Tim Donaghy’s Shot at the League
Trying to figure out what to think of it all.
by Adam Fleischer
Going to jail gives you more time than you know what to do with. Unless you’re planning a Michael Scofield-type breakout, you’ve probably got more than a few spare minutes on your hands each day. Often, those locked up choose to take that time and put their thoughts on paper.
Luckily, I’ve never had the ill fortune of putting this theory to the test firsthand, but the examples are plenty. Hitler wrote much of Mein Kampf—his magnum opus and a crucial piece of literature for his time in power—while imprisoned. Centuries earlier, Machiavelli began writing The Prince while in jail. The great Italian thinker had no way of knowing at the time, but his work remains highly influential half a millennia after it was first published. Counted among those impacted by the book was Tupac (aka Makaveli, by no coincidence), who read it while in prison. Pac also wrote a screenplay (possibly slated for a 2010 release), Live 2 Tell, while he was on the inside. You get the point.
So when beloved gambler and former referee Tim Donaghy was thrown in the slammer over a year ago, it was only right that he decided to write a tell-all book. After all, he had already been ostracized by basically anyone involved in the basketball world, so might as well capitalize on what he’s got, right? And why not maybe try to bring a few guys (or the whole League) down with him? Sounds like the American Dream.
The book was supposed to come out through Random House’s Triumph Books, but it got canned last week just in time for Donaghy’s release. The story goes that the book, Blowing the Whistle: The Culture of Fraud in the NBA, was shelved either because Random House was nervous about liability issues or because the NBA made it known that they weren’t exactly down with Donaghy’s attempt to expose the League and implied they’d take legal action, although the League has said that it never threatened a lawsuit.
What neither the NBA nor Random House could stop, however, was the appearance of excerpts of the exposé online. You probably saw them earlier in the week on Deadspin and, if not, they’re worth a read. In it, Donaghy speaks on a handful of issues that are sure to be expounded upon thirty-fold if the book ever does come out: the uneven treatment that some superstar players receive; friendly wagers that he and other refs would make; his unfiltered thoughts on certain fellow referees; and more.
After reading the rather lengthy excerpts, I found myself, surely like many others, trying to figure out what it all means. What does it mean for the NBA? The refs? Players? Fans? Does it mean anything? Should we dismiss the claims because of Donaghy’s record and motives? Or is it possible that, as SI’s Frank Deford questioned, it reminiscent of Jose Canseco’s role in the steroid scandal, because, as he puts it, “Sinners may have good memory, too”?
The NBA: The NBA’s stance upon seeing some of what Donaghy had written was understandably similar to when issues surrounding Donaghy initially surfaced and he first started getting his hands dirty with some mud slinging. David Stern said on Friday that he had read the excerpts. As you may imagine, he didn’t necessarily agree with the allegations brought by his former employee, namely that the League ever places its hand in the outcome of games through implicit or explicit instructions to their referees. Donaghy had claimed that the League wanted the Lakers to win Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals in 2002, and that it got what it wanted when L.A. got the victory. The officiating during that game has been brought into question before.
Odds are that the NBA will address the issue going forward only as much as they need to which, if the book falls into a Detox-like limbo that it seems to be heading for, won’t be very much. And, if it turns out they need to keep addressing it, they’ll continue to distance themselves from his claims. I’d be startled it any refs admitted to the assertions—from the Iverson blacklisting all the way down to bets about who pays the ball boy.
The NBA knows how to dodge bullets and is a positive PR producing machine. This may be one of the tougher tests, though. This guy just keeps popping up.
The Players: From the stories that Donaghy told, and from just watching them interact on the court, the players can’t be too surprised by any of this. AI seemed to know that he wasn’t getting any love on calls after he had a spat with Steve Javie. Kobe’s gotta be conscious of the calls that he gets. Shaq asked that a little air would be taken out of a ball pregame because he probably knew he could get it done. Sure, they don’t know all that goes on but, like the League itself, they know how the game works—for better or worse.
The Fans: The real thing I’ve thought about over the last week is what all of this means for us, the fans. First, we have to decide how much, if anything, is to be believed. I still haven’t made that decision yet. Let’s say, for a minute, though, that we’re to assume all of what was said is true. That means that refs sometimes made small wagers based on who would call the quickest technical or who would be the earliest to surrender and call a summer league game’s first foul. And that refs grabbing autographs for their grandkids is reflected in their calls. And that Kobe gets away with some fouls. And that Dick Bavetta wants games to be close. And that Sacramento got the intentional short end of the stick in that series. So, if we are to believe all that, what then?
Are some of these transgressions worse than others? Do smaller ones get a pass but more egregious ones that seem to directly affect the outcomes of games and seasons do not? Should we even be surprised?
I don’t really know the answer to any of these. I think it kinda sucks if refs drop the professionalism and make small, seemingly meaningless bets for their own entertainment or ask their grandson’s favorite player for an autograph, but I also can’t entirely blame them. It’s impossible to completely separate personal feelings from your work, no matter what that work may be. I’m left to wonder how widespread (if at all) this stuff is, though. Is every first technical foul called winning some guy fifty bucks? Probably not. But it makes you wonder.
As for calls that appear to have a close relation to the outcome of games—as you may have imagined, I can’t really get down with that. Calling fouls to keep games close just doesn’t fly. Neither does shifty wording by the League about whom they’d prefer to win—even if we all already figure that they want stars and big market teams succeeding. They’re not supposed to actually say that stuff.
Maybe this is the NBA’s time for their black eye. Baseball has steroids, the NFL is dealing with issues of brain damage and the NHL had an entire season cancelled. How big and dark this black eye becomes remains to be seen. Hopefully it heals soon. We’ll just have to wait and see.