When mobster and government informant Henry Hill gave testimony that detailed his involvement in a point-shaving scheme with players on the Boston College men’s basketball team in the late 1970s, he was asked why he did it.
“If you’re not a gambler, you’ll never understand,” Hill said.
Well, gamblers, non-gamblers, school officials, and sports fans never understood. And the scandal ruined the reputations of several people. And sullied the reputation of “honest, amateur” collegiate athletics.
Only a diligent effort by the NCAA helped set college basketball back on track.
With legal Massachusetts sports betting now live at the state’s three retail casinos, we figured now was a good time to take a deep look back at the illegal sports gambling scandal that rocked the state.
The Real-Life Star of Goodfellas Coordinated Point-Shaving Plot
If you’ve ever seen the film Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorcese, you’ll remember the protagonist. That man was Henry Hill, a mobster from New York who got his hands dirty in dozens of illegal operations.
The 1990 film, which was nominated for six Oscars, followed Hill from streetwise trouble-maker to a made man. From a nobody to a flashy mafia underboss who ended up raking in millions via fraud schemes, robbery, and even murder. But the film barely mentions one of the more bizarre illegal plots Hill got himself into.
In 1978, Hill was introduced to Tony Perla, who told Hill that he had a friend on the Boston College men’s basketball team. That friend was Rick Kuhn, a 6-foot-5 senior forward on scholarship with the Eagles. Perla believed that Kuhn was the type of guy who would “do business.” That meant he might impact the outcomes of games in exchange for money.
A few weeks later, Hill and Perla connected again, the former indicating he would formulate a plan to make money on BC games.
“I was to set everything up,” Hill explained in a first-person article for Sports Illustrated in 1981. “Arrange for the money, then handle things if something happened and a bookie wouldn’t pay.”
At that time, sports betting was illegal everywhere in the US except Nevada through legitimate sportsbooks. But many illegal “bookies” operated, especially in larger cities. Many of those bookies were mafia members or controlled by the mob. If you placed a bet with an illegal book in the 1970s, it was likely that all or some of your money was going into the hands of the mob.
Hill didn’t think it was wise to throw the games. It would be too suspicious, and too difficult to ensure a loss. Kuhn was not a starter, and Hill knew he needed a few more players to make the scheme a success.
Bet on the Spread, Not the Moneyline
The mobster determined that the plan would be to have Kuhn and a few others shave points, to allow Hill and those he let in on the plan to win bets on the point spread. Hill, Kuhn, and Perla agreed that they didn’t want Boston College to lose the games, just shave points off to make the Eagles lose against the spread.
With the possibility of earning a few thousand dollars per game, Kuhn recruited teammate Jim Sweeney, a junior guard who was sure to see quite a bit of floor time. The two players met Hill at a Boston hotel in December of 1978, finalizing details of the betting scheme.
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The plan was for the players to pick games from the schedule where they thought they could impact the point spread. Hill would pay each of them $2,500 per game, and he even agreed to bet their share on the game, if he could get the money down.
Hill used his mob connections to identify a series of bookies in several cities to funnel the bets through. In those days, bookies would usually only take as much as $500 or $1,000 on a college basketball game. Hill hoped to bet as much as $35,000 on each game. He even let a few close associates in on the plan, so they could “wet their beak” by betting against BC on the spread.
Nine Games Were Impacted in 1978-79 Season
The conspirators shaved points and bet on nine games during the 1978-79 season.
The Eagles were a good team — they went 22-9 that season. In part because of that, Hill eventually urged Kuhn to bring in another player, which they accomplished when senior guard Ernie Cobb was secured as a partner in the point-shaving. Cobb was BC’s top scorer, and he handled the ball almost every possession when he was on the court.
“It really didn’t go as easily as I thought it would though,” Hill said.
In the first game that was crooked, the Eagles defeated Harvard by three points. The spread had been 12 points. Hill bet $10,000 and won. He was encouraged when he saw Kuhn and Sweeney making turnovers and committing well-timed fouls.
There were some losses in the nine games, with Hill and his mobster pals losing their bets. But, once Cobb was in the fold, the group raked in money. Reportedly, Hill made as much as $100,000. Others in the mafia made as much as a quarter of a million. The three players made $2,500 per game, except for the three games where they didn’t deliver a point spread loss.
“All in all, it wasn’t worth all the hassle,” Hill said later. “It was much harder than even I can explain it to be. The bookies kept shifting lines on us, and we had a tough time getting money down in time that was favorable to us.”
The Eagles made the NCAA Tournament in 1979, but were bounced in the first round by Connecticut. Not a soul was aware that anything fishy had been going on that season.
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Things Unravel: Hill Testifies Against the Players
As usually happens in such illegal efforts, the word didn’t stay “mum.”
In 1980, Hill was apprehended by authorities on drug trafficking charges. As was shown in Goodfellas, Hill flipped to become an informant for the state and federal government. He sang like a bird (or maybe an eagle?). And the details about almost every crime he ever committed spilled out.
It was only a short time before Perla, Kuhn, Sweeney, and Cobb were charged for their part in what became known as “The Boston College Point-Shaving Scandal.”
Among the players, Kuhn was hit the hardest by the gavel of justice: 10 years in prison. That sentence was reduced to 28 months, however. Sweeney and Cobb, with little evidence to prove they accepted money or did anything to impact the outcome of games, were not charged, and acquitted, respectively.
Hill’s testimony about all of his illegal activities led to 50 arrests of mobsters. That made him a marked man, which led him and his family to enter the US Marshals’ Witness Protection Program in 1980. He spent years under a different name, moving around the country. Eventually, he emerged from protection and embraced his celebrity caused by the Scorcese film.