Thursday, March 22nd, 1984. At 11:05 a.m., United States District Judge Leonard Wexler completed his instructions to the jury in the Federal Court Building in Brooklyn as Ernie Cobb awaited his judgment.
The 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?
Cobb had been a prolific shooting guard at Boston College in the late 1970’s, 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?
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, that 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 1950’s.
Cobb just wanted to live his life and do what he did best: play ball.
On Saturday Morning, March 24th, 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 naïve at the time, believing that his exoneration would pave the way for apologies and acknowledgements of his innocence: from the NBA, the federal government and Boston College. It’s something that he’s still waiting for, to this day.
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 fairytale, until he was indicted for allegedly fixing college basketball games for the mob. But we’ll come back to that later.
HEADING NOWHERE FAST
Ernie Cobb’s family roots were planted in the dirt soil of Raleigh, North Carolina’s tobacco fields, where he was born in 1956. In the early 1960’s, as job prospects dwindled in the area, his father, James Cobb, the 2nd-oldest of 21 kids, decided to move his family up north, which was more industrialized, and hence had more job opportunities than the agriculture-dependent south.
His father found work in cement construction as a hard laborer in Stamford, Connecticut, the third-largest city in the state that is situated approximately 30 miles from New York City.
When Ernie began attending school, the area’s school system was functionally segregated.
“I went to an all-black school where everyone knew each other,” said Cobb. “The teachers lived in our same community and they had relationships with our parents outside of the school. It was a loving, nurturing environment. I felt valued, that I mattered and that people cared about me. I excelled. I was excited about school and learning. But when I was about eight years old, they started the busing experiment and I had to leave my community to go to school in the suburbs.”
Cobb internalized the subtle looks from his new teachers and administrators, the ones his young mind translated to mean, “We don’t want you here.” He no longer felt encouraged in his new classroom environment, and sensed the sting of judgmental eyes when his hyper personality and wandering mind attracted the attention of adult authority figures.
At around the same age, his parents separated, with his father moving across town.
“My dad was still in my life, but something changed inside of me,” said Cobb. “Between being bused to a school that I felt like didn’t value me, and my dad leaving the house, my academics went downhill fast. I’d also developed a reputation in school as a troublemaker. My mom raised me to be respectful, so I never talked back or exhibited any violent or aggressive behavior.”
“But I had an overactive imagination and couldn’t sit still,” he continued. “If the diagnosis was available back then, I’m sure they would have found that I had ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I was bored with my schoolwork and became the class clown. And those people had no patience for me. I could have sneezed and they would have sent me to the principal’s office.”
His mother, Hattie, worked as a domestic and struggled to provide for her four children. With having to work long hours, her children had a lot of free, unsupervised time on their hands, some of which was not utilized wisely. Cobb’s older siblings began having brushes with the law.
“I felt bad for my mom,” he said. “She did the best she could. She was a miracle worker. We might have worn the hand-me-downs of the families that she worked for, but we always had clean clothes. We never starved. We had the basics of everything that we needed. But she had to work very hard, over some long hours, which meant she couldn’t monitor my every move. Things that happened to me and my siblings, it wasn’t her fault. It was the streets.”
Cobb was always a competitive kid. He wanted to win every foot race, every pickup game of basketball and sandlot football, or any other endeavor that ended with a final score and winning result. One of his early passions was racing remote-controlled cars. The only problem was that he didn’t have enough money to afford one.
“I went into the Caldor’s department store in downtown Stamford when I was about 12 years old and tried to shoplift one,” he said. “I got caught, they arrested me and I had to go to court. So from then on I had a juvenile record. Not long after that, I was playing Pop Warner football and needed a mouthpiece. I went into that same Caldor’s and got arrested again for stealing one.”
The arresting officer for the second incident took an interest in the young kid, and saw more than just a young man escalating into juvenile delinquency. He saw something worth saving underneath those shoplifting behaviors.
