by Dave Zirin
Tim Donaghy was a referee in the NBA for 13 years before he resigned in 2007, as the FBI investigated his involvement in betting on NBA games. He is the author of the new book Personal Foul: A First-Person Account of the Scandal That Rocked the NBA, where he speaks of having bet on more than 100 NBA game. He also was recently released after 15 months in a federal prison.
Dave Zirin: You have made clear that you bet on games where you were the referee, but not to influence the final score. Is that correct?
Tim Donaghy: Yes, that is correct. I think that when you look at the whole scope of everything, the FBI did a thorough investigation and the NBA did an investigation and turned over every stone in regard to how I was able to do what I did, and making calls in games was definitely something that I did not do in order to influence a bet (on a game’s outcome).
DZ: Now put yourself in the position of the fan. If you were listening to yourself and you heard that you bet on games that you refereed and you threw calls to influence things like total final score or perhaps the statistics of an individual player, but not the actual outcome of the game, would that sound credible to you?
TD: No, it definitely would not. But I think when you get an opportunity to read the book you’re going to get an inside perspective of what I did and how I did it. It was a situation where if I was in these games and making calls in the games, to influence a bet, it would’ve sent up a lot of red flags and it would’ve been detected, and that’s certainly not something that I wanted to do.
DZ: ESPN described that kind of distinction that you’re making as “a half hearted attempt to save face and rebuild a reputation that’s been permanently shattered.” What do you think when you hear that?
TD: Obviously my reputation has been shattered and I’m going to have to work hard to rebuild my credibility. But I think when you talk about doing interviews with ESPN, which I definitely was conflicted about doing, but I thought it was important to let people know that the book was out there. I think in a way, they are guided by the NBA. They’re basically in a situation where they are partners with the NBA. They’re going to go above and beyond what they should normally do as journalists to discredit me so that their ratings stay high.
DZ: Do you see the writing of this book as part of the project of trying to rebuild your reputation?
TD: I see the book as being something that will enable people to realize and understand what I did and also how I did it. I think a big part of the book is the message that we certainly all have choices in life to make, and I made some terrible choices. It not only affected me, it affected the people I love the most, and that’s my family.
DZ: You write that referees routinely conspire to influence the outcomes of games. Explain for people who might be interested in the book, or people just trying to get their head around the modern NBA. Do refs conspire to influence the outcomes of games?
TD: People are not conspiring to influence the outcomes of games [for financial gain]. What I write about, and how I was able to make picks was that the personal bias and the relationships that existed influenced the point spreads in games, and I was able to make successful picks using these relationships and placing bets.
DZ: One of the biases that you write about and has gotten a lot of publicity is the bias against Allen Iverson. Do you there is a connection between the way refs feel about Allen Iverson and his incredible difficulty in getting re-signed in the NBA?
TD: I’m sure that would be a question for some coaches and general managers. But I will tell you there were positive and negative relationships between players and referees in the game, and Allen Iverson is one of those players that came to mind. One referee would kiss him at the captain’s meeting prior to the game and other referees that were on the floor at the time he wouldn’t even come from warming up to shake the hands of some of them. It’s a matter of what referee was on the floor, what night, and what circumstances surrounded the games.
DZ: When David Stern has commented on you and your book, he’s used it as an opportunity to take shots not so much on the content, but your character. I have some questions about this, but I have to ask you, what’s your assessment of David Stern’s character?
TD: Unfortunately for me, Mr. Stern has to protect the NBA. It’s a major, major business. I’m putting some things out there which I’m sure he doesn’t want revealed and he has to protect that billion dollar organization. The way he’s doing that is basically by calling me names and try to discredit me, and try to shut down any opportunity I may have to tell my story…My feeling is that it should be aired out publicly and he should make the fans, the players and the owners aware that these relationships existed and these stories are true. But I’m not going to sit here and judge him because I’m the one that did something wrong and I don’t feel that calling him names or going down the road that he’s chosen to go with me is going to be productive.
DZ: Why do you think David Stern has worked so hard to silence this book? What is it about the content of the book that is setting his teeth on edge?
TD: Obviously when you talk about relationships coming into play that affected how I was able to make successful picks at 80% and 70% correct, when he wants to come out and say that I was the only one with an integrity problem. I think when you start other refs were involved or other refs has done things then that big house might start to crumble a bit. It’s better to paint me as the rogue referee and its better to paint me as that lone assassin and hopefully it will get swept under the rug and go away as quickly as possible.
DZ: When we strictly speak about the question of betting, are you the rogue referee, were you the rogue during your time in the league?
TD: I know there’s been allegations that 13 other referees were involved. I can’t answer that question. I think that’s a question that should be addressed to the FBI and prosecutors, and James Batista who’s claiming 13 other referees were involved in this.
DZ: Is that you don’t know the answer to the question or you can’t answer the question?
