ESPN Films: Consider A 30 For 30 On “Goodfellas” And Their Involvement In The Boston College Point-Shaving Scandal

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Updated: March 8, 2012

ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series has provided the general public with some of the most entertaining, inspiring, and ground-breaking documentaries ever produced.  Touching on some of the biggest topics from the world of sports spanning ESPN’s inception 30 plus years ago, over 30 different filmmakers provided their own unique points of view on the particular subjects highlighted.  The combination of interesting storylines matched up with venerable directors armed with amazing historical footage made for great TV. 

Over the past few years I have debated with friends on numerous occasions concerning which of these documentaries rate as the best of the lot.  While the answer to this is a matter of personal preference, most of us agree that a few of these documentaries are clearly a cut above the rest.  “The Two Escobars”, which brought to the life the tangled relationship between crime and soccer in Columbia by the brothers Zimbalist, is one of the best documentaries (non-sports docs included) that I have ever seen.  People who don’t even like sports or soccer seem to love this flick, as the story, interviews, and footage is both tragic and riveting (the interviews of Pablo Escobar’s right hand man Popeye especially standout).  When discussing where other films in the 30 for 30 series rate, they should all be judged on the “Escobar” scale; “4 Escobars” being the highest honor a doc can attain, down to “0 Escobars” being the lowest.  Simply amazing. 

In addition to “The Two Escobars” there are a host of other great documentaries in this series.  From a personal standpoint, my favorites include “Muhammad and Larry” (due to the archival footage shown), “The U” (anything Miami focused produced by Billy Corben is money, i.e. “Cocaine Cowboys”), “June 17, 1994” (like most it brought me back to the events of that day), “Jordan Rides the Bus” (would MJ have stayed in baseball if not for the ’94 strike?), “One Night in Vegas” (could’ve done without the impromptu song narrations, but still a great one), “Once Brothers”, “Pony Excess”, and “The Fab Five” (still can’t believe they didn’t never beat Duke). 

Word has it that the 30 for 30 series will continue in the future, with more interesting subjects being dissected by some of the very best filmmakers going.  With this in mind, I want to put a suggestion in the box for a future documentary project; the point- shaving scandal involving the Boston College basketball team during the 1978-1979 season, which was documented great detail in the 2002 book “Fixed:  How Goodfellas bought Boston College Basketball” by David Porter. 

Porter’s book reconstructs the events surrounding the point-shaving scandal at BC.  On a high level, the scheme originated in Pittsburgh, as two small-time gamblers (Rocco and Anthony Perla) were hoping to earn some easy money.  They recruited Rick Kuhn, a high school acquaintance of Rocco’s and senior forward on Boston College’s basketball team, who seemed able and willing to alter is performance to ensure his team fell above or below a particular point spread.  Other players were brought into the fold, including those who might have a more direct impact on the outcome of BC’s games (i.e., point guard Jim Sweeney).  Needing an influx of cash flow to give the operation some juice, the Perla’s brought in Paul Mazzei, a friend who was in tight with members of the infamous Vario crew of New York’s Lucchese crime family.  Mazzei’s main contact with the Vario crew was none other than Henry Hill, who along with legendary gangster Jimmy “the Gent” Burke made sure payments were delivered to the players and bets were spread out amongst their bookies.  A perfect plan was supposedly in place.   

The events following the onset of the scheme are up for debate, as during various points in the season Sweeney and star shooting guard Ernie Cobb were said to be involved (their level of involvement and active participation in the arrangement varies depending on who you talk too), and there is some confusion as to what games were in play and how much money was won, lost, and exchanged.  One thing’s for certain, Hill’s admission of participating in the point-shaving to federal officials sent in motion a firestorm of events that rocked the sporting landscape, eventually leading to a few grand jury indictments and the permanent damaging of reputations.  There are many moving parts and pieces to this story, including a number of elements that would make it a candidate to be told in greater detail:

