Former Syracuse basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Fired Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine has filed the initial paperwork in a defamation lawsuit against ESPN for reporting two former ball boys’ claims that the longtime coach sexually abused them.
A yearlong federal investigation that followed accusations that Fine abused team ball boys ended with no charges. Fine was Hall of Fame Coach Jim Boeheim's assistant for 35 seasons.
ESPN reported the allegations on Nov. 17, 2011. Fine was fired 10 days later when a third man made similar claims.
In the court paperwork, Fine indicates he'll sue for defamation and seek undefined damages. The “summons with notice” was filed Nov. 15, 2012, in state Supreme Court in Onondaga County and sat unreported until today, when The Associated Press asked the court clerk for a copy.
Fine's Buffalo-based lawyer, Richard Sullivan, declined to comment today. ESPN spokesman David Scott said the network doesn't comment on pending litigation and stands by its reporting.
Hearst Corp. and The Walt Disney Co., which together own ESPN, are also named as co-defendants along with reporter Mark Schwarz and producer Arthur Berko.
In the initial ESPN report, two former Syracuse ball boys, Bobby Davis and his stepbrother Michael Lang, came forward and accused the longtime assistant of fondling them when they were teens. Davis said the sexual contact continued for years.
ESPN said that Davis had come to them in 2003 but that his story couldn't be corroborated then. When Lang also came forward, the network decided to air the story.
But the claims by Davis and Lang had happened too long ago to be prosecuted. Ten days later, a third man, 23-year-old Zachary Tomaselli, of Lewiston, Maine, went public with an accusation that Fine had molested him in 2002 in a hotel room when the team played in Pittsburgh. The same day, ESPN aired an audiotape in which Fine's wife, Laurie Fine, apparently acknowledged to Davis she knew about the molestation he alleged.
Laurie Fine is also suing the sports network for defamation.
Bernie Fine, who has consistently denied the allegations, was fired Nov. 27, and the federal government began investigating Tomaselli's claim, the only one that fell within the statute of limitations.
Boeheim at first angrily defended his assistant of 35 years and said the accusers were only out for money, seeking to cash in on the publicity generated by the Penn State scandal, in which former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with and ultimately convicted of sexually abusing several boys.
Davis and Lang sued Boeheim and the university for defamation, but a judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying Boeheim's defense of his friend was clearly opinion.
Another accuser, Floyd Van Hooser, said Fine abused him for years but later said he was lying.
Tomaselli was eventually convicted of sexually abusing a boy at a camp in 2010 and sent to prison. Before he went to jail, he repeatedly lied and changed his story.
In November, federal authorities dropped their investigation, saying there was not enough evidence to support Tomaselli's claim.
Fine, now 67, has been in Florida and was hired as a consultant for an Israeli basketball team.
Today, the Orangemen were playing Indiana with a chance to advance to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament.