ACT 1: A CONVENIENT HALF-TRUTH
James "Jimmy" "Bah-Bah" "The Sheep" Battista was a stressed-out, overweight, Oxy-addicted 41-year-old, in the hole to some underground gamblers for sums he'd sort of lost track of, when he settled in to watch an NBA game for which he believed he'd just put in the fix. It was January 2007. A month or so back, not long before Christmas, he'd done something audacious: He'd sat down and cut a deal with an NBA referee. Now he feared the scheme had become too obvious.
"You wanna get paid?" Battista had said to the ref. "Then you gotta cover the f---ing spread." The bribe was only two dimes, $2,000 per game -- an outrageous bargain. If the pick won, the ref got his two dimes. If the pick missed, the ref owed nothing; Battista would eat the loss. A "free roll," as they call it. But this referee didn't lose much. His picks were winning at an 88 percent clip, totally unheard of in sports betting for any sustained period of time. They were now entering the sixth week of the scheme -- what you might call a sustained period of time.
Battista had known the ref, Timmy Donaghy, for 25 years. They'd gone to the same parochial high school in the working-class Catholic neighborhoods of Delaware County, just outside Philadelphia -- Delco, as it's sometimes called -- where the sports bars are abundant, where a certain easy familiarity with all forms of gambling prevails, where guys have bookies like they've got dentists.
Battista was a creature of that world. He was what's known as a mover. Strictly speaking, movers are neither gamblers nor bookmakers. They're a species of broker that provides services to sports bettors, laying down wagers on their clients' behalf with bookmakers of various types around the world, legal and not. Battista was positioned well enough in that world that, without Donaghy's knowledge but based on Donaghy's picks, he'd helped set up a kind of loose, disorderly hedge fund. Several people from the sports-betting underworld had, in effect, staked Battista a bankroll -- a fund he was now using to bet on games officiated by this one NBA referee. One member of the group called it "the ticket" and "the company."
"Maybe the company never sat at a table together," he says. "But they all had a piece of the pizza." The main problem now was keeping a lid on the thing.
In his endeavors, Battista had a sometime assistant, another high school chum, Tommy Martino, who acted as a liaison in the Donaghy scheme. Close friends with the referee since they were kids, Martino had a day job as an IT guy at JPMorgan. Using burner phones, Donaghy would call Martino and inform him of his pick for the game he was officiating. Martino would then relay the pick to Battista. Battista and Donaghy were never to speak directly. Battista would spend the day betting heavily on Donaghy's selection. In total, according to a person with knowledge of their operation, he hoped to get down about $1 million of his investors' money in each of Donaghy's games.
You want to get paid, you gotta cover the spread, Battista had told Donaghy. But Battista never used the word "fix." Or "influence" or "manipulate" or in any way discussed the mechanics of fixing.
"There wasn't no need to," Battista has told friends. The whole thing had been merely insinuated, a matter of strong innuendo. "The only mechanics, he had in his hand. He had the f---ing whistle."
IT REMAINS ONE of the most tantalizing questions in all of American professional sport: Does game-fixing still exist? In the 100 years since 1919, when gamblers blackened the Chicago White Sox, only the Tim Donaghy scandal has offered the hint of an answer -- but also a repudiation.
For 11 years, the official plotline has been that Donaghy was a rogue, gambling-addicted ref who made some bets on his own games -- and nothing more. The NBA conducted its own investigation and concluded that Donaghy, in fact, did not fix games. But for many in and around the league, suspicions have remained that the full story has not been told, that what really happened has been suppressed.
It matters all the more now. On May 14 of last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law that had forbidden states from legalizing sports gambling within their own borders. It's widely believed that the ruling will lead to a lifting of the interstate prohibition on sports betting, which, in turn, would give rise to a massive increase in the money wagered on American sports. At the same time, the NBA -- which once balked at gambling -- has now openly embraced legalized sports betting more than any other U.S. pro sports league. In 2014, commissioner Adam Silver penned an op-ed in The New York Times advocating for legalization. In July of 2018, he announced a multiyear deal for MGM Resorts to be the "official gaming partner of the NBA."