“Years later, I wound up using that police officer’s Cadillac to go to my high school prom,” said Cobb. “We got really close and he looked out for me. He saw that I was heading in the wrong direction and tried to mentor me.”
But changing his behaviors did not happen overnight. One of his passions was riding and racing bicycles. And he always managed to be seen cruising around his neighborhood with a new, expensive one.
“Man, I was really into bikes,” Cobb said. “I would walk long distances, for miles, out into the suburbs in Greenwich. Old Greenwich was a really rich neighborhood, and they’d have all these beautiful bikes just sitting out there on the lawn. So I’d go up there all the time and get me one. I kept me a shiny, new bike.”
Until of course, he was caught and arrested for stealing one. During his court hearing, the judge sentenced him to a six-month sentence in the Meriden Juvenile Detention Facility. It was there, where a whole new world opened up to him.
TURNING THE PAGE
Most people may conjure up nightmarish images while trying to imagine being incarcerated at such an early age, but Ernie's experience was quite the opposite. He loved the foliage, the fresh air and scenery. The vast expanses of grass fields allowed him to run free and clear his mind.
His competitive desires were satisfied with all of the recreation activities that were offered. He loved being able to play ping pong, shoot pool and go swimming, but there was one place at the facility that he loved above all others: the gymnasium.
“Meridan had all this space and all these green fields where you could just run,” said Cobb. “It was a beautiful place, way out there in upstate Connecticut, where they treated us well. We weren’t locked in individual cells. We lived in dormitories. They were so many activities and all this food. The main thing was that they were really trying to rehabilitate us and teach us, hoping to turn us around before we became hardened criminals. For me, it worked.”
He spent countless in the gym, practicing his basketball skills, replaying a very hurtful experience over and over in his mind, from when he was cut from his junior high school basketball team back in Stamford.
“I was practicing every day and so angry at the coach who cut me,” said Cobb. “I was better than everybody on the team, but I talked back to him and he cut me because he said I had a bad attitude. It devastated me as a youngster. I dominated all those guys on the playground and they laughed at me when I got cut. From that point on, I wanted to become the best basketball player that I could possibly be.”
A social worker at the facility, who took notice of Ernie’s work ethic and burgeoning athletic potential, contacted Herm Alswanger, the varsity basketball coach at Stamford High School, where the youngster would soon enroll upon his release from Meriden.
“The guy called Herm and said, ‘Ernie’s a good kid and he’s going to be coming to your school,’” said Cobb. “The day I got to Stamford High School, Coach Alswanger was there waiting for me. He sat me down in his office and we talked.”
(Stamford High School, Photo Credit: thesteelrailsadvocate.com)
“The social worker told me that Ernie didn’t belong up there in that juvenile detention facility,” said Alswanger. “He said, ‘Ernie’s the only kid who listened, did everything he was supposed to do and never tried to run away. He just loves to play basketball. Please give him a chance. We’ve had serious problems with all of the other kids but we never had a problem with Ernie. He doesn’t belong here and I think he can really make something of himself if somebody gives him a chance.’”
Alswanger talked with Ernie, who was entering the 9th grade, about his expectations. He told him that he had talent, but that wasn’t enough. He’d have to start setting goals.
“I didn’t even know what goals were,” said Cobb.
The first goals that Alswanger stressed revolved around academics. He told Ernie that he had to strive to get good grades and work very hard to achieve them, because if he didn’t maintain a certain grade-point-average, he wouldn’t be eligible to compete.
“I told him that he was going to have to work very hard and that he was going to have to do things the right way if he wanted to be successful,” said Alswanger.
Ernie listened intently. He sensed something in that moment, something transformative. Here was someone who believed in him, someone who was willing to work with him and teach him about this game of basketball, which he loved more than anything.
It was the first time he saw the game as something that could improve his life, something that could take him places. But there was one obstacle that he’d have to confront head-on.
“Coach Alswanger, I have a confession to make,” Ernie told the man sitting across from him. “I can’t read.”
