1978–79 Boston College basketball point shaving scandal
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The 1978–79 Boston College basketball point shaving scandal involved a scheme in which underworld figures recruited and bribed some Boston College Eagles men's basketball players to ensure the team would not win by the required margin (not cover the point spread), allowing the gamblers in the know to place wagers against that team and win.
The scheme was conceived by Rocco Perla and his brother Anthony in Pittsburgh during the summer of 1978. The Perla brothers were small-time gamblers who saw the 1978–79 Boston College basketball season as a perfect opportunity to earn a lot of money. They wanted to recruit Rick Kuhn to join the scheme. Kuhn, a high school friend of Rocco Perla, was entering his senior year at Boston College and was expected to be a key member of the 1978–79 Eagles basketball team.
The Perla brothers proposed a simple scheme. They along with Kuhn would select certain basketball games where the projected point spread separating Boston College from its opponent was expected to be significant. Kuhn would be responsible for ensuring, by his play on the court, that Boston College fell short of the point spread. Thus, for example, if participating bookmakers determined Boston College to be an eight-point favorite in a particular game, Kuhn would be paid a bonus, usually $2,500 ($9,200 today), if Boston College won by less than eight points. In addition, they were given the opportunity to bet the money they were paid and double their winnings. Kuhn agreed to participate, and brought in his teammate Jim Sweeney.
Rocco and Tony Perla then mobilized a betting syndicate to maximize their potential gain from this operation. They contacted a local friend, Paul Mazzei, who was known to have influence within major New York gambling circles. Mazzei in turn contacted Henry Hill, a Lucchese crime family associate from New York who had befriended Mazzei while both men were serving sentences in a federal prison. Mazzei and the Perlas were particularly hopeful that Hill would enlist the support of his associate, James Burke ("Jimmy the Gent"), to finance the payments to the players and to set up a network of bookmakers who were in on the scheme. These bookies could handle large bets and lay them off and spread the bets among a number of unsuspecting bookmakers around the country so as not to arouse suspicion. They would also ensure protection for the enterprise in the event that the unsuspecting bookmakers, all of whom had thugs at their disposal to collect unpaid debts, discovered they were being swindled. Hill and Burke were brought into the scheme, after receiving approval from Lucchese crime family capo Paul Vario.
Burke, through Hill, would front the money to pay the players, forwarding the money to Pittsburgh to Paul Mazzei as the go-between, who would forward it to the Perla brothers who would pass it to the players directly. The same channels would be used for the passing of the point spread from Burke and Hill to the players.
Burke had Hill fly to Boston on November 16, 1978, to meet with Mazzei, Tony Perla, Kuhn, and any other member of the Boston College team interested in participating in their scheme. Said Hill, "I asked the players which of the upcoming games they felt we could shave. Sweeney took out one of those little schedule cards, circled the games he thought we could fool around with, and gave the card to me. They kept saying that they liked the idea of just shaving points and not blowing the games." However, as noted below, the scheme also worked in games where the Eagles were expected to lose anyway, with them shaving points so that the syndicate could bet on the other team winning by more than the point spread. After discussing their strategy with Kuhn and Sweeney, it was agreed that the upcoming Providence game would be an appropriate test for their scheme.
The Providence game was played on December 6, 1978, and Boston College was favored to win by six to seven points. Kuhn was thus expected to keep the score below the six- to seven-point margin. The test run for the scheme proved unsuccessful, however, when Boston College established an early lead and ultimately won the game by 19 points.
Enraged by their gambling loss, the conspiring Perla Brothers, Mazzei, Burke, and Hill decided to recruit additional Boston College players to enhance their control over the outcome of the games. They had Kuhn approach Ernie Cobb, the leading scorer on the team, but it has never been proven if Cobb agreed to cooperate. Burke instructed Hill to warn the players to keep to their end of the deal because "you can't play basketball with broken hands."
The December 16 game against Harvard was chosen as the second test for the scheme. Boston College was favored by 12 to 13 points, but won the game by only a three-point margin, 86–83. The syndicate was very happy with this result, and Kuhn was given cash to distribute to the players for their efforts.
The scheme continued to work successfully in the December 23 game against UCLA. In this game, the Bruins were favored to win over the Eagles by a 15 to 18-point spread, so the syndicate bet on the Bruins to win by a margin greater than the point spread. The Eagles managed to lose by 22 points, 103–81, with the syndicate winning its bet.
