Tim Donaghy's questionable punditry
June, 11, 2010
By Henry Abbott
AP Photo/Louis Lanzano
The star and, increasingly, promoter of NBA referee conspiracy theories.
The league is rigged! That's what a lot of people seem to believe. Kobe Bryant gets this call, or doesn't get that one. This team is David Stern's chosen favorite, or that one is ...
It has long been many fans' deepest worry, and thanks to DVRs and HD the whole trend is now beefed up with a never-ending stream of evidence that some calls are bad.
And of course, since 2007, fan paranoia has a new brand name: "Tim Donaghy."
If anyone tries to tell you referees are on the up and up, nowadays, those two words are all you have to say in response. He's the one guy who peed in the pool -- quickly making it lonely to swim with the people who think referees are generally pretty good.
Donaghy is not just the NBA's worst-ever example of a referee. He is also, thanks to a book, a Facebook page, a never-ending stream of talk radio appearances and now a blog series, a savage critic of his former colleagues in the NBA referee corps.
The question is: Should anybody listen to him?
He has been wrong before
A subset of fans has always believed referees hate their team. They have been waiting for Tim Donaghy for decades. And NBA referees certainly blow calls, which used to be a fleeting disappointment lined with uncertainty, but is now constantly and permanently recorded in high-definition. In short, Donaghy is right when he says you can find bad calls. But Donaghy's case that the outcomes of games are predetermined has not been convincing.
Donaghy has served his time -- for conspiring to engage in wire fraud and transmitting betting information across state lines. But he has not served time for fixing games, and says his lawyer has told him that if it is ever proved he did, he could be locked up again. He is a father of four who lives with a probation officer looking over his shoulder.
Not to mention, he is frank that his financial situation is bad. He has been unemployed for the most part since his time in the NBA, he owes six figures in restitution, he is in a struggle to recover any income from his book sales. His new job -- as a part-time speaker at a gambling counseling center -- is not enough to keep up.
He's a man with a lot of reasons to stick to the story that he did not fix games, and the message in the book he'd like you to buy is 100 percent accurate.
When Donaghy's book first came out, Kevin Arnovitz and I went to a lot of trouble, with the insight of people like Joe Price, Wayne Winston, Charles Barkley and Phil Jackson, to put its claims to the test. If he was on the money, digging around for more evidence would have helped his credibility and kept the NBA from sweeping his book under the rug.
Instead, the results were amazingly one-sided:
- Donaghy recalls a conversation he had on the court with Phil Jackson that Jackson tells ESPN's J.A. Adande never happened.
- He describes relationships between Allen Iverson and referees Steve Javie (who he says hated Iverson) and Joe Crawford (who was allegedly a fan) that biased their calls, and made picking Iverson games easy ways to make money. But those betting rules, in fact, would not have led to winners.
- He told a stirring tale of locker room run-in with Charles Barkley, but Barkley told ESPN's Mark Schwarz no such thing occurred.
- The three palming violations Donaghy remembers in some detail that were really two.
- He wrote that he won bets relying on Dick Bavetta's habit of keeping games close, but looking at scores proved betting like that would not win you money.
- He described in some detail the friendship between referee Joe Forte and then-Grizzlies coach Mike Fratello, which inspired him to pick Fratello's team to beat the spread when Forte reffed. But in that period, Fratello's teams beat the spread less than half the time.
And on and on.
Even his own account of his life involves plenty of lying and cheating, from having someone else take his SAT test in high school to systematically hiding his gambling from his family and employer.
It has become fairly easy to find things Donaghy claims that are either demonstrably not true, lacking support or denied by those who were there.
Also noteworthy is the decided lack of people who have his back. Does anyone with direct knowledge of refereeing who support his version of events? The truth has a way of attracting supporters among the knowledgeable. Where are the retired referees? They are silent -- even though one of them is Donaghy's uncle, Billy Oakes. Is there anyone on the planet who has both first-hand knowledge of what goes on among referees, and an inclination to vouch for Donaghy's version of events?
When pressed to defend his own credibility, these days Donaghy relies on the success rate of picks he made on the radio during this year's playoffs.
One of the last people to stand in his corner, the publisher of his book (after it had been rejected by a major publishing house months into the editing process), has now turned on him.
Severed ties with a publisher
Shawna Vercher of the VTi-Group came forward late last year to publish Donaghy's book after it was cut by a major publishing house. Now she is embroiled in a dispute with Donaghy that involves the local police, the U.S. Attorney's office and Donaghy's probation officer. In a nutshell, Vercher says Donaghy has threatened her by phone. Donaghy says he professionally and politely insisted on timely accounting of the proceeds from his book sales. The matter remains unresolved, but what's clear is that the two parties are no longer in business together.
In the midst of it all, Vercher agreed to answer some questions, including this exchange:
You mentioned that you began to lose confidence in him about the time you and I first met, when I interviewed Donaghy in Tampa. What happened?
As you may recall, you asked Mr. Donaghy about Charles Barkley and the infamous bucket of water that Mr. Barkley allegedly dumped on his head. You also mentioned that his polygraph test did not ask the question that people really want to know: Did he fix games? He volunteered on the air to take a polygraph test to prove that he wasn't lying about the bucket of water and to answer everyone's questions "once and for all."
