When it comes to NBA betting scandals there are, thankfully, very few to talk about. Nobody wants to see the reputation and reliability of the sport we love tarnished and sullied by greed.
There is, however, one very famous, high-profile betting scandal in the history of the National Basketball Association. It is a shocking tale of sports gambling and alleged game fixing in professional basketball games that seems like it comes from the pages of a novel. In fact, the story was eventually made into a movie…
So strap in. In this article, we will recount the salient points of that story of the biggest NBA scandal in history.
Just for those of you who have been living on the dark side of the moon…
Tim Donaghy was almost destined to become an NBA referee it seems. In fact, in his 2009 memoir, Personal Foul, he states
“It was a job I was born to do”
He may very well have been born to do it but he was not born to do it with honor and integrity…
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The areas in and around the great city of Philadelphia have produced an amazing number of top-flight NBA referees over the years. There are those reading this who will remember the name Billy Oakes.
Oakes just happens to be the uncle of Tim Donaghy and so it seems that having the right connections doesn’t hurt when you’re climbing the ladder of officialdom within the refereeing fraternity of the NBA.
Donaghy spent four years officiating in the CBA (the NBA’s minor league) and was duly promoted to the big league in 1994. At that time he was young compared to most NBA refs at only 27 years old. For reference, the average age of an NBA ref at the time of writing is 46 years old.
The root of Donaghy’s troubles with gambling may well go back further. But it seems that once he hit the good times and began to enjoy the trappings of a well-paid, cushy lifestyle the rot really set in. Frequent excursions were made to a casino in Atlantic City, always wearing a baseball cap in an attempt to hide his identity. Even before the scandal and shame that Donaghy perpetrated upon himself and the NBA, it was forbidden for referees to take part in any gambling. Inexplicably that did not apply to horse racing.
IF ONLY HE HAD STUCK WITH THAT
If his ex-wife is to be believed (not that we’re doubting her testimony but please don’t speak to my ex-wife and expect to hear a single word of truth about me) then Donaghy was an absent father who spent all his spare time on the golf course or gambling.
Donaghy’s closest friend since high school was a man named Jack Concannon. He, in turn, had a bookie named Peter “Rhino” Ruggieri.
So, the three amigos hatched a genius plan to pool their money and bet on Rhino’s picks (based on a betting system he had created). Although still against the strict rules of the NBA (in Donaghy’s case) they were only betting on NFL and college football initially.
THAT DIDN’T LAST LONG…
In 2003, Donaghy and Concannon decided that they might as well bet the NBA too. That in itself was bad enough but they didn’t stop there. They decided to go the whole hog and bet on the games that Donaghy himself was officiating. They left Rhino out of this little arrangement…
The first season was (although morally and legally an absolute betrayal and travesty) a case of fairly small potatoes. The pair bet on two or three games. But as with any addict that has lost control of their senses and ability to reverse a downward spiral, that number rose steeply. In the second season, it seems between thirty and forty games that Donaghy controlled were bet upon. That number did not diminish for another two seasons after that.
Donaghy admits that the scheme was a roaring success. He was pocketing so much cash that he didn’t even know where to hide it.
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THE PLOT THICKENS
By this time, Rhino Ruggieri had noticed that the bets Concannon was laying with him were bigger on certain games. Not only that but more often than not, he was successful. Concannon had previously been a recreational $100 – $200 gambler. $500 tops.
And he usually didn’t win.
Suddenly this insurance salesman was dropping $5,000 on certain NBA games and raking it in when most of them came good.
Now nobody is going to suggest that there are any geniuses involved in this tawdry tale. We’re talking about some pretty bottom-of-the-barrel characters in terms of intelligence and moralistic fiber.
But Rhino didn’t need to be a genius to remember that Concannon had a golfing buddy that was an NBA ref…
Rhino took his findings to a group of industry ‘friends’ and they scoured the stats of all Donaghy’s games. According to one member of the group:
“You could see he was calling more fouls on the team he bet against and less fouls on the team he bet on. That was obvious.”
And there it was. The scam was revealed.
BUT ONLY TO A GANG OF EQUALLY VENAL SCUMBAGS
So what Ruggieri and his cronies did was simply to follow the Concannon/Donaghy bets with bets of their own. Except they were MUCH larger. Between $30,000, and $100,000 per game became standard. Not quite enough to set alarm bells ringing right across the industry. But still foolishly large.
All they had to do was to keep the discovery secret and rake in huge sums of cash as the bets came in 60-70% of the time. It was the ultimate edge and from 2003 until 2007 they cleaned up right alongside Donaghy and Concannon.
