The BC Hoops Scandal: The Story ‘GoodFellas’ Chose Not To Tell You
“When I received a call from Henry Hill saying I couldn’t play basketball with a broken arm, it was then that I was sort of in over my head’’- Rick Kuhn, forward, Boston College.
If you’ve seen “Goodfellas,” you’d know how vicious Henry Hill and the Lucchese crime family could be. There wasn’t anything off limits for America’s most powerful mob. Hill’s criminal life started with arson and small crimes, evolved into murder and million dollar heists, and had stops on the basketball courts of Chestnut Hill, Mass., along the way.
Here’s the story of how Henry Hill and the mafia had a hand in the pockets of a few naive college kids from Boston, setting the NCAA ablaze with controversy that would take years to address.
The Scandal That Time (And Scorsese) Forgot
We’re all familiar with the highly publicized and vicious crimes the mafia is known to commit. After all, if it bleeds, it leads. For such a secretive lifestyle they are forced to live, it’s amazing how much detail exists regarding their way of life. But one of their most famous schemes is also one of their least-spoken about. When Henry Hill and the mafia became involved with Boston College basketball, there would be no blood. There would be, however, the ultimate demise of the Lucchese crime family and many lives ruined along the way.
When “Goodfellas” came out in 1990, it played out like a Greatest Hits album for Hill’s life of crime. But the story of the Boston College point-shaving scandal in the late 70s got left on the cutting room floor. We are about to bring this otherwise forgotten college basketball scandal back to life. But first, a refresher course on the life and crimes of Henry Hill.
Henry Hill: The Beginning of a Life of Crime
The mafia is a scary, dark, corrupt organization that pounces on impressionable people looking for power, money, family. Or you’re born into it. They say you enter the mafia alive, and the only way you leave it is in a casket.
But nothing could deter or dissuade Henry Hill — portrayed by Ray Liotta in the Martin Scorsese 1990 classic “Goodfellas” — from going down the slippery path of entering organized crime. The consequences stemming from illegal gambling schemes, grand larceny, and murder weren’t enough to keep Hill from joining the mob.
As a child growing up poor in New York, Henry Hill grew infatuated with the mob lifestyle. Living across the street from the notorious Lucchese crime family and mob boss Paul Vario, Hill saw it all firsthand. He witnessed how money flowed like water, how power was exerted, and how family was protected. And it’s exactly those elements he craved.
Small Crime, Big Repercussions
Slowly but surely, Hill became ingratiated into the mob, committing small crimes to defend the Varios’ turf. Early on, Hill displayed unwavering loyalty that would, in time, earn him the respect of the mafia. At the ripe age of 16, Hill was arrested for the first time in association with credit card fraud.
Although the crime itself was tame by comparison of what Hill had done and would do, his lack of willingness to cooperate with the police gave the Lucchese family even more hope that Hill would be a loyal mobster for years to come, and although Hill wasn’t fully Italian and could never become a made man, he displayed the proper qualities needed to ascend to the upper echelon of the mob’s hierarchy.
Air France: The First Major Crime
Hill’s first major foray into the lucrative and dangerous life of a mobster came in 1967. Hill and two mafia associates received insider information that Air France planes arrived weekly at JFK Airport with hundreds of thousands of dollars. The money was stored in a secured room with an around-the-clock armed guard.
To get into the room, the mobsters needed a precious key that the guard kept permanently affixed to his belt. To get that key, Hill and McMahon concocted a plan using an escort to physically and mentally distract the guard, and the plan worked. Hill snatched the key from the “distracted” guard, made a copy, and returned it before the guard had any idea it ever disappeared.
With the key in hand, the rest was simple. Hill casually strolled into the airport with the largest suitcase he could carry, found the room with the guard on dinner break, and left with $420,000 — all without setting off an alarm, killing someone, or firing a single bullet. Although looting half a million was nice for Hill and the mafia, it was just a fraction of things to come. It was just the tip of the iceberg. Why stop at half a million, they thought, and they were right. And while an even bigger airport robbery would come to define them, Hill also ventured into the world of sports gambling.
Foul Play: The Mafia Takes to the Courts
“How would your honey feel if she came home to see you wearing a bracelet with your [genitals] hanging from it?” This is what Henry Hill asked star Boston College basketball player Jim Sweeney in 1978. The question — more of a crystal-clear warning than anything else — meant Hill was all business. All in on a point-shaving scheme that would embroil the Eagles in conflict and controversy.
Back in the 1978-79 Boston College basketball season, senior forward Rick Kuhn was an average player at best. More interested in drugs and women than wins and points, Kuhn was an impressionable college kid who wanted to cash in on his dwindling college career.
A Pittsburgh native, Kuhn was contacted by two high school friends, the Perlas, who proposed to the senior that he alter his performance to mess with the point spreads. The Perlas, small-time gamblers themselves, easily convinced Kuhn to participate in the scheme. With Kuhn on board, his friends reached out to Paul Mazzei, an old prison friend of Hill’s and high-stakes gambler that knew the Perlas well. In turn, Mazzei reached out to his old prison pall Hill. Getting Hill — and the extensive resources of the Lucchese family — involved meant the scheme was officially going to happen. It took the scheme from concept to reality.
