Some of it happened almost by accident, and some of it happened after years of determined work.
A chance meeting in prison. A failed minor league baseball player from Pittsburgh turned college basketball player in Boston. A talkative informant.
The combination thereof led to the downfall of a previously untouchable New York crime boss responsible for multiple murders and the largest cash heist in U.S. history, via cronies in Pittsburgh who ran a point-shaving scheme that paid a few players to keep scores within the spread at Boston College during the 1978-79 college basketball season.
That’s the story chronicled by the latest edition of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, “Playing for the Mob,” which premiered Tuesday night on ESPN.
The film represented something of a white whale for executive producer and co-director Joe Lavine, who for years attempted and failed to get the project green-lighted before finally landing at ESPN.
A Trenton, New Jersey, native, Lavine grew up there about the same time as Jim Sweeney -- a schoolboy legend in Trenton who went on to star at BC. So Lavine was fascinated when he found out that Sweeney was one of a handful of Eagles players accused in connection with a the point-shaving scandal that was making national headlines in 1981.
That fascination only increased when the mobster who fingered Sweeney hit the big screen years later in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.”
“Every year I would pitch this story,” Lavine said. “I really wanted to get to the bottom of it from a personal curiosity [standpoint], and then also knowing that this had to be a great story.”
The highlights of the film are the interviews with the former mobsters, now all well past their primes after serving their time, including the gangster Ray Liotta made famous in “Goodfellas” -- Henry Hill.
At one point Hill curses, apologizes sheepishly to the camera, and then falls right back into his expletive-laden speech. It’s one of several seeming contradictions the gangster-turned-informant offers during the film, right along with this doozy early on: “I didn’t threaten him or nothin’,” Hill says in the film, “I just said, ‘It’s hard to play basketball with a broken arm.’”
Once a gangster, always a gangster.
“Playing for the Mob” makes good use of Scorsese’s classic, splicing in “Goodfellas” clips between interviews and using Liotta as the film’s narrator. The tone is set by black-and-white mug shots and film strips from surveillance of mobsters interspersed with BC team photos and action shots from newspaper coverage of the season. And, of course, there are betting lines with the pick circled and handwritten box scores with the names of the alleged conspirators highlighted.
The film also benefits from the fact that most of those involved agreed to speak on camera, including Sweeney, fellow accused BC players Ernie Cobb and Michael Bowie (who were completely vindicated), law enforcement officials and all the principals on the organized crime side of the story.
“As a matter of fact, one thing I’m really happy with in this film, is we really did get to everybody,” Lavine said. “We spoke to everybody, whether they ended up in the film or not.”
That includes Rick Kuhn, the former minor league baseball player who started the scandal and who Sweeney says got him involved in it. Kuhn was the only player convicted -- receiving a record 10-year sentence -- and served 28 months in prison. Lavine said Kuhn was “very open” but declined to go on camera, so his side of the story is told instead mostly through court testimony.
Sweeney said he decided to cooperate with Lavine and co-director Cayman Grant because he believed they would treat the subject fairly. “These people [in the mob] get glamorized or sensationalized,” Sweeney said. “And unfortunately, if you see a real-life situation that involves people like myself and others, then you say, ‘Wow, that’s the type of effect that whatever [the gangsters] do can have on others’ lives.’”
As for his role in what happened, Sweeney says he’s never run from the truth. He acknowledges taking $500, but says he never did anything to fix games. He says he believes his experience could serve as a test case for others, to help prevent anything like it from happening in the future.
“Obviously, I could’ve done things differently,” Sweeney said. “You can’t change things in life. And I never go there, like, coulda, woulda, shoulda, because that would only lead to frustration. That only leads to animosity. And I don’t have that. “I moved on many, many years ago, and I think the worst thing you can do is blame others or even blame yourself because that’s kinda like a poison that just stays with you. And I don’t think it ever stayed with me.”
The filmmakers ultimately don’t take a side on who did what, instead presenting at times conflicting accounts and letting the audience decide. “Obviously, the huge message is don’t get involved with point-shaving,” Lavine said with a laugh. “Don’t get involved with organized crime people.”
After more than a decade spent trying to make “Playing with the Mob” happen, Lavine is ready to move on to a new project. “We’re really happy with it. I think it tells a great story, I think the story is told in an entertaining fashion,” he said. “Will I ever totally leave Boston College? I don’t know. I think it will always be in the back of my mind somewhere.
“It really was over 10 years that I’ve been trying to do this, so I don’t know that I can just turn the page on it and go on to something else. I’m ready to move on from the actual filmmaking process. But I’ll always be curious about certain things that went on.”
Thanks to Jack McCluskey.
Best of the Month!
- Chicago Mob Infamous Locations Map
- The Chicago Syndicate AKA "The Outfit"
- One Family's Rise, A Century of Power
- Mafia Links of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
- THE OUTFIT'S GREATEST HITS
- Top Ten Signs a Mafia Boss is Nuts
- Profile: Harry Aleman
- Firm with reputed mob ties flourishes
- Top Ten Ways The Mafia Can Improve Its Image
- Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics by Chris Christie