‘Playing for the Mob’

Chances are that you’re one of the 99 percent of those who filled out your ESPN NCAA basketball brackets — only to have them broken two days into March Madness. That’s OK.

Fixing college basketball games in order to win big money is not OK. Still, it makes as riveting a tale in Hollywood crime movies as it does in real life.

If you’re tired of watching college basketball, revisit a bit of basketball’s shady history: the 1978-79 Boston College basketball season and its headline-screaming scandals.

Directed by Joe Lavine and Cayman Grant, their 77-minute ESPN “30 for 30″ documentary, “Playing for the Mob” (2014), stars real-life mobsters including Henry Hill (playing himself) as well as the voice of the actor who played him on the silver screen in “Goodfellas” (Ray Liotta).

The documentary opens with Liotta’s introduction as well as clips from “Goodfellas” — which segue into Hill and his associates’ shady deal with former Boston College basketball stars. Most notably are Eagles’ Rick Kuhn, Jim Sweeney and Ernie Cobb (names you might remember from the 1980s’ headlines). They may or may not have participated in a point-shaving scheme to fix games in favor of the mobsters. Their involvement, of course, depends on who you ask.

To this day, Sweeney and Cobb both distance themselves from the scandal. Sweeney, whom is described in the film as “Mr. Boston College” and as “wholesome as a boy scout,” claims that he had agreed to the scheme out of fear, but he never point-shaved or did anything illegal. Meanwhile, Cobb remembers someone vaguely mentioning the point-shaving scheme to him and receiving an envelope for $1,000 during one of the games. As a poor and young college kid, Cobb says he pocketed the money without questioning its source. Team co-captains Sweeney and Cobb were among the top scorers at Boston College during the 1978-79 season. They were never convicted of point-shaving.

Kuhn, however, was thrown under the bus. Kuhn was introduced to the scheme by a pair of Pittsburg brothers, Tony and Rocco Perla. Kuhn was their friend from high school. While Kuhn (and his basketball buddies Sweeney and Cobb) were in charge of controlling the court and putting the point spread in the mobsters’ favor, Perla had also recruited their friends Paul Mazzei, Henry Hill and Jimmy Burke to help orchestrate the plan.

Hill and Burke were associated with the Lucchese crime family, and they provided the crooked bookies and muscle to enforce the plan. Burke was rumored to have been responsible for the Lufthansa heist — stealing almost $6 million worth of cash and jewelry at the JFK airport. The heist was the subject of “The Big Heist,” “10 Million Dollar Getaway” and of course, “Goodfellas.”

Lavine and Grant’s film features testimonials from some key figures from the period including Henry Hill (who’s was pardoned in exchange for his testimony against Burke); Jim Sweeney; Ernie Cobb; Paul Mazzei; Tony and Rocco Perla; former Boston College assistant coach Kevin Mackey; Boston College basketball alumni Bruce Pearl and Michael Bowie; and some federal prosecutors during the time. Kuhn, the key figure connecting the Boston College boys to the mafia, was largely missing from the film. Instead, his involvement was presented in Sweeney’s interviews and his guilty verdict.

Kuhn was given the harshest sentence for an athlete associated with point shaving. Even harsher is the absence of his point of view in the film.

“Playing for the Mob” was directed by Joe Lavine and Cayman Grant as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30″ documentary series. For more film reviews, visit: https://passthepopcornreviews.wordpress.com

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