At the height of both his officiating career and his gambling addiction, Tim Donaghy writes in "Personal Foul," things were fantastic. He was earning more than $275,000 a year as an NBA referee, taking home more with his illicit side gig as a source of inside information for a low-level gangster looking to score big on hoops bets, and living the country-club lifestyle with his wife and daughters in a gated Florida community.
"I felt like Ray Liotta's character in 'Goodfellas,'" Donaghy writes. "The only difference was he got addicted to cocaine and I was hooked on gambling. Otherwise, we were the same — life was sweet and the ride was a thrill." (Interestingly, the disgraced zebra never connects the dots from his cooperation with the FBI's gambling/organized crime investigation to Liotta's Henry Hill entering witness protection to save his own ass.)
Donaghy also never draws what seems to be an obvious parallel between where Hill wound up and the place he now finds himself: as a convicted felon and divorcee, in treatment for his addiction, broke and unplugged. It's an existence without action; for his transgressions, Donaghy gets to live the rest of his life like a schnook.
Even after losing everything and spending 15 months in the joint, though, he seems determined to fight against that fate — to avoid becoming just an average nobody.
Throughout "Personal Foul," which hits bookstores this week after its initial online-only release, Donaghy paints his ordeal in epic strokes. Descending into addiction, he claims, he "became an out-of-control juggernaut hell-bent on self-destruction" whose "soul had turned into a void." A lavish dinner following a hot run at the Atlantic City tables "was a veritable orgy of food and drink ... a modern-day tribute to the gluttony and excess of Roman soldiers on holiday in some faraway conquered land."
OK, so no one's going to confuse the guy with Hemingway. But the way Donaghy frames his fall in "Personal Foul" offers two intriguing lenses through which to view his story. On one hand, you've got the nuts-and-bolts details of his crimes, his claims and their impact on the NBA; on the other, as SBNation.com's Andrew Sharp pointed out in a dynamite recent piece, you've got a captivating "study in human failure," desperate and defiant.
BDL spoke with Donaghy via telephone last week, hoping to get a look through both lenses.
Ball Don't Lie: There are a lot of people in "Personal Foul" that you single out for a variety of indiscretions. Much attention has been paid to the way you write about Dick Bavetta, saying that studying under him "was like pursuing a graduate degree in advanced game manipulation" and that he claimed he was "the NBA’s 'go-to guy'" for ensuring certain outcomes in a series. Have you heard from Mr. Bavetta or any of the other people you wrote about unfavorably since the book was released?
Tim Donaghy: No, I have not heard from him. I think it was a situation, you know, that I was certainly conflicted about naming names, but I think that there were just unique situations and unique circumstances that when I put these stories to print, I couldn’t leave out the names because I needed the fans to have a full understanding of what I did and how I did it.
BDL: Part of that full understanding is explaining your methodology and how you went about making your betting selections. You mentioned Dick Bavetta, Steve Javie and Joe Crawford as officials whose tendencies you knew and whose games you would bet as a result. Were there any officials whose games you stayed away from?
TD: Well, I don’t want to say there were certain officials I stayed away from — rather, that there were specific officials that I went after. And it was a situation where I looked for the games that they were on, more or less … I looked to see where certain officials refereed, whether it was a home or away game, what happened the last time they worked a particular team, and who else they were with. And I was able to come to a conclusion of what I felt the betting line should be, and I would look at the newspaper and if it was a difference of four or five points, I would tell people to bet the game.
BDL: The results of that system and methodology have come into question of late. A few claims made in the book have met with skepticism from reporters, statisticians and, in some cases, the principal people involved in certain conversations you cite in the book. How do you respond to the charges that some of these things are either remembered incorrectly or even fabricated?
TD: They’re not fabricated, and, in fact, I think the people that came up with these stats have a hidden agenda for trying to discredit me.
BDL: What agenda would you say that is?
TD: Well, you look at ESPN. I mean, obviously they have a broadcast partnership with the NBA and they’re trying to discredit what’s in the book, and they’ve come up with stats that have nothing to do with the way I picked the games. But I have my own stats that I’m compiling right now that are going to be released in the next few weeks that are going to show that there’s very much some consistency with what is written in the book.
BDL: Can you tell me a little bit more about the information that you’re compiling?
TD: Not right now — it’s still in the process of being compiled. But it’s something that we’re going to have out there in the next few weeks.
