Clean Shave

Written by Paul Rubin Category: People Issue: March 2015
Group Limited
Character count 2500

Three decades after a notorious point-shaving scandal derailed his career, former NBA prospect Ernie Cobb builds a new life in Phoenix. With no apologies.

Like any self-respecting schoolteacher, Ernie Cobb says he knows better than to refer to himself in the third person.

But, he says, “I just can’t help talking about ‘Ernie Cobb’ sometimes, third-person Ernie. Sometimes, it’s just like talking about someone else.”

Cobb teaches special education and English at Phoenix’s Alhambra High School, an inner-city school similar to the one he attended in the mid-1970s in Stamford, Connecticut. He insists his occasional storytelling device is not egotistical.

“I am a guy who was born to play basketball and to survive,” says Cobb, a fit 58-year-old who looks years younger. “I come from a family where graduating from high school was success. I was a nobody from the black ghetto of Stamford. A lot of my people never made it off the block. But I graduated from a Jesuit university in four years with a real degree after going there basically illiterate. That’s something.”

Cobb’s riffing echoes his ball-playing style during his time as one of the nation’s best high school and college basketball players – edgy, confident and aggressive. By all accounts, Cobb was one of the finest players ever to emerge from the state of Connecticut, a relentless whirlwind whose lack of size (he stands just under 6 feet tall) proved no barrier. He still is one of Boston College’s all-time leading scorers.

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Cobb was on the cusp of a National Basketball Association career in the early 1980s when he was implicated – first by innuendo and later by grand-jury indictment – of a notorious point-shaving scandal at his alma mater. The ringleaders of the scheme included Henry Hill and Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, the prototypes for the Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro roles in the classic mobster movie Goodfellas.

A New York City jury eventually acquitted Cobb of all charges after a highly publicized trial.

Still, the long path of personal reinvention that has defined Cobb – one that stretched from Boston all the way to Israel, then to Phoenix – seems like something out of a movie. In fact, it may be: Cobb’s saga is so compelling that Angelo Pizzo, screenwriter of the iconic basketball movie Hoosiers, and also of Rudy, has authored a treatment.

But like one of filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s winding, multi-perspective moral dramas, Ernie Cobb’s story is hardly cut and dried. Critical details, especially during the highly scrutinized BC sports-gambling scandal so long ago, remain murky.

What is certain is that Cobb is deeply valued at Alhambra High, as a teacher, a mentor and as a character. “Mr. Cobb has a special ability to motivate and inspire and to look beyond his students’ limitations,” says the school’s principal, Claudio Coria. “He is a master motivator. Maybe it’s because of his own struggles as a youth and later as an adult, fair or not. He does have quite a story.”

That, Ernie Cobb does. Recently, the topic of the day in his English literature class was internal and external conflict – setting, mood and stages of plot. Cobb moved around the classroom like it was a basketball court, darting up one aisle and over to the next, engaged. “Every story has conflict,” he told them. “It has to, or it’s not a story. What is conflict?”

“It’s a problem,” one of the students said.

“Yes, sir, it is,” Cobb responds. “We have problems all of the time in our own lives. What you have to do is recognize who you are, what you can do about it, and where you fit in.”

Fitting in was a secondary issue early in Ernie Cobb’s life, and for some time after that.

Survival came first.

Cobb’s mother, Hattie, raised him and his three siblings pretty much on her own, enduring the not-uncommon problems of an inner-city single mom. Cobb had a few run-ins with the police as a juvenile, but he found a way out of a seemingly inevitable fate through the sport he began to embrace in his early teens – basketball.

Way behind his grade level academically, Cobb was tutored throughout high school, finally learning how to read. On the court, he became a monster, averaging 37 points a game as a junior and attracting the attention of major colleges around the country. He chose Boston College, just a few hours from Stamford, but worlds apart. BC in the late 1970s was about 95 percent white, and most of those students came from affluent families.

