which I was already underwater,” he said.

Lining Up The Bookies

The other vital parties were the bookmakers, and it was very much a plural, as Hill explained.

“Betting big money on college basketball is very hard because very few bookies get into it seriously. I needed a string of bookmakers, maybe 10 or 15.

“If the limit is $25,000, then anything above that, they call somebody else and get them to take it. I had one guy in Manhattan who would lay off in Connecticut who would lay off in Cleveland who would lay off in California. There’s a whole network.”

The odds were set in ‘Sin City’. “The spread comes out in Las Vegas, usually two to three nights before games,” said Tony Perla. “I’d call Rick (Kuhn), I’d tell him the point spread on the Boston College game, and Rick would say if they’d have a chance or not.”



Fixing The Games

Hill had no issue telling people what they wanted to hear, as was seen when he spoke to the FBI in order to save his own skin. The sources for this article include interviews he gave in 1981, 1985 and 2014, and while the framework of this story is reliable, the specific details change. Who was asking and how much they were paying probably influenced what Hill revealed each time.

But as a drug-using gangster who feared for his life, it’s unsurprising that his recollections were inconsistent. As he said regarding point shaving, “the shit I was doing, that was going on in my life? I didn't even consider it a crime.”

As such, it’s impossible to be certain which game was the first they attempted to fix. In Sports Illustrated's exposé, Hill claimed it was against Harvard on December 16.

“I watched the boys throw the ball out of bounds, and it was gorgeous,” he said. The spread was +12 on Boston College, so as they won 86-83, Hill was in the money.

Yet in Wiseguy, published four years later, Hill claimed he attended the opening game of the season against Providence on December 6, which Boston won 83-64. The spread was for them to win by seven though, so the bet lost.

Hill said in Wiseguy, “Jimmy and I put a few bucks down”; in Playing For The Mob, Tony Perla says “New York were cut down for over $250,000.”

Either way, the mob were unhappy that the plan hadn’t worked. Sweeney spoke with a very nervous Kuhn afterward. “He said, ‘these guys were irate. You're going to get us killed’,” Sweeney recalled.

If the scam was to work, they needed another player. And who better than the team’s top scorer, Ernie Cobb?

Rocco Perla approached Cobb about working for them, and says it was explained clearly what was expected of him; Cobb says that’s not so, and that their conversations were vague. To Cobb, it felt like he was being asked for insider info on the team and their prospects.

Whatever his understanding, Cobb underperformed in the Harvard game, scoring 12 points when he averaged 23. Was it due to great defence or did he have an off night? “I don’t know, but people are always going to speculate,” he later said.


responsible Boston College Basketball in action in 1980, the following season (Image: Boston College Sub Turri 1980 Yearbook) [4]

Admitting he accepted $1,000 for the game only fuels the speculation. Speaking in 2014, Cobb said: “the ethical thing to do at 50 years old is different than what you would do at 16 or 20. I don't question $1,000, give it to me.”

Sweeney claiming he didn’t fix is equally undermined by his admission he accepted $500. He says he took it under duress though, with Kuhn telling him he needed him to be involved, whether he liked it or not. And despite friends urging Sweeney to report what was happening, he refused as he didn’t want to hurt Kuhn. So the scam continued.

The bookies began to smell a rat, and not just the one Hill himself would become 18 months later. To cover his tracks, Hill also bet on BC to win games without involving the players. And as some of his wagers were unsuccessful, the bookmakers became less suspicious and allowed him to stake more.

He bet $35,000 on a game with Connecticut and it paid off. “BC was a big favourite, five or six points, and they won by one (78-77). Beautiful,” as Hill told SI. Further successful bets followed in games against Fordham and St. John’s.

On February 10, Boston College faced Holy Cross. The game was televised so Hill and Burke watched together, having staked $85,000 between them.

Sweeney has said Kuhn told him this would be the final fix. Yet it’s hard to believe it would’ve been had the bets won. As it was, BC were beaten 98-96 and the money was lost, thanks to Cobb scoring eight points in the final minute.

According to Hill, “Jimmy went nuts. He was furious. He put his foot through his own television set. I know he lost about fifty thousand dollars.”

The fixing was over. The season was drawing to a close and the criminals were tired of a scam which didn’t always pay off.

Nobody knows for certain how much money was made. Hill claimed to have earned about $400,000, but Rocco Perla said he pocketed “thousands of dollars, not tens of thousands”, while Mazzei only succeeded once.

As nobody had any inkling that point shaving had occurred, that should’ve been the end of it. Once the FBI arrested Hill the following year though, it all came out.

The Scam Is Revealed

Edward McDonald was a Federal Prosecutor who interrogated Hill in May 1980. In among the many questions he asked, McDonald enquired as to why he had been going to Boston so frequently. Hill mentioned the point shaving scam, which the FBI were completely unaware of.

He named Cobb, Kuhn and Sweeney as being involved, so the FBI visited the trio in early morning raids. Knowing they were in serious trouble, the players agreed to cooperate.

The FBI were unable to prove that fixing had occurred from examining the games. Ed Guevara, a former FBI Special Agent, recalls viewing hours of footage. “I watched reel-upon-reel of the 1978/79 season, and was not able to determine that this errant pass was done on purpose or that missed shot was done because of the fix,” he said.

But that didn’t matter. The FBI didn’t have to prove the games were fixed, only that there was a conspiracy to manipulate the scores.



Aftermath

With echoes of the downfall of Al Capone half a century earlier, Jimmy Burke was convicted for fixing basketball games when prosecutors were unable to construct a case against him for his most notorious crimes, which included the Lufthansa heist and his alleged role in the cover-up murders which followed.

Burke was sent to prison for 20 years (though he later died of cancer in 1996). The other defendants were all found guilty, with Kuhn, Mazzei and Tony Perla sentenced to 10 years, while Rocco Perla got four. Cobb later cleared his name, and Sweeney was never charged.

Kuhn was released after serving 28 months, and rarely speaks about what happened. However, he later told McDonald that everything said at the trial was true except for one thing: despite his denials, Sweeney was an active participant in the scam.

Nobody will ever know the full truth, as everyone involved has their own story. What we do know is that money was won and money was lost, and the scam ultimately took down one of America’s most dangerous gangsters.

“I got through it on my own, and I didn’t get whacked,” is how Sweeney looks back on the matter now, which is probably the healthiest view to take.


References

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