Tim Donaghy was an NBA referee until he was banned for betting hundreds of thousands of dollars and for making calls that affected the point spread.
Tim Donaghy watches himself on the screen, making those same mistakes.
Betting hundreds of thousands of dollars on games that he worked, making calls that affected the point spread. Banned from the NBA for life. Fifteen months in federal prison. Inside Game is about the mid-2000’s betting scandal, and premieres in 30 NBA cities on Nov. 1. After Donaghy watches it, he remembers what got him through it all: his family.
“That’s what comes out the most,” Donaghy recalled in an exclusive interview with FanSided’s Mark Carman for his On The Mark podcast. “How we really screwed up and made some poor choices, but because we had strong families, we were able to get through it. Have our families stand by us.”
Donaghy still denies fixing games, and he points out that the FBI and NBA never concluded that he did, either. While that statement is true, there were, at the very least, suspicious calls, specifically in game three of the 2007 Western Conference between the Spurs and Suns. Before playoff matchups, Donaghy said the NBA would have secret meetings with referees in which they would, “point to specific things out that they want the referees to call that night.”
Donaghy, at the same time, held personal grudges. In the midst of one game, Allen Iverson threatened to kill Steve Javie, a lead official at the time and was later fined $20,000. Unhappy he was not suspended, Donaghy and his crew called Iverson for three palming violations the next game.
“[Allen Iverson] came up to me and said, “Hey Tim, how long’s this gonna last for?” Donaghy said. “And I basically told him: “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, Allen.” He laughed and he looked at me and said: “You know what I’m talkin’ about.” And I kind of laughed back at him.”
As ESPN’s Scott Eden has written, Donaghy’s bets on the golf course snowballed into NBA bets. Donaghy described his gambling addiction as a, “need for that juice adrenaline.”
“A little bit of greed, a little bit of thinking that you’re invincible and going out and just making poor decision-after-poor decision,” Donaghy said. “You’re on the top of the world, making more money than you ever dreamed of.”
As Donaghy’s story goes, the liaison of the operation was Tommy Martino, who subsequently passed the information to Jimmy Battista. The three had known each other for about 25 years, since high school in Springfield, Pennsylvania. (Donaghy said he was friends with Martino, associates with Battista). During the operation, Donaghy never spoke with Battista, and only called Martino over a burner phone.
Donaghy’s codeword for what he thought were locks was, “Shmaga.” (named after one of their childhood friends). He used it, for one example, after he overheard Mike Fratello, the Memphis Grizzlies head coach at the time (from 2004 to 2006), tell team personnel he was sitting four or five his players. Donaghy said he won at an “85 percent clip,” and, for each correct play, won $2,000.
Soon, the FBI cracked the code by wiretapping Martino. FBI agents spent three days at Martino’s house, questioning him. When Martino called Donaghy, who immediately called his attorney. He waited. And waited. In 30 days, he lost 30 pounds because he couldn’t eat nor drink.
“I knew that I was in a lot of trouble.”
Donaghy said the FBI told his attorney: “You tell Tim Donaghy, I know what you did. I know who you did it with. You’re gonna lose your job. But if you don’t come to us, and work with us, not only are you gonna lose your job, but you’re going to jail for a long, long time.”
“With that threat,” Donaghy said. “I got on the plane the next day and went to New York and sat down with the FBI agents and told them what I did and how I did it.”
In a New York federal court, Donaghy pled guilty to charges of conspiracy. He was given a 15-month jail sentence in federal prison. Not only was Donaghy banned from the NBA for life, but he sold his house in Bradenton, Florida. Kimberly Donaghy, his wife of 12 years, divorced him.
Before going to jail, Donaghy recalls telling his daughters, aged 14, 13, 9, and 7 at the time: “I made some poor choices, I made some mistakes, and I was gonna have to pay for that.” Sometimes, his daughters would visit him in jail. One visit, his youngest daughter ran and jumped into his arms, giving him the “biggest, strongest hug.”
“[She] told me that she wasn’t gonna leave, that she was gonna stay there with me,” Donaghy recalled.
Another time, Tim called his father, Gerry Donaghy. Gerry refereed for 40 years, 19 consecutive NCAA tournaments, and four Final Fours. Tim wished Gerry a happy father’s day, and Gerry responded: “You don’t sound right to me, what’s wrong?”
“And I told him what I did,” Tim Donaghy said. “He said, ‘Listen, I don’t know how this is gonna turn out, but I’ll be with you every step of the way, so try and stay calm.”’
Donaghy looks back and admits he has done some “dumb things and made some poor choices,” which, in every sense, undersells his impact: his scandal rocked the NBA world, and fans and writers alike condemned his character, the poster boy for greed and deception. A 2009 Bleacher Report article’s headline read: “Tim Donaghy: A Disgrace to the Game.”
Now, Donaghy said he is grateful that our society is “forgiving.” After being interviewed on a Charlotte radio show with Rasheed Wallace, with whom he almost got in a parking lot fist-fight after he ejected him in a 2009 game, Wallace called him to apologize. Donaghy told DallasNews.com that Mark Cuban texted him words of encouragement.
After the scandal, the NBA implemented a series of new rules, including more in-season training for referees, more background checks, and shorter tip-off times. Despite the rule changes to discourage betting, Donaghy said the NBA will “capitalize from [betting] moving forward.”
Sports gambling is legal in 11 states, and others are moving towards it. The NBA was the first major American sports league to agree to a contract with a sportsbook operator, MGM. From 2001 to 2018, the NBA’s revenue, increased from 2.66 billion to 8.01 billion, according to Statistica, a figure Donaghy thinks will only grow as “interactive gambling” in stadiums take shape.
“I think when you look at that, gambling is taking over, that it’s going to become even more of a billion-dollar business, each year for each of these teams. Even though it’s a 20 to 25-point blowout, you’re staying in your seat because you wanna see if James Harden hits his 10th 3-pointer because you have the over and you just bet $1,000 for it.”
Donaghy, for the most part, has a difficult time watching NBA games. A world so close, yet so far. Memories formed in 7,200 regular-season games, 20 playoff games fester in his mind. For whatever reason; in whichever shape. One comes to mind: a 1990’s Bulls game. Warm-ups. Dennis Rodman is staring at Donaghy, while scratching his own groin. Confused, Donaghy asks him what he’s doing: “I had omelets for lunch and it flared up my herpes.”
“I’m thinking, ‘Dennis is gonna get 15 rebounds tonight, touching the ball, that I’m gonna have to touch all night. There better be a lot of towels underneath these benches so I can wipe down the ball every time I touched the ball.”
He looks at today’s NBA referees and thinks, “that should be me.”
“Being on the floor, in front of 20,000 people,” Donaghy said he misses the most. “Running up-and-down the court with the greatest athletes in the world. You’re right there with all the stars.”
Donaghy won’t move on. Not yet. While he dabbles in real estate, there’s also RefPicks, his betting website. “He has hands-on insider experience,” his bio reads. Recently, most of his time is spent promoting his movie. While he thinks there are lessons to be learned in his mistakes, he understands the business side, the viewers’ cravings: “it’s gambling, it’s women, it’s drugs, it’s the mob.”
Tonight, Donaghy will watch Inside Game again at a Los Angeles film festival. As usual, he’ll answer questions, and tomorrow, hop on a plane. Then what?
“Goes back to his four beautiful daughters and continues to try to be the best parent, the best person he can be.”