Proponents of legalization have long argued that regulation leads to transparency, which helps root out game-fixing schemes. But there is much evidence to suggest the opposite. As economist Wladimir Andreff of the University of Paris has written: "All economic analyses conclude that the more money there is inflowing to sport, the greater the sport corruption."
And so it is that May's Supreme Court decision demands a review of the Donaghy affair. If it were shown that Donaghy had indeed fixed the games he reffed, it would reveal an uncomfortable truth, one that almost everyone -- leagues, teams, fans, gamblers -- would prefer to ignore: just how easy and profitable it is to fix an American sport.
In early 2017, inspired by the 10th anniversary of the scandal, ESPN set out to reinvestigate it. The research entailed interviews with more than 100 people, including current and former NBA referees, current and former NBA staff, gamblers, bookmakers, lawyers, law enforcement officials and friends and relatives of Donaghy. (Donaghy himself declined repeated requests for an interview.) Freedom of Information Act requests were filed. Thousands of pages of court documents and investigative records were scrutinized. Hundreds of hours were spent watching every NBA game Donaghy officiated in the 2006-07 season. Every foul call was logged, the resulting data analyzed, along with betting-market line-movement histories for every game Donaghy reffed that season.
Two years of reporting later, the story can now be told: This is the definitive account of how Tim Donaghy conspired to fix NBA games -- and how, in so doing, he unwittingly enriched an array of gamblers to the tune of likely hundreds of millions of dollars.
ACT 2: A SIMPLE PLAN
Mendy Rudolph, Yogi Strom, Jake O'Donnell, Billy Oakes, Ed. T. Rush, Joey Crawford, Steve Javie, Tom Washington, Mark Wunderlich, Duke Callahan, Ed Malloy, Mark Lindsay, Aaron Smith, Tim Donaghy -- all NBA referees current, retired, dead or (in the last case) disgraced, all born and/or raised in the environs of Philadelphia. If there is a cradle of basketball refereeing, it is here.
Oakes was Tim Donaghy's uncle. Gerry Donaghy, his father, for a long time wore stripes at the highest levels of NCAA men's basketball. Malloy, Crawford and Callahan all attended Delaware County's Cardinal O'Hara High School, Donaghy's alma mater -- a cradle within a cradle. "It was a job I was born to do," Donaghy wrote in his 2009 memoir, Personal Foul, but the sentence carries a double meaning. Blessed with the right connections, and after four years officiating in the CBA, the NBA's minor league, he was called up to the majors in 1994. He was 27 years old.
The referee's life has its contradictions. In-season, it is demanding, tiring, high stress. But the gig is well-paid -- even rookies in 2007 could make six figures. And then there's the offseason. By many accounts, it's like semi-retirement. "If it wasn't basketball season, he had a lot of time on his hands," says one of Donaghy's friends.
In 1998, Donaghy joined a country club in West Chester, Pennsylvania, called Radley Run, along whose fairways the Donaghys built a spacious home. At the club he developed a circle of golfing pals. They played 18 holes four or five days a week. There was golfing but also drinking and gambling. Frequent excursions were made to the Borgata, a casino in Atlantic City. In the casino, Donaghy wore a baseball cap low to hide his eyes; everyone knows about the cameras in casinos, and the NBA forbade any gambling by its refs (with the exception, oddly, of horse racing).
Infrequently, Donaghy was at home. "He was a single man, married with four kids," says Kim Donaghy, his ex-wife. "He played golf and gambled."
Probably Donaghy's closest friend in this crowd was a man named Jack Concannon. They'd known each other since high school. Like many in their cohort, Concannon had a bookie, Peter Ruggieri, who also golfed frequently with Donaghy and Concannon's crew. Short, squat, thick-necked, Ruggieri was built, some thought, like a small rhinoceros. In spheres other than the country-club set, he went by the nickname Rhino.