Suspecting that some bookmakers might be getting wise to the scheme, the conspirators temporarily revised their strategy after the UCLA game. To allay any suspicions of foul play, they decided to bet on Boston College to win by more than the point spread ("cover the spread") in a game that they were confident Boston College would win handily. The conspirators chose the January 17 game against Connecticut to implement this plan. Their strategy was effective: BC, a five-point favorite, covered the spread with a 90–80 win over UConn.
In early February, Boston College was scheduled to play two New York teams, Fordham and St. John's. The conspirators decided that these games presented especially good opportunities because New York bookmakers generally accepted large bets for New York teams. They reintroduced the original strategy and it proved successful for the February 3 Fordham game when BC, a 10-point favorite, won by seven points, 71–64.
The February 6 game against St. John's game was a "push" (get your exact bet back), as the syndicate neither won nor lost when St. John's prevailed 85–76, the exact point spread (9) the bookmakers had offered.[i]
Confident from their recent success, the conspirators viewed the February 10 game against Holy Cross as an opportunity to reap the full benefits of their scheme. They were aware that bookmakers generally accepted large bets on this game because Boston College and Holy Cross were traditional rivals and also because the game was being nationally televised. Holy Cross was favored to win and, consistent with the scheme, the conspirators bet on Holy Cross to win by a margin greater than the point spread, 7.[ii] Holy Cross ultimately won by only two points, 98–96, as Ernie Cobb scored eight points in the final minute to bring BC close, and everyone involved lost a substantial amount of money. Hill stated that, at the time, he and Burke were watching the game on television at Burke's home in Howard Beach, Queens, and when it was over Burke, having lost $50,000 ($165,000 today) of his own money on the game, put his foot through his television set in a rage. Said Hill, "He wanted me to fly up to Boston. Ultimately, nothing happened. Jimmy said he was finished. He didn't want to be bothered with these kids anymore." The scheme thus ended on an unsuccessful note.
The Boston College basketball team ended its 1978–79 season with a 22–9 record. It is unclear how much money the players involved in the point-shaving scheme were paid. Hill reportedly cleared over $100,000 ($330,000 today) and bettors higher up the line were said to have made up to $250,000 ($825,000 today).
Uncovering of the scheme
The Boston College basketball point-shaving conspiracy was uncovered in 1980 when Hill was arrested and indicted by New York state authorities on drug trafficking charges and subsequently was implicated in the Lufthansa heist, which occurred while the basketball scheme was underway (December 1978). Hill turned state's evidence in exchange for avoiding prison time and to escape possible execution by Burke and the Lucchese family. While being questioned on the drug and heist crimes, Hill inadvertently revealed that he had recently participated in a point-shaving scheme involving the Boston College basketball team and various underworld figures. Hill offered to relate the full story of the swindle if federal officials would guarantee him full immunity and would agree to intercede on his behalf to convince state officials to drop the drug charges pending in state court.
The grand jury indicted Burke, Mazzei, Kuhn, Rocco Perla, and Tony Perla on the basis of testimony given by Hill. Hill was listed as a co-conspirator, but was not named as a defendant. At the trial in 1981, the government's case consisted primarily of the testimony of Hill and three other witnesses, James Sweeney and Joseph Beaulieu, both Boston College players, and Barbara Reed, a 23-year-old nurse who lived with Kuhn during the 1978–79 Boston College season. The government also introduced two confessions, one made by Kuhn and the other by Tony Perla. Finally, the government presented telephone records showing evidence of extensive communications between the conspirators during the 1978–79 season and records provided by Western Union and various hotels which further corroborated government testimony.
