Monday, December 14th, 2009 at 9:02 am  |  42 responses

One on One with Tim Donaghy

Dave Zirin speaks with the ref who gambled on the games.

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?

TD: Correct.

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.

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  • RedRum

    I love you Mr. Zirin but that was one bad interview… I am really surprised, you usually are very straight to the point, making great arguments, but I guess you were out of form on this one?

  • slamfan4life

    damn i cant believe he actually sat down with you and not SI/ESPN Etc…

  • http://www.triplejunearthed.com/dacre Dacre

    I don’t want him seen as a hero in any sense. It doesn’t really matter that he is trying to ‘save face’ or ‘redeem his own sense of justice’, pointing out the flaws in the administration of refereeing in general or even David Sterns activity. He made wrong/incorrect calls that altered the outcome of some big games throughout the NBA and thats what stinks. A final score /outcome in basketball, if not any sporting activity should come about with two teams both playing according to the rules of play. With official refereeing according to those smae rules of play and not by ANY OTHER bias, opinion or favouritism. Otherwise, why have a third party officiating as referee????
    A final point of interest: Ever wonder why pick up games often feel like better forms of the game? There is only 2 views of the play , yours and their’s. You sort out whats a call or not a call… sometimes I wonder if “refereeing” is just ‘the man’ in a zebra shirt…

  • http://edgeofsports.com Dave Zirin

    Redrum – I actually thought the interview was dope. But I’m open to criticism. Be specific. What didn’t you like about it?

  • JW Loganb

    It has been clear for a long time that the refs have influenced the outcome of games. It is also clear that the NBA risks developing the same reputation as wrestling because of it. Stern, like any major corporate head, is going to lie about it to protect the investment.

  • TC

    Dave, the thing I always point to regarding that ’02 Western Conference final is that in Game 5, Bibby won it with an 18 or 19 footer at the buzzer but the Kings got some pretty good home-cooking on the foul calls in that game. Not sure the foul disparity, but it was pretty bad and I thought to myself, well, it’s the homecourt advantage. Not to say there isn’t corruption in the league….but to me, that Game 6 just evened out Game 5.

  • http://dsfjkf.com Jukai

    Didn’t feel like questioning him on all those phantom fouls he called in game 3 of the Phoenix/San Antonio game, Dave?

  • http://www.shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com Eboy

    Great, great interview.

  • Joe King

    Nice interview Dave

  • http://www.shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com Eboy

    “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.” Ahhh yes…….but there’s no way there’s conspiracy theories surrounding NBA games, right. I know Don-a-gie is a phariah, but dude’s got nothing to lose now, so why lie? And plus, most sane people know that these types of acqusations have substance so…….

  • AlbertBarr

    Great Interview.

  • http://edgeofsports.com Dave Zirin

    Two things:
    1 – I didn’t ask about Phoenix/San Antone because I felt like it had been done.

    2 – The point about Sacramento/LA and Sacramento getting “home cooking” earlier in the series: I don’t doubt it. But Donaghy’s point that refs are then shown videos – very edited videos – of games to influence the direction of a series still applies in that scenario.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Justin Walsh

    I thought this interview was solid. Dave, quick question. When he was answering these questions, particularly ones in which he’s making claims about “smoke/fire” and his betting percentage… does his voice indicate any smugness whatsoever? I ask not because I want to shout that it makes him automatically a liar, I merely wonder if he feels these answers ACTUALLY are enough for the fans of the game. He doesn’t really deal in specifics. Overall, he deals in generalities. I just wonder if he COULD provide more detail, or if the details begin to erode his assertions.

  • http://www.shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    I am just not sure I believe this guy. He still has a reason to lie because he is trying to sell books and earn a living because he is completely discredited.

  • http://dsfjkf.com Jukai

    Eboy: … c’mon bro, use your head. What’s to gain for lying? You mean outside of getting back at the organization that put him in jail?
    Freaking boatloads of money.
    You know, the same money that he liked so much, he risked going to jail by placing bets on NBA games, and getting paid to tell organized crime the odds of the games. He’s release a tell-all book for chrissakes. Maybe if he donated all proceeds to the book to charity, I’d believe his shtick a bit more… but what really drives me crazy is that:
    a) he claims he knows so much about the referees attitudes and who they like/dont’ like that he can guess the outcome of the game by 70-80%… yet gives as little details as possible. Why don’t you give a detailed list of everything you know?
    b) it was clear he made phantom calls in the games he was officiating. That, or he was a horrendously bad referee.
    c) Ric Bucher’s point. What a saint Donaghy is, being the only impartial referee in the L.

  • Earl

    I lost all my respect for Dave Zirin when I read in Slam a few months back that he said that “America was a nation built on slavery”. It was built on religious freedom, not slavery. So I now take everything he says for a grain of salt.