TD: It’s a combination of both. I’m not sure. I don’t want to go down that road if I’m sure because I don’t think I’m in a position to answer that question,
DZ: When I told people that I was going to interview you, I got a lot of emails from people that were interesting, who said you have to ask him about the Hugh Hollins call on Scottie Pippen when the Knicks played the Bulls back in 1994, in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals or you have to ask him about the infamous Sacramento Kings /Lakers game in the 2002 Western Conference finals. Some of these big games where you see the huge market team advance, and all of sudden NBA fans turn into a collection of conspiracy theorists. Are you saying that some of these games where the big market team advances, is this one of those where there’s smoke there’s fire kind of things, where there is a pressure on referees either explicit or implicit for the big market team to move on?
TD: Yeah, I think there is smoke and fire, and I think the referees are trained and instructed with video tape that pushes them in a direction that enables teams that are down in these series to be able to win the games that are up and coming.
DZ: So you’re saying that from the very top in the NBA they show video tape to prepare referees to call games in a way that actually, almost in a subconscious way it feels like you’re arguing, tilts the referee. You’re saying refs do not get marching orders that say the Lakers better win, but they’re tilted in a direction. Am I reading you right?
TD: I think you are reading me right. They program referees in these Playoff series to view the video tape and understand that there were calls that were missed in previous games, and I was able to take that information and place winning bets 70 to 80% of the time based on who I felt was going to be at an advantage.
DZ: Now Tim, let me ask you about this 70 to 80% number because how much of that were you able to have the remarkable gambling winning streak because you played a role in making sure the games turned out a certain way? Not talking about final score or teams winning, but in terms of say if you were better on the over under for total number of points scored, or something like that?
TD: Right. I had the same winning percentage whether I was refereeing the games or not. Again, I certainly didn’t want to make calls in games, especially calls that were wrong, that would send up red flags and get me in the kind of trouble that I ended up in later down the road. I tried to avoid that at all costs.
DZ: Do you think the NBA is hypocritical when it comes to the question of gambling, for swearing the thought of a team in Las Vegas for example, and having the kinds of restrictions against players being too showy at a gambling night spot, or the sharp, sharp restrictions on people involved in the NBA betting on games in any way shape or form? Is the NBA right in the kind of hard line it takes on that?
TD: Obviously gambling is rampant in the NBA whether you’re on the officiating staff, whether you’re a player or recently we’ve even seen with an assistant general manager in Sacramento. It’s rampant. The fact is, it’s rampant and you never know when it could escalate into an addiction like it did for me to where somebody will cross that line that they shouldn’t even be near.
DZ: And when we say gambling is rampant we know players will bet on just about anything. Anyone who’s been around an NBA team knows it’s a way to just sort of strike out against boredom. You bet on anything.
TD: Absolutely. I can remember standing there during warm ups and certain players betting tens of thousands of dollars during warm-ups shooting three-pointers. It’s something that exists and whether the NBA wants to admit it or not, I think it’s another thing that’s an image problem for them and they just want to sweep it under the rug.
DZ: Like they’re trying to sweep you under the rug?
DZ: Ric Bucher, from ESPN, he put out a note yesterday, a tweet that said; “Donaghy says that other refs routinely conspired to influence outcomes, but he refused, and the 2009 gall award goes to…” assumedly you. What would you say to Bucher if you had a chance to respond to him? Do you think you’re showing gall by pointing this out? Or do you think this is case where you as the messenger should somehow be disrespected because your message is important? What do you take from that?
TD: I really don’t know how to respond to something like that. The message is out there that I was able to do this and for the most part it’s being swept under the rug by a lot of people. And they did the same thing to Jose Canseco. Unfortunately, I don’t want to be put in the same light with him because he didn’t believe what he did was wrong. And I certainly understand that I made some terrible choices and some poor decisions and I was wrong. But I think that as this progresses and moves along, people are going to have a better understanding, and have an understanding that I was 100% truthful, as the FBI has supported 100%.
DZ: Last question: what’s next for you and your family? Where do you see yourself in 5 years, 10 years? What’s the next step for you as you rebuild your life?
TD: Obviously, I have a lot of rebuilding to do and the most important thing is to get back into the lives of my daughters, and hopefully be involved in being apart of spreading a powerful message about choices that we’ll all come in contact with making in our life, and that we make the right choices, because unfortunately I’ve fallen and fallen hard and it not only affected me, it affected my family.
DZ: So in 10 years time if you’re speaking at colleges, at juvenile halls, at community centers about what you went through with a message of redemption and change, to you that would be a life well lived, if you’re doing that in 10 years?
TD: I think that would be a life well lived and it would be rewarding knowing that possibly I’m helping somebody from suffering what I went through and their family from suffering what I went through.
DZ: And you think you’ve kicked the rush? You don’t need the rush that comes from the big gamble, the big play?
TD: Obviously, when you suffer from an addiction it’s always there. You think about it and you just have to stay with your therapy and fight off those triggers. But I think in my case I can always think back to the pain that it caused my family and that enough to keep me away from the situation.