Donaghy has written that Rhino had a handicapping system for picking NFL and college football winners. In October 2002, Donaghy and Concannon decided to pool their money and wager on Ruggieri's picks. (Concannon declined comment for this story.) This was a clear violation of NBA rules, but Donaghy got over it. "I started thinking -- or should I say, rationalizing: S---, everyone on the staff bets," he wrote. "I was like a pot smoker moving up to cocaine."
Then, at some point in 2003, Donaghy and Concannon crossed the Rubicon. According to Donaghy's account, the two were sitting alone in the Radley clubhouse after a round of golf when they decided to bet the NBA. But it wasn't just the NBA; according to court documents, they decided to bet on Donaghy's own games.
THERE ARE MANY misconceptions about the Tim Donaghy scandal. Perhaps the greatest is this: that Donaghy was the ref who colluded with gamblers on NBA games for one disgraceful season.
That is incorrect. According to a court document, Donaghy and Concannon placed their first bet on a game Donaghy was refereeing in March 2003 -- more than four years and four NBA seasons before he was caught.
He started small. In that first March, he bet on only two or three games. The next season, though, the volume rose sharply -- he made between 30 and 40 wagers on games he worked. Same with the season after that and the season after that.
He did well. By Donaghy's own admission in his memoir, so much cash started rolling in that he had problems knowing physically where to stash it so his wife wouldn't start asking questions.
Today, Kim Donaghy lives in Sarasota, Florida, where she and her then-husband and four daughters moved in 2005. Kim filed for divorce in late 2007, a few months after the scandal became public. When I visited her in Sarasota not long ago, at the office where she works, she made it clear the divorce was a long time coming. "Tim was very, very secretive. He was always locked in a room, on the phone."
In Sarasota, Kim Donaghy printed out for me the first 98 pages of her unfinished and unpublished memoir, The Ref's Wife. In it, she writes of the paradox of being both "lonely for him" and "truly afraid of him." She describes the moment she picked up his official NBA jacket to put it in the wash and found in the pocket "a huge wad of $100 bills rolled in a rubber band." How huge? With her thumbs and forefingers, she made an "O" the diameter of an orange. She struggled to recall exactly when, but she told me she probably started finding the cash in 2004, during the season. At the time, she told herself the money was from golf-course betting. But she would keep finding such rolls in his pockets as the years went on. When I asked, she said she never counted the money, never confronted him about its existence.
She gave a one-word answer: "Scared."
THEY CALLED IT The Office. A high roller named Mike Rinnier, who'd made his fortune in Delaware County supermarkets, decided to bankroll a small sports-betting syndicate in the 1980s. He staffed it with working-class Delco kids ambitious to earn. "They were intelligent guys who just couldn't have full-time day jobs," says a former gambler who knew them. Battista, who'd drifted as a bartender, restaurant manager and small-time hustler after high school, was in his early 20s when, according to Gaming the Game, a book about the Donaghy scandal by former Philly police detective Sean Patrick Griffin, Rinnier recruited him to join the group. By chance, over the years its members had all acquired animal nicknames: Tiger, Rooster, Rhino, Seal, Sheep. And so their syndicate came to be known by some as the Animals.
In the early 2000s, the sports-betting world was undergoing its own equivalent of a dot-com boom. Black-market street bookies from all over the U.S., sharp pro gamblers and digital-savvy entrepreneurs with coding skills were all setting up online sportsbooks, often establishing themselves in places with little regulatory oversight, like Costa Rica, Antigua, Jamaica and Curaçao.
The Animals landed in Curaçao, where they helped launch an online sportsbook known as PlayASAP. It was situated in a house a block off the beach. And it was there, in fall 2003 -- between beers under palms at the Mambo Beach tiki bar, between rounds of golf and late-night poker sessions at the Holiday Beach hotel's casino -- that the Animals began to cash in on one brilliant discovery.
