For two years during his career as an NBA referee, Tim Donaghy did more than send players to the free throw line and “T up” abrasive coaches. He and two cohorts cashed millions with Donaghy making questionable calls and betting on games that he was officiating.
On November 1, Donaghy’s story comes to the big screen in Inside Game – The True Story of the NBA Betting Scandal — starring Eric Mabius as Tim Donaghy, and Scott Wolf and Will Sasso as Donaghy’s childhood buddies and co-conspirators Tommy Martino and James “Baba” Battista.
Donaghy refereed 772 regular season and 20 playoff games between 1994 and 2007. During his last two years as an NBA ref, he used inside information he gained from relationships with other referees, coaches, players, and front office personnel to gain an illegal betting edge.
Eventually the FBI wised up to his scheme during a separate investigation. Donaghy was sentenced to 15 months in prison. He was released after 11 months, only to return behind bars to complete his sentence for violating terms of his release.
In 2009, Donaghy wrote a memoir, Blowing the Whistle: The Culture of Fraud in the NBA, later retitled Personal Foul: A First Person Account of the Scandal that Rocked the NBA. The movie Inside Game is not based on Donaghy’s book, however, and he had no input in the film’s production. He is helping to promote the film, and that’s how I got him on the phone last week.
CultureMap: How come you weren’t involved in this movie?
Tim Donaghy: I was hoping for a little control over the script, and that was something they wouldn't do. We couldn’t come to an agreement, so I passed on getting involved as a consultant. I thought that I had done enough wrong in my life that they didn't need me to add anything. Every time I hope the story goes away something pops up.
CM: Have you seen the movie, and what did you think of it?
TD: I have seen the film. I like it. I think there's a great message in the film about how important choices are, and how the choices you make affect other people. They did a good job of getting the story correct.
CM: If gamblers wanted to fix a game, would they be better of bribing a referee or a player?
TD: I think you're going to have a situation on the college level where they go to one of these players who isn't going to make it on the next level and offer him a large sum of money. Let’s say his team is favored by a large number, maybe 15 points. You tell the player, you can still win the game, just don't win the game by more than 10 or 11 or 12 points. I think that's where you're going to see the next scandal. Some of these college kids don't have much money and they need money for their families.
CM: Did a player or coach ever notice anything peculiar in your officiating and ask what are you doing?
TD: No, in fact, I was one of the top-rated referees at the time. At no time did any referees, coaches or players come to me and ask what's going on here?
CM: Do referees hear TV and radio announcers who complain about the referees? We used to have a play-by-play guy in Houston who practically accused the referees of allowing opposing players to commit felonious assault and battery on Hakeem Olajuwon.
TD: It’s part of the game. In Boston, Tommy Heinsohn was probably the worst. He was always critical of the referees. We’d watch replays of the game and some of the referees would turn the volume down. We’re well aware of what some announcers say about us, but it’s just them getting the fans pumped up.
CM: When coaches yell and scream at referees, are they serious or is it show business?
TD: I think a lot of times it’s theater. I’ll never forget Garry St. Jean, the coach of Sacramento. He was a real good guy, but one night his team was down 20 points and he had enough. He called timeout, and told me, ‘Throw me out of the game.’ I looked at him and said, ‘What do you mean? I can’t just throw you out, you have to do stuff.’ He said, ‘I’ll make it look good. It won’t be anything personal. I just can’t take anymore of this.’
Next time down the court, he started screaming and yelling at me. He was laughing in-between screaming. So I threw him out of the game.
CM: Last week Michael Jordan said that Steph Curry is a great player, but he isn’t a Hall of Famer yet? Do you agree with that?
TD: Steph Curry is absolutely a Hall of Famer. Look what he’s been able to do the last couple of years. I haven’t seen anybody who’s been around the past 20 years who’s changed the game as dramatically as Steph Curry with the way he can shoot 3-pointers. He is definitely a Hall of Famer.
CM: Settle argument, who’s the GOAT, the greatest of all time? Is it Michael Jordan or LeBron James?
TD: I’ll tell you what, I like Kobe Bryant. He was somebody, whether he had two or three players draped all over him, he could take over a game. Of all the players, I think he impressed me the most.
CM: Where did Houston rank on your list of favorite NBA cities?
TD: I’m probably going to get a lot of heat for this, but Houston was not even in the Top 10. They put the referees in a hotel by the airport that wasn’t so great. There wasn’t anything for the referees to do. The good cities were Los Angeles, New York, all the big market cities. But not Houston.
CM: How do you make your living now?
TD: I'm involved in managing rental properties in Sarasota [Florida], where I live. I’m also involved with a website called refpicks.com, which is like a consulting firm for people who gamble as a form of entertainment. Plus I’m helping with marketing this film.