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,
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
Pennsylvania, and Jim Sweeney, of Trenton, were about to fix their
Boston College basketball games.
Trenton resident David Porter, author of the just-published
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
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,
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
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
account of Hill’s no-account life, which became the popular 1990
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
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,
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
of English at the University of Massachusetts, and Rosalie Porter,
who worked in bilingual education. Porter thought he, too. might
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
— 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
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
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
And as Jim Sweeney, Rick Kuhn, and Henry Hill can attest, an image,
once gained, is not easily shaken.
— David McDonough
Street, 609-924-9529. Free. Thursday, April 5, 7:30 p.m.
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