Rhino Ruggieri was booking bets made by an acquaintance from back home, a guy he knew from the golf course named Jack Concannon. Back in Philly, Ruggieri had noticed that Concannon's bet sizes were an order of magnitude higher on certain NBA games. And those bets won -- won like Concannon had never won before. Normally this guy was a $100 or $200 or maybe $500 bettor. And normally this guy lost. But suddenly this recreational dumb-money insurance salesman was putting five dimes each on select NBA games and beating the bookies? Why? There had to be a pattern.
Since he was now affiliated with PlayASAP, Ruggieri was running all the bets that he booked back home, including Concannon's, through the PlayASAP website. Everyone at the Curaçao office, therefore, had access to Concannon's gambling account. They'd studied his wagers. It hadn't taken long to deduce. Because he was a sometime member of the same golfing circle back home, Ruggieri knew that Concannon and NBA ref Tim Donaghy were friends. They checked the games. Who were the referees? Sure enough, there he was. One of the three was always him. F---ing Donaghy.
Holy s---! they thought. Donaghy and Concannon are betting on Donaghy's games -- and making a goddamn killing.
So what do you do when you stumble upon a possible criminal conspiracy in progress? What Battista, Ruggieri and the rest did was follow the Concannon-Donaghy bets with bets of their own -- $30,000, $50,000, $100,000 a game, according to a person familiar with the betting. Large sums but, if handled deftly, not large enough to alert the broader market that something screwy might be going on. They had possibly just stumbled on the ultimate edge. They now had one job: Do not lose the edge by letting the information leak. Whether Donaghy was using his whistle to fix games was beside the point. When Donaghy reffed and Concannon bet, the side he bet was covering the spread between 60 and 70 percent of the time. The Animals went so far as to study the box scores after each of Donaghy's outings. "If you looked at the stats," said one gambler in The Office at the time, "you could see he was calling more fouls on the team he bet against and less fouls on the team he bet on. That was obvious."
Said another: "Did I assume he was fixing the games? Yeah, I did. But I didn't give a s---, because it was great information. From 2003 to 2007, we didn't miss a game. Any game that he reffed we had a wager on."
ON A NIGHT in early December 2006, Tommy Martino received an urgent phone call from Battista. Along with the rest of the Animals, Battista had returned from Curaçao in 2004 after PlayASAP had gone belly-up. Battista had since decided to set up shop on his own as a bet broker. Whatever his issue was, Battista said he couldn't talk about it over the phone.
A decade later, in the break room of the hair salon he worked in, Martino told me how it had gone: Martino had already known that their mutual buddy Tim Donaghy had been betting on his own NBA games with Concannon, and winning those bets. Battista, after discovering this, had been following those bets for the better part of the past four years. But now, when Battista arrived at Martino's house, he dropped the bomb.
The big problem, Battista said, was that the betting markets appeared to be getting wise to the emergence of an astonishingly accurate NBA handicapper. Because this edge, this treasure, was in danger of evaporating, Battista had decided that he needed to assume direct control over the referee.
Martino was not a gambler, had hardly ever placed a bet in his life. But he'd remained close friends after high school with both Donaghy and Battista, who, in turn, were never that close with each other. Martino, in that way, was about to become the unlikely bridge upon which the conspiracy would travel. To Martino, Battista seemed desperate, even frightened. "You've got to arrange a meeting with Donaghy," Battista said.
IT WAS DEC. 12, 2006, a Tuesday, an hour before midnight, at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott, inside that hotel's primary restaurant, called at the time the Riverbend Bar & Grille. And it was there, in the otherwise vacant dining area, seated around a table, that Battista and Donaghy, with Martino witnessing, consummated their deal. Battista demanded that Donaghy never bet with Concannon again, and in exchange for providing Battista with his betting "picks," Donaghy would receive $2,000 per game -- but only if the pick won. Much later on he would come to call this meeting "the marriage."
Accounts of the meeting differ. According to statements Donaghy made to federal law enforcement, Battista's deal was effectively an act of extortion. You don't want anyone "from New York" coming to your house, Battista told him. And: You don't want the NBA to find out about what you've been doing with Concannon.
