Referee alleged to have bet on NBA games

Times Staff Writer

A National Basketball Assn. referee is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly betting on NBA games that he refereed during the last two years.

Tim Donaghy, who recently resigned after 13 seasons in the NBA, is the referee under investigation, according to the league and a source close to the inquiry.

NBA Commissioner David Stern released a statement Friday in which he said the league was cooperating with the FBI “in their investigation of allegations that a single NBA referee bet on NBA games that he officiated.”


Donaghy, 40, has worked more than 700 regular-season NBA games and at least 20 playoff games.

Stern said the league “would like to assure our fans that no amount of effort, time or personnel is being spared to assist in this investigation, to bring to justice an individual who has betrayed the most sacred trust in professional sports, and to take the necessary steps to protect against this ever happening again. We will have more to say at a press conference that will be scheduled for next week.”

Defense attorney John Lauro confirmed Donaghy was under investigation but would not talk about the case, the Associated Press reported. Donaghy could not be reached for comment.

The investigation is particularly sensitive for the NBA because Las Vegas casinos routinely set point spreads on games. If the underdog team is expected to lose by, say, five points but ends up losing by four, then gamblers betting on that team win their bet.

Basketball is a very physical game, so that a referee’s judgment could play a major role in the outcome and the point spreads. For example, if two players collide during a shot in the final seconds of a game, a referee can call a foul on the defensive or offensive player, or choose not to call a foul.

An unidentified law enforcement official told the Associated Press that authorities were trying to determine whether Donaghy made calls to affect the point spread in games in which he or associates had placed bets. The games under investigation were played during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. The FBI probe also reportedly involves allegations that the referee had connections to organized-crime associates.


Donaghy had a gambling problem, according to the law enforcement official, and was approached by low-level mob associates through an acquaintance.

“If this is true, it is a tragedy of enormous proportion, not just for himself and his family, but for our industry,” said Barry Mano, president of the National Assn. of Sports Officials. “It cannot be understated what a terrible thing this could end up being.”

A native of Philadelphia, Donaghy played basketball at Villanova University after being an all-county player in high school. He worked five years as a high school referee in Pennsylvania and seven years in the unheralded Continental Basketball Assn. before joining the NBA.

Donaghy is a second-generation official, following in the footsteps of his father, Jerry, a college basketball official who worked numerous NCAA tournaments.

Donaghy was one of three referees who worked the infamous NBA game between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers in November 2004, in which nine players were suspended after a skirmish between the teams escalated into a brawl with fans in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Members of the Pistons blamed the referees -- Ron Garretson, Tommy Nunez Jr. and Donaghy -- saying they did not separate the teams quickly enough and backed away once the melee started.

Locally, Donaghy also had a run-in with the Lakers.

In April 2004, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson complained about two quick foul calls in an important late-season game against Sacramento in which Donaghy was one of the referees. Both calls were against then-Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal. O’Neal was largely ineffective in the game, which the Lakers lost, because of foul trouble and played 31 minutes, a low for him at the time.

Afterward, Jackson said he had approached Donaghy during the game and told him: “If you don’t know enough to [let them] play through that stuff, you’re just eliminating Shaq from the game. You don’t want to take him out of the game. You don’t want to make this game different from what it should be.”

O’Neal would only say at the time that the game was “predetermined,” presumably by the referees.

The New York Post was the first to report the FBI investigation Friday. Top NBA players attending a Team USA mini-camp in Las Vegas said they were surprised by the allegations.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” Lakers star Kobe Bryant said. “But it’s just the reality of the matter. As basketball players, all we can do is go out and play hard and leave it all on the floor.”

Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony said of the investigation: “It’s shocking.... It puts thoughts in your head. You start thinking about things that you probably didn’t think about before. I’m pretty sure they’re going to get to the bottom of it, though.”

In April, veteran NBA referee Joey Crawford was also suspended indefinitely by Stern for his conduct toward San Antonio star Tim Duncan, who contended the official challenged him to a fight during a game in Dallas. But allegations of an NBA official betting on games that he works may pose a bigger problem for the league. Gaming administrators at Las Vegas casinos were also surprised by the allegations.

“It doesn’t make the whole league corrupt if this comes out to be true facts, but over the last two years, we haven’t seen anything and we haven’t heard anything” about suspect NBA games, said Jay Kornegay, executive director of the sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton. “When we have suspicions, there are whispers around this town. We usually get wind of it. Either it was a very small party, if it happens to be true, or it happened illegally. It certainly didn’t happen in this city.”

NBA games typically generate 10% to 15% of all sports betting in Las Vegas. Overall legal sports betting in Nevada hit $2.25 billion in 2005, but that figure was dwarfed by some $380 billion in illegal sports wagers, according to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission.

It remains to be seen whether the betting allegations will hurt Las Vegas’ chances of getting an NBA team. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has pushed to land a team in the league, but because Nevada is the only state where sports gambling is legal the NBA has been cautious to make that move.

“For the most part, the sports world has had a pretty good record with scandals compared to the corporate world [and] the political world,” Kornegay said.

On Friday, such a statement was only partly accurate.

Times staff writer Bill Dwyre contributed to this report.

Bresnahan reported from Las Vegas, Dwyre from Los Angeles.