BUT THIS STORY WAS NOT WITHOUT ITS FURTHER COMPLICATIONS…
A couple of seasons into the scheme, the betting markets were finally getting wise to the fact that millions of dollars were being won on NBA games with alarming regularity. They surmised that there had to be a highly accurate tipster involved somewhere. It was now only a very small step for them to make to discover the wider patterns involved and a member of Rhino’s group panicked.
He saw the danger coming and decided that drastic action was required. He decided that he had to take direct control of the corrupt referee for himself. It just so happened (insects are created and congregate in similar places one supposes) that this guy also knew Donaghy personally and had done so since they both attended the same high school outside Philadelphia.
On Dec 12th 2006 at the Riverbend Bar & Grille, Battista and his partner Tommy Martino met Tim Donaghy and they made a deal. Donaghy would study the upcoming teams he would be officiating. He would pick the winner and await instructions from Battista. When all the betting had been completed, he would be informed by Tommy Martino of the spread that they required and now had to manipulate the game to make sure it was covered. For this, he would receive a measly $2,000 per game.
ONLY IF THE PICK WON MIND YOU
Jimmy Battista was what is referred to in these salacious circles as a ‘mover’. In the strictest sense of the word, movers are neither gamblers nor bookmakers. They operate as a kind of broker that provides services to sports bettors. They lay bets on their behalf and have connections with all kinds of dubious characters and illegal bookmakers. Several clients from the sports-betting underworld effectively staked Battista a bankroll which he now used to bet on the games officiated by Donaghy. This stake from each client was apparently known as “the ticket.”
Now, it has been claimed that this ‘deal’ was little more than a glorified act of blackmail and extortion. Clearly, Battista had in his possession some exceptionally damning information that could ruin Donaghy. It does seem odd that Donaghy would accept the paltry (in terms of the amounts they had been dealing with) sum of just $2,000 per game to affect the result and effectively win the consortium millions of dollars. There are even rumours that Donaghy was largely unaware of the exact amounts Concannon was raking in. We may never know.
Suffice it to say that there is no honour among thieves and this situation was now getting way out of hand
With the deal in place, Battista now began to really ramp up his betting, with Rhino et al following along as before, seemingly oblivious to the new arrangement. Half-million dollar bets were now commonplace (remember, Donaghy was getting just $2,000 per game) and there was a childishly basic system of communication established between the 2 sides through Tommy Martino so that there was no direct contact. All very cloak-and-dagger stuff with about the sophistication of a game of hide and seek.
When the sums of money are as huge as they had now become, it is possible to affect entire markets. Battista was well-connected and would manipulate the situation by first betting the side that was destined to lose. If they did that early on then they were often able to drive down the price of the team that was actually going to win. Once that was achieved, he would drop astonishing sums on the real targets and hope that it was one of the occasions when Donaghy was able to make things work out the way he wanted. This was a virtual certainty as the man masquerading as an NBA referee had gotten this down to a fine art by now and was able to almost guarantee the results he predicted and the spread Battista requested.
AND SO IT WENT ON…
It’s obvious to anyone reading this that a situation like this simply could not last. The sums of money being won (and lost) were gargantuan by now. It could not go unnoticed forever and bookmakers certainly do not like to lose.
Phil Scala had been investigating organized crime in New York City for almost 30 years when he received a tip-off. Scala had informants that were actually operating inside the Mafia families that they had been investigating for so many decades. When one of them divulged this particular tip, it was far too enticing to simply be ignored.
The informant told Scala that a group of high-rolling sports gamblers had managed to get an NBA referee in their pocket…
He didn’t know any of the names, only that the ‘perps’ did not seem to be connected to the Gambino crime family (whom Scala was charged to investigate for so long). Predictably, however, the pattern of gambling had not gone unnoticed by the black market. Some of the peripheral Gambino goons had figured out the scam and were raking in millions of dollars for the syndicate. Scala couldn’t have cared less about stopping an illegal sports betting operation. But when he learned that the Gambino family was bolstering its already significant criminal fortune this way his ears pricked all the way up.
It turns out that the tip-off had come to Scala’s office in 2006, before Battista and Donaghy even had their meeting and agreed on a deal!
THE WRITING WAS ALREADY ON THE WALL
The FBI did its thing and efore long they had the name. According to Scala:
“If you can envision a spiderweb; it might not be directly, but one or two or three spheres out, you find a name. And then one afternoon the case agent came into my office. He said, ‘We found the guy. We found the referee.’”
The first door that the FBI knocked on as the noose tightened was that of Battista himself. He had just left rehab and was probably feeling pretty good.
Not for long
The FBI told him that he was looking at 20 years in prison and that his only recourse of action was now to cooperate fully.
THE END IS NIGH
Just before entering rehab, Battista had handed over the control of the operation to Rhino Ruggieri, who was now supposed to play the same role that he had. Move the money around, make the bets and so forth. At some point shortly thereafter, Rhino became aware of Battista’s secret deal with Donaghy and their scheme. Not just to get Donaghy’s tip for the winners and bet, but to manipulate the lines first to gain the maximum advantage when the real bets were laid.