According to Battista, though, it was Donaghy who reached out, asking for a meeting. Both Battista and Martino have said that there were no threats, that everyone was nervous but the situation seemed copacetic, and that what sold Donaghy on the deal was Battista saying to him: We know you're giving the games to Jack Concannon. And then, twisting the knife, Battista told him how much Concannon was winning.
Donaghy rose from the table. He had to use the bathroom, he said, and motioned for Martino to please come along. "He gets so pale sometimes, he turns yellow, I swear to god," Martino told me. "In the bathroom, Donaghy is like, 'Tom, you f---ing believe it?' And I said, 'What?' I'm thinking he's going to say: Oh s---! It got out to Battista that I'm giving games to Jack! But no. You know what he says? He goes: 'Do you believe it?' He goes, 'Concannon was making all that money and not giving me anything!'"
Back at the table, Martino and Donaghy told Battista that they needed to drive to a nearby gas station. They came out of the station bearing a packet of rolling papers, and right there inside the car, under the fluorescent gas station lights, in the rental-return sprawl adjacent to the Philadelphia International Airport runway, Martino rolled a joint. They passed it back and forth -- Battista, who'd snorted some coke earlier, demurred -- and as the car filled with smoke, they made, Martino told me, "a pact." The pact was: "Don't tell anybody. Because that's how you get in trouble."
ACT 3: WHAT GOES UP ...
The Celtics played the 76ers the night after the Marriott meeting. Donaghy worked the game. In the car at the gas station, according to Gaming the Game, Donaghy had said: Bet the Celtics. It was his first pick for Battista. The Celtics, favored by 2.5 points, went on to win in a blowout. One source with knowledge of the conspiracy says that Battista moved as much as $500,000 in wagers on this game: "We had a big bet on that. We had a big bet on every f---ing game."
Making bets at the highest levels of sports gambling is akin to the trading of any financial instrument. There's a defined trading session. It opens in the morning and closes right before tip-off. It's possible, in effect, to buy and sell bets, to go long or go short, to hedge. The best movers spend years compiling vast networks of clients and "outs," or counterparties, with whom the movers can trade. Battista had such a network.
It's possible, through Don Best Sports, a betting information service, to pull the line-movement data for individual NBA games going back years. It's like looking at a stock chart. The data chronicle price fluctuations. If the spread widens during the trading session, then you know that demand among gamblers for betting on the favorite has intensified.
And indeed, the chart for the Boston-Philly game on Dec. 13, 2006, shows the price for Boston spiking and then shrinking back. Huge bets on Boston in the middle of the trading session, between 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., drove the spread from 2.5 to 3 to 4. In the NBA markets, betting experts say, any move of 1.5 points or more is considered unusually severe -- the result of millions of dollars pouring in.
The night after the Boston victory, according to all parties, the conspirators met once more, at Martino's house in the Philly suburb of Boothwyn. Battista arrived with a thick stack of $100 bills bound in a rubber band -- $2,000 for the agreed-upon fee and $3,000 as a sweetener. From here on out, Battista said, he and Donaghy would never communicate directly. Instead, Martino would be in the middle. They would use, per Martino's statement to the FBI, a code. Martino had two brothers. One, Johnny, lived in Jersey. The other, Chuck, lived in Delco. According to Martino, if Donaghy mentioned out-of-state Johnny's name, the pick was for the visiting team. If Donaghy talked about Chuck, bet the home side. Not exactly the Enigma cipher but better than yapping about specific teams and risking someone overhearing.
Ideally, Donaghy should make his pick as early as possible, preferably the night before his games, or at least the morning of. That way, Battista could begin to prepare the markets, to manipulate the prices in their favor. He would start before dawn with the enormously liquid Asian betting markets, an amorphous group of black- and gray-market internet sportsbooks based in places like Manila and Kuala Lumpur. Normally this meant making a few "head fake" bets. If you think the Celtics are the side that's likely to cover, then you go to market as early in the trading session as possible and put some money on Philly. Do it right and you can drive down the price of Boston. Then later in the day, with the price right, you gobble up all the Boston you can. According to Martino and Battista, after such wagering was complete, Battista, via Martino, would then inform Donaghy of the spread he needed to cover. And so it began ...