For a quick reference, point shaving is the act of intentionally manipulating a game’s outcome to either cover or fall short of the spread. For instance, if team X was supposed to beat team Y by 10 points, Hill and the mafia would tell the players on team X to win by less than 10. Miss shots. Foul players. Turn the ball over. Whatever. Just win by less than 10 or lose the game. Then the mafia goes and bets that team X WILL NOT cover the spread (win by more than 10). Conversely, if team X was supposed to lose by 10 (or less), Hill would ensure that players missed shots and lost the game by at least 11.
Missing Shots, Making Money
Now with Rick Kuhn fully on board with the idea and star guard Jim Sweeney forcibly coerced into participating, the Eagles were ready to lose; the mafia ready to win. However, the scheme got off to a rocky start.
BC was playing a far inferior Providence team, and the mob put money on the Eagles winning, but — and this is crucial — by 10 or fewer points. Easy enough. Instead, BC demolished Providence by 19 points.
Infuriating America’s most lethal mafia was not a good idea, and Hill let the team know it. “I didn’t threaten him or nothin. I just said, ‘It’s hard to play basketball with a broken arm.’” When Hill uttered these words, there was no questioning what he meant. Do well by the mafia or there will be serious repercussions.
After that highly-disappointing victory, Hill instructed Kuhn to bring along Boston College’s most elite player, Ernie Cobb, to the scheme. Cobb, a big-time scorer, was a key player the mob needed to control. Without him on board, it would be nearly impossible for Kuhn and Sweeney to single-handedly ensure Boston College didn’t cover the spread.
Not Everything Goes According to Plan
Regardless of which players were in on the fix and which were just painfully oblivious to their surroundings, the mob wasn’t able to successfully control the games the way they wanted, and despite the threat of physical violence and brutal intimidation tactics, Henry Hill and the mob failed to control a bunch of college kids in the late 70s.
Boston College finished the season with a 21-9 record. Of those games, nine were fixed, but only four were profitable for the mob; three were heavy losses, and two games were pushes: games where the mob neither won or lost money.
Against Providence, the mob’s first fix, BC didn’t even come close to falling short of the spread. That’s when the mob brought in Cobb. The following two games, BC executed their duties by barely scraping by against a pitiful Harvard team and then getting blown out by UCLA, placating the mob in the process.
But they couldn’t keep up the “success” against the University of Rhode Island. Instead of losing by more than 15 points, they only lost by 13. Following that disappointment, BC’s next four games were split between two pushes and two wins for the mob. Then came the matchup against in-state rival Holy Cross in what would be the final game of the fix.
Matching up against the Holy Cross Crusaders, a rival located 40 miles west of Boston College, the Eagles were a three-point underdog. Hill and the mob relayed simple instructions: lose the game by more than three points. With huge money and implications on the line, BC failed to follow through, losing the game by two points, 98-96. Hill and legendary Lucchese associate James Burke were livid. Over $100,000 down the drain. “What I’m looking to do next is strangle some basketball players.”
They did not end up strangling any Eagles, but instead smashed their television set in frustration. And shattered television screens and lost money would be the least of the problems to come.
The season wound down uneventfully and nothing happened to any of the players, at least initially. Then, in 1980, it all began to unravel. Hill was arrested on drug charges and became one of America’s biggest rats. In the process of identifying other members of the mafia, Hill disclosed the events that took place on the court. One by one, the players were indicted, their reputations tarnished, their futures damaged.
“Jim Sweeney, Rick Kuhn, and Ernie Cobb betrayed the trust of their teammates and the responsibility afforded them as student athletes at Boston College,’’ school spokesman Jack Dunn said. “Their actions separated them from the BC community, and they need to seek forgiveness from their teammates, whom they betrayed and who paid a price for their actions.’’
Not only did Hill disclose the details of the Boston College scandal, he gave up the goods on the biggest crime of his life, the one “Goodfellas” made the centerpiece of the film: The Lufthansa Heist of 1978.
The Loot of Lufthansa
With a fluent understanding of JFK Airport’s layout and security structure, combined with their success in the Air France Heist, Hill and Burke — also not able to become a made man due to his Irish descent — decided to up the ante on their Air France heist of a few years before. To make their next planned heist even easier, the Lucchese family was paying off numerous airport workers and officials.
Louis Werner, a Lufthansa cargo agent, had prior debts with his bookie Martin Krugman. To alleviate his debts and curry favor with the bookie, Werner notified Krugman of an incoming Lufthansa flight loaded with cash and European jewels that were to be sent to jewlers across America. The cash came from monetary exchanges in Europe and was to be recirculated in the U.S. banks the following morning. Not coincidentally, Krugman happened to be an associate of Hill and Burke.