The Boston basketball scene during the era in question:  Prior to becoming a charter member of the Big East Conference for the 1979-1980 season, Boston College competed with a number of teams in the New England region for superiority and bragging rights.  It was unique in that there were a number of Division I schools in such close proximity to one another (BC, Holy Cross, Harvard, Yale, Fairfield, Northeastern, Main, Boston University), and a few of the rivalries (like BC-Holy Cross) comprised some of the most intense in all of college basketball at the time.  The historic Boston Garden played host to many of the battles between these teams over the years and would typically attract huge crowds.  It was interesting to research and learn about programs that I didn’t realize had a presence on a national level, not to mention some of the iconic coaches that were on the sidelines in the New England region at the time.  A few of these coaches (such as Rick Pitino at Boston University, Jim Calhoun at Northeastern) would later go on to become household names.

Gambling in college sports:  As fans we like to believe that any game we happen to be watching is being played straight up without any outside factors weighing in on the outcome, so the thought of a sporting event being rigged or fixed goes against our general senses.  The fixing of games has always been condemned by the viewing public, and the scandal at Boston College was no different.  The fact that the college athletes in this particular situation consorted with characters that were infamous in law enforcement circles at the highest of levels gives the BC scandal some extra juice. 

The Goodfellas component:  I’ve always been intrigued by the ways of the organized crime and the mob; because of this I enjoying taking in any and all movies on the subject, and the show Mobsters on the Biography channel is part of my regular TV rotation.  Martin Scorsese’s classic 1990 movie Goodfellas is still one of my favorites, by now I have probably seen it at least twenty times.  This film focuses on Henry Hill’s two decades of crime as an associate of the Vario Crew and his longstanding relationship with Jimmy Burke (Jimmy Conway in the movie).  The high point for the gang was the Lufthansa Heist in 1978, as they made off with roughly $5 million in cash and $1 million in jewelry in a daring robbery at JFK airport.  At the end of the film Hill turns informant, snitching on the men he once considered family in order to save his own life and avoid a lengthy jail sentence for his role in trafficking drugs. 

What most people don’t realize from watching Goodfellas is that Burke, a renowned thief and brutal killer, was in fact put behind bars for his involvement in the BC point-shaving scandal.  While the government knew that Burke and his cronies were behind the Lufthansa robbery, they were having a hell of a time proving it.  “Jimmy the Gent” was killing off most of his associates who had played a role in the heist, and besides Hill there weren’t many people left alive who could corroborate the details.  It was during Hill’s interrogation on Lufthansa that the point-shaving scheme at BC was first mentioned (on basically a throwaway line by Hill), and just like that the government had another avenue to pursue.  Thanks to Hill’s admission, the Feds were eventually able to indict Burke on charges that would stick.

After reading this book and seeing more of the real life Henry Hill in various public forums, it is obvious that Ray Liotta’s portrayal of Hill is one of the more blatant exaggerations of a person ever put on film.  While Robert De Niro’s depiction of Conway/Burke appears to be spot on in terms of the viciousness and one-track criminal mind of this notorious gangster, with the exception of the drug habit there doesn’t seem to be many character traits in common between the Hill character in the film and the Hill in the Porter’s book.  That being said, most of my peer group can’t get enough Goodfellas, and the intertwining of sports and the characters in this movie would make a 30 for 30 on this topic a must-see. 

Richie “The Fixer” Perry:  Those familiar with the UNLV basketball program of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s know all about Richie Perry and his connection to the school.  Perry made his way into sports infamy when a picture of him and three members of the Running Rebels 1990 national championship team lounging in a hot tub at his home first surfaced.  At that point in time Perry was already a well-known figure in the shady gambling circles of Las Vegas and New York, and the fact that he was seen associating with prominent players on UNLV’s basketball team turned up the heat on Coach Jerry Tarkanian’s program and eventually led to Tark’s resignation. 

