A potential nightmare

Posted by Brian Windhorst

In a story sure to send shivers up David Stern's spine, the New York Post is reporting today that an NBA referee is under investigation by the FBI for having links to a mafia-related point shaving scheme. The report says the referee may have been betting on games he was working over the last two seasons.

This is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a professional sports league. For all the talk of image issues, equipment issues, and even drug issues, the word "fix" is most deadly. It is sports' original sin, the reason there's a commissioner in baseball. Betting on the NBA is significantly smaller than on the NFL and baseball and even college basketball. It is a small enough percentage for sports books in Vegas that casinos have even been willing to suspend betting on it under certain circumstances, like last season's All-Star Game. So gambling and the NBA often aren't discussed unless it is in the context of moving a team to Vegas. But it is still big business.

In the past there have been college basketball point shaving tales, but never in the NBA and never involving an official. Getting to a college point guard is one thing, getting to the guy that controls putting players on the foul line is another. Especially in a 48-minute NBA game, where there are so many fouls called and each foul in the bonus is an automatic two shots. There are so many NBA games that are not really close that end up being decided by 5-8 points.

Just look at the last two games of the NBA Finals, both were won by the Spurs without too much sweat but there were plays in the final seconds of both that determined winners and losers when it came to the spread. In Game 3, after LeBron James missed a 3-pointer that would've tied the game, Zydrunas Ilgauskas threw in a jump shot that appeared to be before the buzzer. It was meaningless because the Cavs needed three points, so it wasn't counted and wasn't reviewed. But not meaningless in Vegas, where the spread was 2.5 points. In Game 4, with the Cavs down by four points, Damon Jones tossed in 3-pointer at the buzzer. It made no difference to the Spurs, who were out celebrating at midcourt, or the Cavs, who had just been swept. But that hoop allowed the Cavs to cover. Now, those are just examples of the last two NBA games played.

I think the average margin of victory in the NBA last season was something like 3.5 points -- don't quote me on that, I can't find the research at the moment on the net -- but know that it is close. So a referee who is aware of the spread and aware of where he needs it to come down can make calls that may not determine the outcome but can change fortunes. With so many fouls and so many free throws in NBA games, it could so easily be done without notice. An official can call a handcheck foul or a loose ball foul virtually on every possession if he wanted to. Especially if it is a game that is largely decided -- say, a six-point game with 12 seconds to go. This situation happens almost every night in the NBA.

Being around NBA locker rooms for the last five years, I can honestly say that I've never once heard anyone mention a point spread or gambling on anything other than cards. Before this, i'd have said if you wanted a gambling story in the NBA, it would be about how much the players bet on card games when they are on charter flights. As a beat reporter, I am almost never aware of the spreads and I never pay attention to them. I bet on a few playoff games in Vegas years ago, but never since I started covering the league. About the only time I am touched by it is when I get weird e-mails or phone calls the afternoons of games asking me whether a certain player will play or not. That has given me pause, it is something I've discussed in passing with other writers. This potential referee mess gives me a shock.

There will be much, much more on this if the arrests do come down and the name of the official is released. It may not get headlines like brawls do, but this is much more dangerous to the health of the league.

UPDATE: The official in question is Tim Donaghy. Here is his bio from the information packet they give to beat writers, which I think is two years old so keep that in mind when looking at the games. He is from a high school in Philadelphia that has produced numerous NBA officials like Joey Crawford, Mike Callahan, and Ed Malloy among others, I believe.

Donaghy, Tim #21
NBA Experience: 10 seasons
Currently in his 11th NBA season
Born: January 7, 1967 (Delaware County, Pa.)
Resides: West Chester, Pa.
HS: Cardinal O’Hara (Springfield, Pa.)
College: Villanova University ’89

NBA veteran official Tim Donaghy has officiated 578 regular season games and 10 playoff games over the past 10 seasons. In addition, Donaghy has seven years of CBA officiating experience, including the 1993 CBA All-Star Game, and five years of high school officiating experience in Pennsylvania.

The native Philadelphian played varsity baseball at Villanova University, and was named All-Catholic and All-Delaware County in baseball and All-Delaware County in basketball while at Cardinal O’Hara High School.

Donaghy enjoys working in the community and volunteers regularly with Don Guanella students. He also participates in the NBA Read to Achieve program, and attended an event during the 2001-02 NBA Finals at the Universal Charter School.