Angela Carella: Behind an infamous sports scandal, a love story


Stamford Advocate

In 1981, the trial made headlines across the country, especially on the East Coast.
Mobsters and Boston College student players were charged with shaving points from basketball games during the 1978-79 season so gamblers could beat the bookmakers' betting lines and win big.
Stamford took front and center in the story when it was revealed that Boston College's top scorer, Stamford High School star Ernie Cobb, was among those being investigated.
But the Justice Department did not bring Cobb to trial in 1981, when another Boston College player, Rick Kuhn, and four gamblers with mob ties were convicted in the point-shaving scheme. Still another player, point guard Jim Sweeney, testified for the government and was not prosecuted.
The FBI did, however, speak to the New Jersey Nets when Cobb was competing in training camp. The Nets dropped Cobb almost immediately. Cobb reportedly was about to make the NBA team.
Instead, he took jobs selling copying machines, substitute teaching, coaching and playing for the Harlem Wizards, a world-touring show team. He ended up playing professional basketball in Israel until he was indicted in 1983.
Cobb refused offers to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for no prison time. With a five-year sentence on the line, he insisted on a trial.
It was a tremendous risk, given that Cobb admitted accepting $1,000 from Kuhn's friend, Rocco Perla, a gambler who was trying to lure him into the point-shaving scheme.
Cobb said Perla had asked him about Boston College's chances in an upcoming game because Perla wanted to bet on it, and that he told Perla his team would win by a wide margin. That happened. A few weeks later Perla gave Cobb's girlfriend the money. Cobb said he didn't think much about it because the conversation with Perla, his teammate's friend, had no bearing on how he played. When Perla and Kuhn later asked him to throw games, he refused, Cobb testified.
A jury decided that Cobb had been naïve in thinking the money was a gift with no strings attached, that the government's evidence against him was contradictory and its witnesses -- convicted gamblers trying to get their sentences reduced by testifying -- were not believable.
The 12 jurors found him not guilty.
But for Cobb, there would not be another shot at the NBA and, despite the jury's verdict, his name remains clouded in doubt.
It's heart-breaking, said Herm Alswanger, the Stamford High basketball coach who took Cobb under his wing. There is so much more to the story.
It did not come out in the 2000 book, "Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball," by David Porter, and it will not come out in an ESPN documentary, "Playing for the Mob," to air at 9 p.m. Tuesday. The book and documentary focus more on the mob characters, members of the Lucchese crime syndicate, and Sweeney, a squeaky-clean, church-going, scholar-athlete from Trenton, N.J.
Cobb, by contrast, was a poor kid from a broken family on Stamford's South End. As a teen he had scrapes with the law, including arrests for third-degree larceny and disorderly conduct.
When Alswanger met Cobb in his freshman year at Stamford High, he had a passion for basketball, but could barely read.
"He told me he wanted to learn to read, so I set him up with a teacher. He took to it like crazy. He walked around school with a book," said Alswanger, 79, a lifelong Stamford resident who has run The Long Ridge Camp for 54 years. "I saw he was hungry and he wanted to play. He wanted to be a great shooter so I gave him a drill. I told him he had to shoot 300 to 500 shots a day, every day. That's what he did. He was an unbelievably hard worker."
Cobb kept getting better, Alswanger said, wowing basketball crowds, setting scoring records and making sports headlines in Stamford and the state.
"In his senior year, we would blow out teams by 30 or 40 points in the third quarter, so I would play other kids," Alswanger said. "Ernie was gracious about it, even though there was always a college coach around to look at him. He would motivate the younger players."
Alswanger and his wife, Myrna, and son, Geoff, a few years younger than Cobb, came to love him.
"He had no family life and we showed him that," Alswanger said.
Cobb said he loves the Alswangers to this day.
"I remember when I first walked into Herm's office at Stamford High. He told me, `If you want to do something, you have to set goals.' I didn't know what that meant, to have a goal," Cobb, 58, said this week from his home in Arizona. "Herm talked to me about integrity, honor, character -- things I didn't know of."
It was the reason he wanted to go to trial, Cobb said.
"People thought I was guilty. I wanted my day in court to show them I wasn't," Cobb said. "I didn't know what I was up against. Much later I read the court transcripts and became fascinated. When the story broke, I was thinking, `Why is everybody making such a fuss about a basketball game?' Then I learned about all the betting in Las Vegas, all the money on the line all over the country, about the involvement of the mafia. I was up against the United States of America with a public defender who was working pro bono. What chance did I have?"
Alswanger had called a friend, attorney Frank Melzer, who brought in his colleague, David Golub, to defend Cobb in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn in 1984.
"They were homegrown Stamford guys who were in my corner. They didn't have to do this for me. I was just a kid who played basketball," Cobb said. "Like Herm, they went `way beyond the call of duty."
Alswanger said at one point during the trial he was in the courthouse men's room alone with Peter Vario of Brooklyn, N.Y., son of Paul Vario, head of the Lucchese crime family. Peter Vario was on trial with Cobb for conspiracy to commit sports bribery.
"This guy turned to me and said, `I'm glad you're sticking up for your kid, coach, because he's innocent,' " Alswanger said.
But things looked iffy by the time the judge gave the case to the jury. That's when Alswanger got a call from Cobb.
"He said, `I know it looks bad, coach, but I want to thank you for everything. I love you,' " Alswanger remembers.
They learned later that deliberations, in fact, were headed in their favor. Eleven jurors were ready to acquit. But one, a Little League coach, was holding out for conviction. The man said he could not believe that Cobb, his team's perennial top scorer, did not intentionally underperform in a game under suspicion for point shaving.
College basketball's March Madness was under way at the time, and during a break the juror read the box score for a tournament game between Indiana and North Carolina. In it, another perennial top scorer, Michael Jordan, hit just 13 points. The man concluded that good players can have bad games and voted with his fellow jurors to acquit Cobb.
He went back to Israel to play professional basketball well into his 40s. He married and had children. He returned to the United States, earned a master's degree in special education and now teaches in Arizona.
A New York producer named Ron Brienes, who got to know Cobb through Alswanger, commissioned a screenplay about Cobb's life and is looking for funding to make the film.
His story is remarkable, Alswanger said.
"I was at a game that Ernie played with the Nets. He scored more than 20 points against the Boston Celtics. He had a great career ahead of him," Alswanger said. "He had that dream in his hand, then he lost it. Most kids would go to pieces, but he went on. Now he's there for kids who need a hand."
It feels remarkable to Cobb.
"I was the only one in my family to graduate high school, let alone college, and then get a master's degree. I traveled the world playing basketball. I lived in the Holy Land," Cobb said. "As an African-American kid growing up in Stamford, I thought, `If everything goes right, I'll turn 18, I'll get a job, have an apartment.' That's as far as we dreamed then."
Over the years he did not talk much about the Boston College scandal, but now he thinks that if his story ends up on a screen, it will offer a chance to tell Alswanger something publicly.
"Thank you, coach, for everything you did," Cobb said. "I was never able to put that on a stage, and I would like to do that."
angela.carella@scni.com; 203-964-2296; stamfordadvocate.com/angelacarella