What I didn’t know about Perry until I got into Porter’s book was his alleged involvement in the BC scandal and his ties to the Mafia.  Already a legend to members of the criminal underworld  for his ability to read all the angles and fix games, according to this book he provided some advice to the parties involved during the early stages of the fix and helped spread out some bets.  He would later plead guilty for conspiring to commit sports bribery in the BC point-shaving scandal and in 1992 he was placed in Nevada’s Black Book, becoming the 21st living person ever barred from entering casinos.  Perry’s level of involvement in the BC scandal might have been minimal, but the fact that the “Fixer” was associated with two of the more high profile college basketball scandals in some fashion makes him a person of interest and adds another interesting layer to this story.   

Sweeney and Cobb’s involvement:  Jim Sweeney and Ernie Cobb were the starting guards on Boston College’s 1978-1979 team.  Sweeney was the gritty white point-guard, the quintessential player for Coach Tom Davis’s attacking system.  He enjoyed a great reputation around campus and was looked upon as a role model.  The black mark that would forever stain his reputation was his decision to meet some acquaintances of teammate Rick Kuhn’s at a hotel near Logan Airport in November of 1978.  It was during this meeting that the point-shaving scheme was presented to Sweeney by Hill and his associates from Pittsburgh, and perhaps out of fear he initially agreed to go along with it.  Sweeney would deny ever accepting any money for fixing games, and said that he played his hardest every time out even though he sometimes knew the gamblers were betting heavy for them to win or lose.  If he is guilty of anything it would probably be his passive handling of the situation; instead of telling his coach or athletic director about the proposed scam immediately he sat back and hoped it would all just go away. 

Ernie Cobb was the team’s leading scorer that season.  An African-American out of Stamford, Connecticut, Cobb was a natural scorer who worked tirelessly on his game with the hope of one day making it to the NBA.  He was supposedly brought into the scheme later on since the gamblers wanted a player to be involved who had a more direct impact on the outcome of the games.  How much Cobb knew, when he knew it, and how much money he accepted is still somewhat murky to this day.  What we do know is that Cobb suffered mightily for his alleged involvement, eventually being indicted on charges that he took bribes to fix certain games.  His name and reputation were dragged through the mud for all to see, and even though he was acquitted of all charges when people think of the BC point-shaving scandal his name is usually comes up.

Sweeney voluntarily testified for the prosecution (with no promises from the US Government) against his former friend Kuhn and his co-conspirators, while Cobb had to fight for his life in court against an overly aggressive government.  The way things played out for these two men doesn’t seem fair, as Cobb missed out on a few prime years of his basketball career.  The roles of these former backcourt mates in the scandal and how both were treated in the aftermath is just another interesting dynamic that could be explored in greater depth. 

Sports Illustrated cover:  The cover of the February 16, 1981 issue of Sports Illustrated contained a basketball hoop being filled up with money, title of “Anatomy of a Scandal”.  This is one of the more powerful images I can recall ever being on the cover of SI, and although the story told in the article by Hill contained plenty of inaccuracies, I assume when this first hit the newstands it must’ve sent some pretty big shockwaves through the sporting world. 

U.S. vs. Burke trial:  The scenes and exchanges in the U.S. vs. Burke trial described by Porter are fascinating to read.  You had defendants being tried for the same crime, defendants ranging from a reserve Boston College basketball player (Kuhn) to a man alleged to have been involved in too many murders to count (Burke).  Each man had their own lawyer representing them, some flashy, some confrontational, and some unorthodox.  The back and forth between the lawyers, the judge, and Hill create a wonderfully chaotic and humorous scene. 

I fully understand that this could be a difficult project for ESPN to take on due to various inconsistencies in information and the unreliability of some of the key players.  Let’s be honest, you can’t come away from reading Porter’s book with a favorable impression of Henry Hill, as he seems to have altered his recollection of the key events in question on numerous occasions.  Still, with the resources at ESPN’s disposal and the skill level of the filmmakers involved in 30 for 30, hopefully this is an endeavor that they one day see fit to put on screen.  Basketball, gambling, shady characters, secret meetings in gyms and hotels, overlapping events in Boston and New York, what’s not to like?  Hopefully this story will one day come to life on the semi-big screen. 

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