Rhino and the original group that had been merrily following the bets and living high on the hog were not impressed. The lines were by now moving so significantly that it simply could not go unnoticed. Battista had taken their beautiful, foolproof secret scam and blown it into a huge concern that was never going to be sustainable. Such is the nature of greed it seems. All this activity and unusual line movement is what had allowed the details to seep into the black market and was about to bring the whole thing to its knees. One of the group is recorded as saying:
“HE STARTED BETTING IT WITH EVERYBODY AND MOVING THE LINES LIKE CRAZY. IT WAS LIKE: WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?”
Rhino decided it was time to shut the whole lot down but it was already way too late.
THE GIG WAS UP
Tim Donaghy was brought into the U.S. Attorney’s office to make a statement and name names. Which he duly did.
Donaghy said the FBI also threatened him sentences of up to 20 years and placement in the Witness Protection program that would forever separate him from his family.
Tommy Martino had also been collected by this point and was bombarded with subpoenas and audits, accruing huge expenses until he too chose to capitulate.
In the end, Donaghy cut a deal first and was soon followed by Tommy Martino.
A PLAN IS FOILED
Donaghy’s many conversations with the FBI led to fingers being pointed and allegations made about other NBA referees. It seemed that he might not be the only rotten apple in the barrel…
A plan was hatched in order to corroborate Donaghy’s stories. The FBI would wire up Donaghy so he could get other referees to incriminate themselves.
At this point, Scala and his team made a fateful decision that would destroy the element of surprise they still had up their sleeves and send any rats scurrying. They chose to seek the cooperation of the NBA itself and arranged to meet with commissioner David Stern and three other NBA league executives.
Before recounting the details of this meeting, it seems pertinent to mention that David Stern was no stranger to controversy himself and was implicated in a case of suspected NBA Draft Fixing in 1985. In those days, envelopes were used in place of lottery balls. One of the envelopes rather suspiciously got a corner bent at some point in the proceedings. David Stern just happened to choose the same envelope and lo, and behold! The New York Knickerbockers got first pick and selected Patrick Ewing. How lovely and convenient.
Anyway – back to the meeting…
The agents informed Stern and co that one of their most respected referees, Tim Donaghy, had been betting on his own games and accepting money to give inside information to a gambling ring. At this time, they did not mention the fact that Donaghy was actively manipulating the results on the court. The NBA executives promised them the league’s fullest cooperation.
A month later and the plan to catch any other potentially corrupt referees was scuppered. The New York Post emblazoned the story across their front page. Somebody had leaked the story and there was no way to execute their plan to have Donaghy wear a wire. Scala was seething and tried to uncover the source of the leak. The Post reporter would say nothing about his source other than:
“I CAN’T TELL YOU. IT CAME FROM ABOVE”
Although Scala won’t say to this day whether he believes that the NBA leaked the story, it seems that the more people you involve in something secretive, the higher the chance that one of them can’t keep their mouth shut.
YOU THINK THE FBI MIGHT HAVE CONSIDERED THAT BEFOREHAND…
but it was not meant to be.
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The news article effectively ended the probe into what had gone on and left several lines of inquiry frustratingly unexplored. The feds never followed the money to find out who else was involved. But the rumour mill says that someone pocketed in excess of $200 million.
Scala himself admits that his underground informants told him that over $100 million had been made on Donaghy’s games.
Four days after the Post story was printed, Stern gave a news conference as leader of the NBA. The basic line was this:
“YOU CAN’T FIX A GAME IN THE NBA. IT’S IMPOSSIBLE”
He insisted that Donaghy was nothing more than a bad seed who had acted alone. There had been no match-fixing, only inappropriate gambling and tip-sharing. Nothing to see here folks. Just a rogue element that we’ve dealt with. Thanks for coming, enjoy this weekend’s games.
In July 2007, allegations of the FBI investigation were made public. They alleged that: Throughout the 2005/06 and 2006/07 NBA seasons, referee Tim Donaghy gambled on games in which he also officiated.
Donaghy pleaded guilty to two federal crimes on August 15, 2007:
Conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Conspiracy to transmit gambling information.
Donaghy admitted to betting on his own games but refused to admit he had fixed any of them. He was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison and three years of supervised release. Donaghy said that he had:
“DISGRACED MYSELF, MY FAMILY, AND THE PROFESSION.”
James Battista pleaded guilty only to:
Conspiracy to transmit gambling information.
He also received a 15-month prison sentence, saying:
“I MADE BAD CHOICES AND I TAKE FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR WHAT I DID,”
Tommy Martino also pleaded guilty to the same charge:
Conspiracy to transmit gambling info.
