Corrections or additions?

This article by David McDonough was prepared for the

April 4, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Basketball Fix Revisited

It was a scene straight out of a Martin Scorsese film.

On November 16, 1978, in a hotel room at the Logan International Hotel

in Boston, two of the most romanticized groups in our culture,

gangsters

and athletes, met. For the three wise guys in the room, this was just

another money-making scheme. For the two college players present,

it was a moment that would haunt them forever. Rick Kuhn, of

Swissvale,

Pennsylvania, and Jim Sweeney, of Trenton, were about to fix their

Boston College basketball games.

Trenton resident David Porter, author of the just-published

"Fixed:

How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball," remembers how

stunned he was when the point-shaving story broke in the February

16, 1981, issue of Sports Illustrated. "I was sitting in my

off-campus

apartment at the University of Pennsylvania just staring at the front

cover — a photograph of a basketball hoop stuffed with money,"

the 40-year-old Porter recalls. "You see, I grew up in western

New England, in Amherst, where the University of Massachusetts is,

and I saw a lot of those Boston College guys play: Sweeney, Kuhn,

Ernie Cobb (who was also accused of point-shaving)."

"Fixed" is Porter’s swift-paced, keenly written,

well-researched

look at a scandal that, in hindsight, may have been just waiting to

happen. As part of National Library Week, Porter will read from his

book at the Princeton Public Library on Thursday, April 5, at 7:30

p.m.

The Sports Illustrated article of 1981 was basically a narrative by

one of the fixers, Henry Hill, a small-time hood who hung onto the

fringes of organized crime. Hill eventually became notorious with

the 1986 publication of "Wiseguy", Nicholas Pileggi’s

best-selling

account of Hill’s no-account life, which became the popular 1990

Scorsese

film "Goodfellas". The Sports Illustrated story, written with

Douglas Looney, and for which Hill was paid $10,000, tells of greedy

athletes with outstretched hands, anxious to sell out for, as Porter

puts it, "a few thousand dollars and some drugs."

But Hill’s account was called into question; later that year, at Rick

Kuhn’s trial, Hill mixed up names, dates, and dollar amounts. Kuhn,

who had introduced the other players to the gamblers, received a

10-year

prison sentence; later reduced to four years. Ernie Cobb, the club’s

leading scorer, who maintained his innocence, was tried and acquitted

in 1984, but his dream of an NBA career was over. Jim Sweeney,

surprisingly,

was never charged with anything. Henry Hill, already a government

witness in other cases, most importantly the $5.8 million Kennedy

Airport-Lufthansa freight heist, remained a free man.

All this whetted David Porter’s curiosity. "Hill was talking about

these players who were just so cavalier about selling their team down

the river. Jim Sweeney, who is a graduate of the Lawrenceville School,

was the one who really intrigued me. I thought, `Here was a kid, great

athlete, nice guy, everybody loved him. Why did he get involved, and

how does he feel now?’"

Porter confesses: "I’m always interested in the dark side of human

nature anyway. Having been an athlete myself, a high school soccer

and basketball player, I always wondered what it would be like for

those guys on the court to know there were gamblers in the stands

who could harm them if they didn’t do what they wanted. To have to

make mistakes at a certain time, and not look obvious and be found

out. I always wondered about the enormous pressure."

Porter graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982 with

a degree in American Studies. He is the son of David Porter, a

professor

of English at the University of Massachusetts, and Rosalie Porter,

who worked in bilingual education. Porter thought he, too. might

pursue

a career in teaching. "I taught a little. I also drove a cab,

worked in a deli, played bass in a rock band. I didn’t know then that

I wanted to write. But in 1985, I got a job in the sports department

of the Philadelphia Inquirer. I started off making copies, and

eventually

I got writing assignments." He was hired as a staff sportswriter

at the Trenton Times in 1989.

Which is where fate took a hand. In 1991, Porter was assigned to cover

a basketball camp in Princeton where Spike Lee was appearing. "And

there," he relates, "was Rick Kuhn, giving a talk on the evils

of gambling. Tom Davis, the Boston College coach, was there too, and

I think it was the first time he had seen Kuhn since the trial. That

interested me more than a story about Spike Lee. And I thought,

`Someone

should write a book about this.’"

The trouble was, no one seemed to share Porter’s enthusiasm for the

project. "I was working full time and working on the idea in my

spare time, and everyone kind of said the same thing: It’s years old,

why would anyone want to read about it now? And I would say, `The

same reason they read about the Love Canal years later when it became

`A Civil Action.’ Because it’s a really good story.’ Finally, Mountain

Lion Press in Princeton took on the idea. Around that same time,

Taylor

Publishing in Dallas came to them and asked for a book about how Magic

Johnson and Larry Bird changed the NBA. I wrote that proposal but

also asked them to take a look at the Boston College idea. And when

they saw the word `Goodfellas’ in it, they said `Great!’"

Porter had left the Trenton Times in 1997, the same year he married

his wife, Laurie. He took a job with Fox Sports Online, and, armed

with the trial transcripts, worked on the book during his daily

commutes

into New York, and, later, to Stamford, Connecticut. His hours of

notes, interviews with the principals in the case, and insights into

the minds of those involved paid off this January, when

"Fixed"

was published to good reviews.