All of the pieces of the puzzle were in place. Werner would alleviate his debts to Krugman. Krugman would supply the necessary info to Hill and Burke, and the mob would execute the task with a military-like precision. In the end, everyone would be paid handsomely, and any lingering anger would be assuaged with stacks of cold, hard cash.
Before the heist, the mafia received crucial insider information from Werner who knew Lufthansa’s security system extensively and provided comprehensive, detailed sketches of the Lufthansa-wing layout- essential information in order to pull off a massive, complex operation.
In the early morning hours of December 11, 1978, a black Ford van full of armed mafia pulled up to the Lufthansa gate. The security guard on the scene went to investigate the van, and as he approached, gunmen pistol whipped the guard, taking him hostage. Bloodied and shocked, the mafia now had a powerless employee to use as leverage.
With detailed maps of the Lufthansa cargo sector and the proper keys, the gunmen and the hostage entered the building and moved directly towards the employee break room where the remaining employees were located. Using the bloodied guard as a brutal scare tactic, the mafia ordered everyone to the ground before bounding their hands and gagging their mouths.
Robbers then proceeded to force Rudi Eirich, the night shift supervisor, to carefully open the double door safe, ensuring no alarms would be set off. With all of the employees incapacitated, the mafia henchman loaded up $5 million in cash and nearly $1 million in jewels into duffle bags and took off.
Their pay day was much larger than expected and totaled nearly $21 million in today’s dollars, making it the largest heist ever conducted on American soil at that time.
Following the successful heist, Hill and Burke began systematically killing off any mobsters who were involved in the scheme. The getaway van driver, Parnell Edwards, was the first to go. The bookie, Krugman, followed shortly after.
Now fully established as the most powerful crime syndicate in America, Hill and his gang became a cocky, seemingly invincible crew willing to do anything for money and even more to protect their backs. And that included masterminding the point-shaving scheme at Boston College.
But with his arrest in 1980, Hill gave up the details of all his crimes, and the Boston College scandal exploded into the headlines. Hill even told his side of the story to Sports Illustrated for a cover story that chronicled the entire scheme.
Kuhn, the first and most willing member of the team to participate in the scandal, initially received a 10-year jail sentence for being the lead organizer on the team. However, in exchange for testifying against Cobb (asserting that he willingly took part in the scheme), his sentence was reduced to 28 months. At the age 30. Kuhn, a convict who suffered national humiliation, relocated to rural Pennsylvania to live a life under the radar. Divorced and subsisting on odd jobs, Kuhn deeply regretted his involvement with the life-changing scandal.
Cobb, an NBA prospect, was cut from the Nets training camp when the FBI rolled up to New Jersey to inquire with management about the former BC star. The Nets, wanting to dissociate with the mafia and avoid controversy, promptly let Cobb go.
Indicted in 1983 for his role in the scandal and put on trial in 1984, Cobb refused to admit to any wrongdoings involving point shaving. Eventually, the jury acquitted him of all charges. However, the cloud of scandal still swirled over his head, and no NBA team showed interest in the former Eagle of the Year.
Out of options to play in the States, Cobb embarked on a journey to Israel — a land where he’d be given a fresh start away from the spotlight he never asked for. In Israel, Cobb led a successful basketball career, met his now ex-wife, and had a few children. After the divorce, Cobb settled in Arizona and took up coaching high school ball.
To this day, Cobb remains adamant, denying he ever took part in the fix. He does, however, concede to accepting $1,000 from Hill, which he believed was a small reward for predicting that BC would win the first two games of the season, games where the fix wasn’t yet into effect.
“I was young, and I really believed in the court system,’’ Cobb told The Boston Globe for a story on the scandal in 2014. “I had total confidence that I would be exonerated. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized innocent people are found guilty. “It would have been fantastic if I had an NBA career. But I guess God had another plan for me in the Holy Land. It was a tremendous blessing in terms of my integrity and growth and who I am today.’’
Sweeney, the final member of the scheme and another former Eagle of the Year, settled in Florida and runs a small business. In the aftermath of the scandal, BC removed the once-beloved Sweeney from the display of Eagle of the Year winners. His name stained and his association with the school minimal, Sweeney maintains his innocence and continues to try and plead his case with Boston College, albeit to no avail.
“I understand there is culpability on my part,’’ Sweeney told The Boston Globe. “I could have done things differently, and as a result of what happened, I brought embarrassment to the university. I was a captain and the ballhandler. I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to let this [cheating] happen on my watch.’ Isn’t that the irony of ironies?’’
Coaches in the scandal remained largely unaffected and admit they had no knowledge of the events that took place right beneath their noses. Head coach Tom Davis left Boston College after the 1982 season and coached until 2007 with Stanford, Iowa, and Drake.
Hill, following his wide-sweeping testimony, was put in the government’s witness protection program but was kicked out for failing to abide by the program’s rules. He died in 2012, surprisingly not from a mafia bullet.
Burke was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the BC scandal, largely thanks to Hill’s testimony. Burke died of complications with his health in 1996 behind bars in western New York.