From Philadelphia, Donaghy hopping to a Nets home game, then 1,700 miles west to Denver, then over to Seattle, then transcontinental to Atlanta, then southwest to Houston, then back east to DC -- Donaghy zigzagging across the country, in and out of NBA arenas, making his picks to Martino over those cheap bodega burner phones, but not always, because sometimes they'd forget and use their own regular phones, because who cared? -- wins and wins and wins and wins, his picks almost 100 percent wins. "How's Chuck doing?" "Say hello to Johnny for me ..."
Money drops and cash settlements in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania; in New York City; in Las Vegas; in San Francisco. Hundred-dollar bills in $10,000 packs, bound in rubber bands and delivered by trusted gofers. Battista hiking Donaghy's fee to $5,000 for each correct pick -- minuscule compared to the amounts Battista was now wagering ... Battista bowing his head to his desk and snorting a line of coke to stay alert, to stay awake. Martino late at night on the phone with Donaghy, the pair having developed a nightly before-bed ritual: If Donaghy's pick was a winner, if the spread had been covered, Martino calling the ref and whispering "Good boy," and Donaghy echoing "Good boy" and then hanging up ...
Donaghy calling two fouls 50 seconds apart against the 76ers' leading scorer, Andre Iguodala, in the third quarter against Boston, with the score's margin right on the spread. Iguodala heading to the bench; Boston covering the spread ... Donaghy in Seattle, the Sonics hosting the Mavericks, calling 11 straight fouls against Seattle as well as the last foul of the night, with 23 seconds to go. Dallas making both free throws, increasing its lead to eight. The closing line: Dallas by 8 ... Donaghy on New Year's Day in Charlotte calling 14 fouls against the Bobcats, five against the Timberwolves; the Wolves covering ...
Battista usually watched these games at home, but sometimes not. Watching would give him agita, he's said, at which point he'd have to turn off the TV: "I remember being like, 'Oh s---, he's getting out of hand.' It was too obvious. I was like, 'If anyone's watching this, we've got a problem.' " And still it went on ...
Donaghy in Dallas on Jan. 30 calling one foul against the home team and 12 against Seattle, including six straight against the Sonics when the margin was 13 or fewer. Favored by 12, Dallas covering ... Donaghy in Miami calling 12 fouls against visiting Charlotte, two against the Heat. The Heat covering ... Donaghy in Toronto calling four fouls against the visiting Nets' top scorer, Vince Carter, forcing him to the bench, the last one called by Donaghy when the ref was on the opposite side of the floor with the Raptors leading by three. Toronto, favored by 10.5, covering ...
"From 2003 to 2007, any game he reffed, we had a wager on." A member of The Animals gambling syndicate
Money now pouring into games Donaghy is refereeing, the lines during trading sessions swinging violently, like stocks beset by takeover rumors-widening and narrowing by 1.5, 3, 4.5, even 5 points, unheard of in the NBA except in the case of significant player injuries ... Battista popping pills, Vicodin and OxyContin, sometimes falling asleep at the dinner table at restaurants, sometimes vomiting blood. Battista wired and staying up all night and obsessively, blank-mindedly playing online blackjack and poker and even putting bets down on sports for which he had no special insight or inside information, and losing, losing, losing ...
And then Donaghy whistling fouls on the visiting Heat 12 times in Madison Square Garden compared to four against the Knicks; the Knicks covering ... Martino flying to Toronto to pay Donaghy and to party, ordering prostitutes from a website ... Donaghy on March 14 in Indianapolis calling four straight fouls in the fourth against the underdog Pacers when they were losing by six to the visiting Wizards. Favored by 6, the visiting Wizards covering ... Battista on March 15 confessing to his wife that he'd lost $7 million of his clients' money ... Battista on March 16 strung out and sleepless at Martino's house and surrounded suddenly by almost his entire immediate family. An intervention ... Battista two days later wearing a bathrobe in rehab.
