Ernie Cobb in a 2001 interview
YouTube screenshot

Thursday, March 22, 1984. At 11:05 a.m., U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler completed his instructions to the jury in the Federal Court Building in Brooklyn as Ernie Cobb awaited his judgment.

Thoughts continuously raced through Cobb’s mind: How had he arrived here, he wondered, of all places, charged with allegedly conspiring to commit sports bribery while allegedly fixing college basketball games for the mob?

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Cobb had been a prolific shooting guard at Boston College in the late 1970s, a team captain who’d etched his name into the school’s record books as its third-leading career scorer. He’d averaged 21.3 points per game during the 1978-1979 season, leading the Eagles to a 21-8 record.

He ate, drank and slept basketball. The game had saved his life, delivered him from peril, from a path leading nowhere, from dysfunction and illiteracy, to an elite college education and a shot at the NBA and a better future.

Couldn’t people see how much he loved the game? How much he was indebted to it? How much his positive life trajectory was propelled by it? Couldn’t they see how grateful he was, that he’d never cheat the thing that gave his life such meaning and purpose?

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Cobb insisted on having his day in court, of clearing his name. He refused to take a plea deal in return for a reduced sentence. He insisted on taking a polygraph test, against his attorney’s advice, which he passed. He was adamant that he would take the stand in his own defense, despite his lawyer’s pleas not to do so. He wanted to tell his side of the story. He craved to clear his name once and for all.

With his pro career and NBA dream in limbo for over four years since news of Boston College’s point-shaving scandal was first splashed across the front pages of newspapers and magazines, he simply desired to have his life back. It was a meaningful existence, a testament to persistence and the strength of believing in the beauty of one’s dreams, which he’d worked so diligently to reconstruct from the ashes of juvenile delinquency and poverty.

He yearned to shake himself free from being associated with the gangsters that would later be immortalized in the movie Goodfellas: Henry Hill, Jimmy Burke, Paul Vario and the Lucchese crime family apparatus that supported the biggest college sports point-shaving scandal since the 1950s.

Cobb just wanted to live his life and do what he did best: play ball.

On Saturday morning, March 24, 1984, a tiny blurb in newspaper sports sections across the nation read:

Ex-basketball star Ernie Cobb was acquitted Friday of taking part in a point-shaving scandal that rocked Boston College in 1978-1979, and tearfully asked for a fair shot to resurrect his chances at a pro career.

“I’d like to thank all the people who stuck by me all the time,” Cobb said after the verdict was announced. “I wanted my name cleared and it took a long time.” 

He was naive at the time, believing that his exoneration would pave the way for apologies and acknowledgments of his innocence: from the NBA, the federal government and Boston College. It’s something that he’s still waiting for, to this day.

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But as it turned out, the trial was simply one chapter of many in his life, and not the defining one.

Ernie Cobb’s story, in retrospect, is a modern-day adaptation of a Horatio Alger novel, seemingly lifted straight from the pages of Ragged Dick, where the impoverished boy, through determination, honesty and courage, rises out of despair toward a life of comfort and respectability.

It all seemed like a fairy tale, until he was indicted for allegedly fixing college basketball games for the mob. But we’ll come back to that later.

Read more at the Shadow League. Part 2 can be found here.