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The NBA’s Great Gambling Gaffe

The Donaghy Family

Because of the organized crime slant, I fully intended to write this piece in the parlance of 1920s newsies. I even re-watched The Hudsucker Proxy to get a better feel for the lexicon. Well, about a half an hour in I realized how incredibly difficult that would be, and how woefully underqualified I was for such an endeavor. I did manage to get some nice old school gangster images though, so enjoy those. Feel free to read the rest of this with the rapid-fire, syncopated internal voice of a Prohibition Era newsie if you like.

By now we all know the the basics. NBA referee Tim Donaghy has been officially charged with using his whistle to ‘fix’ professional basketball games after wiretaps used to monitor the Gambino mobster case revealed his name. The investigation has been spearheaded by none other than the FBI and involves tens of thousands of dollars riding on multiple games Donaghy worked, both in the regular season and the postseason. Though the NBA has not made any specific comments on the case yet, as of now there is no reason to believe that the actual outcome of games were altered. In all likelihood the point totals of teams and statistics of specific players were manipulated in the interest of organized crime (As an obsessive fantasy basketball player, that hits pretty close to home).

No other officials have been implicated yet, but (pure) speculation about the potential breadth of the case is starting to swirl. While corruption and point-shaving scandals have been uncovered or at least suggested in the NFL, MLB, NCAA and 1978 FIFA World Cup, this is the first time something like this has been uncovered in the NBA. No matter the outcome, it is a major black eye for the league, the worst since the cocaine issues of the late 70s and early 80s.

Tim Donaghy is not a household name among NBA refs but he did get significant attention after the The Malice at the Palace when the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons altercation spilled over into the crowd. At the time criticism was leveled at the officiating crew for allowing the melee to escalate to such a level, criticism which has been renewed and intensified in the last 48 hours (“The feeling among many referees was that Garretson and Donaghy, the two senior referees, could have been much more assertive in calming things down before the incident hit its flash point when a fan threw a cup of ice at Artest as he lay prone on the scorer’s table”).

Donaghy is also notable for handing out the most technical fouls among all referees last season. That’s relevant because perhaps the most specific revelation comes from The New York Daily News which has reported he was on the crew for a Knicks/Heat game that awarded the Knicks 39 free throws and only 8 for Miami, whistled technicals on Miami coach Pat Riley and assistant coach Ron Rothstein and called the Heat for three defensive 3-second violations (resulting in two technicals). The Daily News also mentions, citing an anonymous source, that the NBA may have actually had a PI following Donaghy for over a year- and yet continued to give him high-profile games.

Controversy

The most significant game thought to be affected so far is Game 3 of the Spurs/Suns series during the 2007 playoffs, a game that was already very controversial and heavily scrutinized. ESPN’s Bill Simmons wrote this afternoon, “Before the Donaghy scandal broke, if you told me there was a compromised official working a 2007 playoff game and made me guess the game, I would have selected Game 3 of the Spurs-Suns series. There were some jaw-dropping calls throughout, specifically, the aforementioned Ginobili call and Bowen hacking Nash on a no-call drive that ABC replayed from its basket camera (leading to a technical from D’Antoni). Both times, Mike Breen felt obligated to break the unwritten code that play-by-play announcers — don’t challenge calls and openly questioned what had happened. The whole game was strange. Something seemed off about it.” This game occurred in the series which was most notable for the contentious suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw after they left the bench to aid an injured Steve Nash. Suns fans can’t be happy right now.

“I’m telling you — it would have to be the total, not the winners or losers. You can’t dictate a side, especially in the NBA. He couldn’t take that chance. If someone gets injured or doesn’t show up or is having a terrible night or whatever, you can’t do it. But manipulating the total you can control from the very tip. If you need an over, a referee can dictate a high- or low-scoring game just by how he’s calling it. It’s going to come out [ . . . ]

Listen, this is just the first guy to get caught. I think, without question, there are more officials out there who have shaved points. I guarantee you there are. This is just the first guy to get caught.”
Brandon Lang

In an interesting twist, perhaps the oft maligned Rasheed Wallace actually proved prescient in this whole affair. The subject of Donaghy’s wrath more than once over the years, did the reactionary star smell a rat? According to ESPN.com’s Chris Sheridan, “Donaghy also was involved in another controversy a few years back when he engaged in a shouting match with Rasheed Wallace on the loading dock of The Rose Garden in Portland, an incident that led to a seven-game suspension for Wallace, who was then with the Portland Trail Blazers. Donaghy and the two other referees who had worked that game passed by Wallace as they walked to their cars, and Wallace was said to have threatened Donaghy, who had assessed him a technical foul earlier that night during a Grizzlies-Blazers game.” Knowing the temperament of Wallace it was pretty easy to assume his outburst was just ‘Sheed being ‘Sheed. Perhaps recent events shed new light on that incident. Think about this: if a ref did intend to make unfounded foul calls, to take a player out of a game, to shave points off of a team’s or player’s total, who would be the easiest target? And who wouldn’t be afraid to make a scene about it?

