6. Tim Donaghy, The Informant!

Over the past week, Tim Donaghy’s given about 1,000 interviews, all giving the same muddled picture of NBA injustice, conjuring paranoia, and mainly, advertising the NO-HOLDS-BARRED book that’s the NBA’s worst nightmare. Would you like to talk to him? Really, he’s very available. In any case, earlier this week, I mentioned that we’re sort of missing the point on this one….

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By now, you’ve probably tired of the whole Tim Donaghy story.

I certainly have.

In the simplest terms, it’s difficult to call a white collar criminal the NBA’s great white knight. A whistleblower that’s also a felon isn’t really the most credible source. So it’s probably best that we tread lightly on this whole “NBA conspiracy” angle.

But it doesn’t mean we can’t discuss Donaghy, the person. Because as an individual, he’s really quite captivating. A study in human failure, and quite possibly, a failed system (NBA officiating). He’s a rare, complex figure; the sort of character typically confined to the pages of a good novel or a Hollywood movie. He’s either desperate or defiant, depending on your perspective, but all things considered, the truth is that he’s probably a little bit of both.

It reminds me of Mark Whitacre. Who’s that, you ask? He’s the man who was at the center of a massive FBI investigation more than a decade ago. He turned FBI informant in the early ‘90s, and helped expose a massive price-fixing conspiracy at one of the nation’s largest agriculture corporations, Archer Daniels Midland. He also was the chief force behind an embezzlement scheme that netted him a reported $9 million. At the same time he was playing hero, Whitacre was quietly stealing millions of dollars.

Sometimes, conspiracies can be complicated.

Immortalized this summer in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, Whitacre was also the center of a non-fiction book by the same name. It was one of the better works of non-fiction this decade, and dealt with this man in depth. What makes someone so obviously crooked one day decide to stand up and expose what’s wrong with corporate America? When you think about it, Whitacre’s shadowy operations were, themselves, what’s wrong with corporate America.

And yet, does that make his claims, or the information he provided to the FBI, any less valid? Archer Daniels Midland was still forced to settle with the U.S. Justice Department for hundreds of millions of dollars, thanks in large part to Whitacre’s exposure of price fixing allegations. They were cheating the public; he was cheating them. It’s this dichotomy that the book investigates, as well as some of Whitacre’s personal problems that contributed to his conflicted, bizarre behavior. It’s study in frayed and altogether decayed corporate morals, but more than that, it’s a complicated character study. 

And that’s what Tim Donaghy deserves.

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Instead, we’re spending our time cross-examining him on claims in a book that, make no mistake, was designed solely to make money. Donaghy needs money, he’s got nothing to lose, and he’s got ZERO credibility with anyone. What made anyone think we could trust this guy in the first place? It’s not matter of whether he’s lying, but how much?

Nevertheless, ESPN’s True Hoop unveils an extensive investigation this morning debunking Donaghy’s claims:

Donaghy declares Charles Barkley, as a player, stalked into the referees’ locker room looking for Donaghy after an on-court dispute between the two in a Clippers vs. Rockets game.

Barkley, says Donaghy, then dumped a massive bucket of Gatorade and ice over the referee.

In a text message to ESPN’s Mark Schwarz, Barkley insists he has no recollection of any such thing, yet Donaghy was as indignant as ever.

“The two refs in the locker room know it happened. I know it happened. For Charles Barkley to lie like that is troublesome to me. Maybe we both need to sit down and take a lie detector test, and maybe the loser needs to give $500,000 to charity. And I’d like to see what his response would be to that.”

WHO CARES? Are we really wasting our time impugning the credibility of someone that bet on NBA games every day for multiples of years? Must NBA people be that insecure? 

Take it from someone who’s been betting on sports since 16 years old: we are NOT stable individuals, and the people that do it seriously, like as a lifestyle, are certifiably insane. There was a bookie I knew in college who doubled as cab driver. He’d lived in Southern California for years before a crack addiction and a $10,000 debt forced him to flee San Diego and head to New England. Once there, he started driving cabs and taking informal wagers, eventually making it into a business. Does that sound like someone tethered to a vigorous standard of honesty?

But wait, let’s continue:

Donaghy asserts there was easy money to be made counting on Bavetta to use his whistle to help a team that is trailing. For a gambler, this strategy would be dicey in games expected to be close.

[…]

Donaghy says he felt confident that big underdogs would beat the spread if Bavetta was one of the three referees.