BDL: You say you used a variety of factors to make your betting determinations, rather than just saying, "Well, Steve Javie doesn’t get along with Allen Iverson(notes), so we’ve got to bang that game." But you do reference frequently in the book that determining which officials to go after was really the key. Did you ever reach a point where you felt you’d bet too heavily on those particular officials and that you needed to diversify your approach? Or did you feel that, since you said you were winning, you should just stick with what works?
TD: Absolutely just stick with what works. And I was very consistent and successful in putting these lines on these games and betting these games on a consistent basis and winning.
BDL: You’ve been doing quite a bit of press surrounding the release of the book. Do you feel that you’ve been treated unfairly in any of the pieces? How have you perceived the reaction to the book at this point?
TD: I think the reaction to the book is that the fans are certainly well aware that there are some unusual things that have taken place in the NBA over the last 10 or 15 years, and we’ve received hundreds of phone calls and e-mails stating that they know what’s in that book is true.
BDL: In the afterword of "Personal Foul," you reference some things you think could be done to restore fan trust in NBA officiating and some of what you see as the league’s failures in that regard. You write: "If I were an NBA fan, I wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry." Do you still consider yourself an NBA fan? And at this point, do you feel like fans, on balance, can trust what they see night in and night out?
TD: I think I’ll always be a basketball fan at heart, but as far as an NBA fan, I’m certainly not an NBA fan at this time. I haven’t watched a game in two years. You said you’re from Boston, right?
BDL: I’m from New York, but I live in Boston.
TD: OK, New York and Boston. Two meccas for sports. You can’t sit there and tell me that the fans in Boston and the fans in New York, who are very knowledgeable fans, do not sit back and say that over the last 10 years a lot of unusual stuff has gone on in the NBA, to the point where they feel comfortable with watching an NBA game and thinking that things are on the up and up.
BDL: You’ve maintained that while you did use inside info to decide which teams to pick, you never took any action on the court to fix games or influence scores so they’d come out in your favor. Well, why not? You’ve described yourself in the book as being pretty far down the rabbit hole as a gambler, somebody primarily concerned with the rush and the money, and not with the consequences. Where’s the distinction in your eyes?
TD: I think the distinction is because I didn’t want to be detected. I’m doing something that’s wrong, and I don’t want to be detected. So how am I going to be detected? I’m going to be detected if I’m making incorrect calls on a continuous basis to affect these games so that the bets would cover. I mean, red flags would be thrown up all over the place and the NBA or the FBI certainly would have detected this well before it was detected. It was just something that I was not willing and not wanting to do.
BDL: But by the same token, you write about other officials taking these same sorts of actions in virtually every game — you call it "a culture of favoritism and manipulation ... that often affected the outcome of games." There’s some plausible deniability, according to what you’re saying, if other refs make these kinds of calls every night.
TD: They do, and I used that information to place winning bets on games. But the bottom line is, the FBI did a thorough investigation into the bets I made, the games that were bet on. They reviewed the tapes and they came to the conclusion, as [did] the NBA, that I was not making calls in these games to influence the outcome of a bet that I placed.
BDL: One theme in the book is your love of being the center of attention, whether it’s being the funny guy making his buddies laugh or the ref everyone in the arena looks at when the whistle blows. At one point, when you talk about being the source of the winning picks, you describe it as like being "the feature back [or] the cleanup hitter." Does telling this story and going on this media tour — an attempt to stay in that attention-getting spot — provide the same sort of jolt for you?
TD: Well, obviously, this form of [being the] center of attention, with the poor choices that I’ve made in life and where I’m at, is not something that is fun for me. Obviously, I’ve fallen in front of the world and it’s very embarrassing … not only did I affect my life, but the people I love the most, and that’s my family. I felt moving forward that fans deserve to know what I did and actually how I did it and the truth behind the whole scandal. I had a hard time over the last two years with being in the media and a lot of stories being written and the truth was not behind it.
BDL: So you believe this offers you the chance to balance things out.
TD: It offers me the opportunity to tell my story, and also it’s a situation that may help somebody else that may be thinking about going down the wrong road and thinking that they’re not going to be detected, because not only are they going to affect themselves, but they’re going to affect the people that they love the most, and that’s their family.
BDL: That’s something I saw in the recent Philadelphia Inquirer story about you — you’re eyeing opportunities to give lectures about this subject, is that correct?
TD: I’m not sure if the opportunity is going to be presented to me, but if it is, I would certainly be interested in it.