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    I like David Stern, just want this guy to go away. This isnt like juicing in baseball where records are being broken and the sanctity of Americas pastime is being demolished. The actions of one Tim-cousin of Jack-Donaghy and any other ref for that matter, havent influenced the substance of the game much, if at all. Does anyone believe that the refs kept the Bulls afloat in the 90′s? Or aided Reggie’s heroics in the Gahden? Or helped Mac score a million points in 8 seconds? Or influenced Kobe’s 81? Or 61? I dont. There seem to be two instances where officiating has possibly affected the championship…well three actually, but for some reason no one is mentioning the Mavs/Heat Finals. The Suns/Spurs series was a debacle, but one presided over by Stern himself. To question that series and it’s influence is to call him into question, not the officials. The Lakers/Kangs series was definitely shady, but ultimately the Kangs played a game 7 on their home court and choked. As far as biased offciating goes, is anyone surprised and does anyone actually want it to change? Theres all kinds of biases, home team calls, superstar calls, rookie calls, favoring the aggressor, etc. etc. Its almost as much a part of the game as the ball. David Stern may not be able to directly say so, but the officiating sucks and needs to get better. However that doesnt mean that every other guy is on the take.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Justin Walsh

    Earl, I feel like you’re taking the wrong view of his quote. Economically, America WAS built, in large part, by slavery. That’s not some extreme statement. Our nation was STARTED because of religious freedom, but we all know that in America, there is no true religious freedom (In some states you can’t be an elected official if you don’t believe in God, the way Muslim people are treated in America these days, the way Catholics were treated politically before JFK, the way Quakers were treated in the 1800′s.) I could go on, but there’s no point. Back to hoops.

  • http://www.shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com Eboy

    Jukai, to your money making comment…..do you think this dude is going to have a NY Times bestseller or some sh*t? Are you going to buy a copy? Am I? Hell no, but I’ll read the excerpts that pop up and comment on them. Dude might make a few grand on book sales after his profits are split, let’s be real.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    Earl needs better history classes.
    I would have asked dude why he persisted in hiding names in some many instances in the book. Seemed like he had an ax to grind with certain refs and not others.
    The Mavs/Heat series was not fixed! Damn man. Wade kept going to the rack against a Dallas team which sucked at defending the pick and roll (Hello Warriors) and whose best shot blocker was worried about keeping Shaq from getting any easy buckets.
    Plus, the Mavs started choking. And the series was still crazy close.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Justin Walsh

    Allenp, the Mavs/Heat series was horribly officiated. I was IN Dallas during that series. One play in particular I remember? Marquise Daniels was around 5 feet away from Wade, giving him room to shoot. Wade went up for the shot, and got the foul call. Daniels picked up the foul. Not only was it not a close call, but Daniels upon replay was shown to be not even arms length close to Wade. It was garbage. Wade had more FT attemps than anybody. It wasn’t that Wade cheated, it wasn’t his fault. He played great. But let’s not be disingenuous: That series might have been the worst officiated I have ever seen.

  • http://slamonline.com/ niQ

    This is off-topic but, is it just me or is Tim starting to really look like Steve Carrell from the Office.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    Anytime a player consistently drives to the basket, which the Mavs allowed Wade to do, he’s going to get foul calls.
    Using a anecdote about a bad call doesn’t prove the point that the series was horribly officiated. The main problem people have with the series is the number of fouls Wade got. If you look at how he attacked that Mavericks team, and then look at the way that team was attacked the very next year, well it makes a lot of sense. Theysucked at defending the high pick and roll. Avery Johnson had an aversion to double teaming Wade and Baron Davis once they crossed half court. The Mavs shotblockers refused to leave Shaq to help on Wade’s drives.
    Sure Wade got a lot of calls, but to chalk that up to horrible reffing is refusing to look at the total situation.

  • RedRum

    David, I don’t know when the interview was conducted but I did not see you addressing the fact that if actually one used the biases that Donaghy claims to know, he would actually loose money.It was found that what he claims was “gamblers fallacy”. ESPN did a great piece on this. The only way that he could have won 80% of the bets he made is if he influenced the games he reffed.You really let him have it easy on that one… Then you do not take him on when he claims that the NBA does not directly instruct players to favour big market teams, but in some weird, new-age/subliminal method through video tapes they influence them… come on… I personally do not believe there is a directive to favour big market teams, would the Spurs have won almost half of the championships in the last decade??? (common argument, but it is true). Unless you believe what Donaghy says as well. All on all, I have many objections on the path and feeling of the interview. It seemed to me as it was trying to be sympathetic to Donaghy, let him tell his story. Well.. we know his story. Unless you agree with him, one needs to disprove what he says, and others have done a good job doing it. My guess is that you agree with some of his accusations? Anyway, you are still my favourite sports writer, and it kinda bothered me because in such a big piece I expected other things. Take care, and thank you for listening. You can email me if you wish to discuss further

  • webstarr

    No of course America wasn’t built on slavery, just hard work and good values. Join the adult world earl. I just think it’s funny watching how everytime someone gets caught for something in the public eye then they apologize and people think they are a better person suddenly. The NBA’s a business. People who work for businesses try to squeeze extra sh*t from them. Like when servers steal silverware from their restaurants for their own home.

