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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/Portland Tribune/Former NBA referee relives his role in gambling scandal

COURTESY PHOTO: RAW MILK - A scene from the movie 'Inside Game,' the story of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy. It's due for a Nov. 1 release. First there was a book, "Personal Foul," a first-person account published in 2009.

Now there is a feature film, "Inside Game," with Hollywood weighing in on the most infamous basketball referee in history.

What more could Tim Donaghy ask for — other than maybe a mulligan for the many faulty decisions he has made in life?

"It's a little bit embarrassing, with the poor choices I made back in 2007," said the former official, who spent 15 months in prison for his role in a gambling scandal that rocked the NBA. "To see it up on the big screen — it's even more embarrassing now.

"Everybody knows I made some poor choices and big mistakes. It not only affected me, but also my family. It's tough to relive it, but there's a good message in the movie about personal choices. We can all learn from it."

The film, distributed by iDreamMachine, will hit theaters throughout the country on Nov. 1. It was the idea of Donaghy's boyhood pal in suburban Philadelphia, Tommy Martino, who also was imprisoned for his role in the gambling escapade. Tommy and cousin Paulie Martino had a script written, and it sold to a film company.

"I wanted to put all this behind me and not be involved in it, but they were going to do the movie with or without me," Donaghy told me Monday in a podcast conducted via telephone from his home in Sarasota, Florida.

Donaghy didn't consult on the film.

"I felt I did enough wrong in my life that they didn't need to 'Hollywood' it up," he said. "But after viewing the movie and seeing it was pretty accurate with what took place, and also with the good that was going to come from it, I felt it was OK to jump on board and get involved."

With a promise from the Martinos to donate proceeds to the Elwyn school for the disabled in Pennsylvania, Donaghy has done a number of interviews to help with pre-release promotion of the film.

"It's gotten good reviews from people who have seen it," he said. "I'm hoping it really takes off."

Donaghy was born into a basketball officiating family. His father, Gerry Donaghy, was a respected college referee who worked several Final Four games. His uncle, Billy Oakes, was a longtime NBA referee.

DONAGHY"That got me in the door more quickly than when other young guys would get in," said Tim, who began his career in the Continental Basketball Association at age 22 in 1990 and cracked the NBA four years later. "They helped teach me the tricks of the trade, along with all the other Philadelphia guys who went through the system. I got put into a good class of people and learned the craft, and was fortunate to get hired so quickly."

From 1994-2007, "I was on the top of the world," said Donaghy, who made a salary of $275,000 at his peak. He lived with his wife and four young daughters in expensive houses in swank neighborhoods and held membership in exclusive country clubs.

"But I started to hang out with some people who loved to gamble," he said. "I got consumed with it and crossed lines I shouldn't have even been near. I made one poor decision after another, which led me to the fallout in 2007."

In his early 30s, Donaghy began to gamble on golf and in card games at the golf course and play blackjack in the casinos. Eventually, after he began working with the NBA, he began day trading in the stock market.

Part of it, he said, was cultural.

"When you're from the area I'm from in Philly," he said, "everyone gambles and has a bookie."

But there was also boredom, and the adrenaline rush.

"When you're sitting in hotel rooms on the road, you get lonely, and you need some type of outlet," he said. "Mine was gambling. Whether on the road or even at home, it consumed me and every part of my life.

"I loved the action, no matter what it was, even if it was in the stock market. I could sit and play blackjack for 10 hours straight and it would feel like nothing for me. I loved everything about it."

In 2003, Donaghy began to feed inside information on NBA games to a friend, Jack Concannon, who would place bets on games, many of which he officiated. Donaghy would get a cut of the action.

"It was in my (NBA) contract that I wasn't to place a bet of any kind," he said. "Even though it was in there, I was doing it."

Donaghy claims he didn't fix NBA games, and he wasn't convicted of that. Rather, he used his inside knowledge and leveraged relationships with other league referees, coaches, players and front-office types to know how to bet on games. Donaghy said he got to the point where if he knew which refs were working a game, he could generally either pick the winner of cover the point spread.

"There were relationships that existed, both positive and negative, between referees and players, coaches and even owners," he said. "I used that information, along with last-minute injuries or situations where certain guys weren't playing, and was very successful at picking the games for different people.

"It was information I shouldn't have been passing along. It was one bad decision after another that all stemmed from gambling."

Eventually, Donaghy was strong-armed by another childhood classmate, James Battista, who had become a bookie and professional gambler. Battista — who knew about Donaghy's arrangement with Concannon — blackmailed him into providing tips under the agreement that he would receive a cut for every game that went the right way.

"He wanted that information, and there was no way he wasn't going to get it," Donaghy said. "I later found out he was in debt $7 million to a group of people. This was his way of getting out of debt."