BDL: Obviously, there are real world considerations to that — the proceeds from the book will go toward paying the $217,000 in restitution you’re mandated to pay by the federal court as part of your sentence, and a guy’s got to work, too. Beyond money, what would you hope to gain by going out and speaking publicly about your ordeal? You talk about faith frequently in the book — do you view it as some sort of penance?
TD: I think I view it as an opportunity to help somebody else. Obviously it’s very embarrassing for me — it’s what I did and the choices that I made — and again, it not only affects me, but it affects people within my inner circle. And I think it’s a very compelling story that could be very helpful for others.
BDL: Your father was a referee, and you say you respected his commitment to the idea that players should decide games; that it shouldn’t be about guys with whistles or anything else. You say that’s not the way it is in today’s NBA. What opportunities do you see for the NBA to get closer to letting the players decide things?
TD: Obviously, when you talk about the NBA, they have to decide whether it’s an athletic competition or whether it’s entertainment and a show. And if they’re going to say that it’s an athletic competition, then they have to have these referees referee the rules, have the hammer and basically not referee the games with an eye on the bottom line of what’s good for the league.
BDL: You mention that you don’t expect anyone in the league offices will take your advice on how to make things better. But from a fan perspective, the idea seems to have some merit — people don’t really want to see games decided by things like Brent Barry getting clocked and not getting a call.
TD: Right. Absolutely. NBA fans are very knowledgeable fans, when you talk about a lot of these major cities, and I truly believe that they’re not going to allow David Stern to keep his head in the sand and not comment on this. I think there’s going to be an outcry for some answers over some of these situations, and there’s going to be an outcry for drastic change to have these games officiated properly, and I think eventually it’s going to make the league much bigger, better and stronger than it’s ever been before.
BDL: Do you think some of that has to come from the players, though? Ultimately, if fans are still willing to plunk down money on tickets or League Pass or merchandise, what incentive is there for the league to change anything?
TD: I think the players adjust to anything. They adjust to any style that the NBA wants to throw out there when it comes to these rule changes. I think it has to come from the fans, and I think what we’re seeing [is that] it is coming from the fans. We’re getting phone calls from fans every day and we’re even getting phone calls from retired players, from people that are associated with the NBA, saying that they hope this brings about drastic change. … [And] I truly believe that there is going to be drastic change. I think that they’re going to have no choice but to issue some changes and restore faith back in the fans that it’s an athletic competition.
BDL: It might be only a grace note in terms of the larger story, but you kick off the book with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote I thought was pretty interesting ("What lies behind us / And what lies before us / Are tiny matters / Compared to what lies within us"). Was that your idea?
TD: Yeah, that was my idea. ... My brother sent me a letter in prison and basically the concept of the letter was formed around that quote, and it was something that I thought was a good idea to lead the book off.
BDL: What do you think lies within you, and how do you see that shaping your path forward, wherever it takes you?
TD: I think what lies within me is somebody that is devastated by the poor choices that he made, and hopefully he’s going to continue with a situation where he can push this story forward and help people understand that choices are very, very important in life. Again, I know I’ve said this a lot, but they affect not only you — the worst part of this whole thing when I sit down and really think about it is [that] what I did to myself was terrible, but when I look at my four kids and my parents and my ex-wife, that’s what is really the most painful for me.
BDL: One of the more poignant scenes of the book takes place in your father’s office after things have started to fall apart. You look on the wall for a framed newspaper feature about the two, see an empty space, and realize he’d taken it down, ashamed of what you'd done. There was obviously some tension there. How is your relationship with him now?
TD: I mean, obviously when I called my dad on Father’s Day to tell him about this, he was devastated and shocked. And you know, it was a tense relationship there for a while, and like any father/son relationship or father/daughter relationship, you do what you need to do and you stand by your son or daughter. He certainly has been somebody that’s been by my side this entire time, and I think it’s actually made our relationship a lot stronger.
BDL: Conversely, you have four young daughters. How has this experience changed the way you relate to them as a parent?
TD: My whole demeanor is different. I certainly have a lot more patience with them, and I certainly want to spend every spare minute of my life that I can, [when] they’re not in school, with them. And hopefully, have them feel comfortable enough to understand that I’ve made some terrible choices but we all make mistakes, and it’s something that I certainly learned from. And because of this, hopefully, looking back a couple years down the road, I can say that I’m a better person.