  • webstarr

    well actually Donaghy’s situation isn’t at all like that…but the point stands: there are no untainted big businesses

  • http://www.garrettelliott.com Garrett

    Donaghy’s a broken record now. 70-80% success rate, personal bias, blah blah blah. Give us details or go away.

  • Sparker

    and no one’s really mentioning the coaching he’s obviously received to stay on message and paint himself in a flattering light. sorry, publisher and agent, but he’s too tedious a criminal to sell many books.

  • http://slamonline.com cb 34

    I think it was a great interview but i would have asked for more specifics. Which players, which games, or like the players betting during the warmups. It would have been nice to know who they were. He didn’t even talk about bron or artest.. I think that refs will always have biases and it will affect calls no matter what and they’ll just try to be less obvious about it. Human nature! Not everything is mandated by Stern. How else would you explain poiwerhouses and money drawing teams being upset by less marketable ones? The refs try to control the game but the players still have to do their part for them to be controlled. The world knows the Heat-Mavs series was crazy but they let Wade drive everytime therefore he got the benefit of the calls. If they let him shoot jumpers, no way he would have been at the line 25 times a night. They are far from being the WWE. I’ll never look at the game differently and just accept the fact that there are always favorites and leave it at that. The game hasn’t been tainted. It’s not fixed and i think it’s as fair as it can get. I believe everything Donaghy said and it’s just part of the game. I’ll still love it all the same and wouldn’t change a thing.

  • MoNiQuE

    who is surprised really???

  • http://slamonline.com NUPE

    One thing Donaghy has going for him is that he was caught and the FBI investigation supports his claims. Sure he wants to make money from his book, but he doesn’t seem to make any ‘far-fetced’ allegations to draw readers. It seems to me that if he was making stuff up, he’d make bigger stories to get readers. Stern on the other hand has every reason to lie/cover-up or just try to discredit him. Stern is the one likely to lose a ton of cash if Donaghy is seen as credibile. The SI/ESPN article tried to discredit Donaghy’s winning percentage, but the article was not based on the actual games the Donaghy bet on. All we know for sure is that Donaghy and the mob made a ton of money betting on games and that they got caught. My personal opinion is that if there is 1 bad ref, there are others, and instead of Stern talking about actively making sure to catch any ‘bad’ refs, instead he’s trying to make people believe that the only one has been caught. I’m just not buying that perspecive from Stern – nor am I going to buy this book.

  • http://www.slamonline.com barnabusb

    I wonder what demographic his claims will actually have an impact on? I don’t think Stern has anything to be afraid of, really. Who’s going to take him seriously and actually walk away from being a fan? Are kids going to ask their parents to take their LeBron jerseys back to the store? Are teens going to hang up their Nikes? Are adults going to stop following the game they grew up with? Nope, nope, and nope.

  • MikeC.

    No matter what this guy says, he lacks credibility. He was, is, and continues to be a liar. I don’t doubt that refs have personal biases against certain players, coaches, teams, etc. But to say that refs are encouraged to conspire to change the outcome of games is a bit much for me to believe. If it ever came out that the NBA was fixing games, it would ruin the league. Stern and co. are way too smart to eff up long term trust/revenue for the short term gain of having a Lakers-Knicks final just because that would make the most money THIS year.

  • Robbi

    Bottom line is the Spurs won 3 chips after MJ left the game. If Stern or anybody else wanted the NBA to flourish after MJ’s retirement, then the Spurs never would’ve won.

  • http://www.need4sheed.com Tarzan Cooper

    i thought it was a weak interview, same ol stuff hes said everywhere, no extra specifics or anything. kings lakers series was fixed, that is obvious. the league cheats for the lakers, nothing new. another example is the pau gasol trade. engineered by jerry west via chris wallace, stern allowed it. spurs suns was NOT rigged. its obvious the league would have like the suns to win, but nash superflopped so amare and diaw ran out on the court. but what happened the rest of the series? suns played no defense and the spurs won. simple. this is nothing new what don a gie is saying, most fans know the league cheats for superstars and certain teams, namely the lakers.

  • Teddy-the-Bear

    Mike, the refs could have been betting without Stern’s knowledge.

  • Earl

    Well put Webstarr.

  • http://dsjfhklf.com Jukai

    Eboy: Uh, pretty sure the books going to make more than a couple of grand. This is his new job now, Eboy.
    It’s all smoke and lies.

  • http://hoopistani.blogspot.com The Hoopistani

    great interview – but donaghy’s just trying to promote the book here..
    the gambling problem in the nba is worrying as a fan – it could completely shatter one’s faith in the game

  • http://www.realcavsfans.com Anton

    I’m gonna rob a liquor store then write a book so people can learn from my mistakes.

  • underdog

    Great Q&A, Dave.

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