He was sentenced to 12 months in prison, saying:
“I APOLOGIZE TO ALL THOSE I LET DOWN. I PROMISE I WILL DO EVERYTHING IN MY POWER TO RESTORE MY REPUTATION.”
SALT IN THE WOUND
Despite the best efforts of the National Basketball Association to prevent it, Tim Donaghy released his memoir, Personal Foul. In it, he says that all of the referees would discuss calls as an officiating crew. He said that he was able to accurately bet on games because he could manipulate the relationships between referees and players and referees and coaches. Based on the meetings he had with both teams he learned of any injured players and could persuade his fellow officials to “stick it to” any player he told them had caused injury to others. This seems like an admission of guilt but he maintains that:
“PEOPLE THINK I WAS OUT THERE PUTTING KOBE BRYANT, LEBRON JAMES, SHAQUILLE O’NEIL TO THE BENCH SO THAT A BET WOULD WIN. BUT I NEVER DID THAT, I JUST DID WHAT THE NBA WANTED US TO CALL.”
There is little doubt in the minds of many people involved that match-fixing was certainly involved. But that is incredibly difficult to prove. It seems obvious that if any official bets on their own game then they will endeavour to make the result they want to see come in. But how do you prove that?
Clever boffins studied Donaghy’s record of officiating. They found that his foul calls favoured the team with more bets 77% of the time.
His record across 30 games was 23-3-4
23 times he favoured the team with the heavier betting. 3 times the opposite. 4 times he reffed it neutrally.
The odds of this happening are 6,155/1 or +615,500
Could it have happened that way naturally? Sure.
Even if the ref was involved in a spider’s web of clandestine, illegal betting with enormous sums of money and pressure involved?
YOU BE THE JUDGE
In the words of the disgraced former official himself:
“IF I THOUGHT WE WERE GOING TO GET CAUGHT, THEN I’D LIKE TO THINK I WOULDN’T HAVE EVER DONE IT.”
Doesn’t exactly sound like contrition does it? It’s easy to see how the situation could leave a bitter taste in the mouth of those that were wronged. Hundreds of millions of dollars are effectively stolen in a complex, underground conspiracy involving criminals and lowlifes with ties to the Mafia.
Sports fans are denied a true reflection of their team’s performance if it does not suit the narrative that this group have decided upon?
The integrity and reputation of the greatest sport on Earth are brought into disrepute and dragged through the filth.
The wider implications of all this degrading corruption might never truly be known. Who can say what financial deals were shelved because of the negative associations that scandals and corruption bring? No sponsor wants to be tied to this kind of despicable amoral garbage. To think that the men responsible spent a combined total of a few paltry months behind bars as a result is a bit of a sickener. Scala clearly feels that way too but has long since accepted the situation. He was pleased to cut off an exceptionally lucrative sideline to the Gambino family and stop the corruption from continuing, at least in that same guise.
It may be that the men who relied on Battista to make bets on their behalf by bankrolling him knew nothing of these shenanigans.
There is certainly bitterness that the actions of former NBA ref Tim Donaghy have left behind.
BUT MAYBE THERE ARE SOME CRUMBS OF COMFORT TO BE FOUND
The NBA has put into place a much more robust system for monitoring the behaviour of any NBA referee, officials, players, and coaches involved in professional basketball games.
Training is now much more extensive and there is a distinct feeling of higher scrutiny at all levels. There is even a system that monitors fluctuations in betting lines. Although, anyone who would to go to the lengths that Battista did to manipulate the market after seeing how this all panned out would surely be too dumb to pull it off anyway. At the end of the day, it was that insatiable greed that brought the whole scheme down like a house of cards. Had they stuck to merely betting decent amounts on the games Donaghy told them to then they might well have gotten away with it indefinitely.
As it was, the only true winners were those individuals who pocketed millions of dollars and simply walked away without a scratch when the house of cards came toppling down.
As we said at the beginning of this tale of despicable debauchery, thankfully NBA betting scandals are few and far between.
The scandal of referee Tim Donaghy and his criminal betting scheme
shone a very bright light onto the whole situation. Hopefully, this was enough to deter any individuals from emulating the process in subsequent NBA seasons but the tiny tiny speck of contaminant doesn’t always grow into a pearl.
We’d all like to think that the Donaghy case was a once-in-a-lifetime example of a rogue official betting on games. Selling his soul and affecting their outcome one way or another. But we’re not naive fools. It is an industry where astronomical sums of money exchange hands on a weekly basis. Perhaps in all American sports, there will always be unscrupulous individuals that will attempt to get their hands on it. Whether by fair means or foul. Even if it risks the reputation of a game that brings joy and entertainment to millions. Too much money corrupts anything it touches and ruins the experience for everyone.