Tim DonaghyI noticed something else interesting this afternoon. At the end of his blog post, Chris Sheridan casually lobs a hand grenade at several NBA officials saying, “Donaghy, a baby-faced 40, is one of four NBA referees to have graduated from Cardinal O’Hara high school in Philadelphia. The others are Joey Crawford, Mike Callahan and Ed Malloy.” Is it just me, or is this meant to implicate the other officials mentioned by tacitly suggesting that Donaghy’s ties with organized crime can be traced to his early days in Philadelphia, a city known for its influential crime families.

I find the inclusion of Joey Crawford especially interesting. One of ETB’s least-favorite officials, he’s also one of the most controversial refs in the NBA today. Crawford is known for making bizarre calls, interjecting his personality into the game and flexing his whistle in unusual ways- all of which often leads to direct and significant impact on games he works. After being suspended for the remainder of the season after the Tim Duncan fiasco, is more disciplinary action waiting in the wings for Joey?

On a personal level, very little will change for me as an NBA fan. Bill Simmons said it well, “If you’re a diehard NBA fan, you’re horrified but strangely hopeful, because we needed a tipping point to change a stagnant league that was headed in the wrong direction … and maybe this was it.” I love the NBA, but I must admit that I find the reffing consistently poor. To be fair, I think it’s far and away the most difficult sport to call. In a structured game like football or baseball there is a finite number of decisions that officials have to make. In a game like basketball that is completely fluid and dynamic, there is a near-infinite volume of potential calls and non-calls made each game. Still, nobody who watches the sport consistently can deny the frequent phantom calls, the inconsistency, that star treatment exists and that there is a consistent ‘home court advantage’ due to more than just home cookin’. Those flaws are always amplified in and magnified by the playoffs (particularly star treatment and home-court advantage), driving away a significant base of casual fans. I consider myself one of the diehard fans; if this scandal leads to more rigorous evaluation of and accountability for referee performance, improved training for officials and more effective preventative measures for malfeasance I will consider it a good thing. After the airplane ticket debacle and this, perhaps it would be a good idea to pay these guys a little more too.

When it gets down to it though, what serious NBA fan doesn’t know about the deficiencies of the officiating system? We’ve all noticed them, and we’ve all chosen to accept them as a beauty mark on our sport. For me the officiating is always going to be a 500 lbs. gorilla in the corner, but the spectacle and purity of the game transcends. If you love basketball, you’ve gotten over it and engage in your fandom accepting it. That isn’t to gloss over or condone conscious attacks on the integrity of the competition. Any intentional effort to undermine that integrity must be met with the swiftest of action and the harshest of punishment. We should also never accept an officiating product from the NBA that is less than their means allow them to provide. We should demand skilled, trained, capable and unbiased referees in every game. But as far as just plain bad calls go: they will always be a part of NBA Basketball. If we can’t deal with that fact, we deny ourselves the enjoyment of America’s greatest sport.

I’m going to watch just as many games. I’m going to root just as hard. I’m going to be just as tough on the refs, and I’m probably going to enjoy it all just the same. It’s going to be a little more work, as a fan, to keep track of specific ref’s tendencies. I’m going to have to expand my knowledge of poor officials beyond Bennett Salvatore, Joey Crawford, Dick Bavetta, Violet Palmer and Ed Rush. You know what the worst thing is going to be though? Watching a game with a buddy who’s team is losing. Any game . . . for the next decade.

UPDATE ON JOEY CRAWFORD: According to The Denver Post, “Referee Joey Crawford, suspended in April, is scheduled to meet with Stern on Friday in New York, according to an NBA source. It will be the first meeting between Stern and Crawford since the suspension, which came after the referee ejected San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan for laughing while the player was on the bench and asked the forward if he wanted to fight.” Interesting. Very interesting.

And there’s this delicious little nugget from ESPN.com today: ” . . . Donaghy also is said to have exchanged blows with fellow Philadelphia native Joey Crawford at a refs’ meeting years ago.” I wonder what that could have been about . . .


You can skip the obnoxious intro, but the following video does show some nice highlights from that now-infamous Game 3:

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