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Cobb made it there by dint of an innate work ethic on and off the court, an upbeat personality, and a devoted girlfriend who kept him glued to the books. He says he once skipped a preseason press day to study for a test. Cobb’s basketball career at BC flourished, and by the start of his senior year, he was among the very best small men around, averaging about 20 points a game.

At the beginning of that 1978-79 season, Cobb’s uplifting story quietly morphed from Horatio Alger to something darker.      

First, a small detour: In December 1978, armed robbers executed what then was the biggest heist in U.S. history, the multi-million-dollar theft of cash and jewelry from a Lufthansa warehouse, a crime later dramatized in Goodfellas. The guy who orchestrated the robbery was Paul Burke, who worked closely with his mob lieutenant Henry Hill to pull it off.

It took time for federal authorities to pierce the elaborate conspiracy – until 1980, when Hill was arrested on drug charges and started talking, in return for immunity and a place in the witness protection program. During his debriefing, Hill mentioned to a prosecutor in passing that, working at the behest of Jimmy Burke, he had lured college basketball players from a Boston university into a point-shaving gambling scandal a few years earlier. That apparently was the first time anyone in authority had heard about it.

Point shaving – or point fixing – is the bane of college and pro sports. It’s a gambling scheme, by which a player from a favored team does something to prevent his or her team from covering a betting spread. For example: If Team A wins a basketball game by five points when the bookies had favored them by 10, it didn’t cover the “spread,” and anyone who bet against the team will see a payout. Shaving points can be more subtle than simply missing shots on purpose: An errant pass or two or a stupid foul can spell the difference.

Point-shaving is a federal crime, and usually results in professional banishment for players suspected of participation. Though Pete Rose was never convicted of point-shaving, the mere revelation that he bet on games while managing and playing for the Cincinnati Reds made him “permanently ineligible” for the Hall of Fame.

Those were the stakes faced by Cobb in 1980 when his name was mentioned in the FBI investigation. Everything stayed hush-hush for months as the FBI worked the case, including a visit by a pair of agents to the New Jersey Nets training game in the fall of 1980. Ernie Cobb was about to make the final roster there, his second attempt at earning a coveted spot in the NBA after getting cut earlier by the Utah Jazz. “I was prepared for my next chance,” he says, recalling his time with the Nets. “And now, I was ready. I was there.”

Cobb says he hid nothing from the agents during their brief visit, telling them someone named Rocco Perla – whom he said he met through his Boston College teammate Rick Kuhn – had given him $1,000 cash after a game during the 1978-79 season.

Cobb had spent that money and told no one in authority about it – not even his trusted high school coach back in Stamford. He says he told the agents the money was for innocuous “information” he’d given Perla about two early-season games, not for anything malevolent. Recalls Cobb: “I told Rick’s high school buddy [Perla] at the start of the season that we were going to kick some ass in our first few games, that’s it. I didn’t promise him anything and he didn’t ask me to do anything for him. I never, ever missed a shot on purpose or did anything but try to win games.

“With hindsight, I can see how some things looked. But... I never met any of those mobsters like Kuhn and [B.C. teammate Jim] Sweeney did... Kuhn let them know I wasn’t to be trusted. He was right.” To his shock and eternal disappointment, the New Jersey Nets cut Cobb a few days after the FBI showed up – spooked, he still suspects, by his alleged improprieties.

Within months, in February 1981, the Boston College scandal exploded when Hill revealed it in a Sports Illustrated first-person cover story titled How I Put the Fix In (for which he reportedly was paid $10,000). It was one of many versions Hill would relate, though he would stick to his basic story until he died in 2012. The mobster claimed to have paid BC players Kuhn, Sweeney and Cobb to “manipulate” several games during the 1978-79 season, for which they had received about $10,000 each. In the article, Hill described how Kuhn had enlisted Cobb after several games because “he just kept swishing them in, 30 or 35 points.”