After a four-week trial, each conspirator was convicted on charges of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) conspiracy, conspiracy to commit sports bribery, and interstate travel with the intent to commit bribery. Burke was sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment. Kuhn was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment, later reduced to 28 months. Mazzei and Tony Perla were sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. Rocco Perla was sentenced to four years' imprisonment. Sweeney was not charged. Ernie Cobb was acquitted of any wrongdoing, despite Kuhn giving Cobb's girlfriend an allegedly unsolicited envelope with $1,000.
|December 6, 1978||Providence||Opp +(6–7)||BC 19||83–64||Lose|
|December 16, 1978||Harvard||Opp +(12–13)||BC 3||86–83||Win|
|December 23, 1978||UCLA||Opp −(15–18)||Opp 22||103–81||Win|
|January 10, 1979||Rhode Island||Opp −15[vi]||Opp 13||91–78||Lose|
|January 17, 1979||UConn||BC −5||BC 10||90–80||Win|
|January 20, 1979||Holy Cross||BC −2[vii]||BC 2||89–87||Push|
|February 3, 1979||Fordham||Opp +10||BC 7||71–64||Win|
|February 6, 1979||St. John's||Opp −9[i]||Opp 9||85–76||Push|
|February 10, 1979||Holy Cross||Opp −7[ii]||Opp 2||98–96||Lose|
The ESPN television documentary Playing for the Mob, which premiered on October 7, 2014, as part of the 30 for 30 series, is centered on the scandal. Former players Jim Sweeney, Ernie Cobb, and Anthony Bowie appeared in the film as did criminals Henry Hill, Rocco Perla, Tony Perla, and Paul Mazzei. Bowie explains, and the journalists involved confirm, that the story first broke in the Boston Globe on January 16, 1981 with an incorrect accusation that Bowie was involved, immediately ending his professional career in Europe. Others featured in the documentary included Bruce Pearl, a student aide on the team who was a freshman at BC at the time; Mike Mayock, Jim Sweeney's roommate; Kevin Mackey, an assistant for BC head coach Tom Davis; and Edward McDonald, the prosecutor to whom Hill first broke the story of the scandal.
The scandal was briefly alluded to in the movie Goodfellas, in which Hill, Burke and Vario were main characters. Several clips from Goodfellas were used in Playing for the Mob, and film star Ray Liotta served as its narrator.
A book titled The Lufthansa Heist, by Daniel Simone and Henry Hill, was published by Lyons Press on August 1, 2015. This book dedicates six chapters describing in a dramatic fashion vivid details about the planning, the execution, the cast of perpetrators, and the demise of the Boston College basketball point shaving scheme.
- The syndicate was able to lay 9 points when the game was first available to be bet, and therefore pushed. Bookmakers, on seeing the heavy action, moved the line as high as 12 to discourage bets on the favorite (St. John's) and attract more bets on the underdog. Those later betters on St. John's lost money because they laid more than the eventual 9 point margin of victory.
- In this case, while the line may have opened, or at one time gone to, 2, because of the heavy betting on Holy Cross, the syndicate had to lay as many as 7 points, and therefore lost their bet.
- Bets in this column are given in the format "Team [+|−][Points|(Points–Points)]". is the team bet on – either Opp (opponent) or BC; + or − means they were either an underdog or favorite, respectively; Points is either a single number or a range of numbers when bets had to be made at different spreads as the line moved due to action.
- Winner is given as either Opp or BC and the margin of victory
- Result is the outcome of the syndicate's bets.
- While the line may have been as low as 13 at some point, the syndicate had to lay 15, and therefore lost their bet when Rhode Island won by only 13.
- In this case, while the spread was as high as 5, the syndicate was able to lay just 2 points, and therefore pushed when Holy Cross won by 2.
- The Lufthansa Heist by Daniel Simone published by Lyons Press
- ESPN series October 7, 2014, episode titled, Playing for the Mob
- U.S. v. Mazzei, 700 F.2d 85 (C.A.2 (N.Y.), 1983)
- U.S. v. Burke, 700 F.2d 70 (C.A.2 (N.Y.), 1983)
- Sports Illustrated (SI) "How I Put The Fix In" (February 16, 1981) article written by Henry Hill, in collaboration with Douglas Looney. This article purported to be Hill's first-hand account of the point shaving scheme. Hill claimed he paid Kuhn and Sweeney to shave points in nine games between December 16, 1978, and March 1, 1979. Hill won six games, but didn't begin to win wagers until Boston College's star Ernie Cobb joined the scheme for the last five games. Hill claimed he made between $75,000 to $100,000 in eleven weeks. He estimated his partners made $250,000. Hill said the players involved made about $10,000 each.
- Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball by David Porter, Taylor Trade Publishing (February 25, 2000) ISBN 978-0-87833-192-5.