By 2006, the FBI learned through a wiretap that millions of dollars were going into the coffers of people associated with organized crime through the Donaghy/Battista arrangement. Soon FBI officials contacted Donaghy, told him they had the goods on him and offered him leniency of sentence and the witness protection program if he would cooperate.

"At that point, I knew I was in way deeper than I ever imagined," he said.

Donaghy spent his 15 months in prison in Pensacola, Florida.

"It was awful," he said, citing an incident in which an inmate whacked him on the knee with a paint-rolling pole, an injury that necessitated two surgeries to alleviate the pain.

"When I went in, it was plastered all over the TV that I was a cooperating witness for the government — not the label you want going into a federal prison," Donaghy said. "It was tough for me, but fortunately, I got through it."

In his book, Donaghy made claims the NBA sought to manipulate games through referees, pushing to help big-market teams to increase TV ratings. He cited Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings as a prime example. The Lakers won in what Donaghy calls "shameful, one of the most poorly officiated games of all-time."

"(Referee) Dick Bavetta was on that game," Donaghy said. "He said he was put on Game 6's to make sure they went to a Game 7. Without a doubt, he gave the benefit of a lot of calls, especially down the stretch, to the Lakers."

Bavetta also was part of the crew that worked Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Trail Blazers, the game in which the Lakers trailed by 15 points late in the third quarter but came back to win 89-84. The Lakers had 37 free-throw attempts to 16 for Portland.

"Bavetta knew the Lakers were the marquee team," Donaghy said. "(Commissioner) David Stern once said the best matchup for an NBA Finals would be the Lakers vs. the Lakers."

Donaghy was the referee who got into it with Portland's Rasheed Wallace on the Rose Garden loading dock after a game in 2003, resulting in a seven-game suspension for Wallace.

"He wasn't happy about the technical foul I gave him," Donaghy said. "When I walked out (of the Rose Garden), he said something to me. I should have kept my mouth shut and kept walking, but I said something back. He rushed at me and started screaming and cursing, and I cursed back. I was fortunate that about 10 security guards jumped on him, or I probably would be eating through a straw today.

"When Rasheed got on the basketball court, his personality changed because of his competitive nature. I've since talked to him and he wished me good luck. I think he's a good guy off the court. The competitive nature just got to him a lot on the floor."

Donaghy also worked the famed "Malice at the Palace" game in Detroit in 2004 with referees Ronnie Garretson and Tommy Nunez. Donaghy accepts some blame for one of the ugliest brawls in U.S. sports history.

"As a referee, you're always at fault when something like that happens," he said. "You need to get in there and break things up much quicker than we did. We should have gotten ahold of Ron Artest before he got up into the stands.

"Any good referee will realize there are things you can do to avoid situations like that. That one was a black eye for the league. It just got to a point where we couldn't control it."

No other NBA referees have been accused of gambling on NBA games or consorting with gamblers. Donaghy doesn't believe he was the only one, though.

"There was a member of the Colombo crime family, Michael Franzese, who has gone on the record and said three NBA referees were on his personal payroll in the 1990s, and none of them were named Tim Donaghy," he said. "I would assume each of them were from the New York area. I wouldn't want to guess who they are. There are definitely people who have done it in the past."

But Donaghy doesn't suspect any current referees of such conduct.

"Not after what I did and the damage it's caused in so many different ways," he said. "You'd think referees today would be smart enough to stay away from that and that the league is educating them better than they did us."

Donaghy was a pariah during the years following his departure from the NBA, and in particular with some officials who regarded him as a turncoat. He said others didn't communicate for fear of reprisal from the league.

"When they're in the league, I don't hear from them," he said. "But as soon as they retire or are out of the league, I immediately get a phone call. I understand that. They don't want to be associated with me because they're afraid they would lose the job."

Donaghy feels guilt toward his former officiating colleagues.

"I used them," he said. "I pulled information from them to pass along to people associated with organized crime. It was sneaky and not right to do. I did it, and it was one of the poor choices I made."

Donaghy, who said he no longer gambles, now runs a website, Refpicks.com.

"I counsel people on gambling and how to do it right,' he said. "I let people know there are certain things that can trap you into getting in trouble."

The home page of the website, though, reads this way: "Get NBA, MLB, NFL and college football picks from Tim Donaghy and experts here at Ref Picks. We're focused on bringing only the best handicappers in the nation to one spot." Seems like the average tout service, really.

Donaghy said he also is working with rental properties in Sarasota and, of course, promoting the movie.

"I'm like a jack of all trades and a master of none, but I'm getting by," he said. "Every day that goes by, I'm getting a little bit better with everything I'm doing."

Donaghy admits he misses his days working the NBA.

"I had a great life," he said. "I was running up and down the court with the greatest athletes in the world. That stage is something I miss, but unfortunately, through some of the poor choices I made, I threw it all away."

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@kerryeggers


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