A federal grand jury indicted Jimmy Burke and other mob conspirators. Kuhn, a player with limited pro potential, faced charges of seeking to alter outcomes of at least six games to cover the betting spreads. The feds didn’t immediately seek an indictment against Cobb, despite his name having been publicly linked to the scandal from the start. Nor did they go after Sweeney, the team’s stellar point guard, who would testify for the government with no immunity agreement. Sweeney admitted accepting $500 after meeting with Hill in a Boston hotel room at his roommate Kuhn’s insistence, but swears to this day that he never shaved points.

Interestingly, the gamblers allegedly lost thousands of dollars on at least three of the “fixed” games. That included the final game of the scheme, against rival Holy Cross in February 1979, when Cobb scored eight points in the final minute and BC narrowly beat the betting spread.

Cobb tried to go about his business as the big trial approached, an unindicted co-conspirator who was neither defendant nor witness. Based back in Stamford, he had found basketball work with the Harlem Wizards, a minor-league touring show team à la the Globetrotters. He was earning about $100 a game, plus expenses.

Despite the vagaries in Hill’s testimony, all of the defendants were convicted. Jimmy Burke got 20 years in prison. Kuhn was sentenced to 10 years, still the longest term imposed on a college athlete for bribery. Perla – who gave Cobb the $1,000 in cash among other misdeeds – faced four years behind bars. “I thought it was finally over after that trial,” Cobb says.

A fortuitous turn of events soon landed him in Israel, playing pro ball in a land he knew almost nothing about. To Cobb’s surprise, he embraced his new adventure and the opportunity to get paid for playing his beloved game. But during a visit back to the States in June 1983, he was indicted on sports bribery charges stemming from the Boston College scandal. Cobb was accused of conspiring to shave points in three games. His co-defendant was a low-level mob guy whom Cobb says he didn’t know.

The U.S. government confiscated his passport, which meant he couldn’t return to Israel until further notice. In limbo, Cobb did odd jobs back in Stamford between court hearings in Brooklyn – working as a caddy, selling typewriters, substitute teaching. Despite his ennui, Cobb says he stayed physically fit, maniacally so, and stayed out of harm’s way – no drugs, no crime, period.

Witnesses lined up to testify against Cobb, including Hill, ex-teammate Kuhn and Perla, who would testify that his $1,000 payment to Cobb came in return for the star’s intentionally poor play in a game against Harvard – apparently a big score for the mobsters even though BC squeaked by with a victory. Perla’s four-year prison term was retracted in return for his testimony. Kuhn’s 10-year sentence was reduced to 28 months. Hill already had immunity from prosecution for a host of admitted criminal acts.

In early 1984, Cobb rejected a plea bargain that would have meant a probation term. Instead, he risked prison time by taking his highly publicized case to trial. And then he insisted on testifying on his own behalf, rarely a good idea even for the presumed innocent. But the jury ultimately believed Cobb, rendering an acquittal after a two-week trial. One juror told reporters, “We knew he took the money, but did he take it knowing he had done something wrong? It’s a matter of whether Ernie knew what he was doing.”

The outcome led New York Times sportswriter Dave Anderson to end a column, “Somebody, if not everybody, owes Ernie Cobb four years of basketball.”

David Porter, a veteran writer whose 2002 book, Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball, is the deepest examination of the scandal, remains ambivalent. “You can’t look at Ernie Cobb and where he came from and not be impressed by all he’s accomplished,” Porter says. “But is all of his story about taking the $1,000 from Perla for nothing in return plausible? No. Does that mean he’s guilty? I don’t know. And did the government prove its case against him? Not by a long shot.”

Cobb didn’t get those years back, but neither did he seek redemption for his past. “I don’t need to atone for anything that happened at Boston College,” he says, “and I don’t need to ask for anyone’s forgiveness. The Ernie Cobb-as-point-fixer story is ancient, but I’m still that guy who supposedly got away with something.”

In April 1995, Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden began an essay about college sports gambling, “It’s naughty to bet on games if you’re a player, and it’s very, very naughty to bet against your own team. But as long as nobody shaves points, as BC players Ernie Cobb and Rick Kuhn did 17 years ago, a bullet has been dodged.”

Never mind that Cobb was acquitted. Guilty until proven innocent.

Late last year, ESPN aired Playing for the Mob, a 90-minute documentary viewed by more than two million people as part of its 30 for 30 series. Narrated Goodfellas-style by Ray Liotta and featuring interviews with the late Henry Hill, it reconsidered the Boston College basketball case, which remains one of the most famous of the many college sports scandals of all time.

(Arizona State University had its own basketball point-shaving scandal in the mid-1990s, which led to the imprisonment of its onetime star player Stevin “Hedake” Smith.)

Cobb, who spoke on camera, came across as trial jurors said he had in 1984 – sincere and perhaps a touch naive, even at this late date. “I cooperated with the movie because I wanted my say if they were going to bring the BC thing up again,” he says. “When you are telling the truth, you don’t have to think too hard about what you’re saying.”  

Also featured in the documentary was Jim Sweeney, Cobb’s BC teammate who, though more clearly implicated by the evidence than Cobb, never was indicted. Sweeney, an entrepreneur living in Florida, says he didn’t testify at Cobb’s trial “because I had no firsthand knowledge about anything Ernie might have done, just what Rick Kuhn told me. But I never saw him negatively affect a game.”

Asked about the fairness of having evaded prosecution while Ernie Cobb didn’t, Sweeney says this: “Did I feel badly that Ernie got indicted? Yes. When it happened, my first thought was, ‘I’m next.’ But I wasn’t.”

Cobb returned to Israel soon after his 1984 acquittal, where his pro team welcomed him back. “I realized that it was where I wanted to be,” he says. “I had a place to play ball there and a chance to build a life. It’s the root of all religions, and people believe in one God who looks after them.”

He learned Hebrew, which he speaks fluently, became an Israeli citizen, and raised a family with an American-born woman he’d met there. The couple had three children together, two boys and a girl.

Cobb played professionally there until his early 40s, a gamer known as relentless until the last buzzer sounded. He earned All-Star status on several occasions, and forged what he describes as a “comfortable living” for himself and his family. He visited the States just twice after returning to Israel, the latter trip in 2005 to see his ailing father. Cobb’s mother Hattie died years earlier, when Cobb was overseas.

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“I didn’t miss the U.S.,” he says. “Maybe I had some resentment for what happened to me, I don’t know. I was so far removed from everything in Israel. It was a good life, and I was kind of on a different planet. I didn’t think much about the past.”

But Cobb’s marriage was ending. He decided to stay in the States, and game-planned about sending for his two school-age sons after he settled somewhere. He decided to make an impromptu visit to Arizona, where he knew no one but craved warm weather.

He says he stayed for a spell at the Downtown Phoenix YMCA, where he worked out and regrouped. He soon found a teaching gig at a charter school, and later, a job with the Phoenix Union High School District. That was in 2007.

Cobb’s life took yet another turn. He had met a woman in Stamford, a human-resources director named Veronica Owens. They married. His two sons, then not yet in their teens, joined him in Arizona. His daughter, the eldest child, now lives in New York City.  

He served as head basketball coach for three years at Phoenix’s South Mountain High School, and says he loved it. But Cobb decided not to continue after last season because it was too difficult teaching many miles away from Alhambra High, where his two boys were students (one has since graduated). “I love coaching and being around the game I love so much,” Cobb says. “The game saved my life; it made me what I am. But I had to make sure that my own kids are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Priorities.”

Back in Cobb’s classroom, time moves quickly. Life is like that, he knows. The past has a way of consuming your future if you hold onto it. He tells the class it has “six minutes” to complete a written assignment.

“Good work today so far, good discussions,” he tells them, before momentarily pausing. “But you got to finish strong! Always!”