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ESPN documentary traces Pinellas man's involvement in point shaving scandal

The call to the Palm Harbor home came from a coat closet of an Italian restaurant in Maura Sweeney's hometown of Lyndhurst, N.J., The voice on the other line spoke in hushed tones.

"Maura, they're after Jimmy," the caller warned about her husband. "They're on their way down right now. Make sure he doesn't come home. Make sure he doesn't step into the house tonight."

Maura, knowing her husband Jim had testified against the mafia members known as the "goodfellas" two years earlier, took the threat seriously. She envisioned shadowy figures driving down I-95, then thought they might already be in town.

She dropped to the floor and crawled through the living room to the bedroom, packed a duffel bag, walked to the subdivision entrance and hid behind the wall. She flagged down her husband, jumped in the car and told him about the call. Jim drove around the corner, turned around, went back to his home — and slept well.

The threat proved false, but the story illustrates the calm demeanor Jim Sweeney has maintained since he got caught up in one of the most infamous gambling scandals in college basketball history. Living here in Florida for the past 31 years, he has been a salesman, husband, father and now aspiring animator.

But during the 1978-79 season, Jim Sweeney started at point guard for the Boston College basketball team — and became one of the key characters in a point-shaving scheme that involved a roommate, a teammate and a roster of mob figures that included Henry Hill, the man actor Ray Liotta portrayed in the 1990 film GoodFellas.

Not coincidentally, Liotta narrates the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Playing For The Mob, which debuts at 9 tonight. Sweeney, who has always maintained his innocence, welcomes having his story told after living with a cloud of suspicion for decades.

Remarkably, he holds no bitterness toward Hill or the others who he says drew him into the web of fixing games and shaving points.

"Sometimes things happen in life that you have no control over," Jim Sweeney recently said. "They find you instead of you finding them. I think who you are as a person is determined on how you handle those situations, and if they're negative, how you rise above them."

The documentary details how Sweeney, a good Catholic boy from Trenton, N.J., became the most unlikely player in the complex scheme. There was the first meeting with Hill in a Boston hotel, threats of bodily harm, supposed promises to keep the score under the point spread (but not lose the game) and how the point shaving connected to the legendary New York Lufthansa robbery and Jimmy "The Gent" Burke, the mob leader portrayed by Robert DeNiro in GoodFellas.

Conflicting stories highlight the film, with the late Hill saying Sweeney was in on the fix and Sweeney saying he told the wise guys just what they wanted to hear, never intending to carry out the alleged promise. Kevin Mackey, then an Eagles assistant coach, characterized Sweeney as a poster boy for Boston College athletics — until he and teammates accepted money.

"You owe them now and the players don't really realize that," Mackey said in the film. "Those guys own your soul."

Sweeney said he took $500 only when teammate Rick Kuhn forced it upon him, and blamed the mistake on naivete and fear. He's adamant he never manufactured mistakes in games to help the mobsters win bets, and he was never charged.

Hill eventually got arrested and became an informant for the FBI, telling all about "fixing games" to agents and to Sports Illustrated, who reportedly paid Hill $10,000.

Hill and Sweeney went on to testify in the sports bribery and racketeering case against Kuhn and mafiosos Tony and Rocco Perla, Paul Mazzei and Burke, the lynchpin in the case.

The naivete that initially betrayed Sweeney evolved into a kind of righteous courage and prompted him to testify even without the promise of immunity or witness protection.

"I was a little apprehensive but I can't say I was scared," he said. "I always felt like I didn't do anything wrong, that I would be protected somehow, some way."

All five men were convicted, and after the trial, Sweeney eventually landed a management job with the old Eckerd Drugs company, moving south with his new bride Maura. They didn't come to Florida to escape the mob or because they were in the witness protection program, but some friends and relatives thought they did just that.

Even recently, Maura said a friend leaned over during dinner after her second glass of wine and confessed that her husband thought Jim was in the mob.

"I can feel the cloud," said Maura, who occasionally freelances for the Huffington Post. "I didn't take any offense to it, but there were certain things that played out, that played into that belief system."

The couple continues to live in Pinellas County today. Jim and Maura focus a lot of their energy on "Mike," an animated microphone that they believe will develop into a national figure as Jim's alter ego voice of reason on all things sports. The two already have established the character in 35 comic books and a blog (theemike.com).

"I've had a lifetime of angst that is bubbling up and ready to gush like a fire hydrant," Jim Sweeney said.

Sweeney started "Mike" after capping a successful sales career by selling his computer sales company. The documentary says he's living "the good life," and Jim wouldn't argue — despite the cloud.

"I can never say I didn't know what the whispers were," he said. "I just held my head up high and went about my own business. I don't know if doors were closed even before I got there because of people's misunderstanding of the story, but that's okay. As far as I'm concerned, it's never prevented me from succeeding."

Contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@tampabay.com. Follow him at @hoop4you.

ESPN 30 for 30

Playing for the Mob, directed by Joe Lavine and Cayman Grant and narrated by Ray Liotta, debuts at 9 tonight on ESPN. It features interviews with Pinellas County resident Jim Sweeney, the point guard for the 1978-79 Boston College team that got connected with mobster Henry Hill and allegedly fixed basketball games.

ESPN documentary traces Pinellas man's involvement in point shaving scandal 10/06/14 [Last modified: Monday, October 6, 2014 11:28pm]
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