“When he told me that, we immediately got him a tutor,” said Alswanger. “And she loved him. After she began working with him, she came to talk to me and said, ‘Oh my god! He eats it up.’ It was like this whole new world opened up to him and his desire to succeed was unreal. Everywhere he went, he had a book with him at all times.”
“I became so focused,” said Cobb. “I wanted to play ball, and in order to do that I had to maintain a C average. There was no getting around that. From that day on, I became very studious.”
Despite never having played organized basketball before, Cobb was moved up to the varsity squad as a freshman.
“He had all of this ability, and he worked so hard,” said Alswanger. “He listened and did everything I told him to do. I got to know him really well. His mother was doing her best to put bread on the table. He’d lost his older brother to drugs. His sister was going through some struggles. Here was this kid who had all the odds stacked against him, and he was so committed to being successful.”
“His focus and work ethic was amazing,” Alswanger continued. “Eventually, he became a part of my own family and spent a lot of time over at our house. He was like a big brother to my own son. He had this unbelievable desire to succeed and you could tell that he wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way.”
By his sophomore year, he was a starter on the varsity and an All-League selection. As a junior, he averaged 37.6 points per game and was named All-State.
“I had the complete package,” said Cobb. “I was lightning quick, could run up and down, go left or right and could score from anywhere on the floor.”
“He was breaking every record you could think of and by his junior year, people were saying, ‘Whoa! Where did this kid come from,’” said Alswanger. “And he was all about the team and winning, despite the fact that he was an offensive machine. I told him, you can’t just be great on offense, you gotta play great defense as well.”
By his senior season, he was an All-American. Over one hundred schools tried to recruit the 5-foot-11 marksman, including UCLA and Kentucky.
“They were comparing him to Calvin Murphy, the great pro, who was similar in stature and who was from Connecticut,” said Alswanger. “The Boston College coaches practically lived in our gym. UCONN brought in the Governor, judges, you name it.”
“When the letters started coming in, I realized that I had a chance to go to college,” said Cobb. “Coach Alswanger was always schooling me about a winner never quits, a quitter never wins, about integrity, honor and character. He was a remarkable man. He would teach me about these attributes and I began to internalize them. My character grew, along with my basketball skills. Every accomplishment made me want to work harder. I was tremendously focused because I knew that I was going places.”
“In my neighborhood, people didn’t go to college,” said Cobb. “If you got your own apartment after high school, that was considered a success. No one in my family had even graduated from high school. So for me to have a chance to go to college, that was so exciting to me.”
Alswanger took Cobb to Madison Square Garden once to see the Knicks play against Calvin Murphy, the scoring dynamo who was considered the best player to ever come out of Connecticut.
“I got to meet Calvin Murphy after the game because Mr. Alswanger knew him,” said Cobb. “He was from Norwalk, not far from where I was from. He was this little guy who could score like crazy! I’m looking at him play against Clyde Frazier and right then and there, I thought it was a realistic dream for me to make it to the NBA. I could see myself coming into my own one day and doing that. I was mesmerized.”
Out of all the schools recruiting him, Cobb decided to accept Boston College’s scholarship offer.
(Boston College, photo credit: bostonmagazine.com)
“Academically, it was a great school and my family could come and see me play,” he said. “They had a beautiful campus and it was small enough to where I could function, and yet it was big enough that I could get the exposure I needed to fulfill my dreams.”
But before he stepped foot on campus for his freshman year to chase a new set of goals, he was hesitant, apprehensive and somewhat scared.
“I’d made remarkable strides from being sent to a juvenile detention facility, from not being able to read as a high school freshman,” said Cobb. “But I wasn’t sure if I was really up to B.C. standards like the rest of the students, most who came from wealthy and very strong academic backgrounds. I did everything I needed to do in terms of having the grades and the standardized test scores to get in. But I was still worried. I knew that I could play basketball with anybody. But I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle the academics.”
TO BE CONTINUED…Read Part II Here