Shortly thereafter we tried to schedule a polygraph test for him to take and asked him for his availability. He told me, in front of coworkers, that he could not take the polygraph since, if they asked him if he fixed games, he would fail. There were some disclaimers he mentioned and he said that it wasn't a fair question and the like, but it obviously caused an alarm to go off for me and question his word.
And you have some concerns about whether or not he even wrote the book?
I cannot say whether or not he wrote the book, but I have had three separate people tell me that he did not write it, including one guy who claims to be friends with the ghost writer. Having a ghost writer is actually common practice, but the idea does make me cringe when I think about all of the times he told the story of writing it alongside his mom during visiting hours in prison.
Do you think Tim Donaghy fixed NBA games?
Mr. Donaghy has described how he took advantage of loopholes in the referee system and NBA corporate policies so that he could benefit himself. I'm not sure how far he took that line as far as legal definitions go, but I can say for sure that he was not working for the good of the players or the league during that time ... he was working for his own personal gain.
For the record, Donaghy denies Vercher's version of events. "That is absolutely not true," he says. "She asked me: 'Would you take the polygraph test?' I said 'absolutely.' But as I dig more into this stuff the bottom line is that calls were made in games, not only by me, but by others in regard to sticking it to certain players, and I just want the questions to be very clear about what fixing a game is and what fixing a game is not. I don't want to end up having a problem with that. As far as, did I fix games? I absolutely did not fix games."
He then says he would still take a polygraph, on the condition that David Stern and other NBA officials do, too.
He also insists he wrote the book himself. The other influences, he says, were an editor in Los Angeles he paid to help with a first draft; former FBI agent Warren Flagg, who encouraged him to rewrite the whole thing with a softer tone; his mom, who mailed him the book chapter-by-chapter for revising on the prison typewriter; and then the Triumph Books editor, who prepared the book for publication before that publisher dropped it. That version of events is confirmed by Donaghy's mother, Joan.
Dueling referee video highlight reels
Tim Donaghy is making his own highlight reels, on Deadspin, purporting to show biased refereeing in the ongoing NBA Finals. He is reinforcing the questionable message of his book -- that he's the keeper of the real information about NBA referees, who are so biased that you don't need to fix games to pick winners at an alarming enough rate to attract the attention of the FBI.
But there are other jaded referee videos out there now, too. Another set comes from Haralabos Voulgaris, who made a name for himself as the sports gambler with a massive custom database that tells him things most people don't know about basketball. He has been digging into the Donaghy scandal since 2007. He has started his own blog, called Alone in the Corner, where he is making a detailed case that Donaghy can be seen on video fixing NBA games.
Voulgaris fact-checks a memorable moment from Donaghy's book about a game in New York. Donaghy says one of his colleagues was making lopsided calls, but Voulgaris' video inspection shows Donaghy's own calls were the least balanced. And you should certainly watch the video of Donaghy calling a Houston vs. Orlando game.
Voulgaris has also done some math, showing that to win at a 70 percent rate, a betting referee would only need to influence about six points per game.
Voulgaris says his video research and publishing will continue. The NBA -- which did not want to comment for this story -- will no doubt be watching, and it's not clear which outcome they'll be rooting for.
Donaghy has been in the habit of saying his critics are in cahoots with the NBA.
But in fact, the NBA is better served by having the story disappear. People like Voulgaris assembling video evidence of Donaghy's worst moments as a referee keeps Donaghy's name in the news while raising the suggestion that there may be fixed games in the NBA record.
Will there be championships called into question -- for instance, when the Spurs won a title after a controversial and close-fought second-round series in which Donaghy reffed a game? What about MVPs? Season ticket holders who'd like some money back? Owners who lost income from playoff games missed? And who knows how many players who didn't get their bonuses, or coaches that were fired for missing the playoffs might look back at the record and call a lawyer? (Rasheed Wallace was fined and suspended for mixing it up with Donaghy post-game on a loading dock. If Donaghy's ever a convicted game-fixer, won't the NBA have to worry about Wallace wanting his money back?)
If you're doing the NBA's bidding, you are not accusing anybody of fixing any games.
And here's where Donaghy will tell you about the FBI and the NBA's independent investigations finding that he did not fix games. But that's not what they found. A unit of the FBI focused on organized crime didn't much care about whether or not he fixed games. By the admission of those involved in the investigation, they just wanted to stop the scheme to stop money flowing to the mob, which they did.
Both investigations used NBA personnel to help them break down limited amounts of video. Both found not that Donaghy did not fix games, but that it's possible he did not, even though there were causes for concern.
In the foreword of Donaghy's own book, one of the main FBI agents involved said a number of nice things about Donaghy, but stopped short of saying that he did not fix games.
If we have learned anything from the Donaghy scandal, it's that anything is possible when it comes to referee conduct. Certainly it is good that the league feels pressure from the likes of Donaghy, and NBA fans with Tivos, to have the best, least-biased professionals in the world in those coveted jobs.
But when it comes to deciding whether or not the current referee corps is compromised, let your eyes, ears and intuition be your guide ... and be careful about taking anybody's word.