ith the recent NBA legalization of sports betting, perhaps this is the perfect time to look back and re-examine the story of the disgraced NBA referee, Tim Donaghy. Tim Donaghy’s rise to being one of the league’s most famous referees aided in his demise and 15-month prison sentence for fixing games. Most people saw only Tim as the sole culprit in the matter, but are completely unaware that he was not working alone. To understand the magnitude of the situation, we need to examine all the components and people involved. But first, who is Tim Donaghy, and what exactly happened?
Rise to Being an NBA Referee
Tom Donaghy comes from a long line of great referees. It would not be far-fetched to call his career a family tradition. Donaghy’s uncle, ‘Oakes’, was a respected referee and his father Gerry Donaghy, wore stripes for the NCAA. Renowned referees like Crawford, Malloy, and Callahan all attended Delaware County’s Cardinal O’Hara High School; as did Donaghy.
In 1990, Donaghy was 23 years old and began officiating in the NBA’s minor league — the CBA. He moved through the ranks fast and moved to the NBA four years later in 1994.
Although his career seemed quite promising, Donaghy fell for temptation soon after his league debut. NBA rules prohibit their referees from all sorts of gambling, except horse racing. In 1998, Donaghy joined the Radley Run Country Club in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Outings mostly included golfing, drinking, and friendly betting. His harmless bets soon became habits. Habits that would prove to change his life for the negative.
Prior to the scandal, many of his colleagues did not particularly enjoy Donaghy’s presence. He was not considered to be a warm or inviting person. Even his ex-wife described their relationship as being ‘tainted’ because of her fear of him. His relationships with his lifelong friends however seemed legitimate and sincere.
Wagering on His Own Games
Just like the friendly bets started with his friends on the golf course, Tim would also be introduced to major sports betting through an old friend. Jack Concannon, Donaghy’s close friend since high school, had a bookie named Ruggieri or ‘Rhino’. According to Donaghy, Rhino had a handicapping system for NFL picks and allowed the two friends to pool their money together and bet on Rhino’s picks. Even though this was a direct violation of the NBA’s betting rules, Donaghy rationalized his actions.
“EVERYONE ON THE STAFF BETS”
Soon, Tim’s habit grew and NFL picks and college football wins couldn’t scratch the consistent itch. In 2003, Donaghy evolved his betting platform. Accompanied by Jack Concannon, the two decided to bet on NBA games. More specifically, the games that Tim Donaghy was officiating.
The former referee placed his first NBA bet in March 2003, four seasons before the FBI unraveled the whole enterprise. His first season of NBA betting saw him make only two or three bets. His confidence had not peaked yet. His next few seasons would prove to be his defining moments. The following season, the NBA referee bet on over 30 of the games he worked. His alliance with Concannon was bringing in so much money that he didn’t know where to physically store it all to avoid raising suspicion from his wife. Although high-ranked referees make a very comfortable living, Donaghy’s newly acquired wealth proved to be good to refuse.
An Evolving Thirst
Remember ‘Rhino’, Concannon’s bookie? Well, the bets that Donaghy and Concannon made were starting to look strange and took too good to be true. ‘Rhino’ decided to do a little investigative digging of this own. It turned out that Jack Concannon was making bets at a higher frequency, and astonished, they were all winning. It did not take long to connect the dots. Donaghy was indeed the referee that called all the games Concannon was betting on.
Following his hunch, Rhino’s group began to follow Concannon’s bets with bets of their own, but in more substantial sums. Bets would sometimes reach as high as $100,000 a game. Rhino and his group were diligent with how they placed their bets though, ensuring that authorities would never get suspicious. A gentleman named ‘Battista’, who was in charge of the bets, soon realized that the betting markets were becoming too high risk because of the accuracy of the bets. Even though Battista had run his betting enterprise for years without Donaghy’s knowledge, he decided it was time to let him in on the effect that his involvement was causing throughout the industry.
Battista reached out to Donaghy through a mutual friend, Martino. The three agreed to sit down for a meeting. In the meeting, Battista laid out the situation as well as his demands to reduce the suspicion. Donaghy was ordered to never bet with Concannon ever again, only communicate through Martino, and send a share of his winnings if his bet hit. Battista set Donaghy’s share price at $2,000 per game but could end up as high as $5,000 depending on this situation. They also came up with a communication system – a secret code that allowed Donaghy to tell Martino what team he chose for their underhanded betting schemes.
The betting continued for some time, with Battista and Donaghy taking more and more un-calculated risks time after time. The newly acquired wealth led Battista down the dark road of substance abuse. He dabbled in everything from oxycodone to snorting cocaine. As a result, sleep deprivation and stress compounded on the bookie assistant. Some say that his condition was one of the reasons it was so difficult for him to keep their activities under wraps.
By either Battista’s inability to keep quiet or growing suspicion in the betting world, the FBI caught wind. Phil Scala, an FBI detective, got a tip regarding an NBA referee fixing games. During previous investigations, Scala had been probing the Gambino family (one of the famous five mob families) for information on their illegal activity. One of his sources tipped him off on a few of Gambino’s making millions on the NBA referee’s scheme. The interesting part of this whole thing; the tip came in October 2006, two months before Battista and Donaghy met.
Eventually, Scala’s unit detangled the spider web of illegal activity. Through extensive investigation, they found Tim Donaghy as the mastermind. In April 2007, the FBI knocked on Battista’s door, and like you could expect, a plea deal was taken to identify Donaghy in the case. Donaghy also gave in extremely quickly when approached.
On May 30th, 2007, Tommy Martino appeared before a grand jury testifying to all the incidents from the last few years. Tim Donaghy appeared in front of a grand jury within two weeks of Martino’s plea and testified which granted him a plea deal. His sentencing went from 20 years in federal prison to serving just 15 months.
As a result of the findings, the NBA released a statement denying any awareness of such events. They also made it very clear that Tim Donaghy was a rogue employee that acted alone. Once the NBA went public with the news, awareness increased exponentially. To draw attention away from the league and its issues, Donaghy was never charged with game-fixing. His accomplices also went to prison; Battista for 15 months and Martino for one year.
After the Donaghy scandal, the NBA beefed up their technology to review game footage and catch any game-fixing schemes before they happened. There is no guarantee that Tim Donaghy was the first and only referee to have acted as such. Donaghy certainly didn’t believe so. He went on to write his won book, Personal Foul, accounting player bias, scandals, and ploys to extend playoff series.
Although he may have not been the first referee to conduct such activity, he was the only one caught with his hand in the NBA’s preverbal cookie jar.