Shaved down, one could call the story simple: A few college hoops kids helped take down a deadly gangster.
Or vice versa? Forty-four years later, the full truth about the Boston College points-shaving scandal is still unknown.
Any recount of the BC points-shaving scandal should come with a free CharlieCard for a story with more twists and turns than the city’s T system.
While residents eagerly await March 10 for legalized Massachusetts sports betting, we look back on the breach that mixed gamblers and mobsters with student-athletes in the late 1970s.
Cleanly summarizing this story feels futile, but we’ll try.
A mobster met a drug dealer in prison and their friendship continued after their release. The drug dealer, Paul Mazzei, introduced the mobster, Henry Hill, to his friend, Tony Perla. Perla and his brother, Rocco, were into numbers rackets. The Perlas had a high school pal they thought might want to earn some extra dollars.
Enter Rick Kuhn, a senior forward for the Boston College basketball team during the 1978-79 season. Mazzei, Hill and the Perlas devised a plan to rip off bookies without having players throw games. Instead, they’d shave points to win against the spread.
For example, if the Eagles were favored by 10, the mobsters would want the players on the take to make sure the team won by nine points or less. They’d place bets on the underdog and win, thanks to the points, while the players still delivered victories for their team.
Nothing in sports comes with a guarantee, though. The ringleaders knew having just one player wouldn’t ensure the desired outcome.
More players: More money or more problems?
Using Kuhn for an introduction, the men also lured in point guard Jim Sweeney. Unlike Kuhn, Sweeney had a clean-cut image. The motley crew next ensnared Boston College’s leading scorer, Ernie Cobb. To this day, both Sweeney and Cobb admit taking money but say they didn’t really participate.
Also involved were bookmakers across the East Coast. The gambling gangsters needed to spread out the wagers since, the story goes, many back then had limits of $25,000.
Oh, yeah. We can’t forget the bank-rolling bosses. Think of Ray Liotta’s character in “Goodfellas.” Picture him reporting to Robert DeNiro’s character in the film. Surprise! That really happened.
(Sadly, Liotta, who was brilliant in “Goodfellas” and “Field of Dreams,” among other films, died Wednesday at 67.)
In the movie, Liotta played Hill and DeNiro played Jimmy Conway, whose character was based off Hill’s real-life mob associate Jimmy Burke. Due to his Irish heritage, Burke never received a formal induction into the Lucchese crime family of New York, but he operated as an associate. As the wallets, Burke and Co. ultimately became the scheme’s kingpins.
Many details of the scandal remain murky. Did it start out with a loss for the gamblers on Dec. 6, 1978, when Boston College handily beat Providence, 83-64? In one of Hill’s versions, that game inspired Cobb’s recruitment. In another, he says the fixing began with a big win for the wise guys when Boston College, favored by 12 points, beat Harvard by just three, 86-83.
One undebatable fact: The scheme failed.
While the season of points-shaving unfolded, an even bigger crime went down that year. Almost $6 million in cash and $875,000 in jewelry was stolen at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Dec. 11, 1978. Burke was allegedly the ringleader behind the heist, then the largest to happen on U.S. soil, though he was never charged.
Hill got picked up on drug trafficking charges in 1980. His snitching stream began then, and during one conversation with law enforcement, he casually mentioned the Boston College scheme. He’d often say that, compared with other stuff they had done, shaving a few points here and there didn’t even feel like a crime.
Law enforcement officials were ecstatic. Despite pursuing charges against Burke for other crimes, a conviction for fixing basketball games is finally what got him 20 years in prison, where he died of cancer in 1996. Hill went into witness protection and died in 2012 of a heart attack.
We probably won’t ever know the whole truth
Kuhn, Mazzei and Tony Perla were convicted and sentenced to 10 years. Rocco Perla was sentenced to four and Kuhn was released after 28 months. Cobb eventually cleared his name and Sweeney was never charged.
The stories from all participants have changed in various interviews and often contradict each other. Kuhn allegedly made $2,500 per fix. Sweeney allegedly only took one envelope with $500 but maintains he didn’t really participate. Kuhn and Hill say he’s lying. Cobb says he received $1,000 in an envelope but said he didn’t really know what it was for.
ESPN’s “Playing for the Mob,” a 30 for 30 documentary narrated by Liotta, interviews all the living participants, including former coaches and law enforcement officials. All say that when watching the games, it’s impossible to determine if muffed plays were done purposely or just honest mistakes.
How legal markets can help stop scandals like this
An obvious lesson here: Crime doesn’t pay. Also, maybe don’t do business with mobsters?
Opponents of legalized college sports betting argue that adding regulations will only encourage irresponsible gambling. It would also increase the likelihood of scandals like the BC one, they say.
Proponents argue that legal and regulated sports betting would actually reduce the chances of another BC scandal. More regulations and laws results in more eyes scrutinizing each game. Adding more legal operators to choose from also means bettors won’t need to risk their money with illegal, and possibly dangerous, bookies.
Regulated operators also have safety checks in place to help protect those with gambling addictions.
Overall, more legality increases transparency, making it more difficult for shady characters to hide.
Especially those who, as far back as they can remember, always wanted to be a gangster.