It’s not hard to find examples when Donaghy was wrong. Bavetta has refereed plenty of blowouts. In January 2004, for instance, the Kings were seven-point favorites over the Suns, but won by 20. The next month, the Rockets were nine-point favorites over the Hawks, and won by 21. In January 2005, the Suns were favored by eight and won by 18. That same year, the Bulls won a Bavetta game by 40 when they were favored by nine, and the Pistons laid a 25-point beating on the Bobcats when they were favored to win by seven. A few months later, the Pistons, favored by seven, beat the Pacers by 25.

So one of Tim Donaghy’s gambling “rules” was proven ineffective? That’s what we learn? Again, take it from someone that bets on sports far too often: the “rules” that gamblers use to pick games are about as reliable as using a sun dial to tell time. It’s an inexact science, and any habitual gambler would admit as much.

Like, in my head, it makes sense to always bet on a college team where the star player has multiple kids. Why? Because he’s got something play for! But that doesn’t make it a viable strategy… And if Tim Donaghy put forth his “rules” as some evidence said to reveal NBA biases, why even waste time responding? Especially when the real story is so much more interesting.

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The problem, of course, is that this type of thing is sort of beyond most sportswriters’ purview. Especially NBA writers, who spend at least 60% of their time defending the sport’s integrity to fellow sportswriters that are skeptical. So it’s no surprise that plenty of talented, reasonable people have jumped at the opportunity to just say, “THIS GUY’S FULL OF SH—.” Because he’s definitely lying. But he’s also probing at the truth, if that makes sense. Again, desperate and defiant in equal measure.

We could vilify him for the desperate attempts at selling a book with salacious accusations—and trying to salvage some semblance of financial security—but where does that really get us? If Donaghy’s so wrong about some of his accusations, does that mean we’re to pretend that the corporate integrity of the NBA isn’t frayed? No way.

Because like Whitacre, Donaghy himself proves what’s wrong with the system in the first place. It’s like if there were a drug addict appointed to the Supreme Court, and then after he’d been disbarred and disgraced, we focused on debunking his allegations rather than, you know, we had a drug dealer on the Supreme Court. A degenerate gambler and known associate of the Gambino mob was an NBA Official for many years, and we know this.

For some perspective, last week the former head of the Gambino family had his fourth mistrial in a racketeering case being prosecuted by the Federal Government. Do you know how unbelievably corrupt you have to be to successfully deadlock four juries? I’m not saying that’s what happened, but… If you were to intimidate four juries, you would have to be unbelievably corrupt.

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Junior Gotti, InPlaceNews, via Associated Press

Now, a gambling habit may not make Donaghy into some mobster, but still. These are the people he was involved with, and as an NBA official, he was intimately involved with some of the most integral parts of the game. That’s the story here

Sure, in search of salvation, and without much burden of proof, he’s making a bunch of allegations about the league’s officiating. What’s remarkable, though, is how easily some of us will dismiss his allegations in the interest of protecting the game. Especially since paying attention to Donaghy could teach us why we need to fix the game.

What he’s done is probe at all the stereotypes and conspiracy theories that already exist about the NBA, all in the name of selling a book. He concocted some potentially false anecdotes to help prove himself, but that’s not the point. Over at Denver Stiffs, there’s an excellent post examining some of Donaghy’s claims, and it ultimately concludes with this: “I’m buying about half of what Donaghy is saying…but already knew/assumed most of that stuff about NBA refereeing in the first place.” The greatest lesson in all of this is that for NBA fans, none of this stuff is new.

And some of it’s true. Anyone that watched the 2006 Finals (or any number of other embarrassing officiating displays) knows that there’s something wrong with the NBA officiating process. Allowing Donaghy’s trangressions to overshadow that fact would be like discarding the price fixing allegations against Archer Daniels Midland. Just because one crime was committed doesn’t mean we should ignore others.

So, if we’re going to discuss Tim Donaghy, it should be as one of the more fascinating, tragic figures in recent sports history. He’s a study in contradictions, desperation, and in some perverse way, defiance of the NBA’s archaic system of officiating. It’s the type of thing that deserves its own non-fiction book, or a major motion picture. Truly, you couldn’t make this stuff up.

But if we’re going to discuss Tim Donaghy’s allegations, we can’t just pull the wool over our eyes and pretend that none of it’s true just because it’s coming from him. He may not be the one that proves it, but he’s absolutely probing at some truth. Tim Donaghy acted like a weak, pathetic fool, and he’s been rightfully disgraced.

But if we let that overshadow the bigger problems facing the NBA, we’re the ones that look pathetic and foolish.

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