One of the striking features of Porter’s story is the contrast between

the low-life mobster, Hill, and the clean-cut college kid, Sweeney.

In many ways, they were two sides of the same coin; both, in their

way, smart, resourceful, and able to get ahead. Porter realized that

the two offered a vivid contrast. Sweeney is the great enigma of the

tale, with two questions still hanging over him: Why did he do it,

and why wasn’t he prosecuted?

"I believe Sweeney when he says that he got pulled into this

thing,"

Porter says. "He went to this meeting with Hill and Kuhn and the

others, and may have felt at that point that if he didn’t go along

he might be in danger. Hill claims that Sweeney was eager to

participate,

but what sways me towards Sweeney is that he told his roommates he

wasn’t going to shave points, but that he was scared. What is less

believable is when Sweeney says he did nothing wrong. He did meet

with them, he did take money, and that’s the definition of

conspiracy."

"I first talked to him in the summer of 1998. His parents, who

live in Trenton, let him know I was looking for him, and he called

me. I thought he would just blow me off, but we talked for about half

an hour. Everyone who knew him said he was a great guy, and they were

right. But he still carries this with him, and he still feels guilt.

I think it bugs him that he didn’t end it before it started, that

he didn’t go to the school about it. I think he knows he should

have."

As for the lack of prosecution, Porter says, "it doesn’t make

sense. The prosecutor says he was not given immunity, and so does

Sweeney, despite the fact that his testimony helped put Kuhn away.

When you get up on the stand and admit to getting money, and aren’t

charged, that’s selective prosecution. And I don’t know who among

us knows what we would have done. We are all taught that the worst

thing you can do in sports is not to try your best, but maybe it’s

the lack of opportunity that keeps us honest."

For Porter, one of the oddest aspects of working on this book is his

resultant friendship with Hill.

"If you had told me three years ago when I started this project

that Henry Hill would be calling me at home and shooting the breeze,

asking me what college football games I liked that day, I would have

thought it was pretty funny," Porter muses.

"He has had an interesting life — he’s a wise guy, he’s a

government informant, he was kicked out of the witness protection

program, he’s a drug and alcohol abuser, although he’s cleaned himself

up. We’ve developed a kind of rapport. He’s kind of rough around the

edges, but I can honestly say that right now he’s a good person. He

told me that he was going to help me publicize the book, and he’s

done that. I don’t have any illusions about it. He plays all the

angles

— he knows that helping me helps him. He’s profiting from what

he did — people are using his name, he’s using them. It says a

lot about the nature of celebrity. He told me, `My 15 minutes of fame

has lasted 20 years.’"

Association with Henry Hill has not been healthy for

many people. Just ask Rick Kuhn, who, Porter acknowledges, probably

went to jail as much for the people with whom he associated as for

what he did. "As I say towards the end of the book," Porter

points out, "if Kuhn and Sweeney had been dealing with a couple

of BC frat boys, they probably wouldn’t have felt they couldn’t get

out of it, and also, the judge wouldn’t have thrown the book at Kuhn.

But they were associated with these crime guys. The wrath that comes

down is interesting. A football player at Nebraska drags his

girlfriend

down the stairs by the hair. He’s in the NFL. Rick Kuhn throws a few

bad passes and goes to jail. People turn a blind eye to the blatant

hypocrisy in college sports — recruitment violations, kids getting

shortchanged on education — because people want to see the games.

After the game, you can go home and beat up your girlfriend, but

tinker

with the whole myth of sports, and the wrath of the gods is going

to come down on you."

The question remains, can it happen again? Every couple of years,

investigations into college basketball point-shaving arise. As long

as there are gamblers in need of a fix, it will continue.

"Gambling, although it’s still at the edges, is sneaking in,"

Porter says, admitting that he, too, enjoys "a little hobby"

gambling. "On riverboats, Indian reservations, wherever it can

be done legally, it’s being done. In 1999 a couple of billion was

bet legally on sports. Imagine how much was bet illegally; it must

be 20 billion," he says. "But any real gambler will tell you,

it’s not just the money, it’s the thrill of the game. Take Hill and

the others: there they were, sitting on the proceeds of the richest

heist in history, and they are worrying about the few thousand dollars

they’re throwing at college kids. There’s nothing like the adrenaline

rush of a close game when you have money on it; not only do you win,

but you get the reinforcement that you picked that one right. Pro

football is as popular as it is because of gambling."

Right now, the biggest adrenaline rush Porter wants to feel is the

closing of another book deal. There is talk of a movie version of

"Fixed," and he has several new book ideas, and not just in

the sports line. "Now that the book is out," he says, "I’m

trying not to look at myself as a guy in the Internet industry who

once wrote a book, but as a writer. It’s somewhat of a

transformation."

And as Jim Sweeney, Rick Kuhn, and Henry Hill can attest, an image,

once gained, is not easily shaken.

— David McDonough

David Porter, Princeton Public Library, 65

Witherspoon

Street, 609-924-9529. Free. Thursday, April 5, 7:30 p.m.


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