ACT 4: ... MUST COME DOWN
Phil Scala had been investigating organized crime in New York City for almost 30 years when his squad received the tip. Each of the city's famous Five Families -- Genovese, Lucchese, Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino -- has a dedicated FBI unit investigating it full time, and Scala was the boss of the one focused on the Gambinos. Based in an anonymous office building in Kew Gardens, Queens, Scala and his agents had spent years assembling a network of informants inside the gang.
And now, Scala would later tell me, one of the squad's snitches had divulged this new tip, too delicious to be ignored. An NBA referee, according to the informant, was "in the pocket" of some people in the sports-gambling underworld. The informant didn't know any names, and the people with the ref in their pocket did not appear to be made members of the Gambino crime family. But the crucial betting information -- which sides of which games the ref favored -- had been seeping into the black-market gambling business. In particular, a crew of Gambino thugs in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn had figured out the formula and was supposedly, from what this informant had heard, winning millions on this ref's games. Illegal sports gambling was not Scala's focus. But stomping out a Mafia profit center was.
"They told us, 'You can't fix a game in the NBA. It's impossible.' That was the company line." Former FBI agent Phil Scala on the NBA's response to the scandal
Scala reached the FBI's mandatory retirement age in 2008 and is now a private detective based on Long Island. But he has kept the investigative notes he took on his FBI cases, including the Donaghy case. Not long ago, he brought them out, looked at them and told me about them over the phone. (When I asked if I could see the notes myself, he laughed. "Uh, no.") He said his old squad had received the initial ref-in-the-pocket tip in October 2006 -- almost two months before Battista had made his marriage with Donaghy.
Scala's squad went to work. Phone records of gamblers said to have connections with the Gambino crime family were obtained and analyzed, phone numbers traced back to names. As Scala told me, "If you can envision a spiderweb -- it might not be directly, but one or two or three spheres out, you find a name. ... And then one afternoon the case agent came into my office. He said, 'We found the guy. We found the referee.'" His name was Tim Donaghy.
In April 2007, a few days after Battista checked out of rehab for drug abuse, FBI special agents Paul Harris and Gerard Conrad knocked for the first time on Battista's door. They knew all about what he'd done, they told him; he was looking at 20 years. Better to cooperate. Lawyer, Battista replied.
Just before entering rehab, according to Martino and law enforcement documents, Battista had handed over the reins of the operation to Rhino Ruggieri. Ruggieri was to play the same role Battista had -- mover, fund manager. (Ruggieri did not respond to requests for comment.) But soon enough, Martino says, Rhino learned about the nature of Battista's deal with Donaghy. He and the other Animals who'd been following the bets were not happy. By now the spreads were moving violently. Word about Donaghy had permeated the market, followers following followers. Battista "was just ruining something that was totally quiet, that nobody knew about," said one of the Animals. "He started betting it with everybody and moving the lines like crazy. It was like: Why would you do that?"
In any case, Ruggieri before long decided to shut the whole thing down. The final game, Martino remembers, was a loss.
The effort to hide it was in vain. A grand jury in the case had been convened as early as February, according to FBI documents, and on May 30, Tommy Martino testified before it. Hours later, he called up Donaghy to tell him. In his memoir, Donaghy writes that he was standing on the first tee at his home golf club in Sarasota with a driver in his hands when he took the call from Martino. His body turned numb. He thought he was having a heart attack. "The only concern I had," he wrote, "was saving my own selfish sorry ass." By June 15, Donaghy was sitting inside the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York in downtown Brooklyn, naming names and making a statement.
SIX DAYS LATER, on June 21, Scala, Harris and their boss, Special Agent in Charge Kevin Hallinan, traveled to the NBA offices in midtown Manhattan and sat down with commissioner David Stern and three other league executives: deputy commissioner Adam Silver, president Joel Litvin and senior vice president of security Bernie Tolbert, a former FBI agent. The agents informed Stern that it had come to their attention that one of their veteran refs, Tim Donaghy, had been betting on his own games and giving inside information to a gambling ring, for a fee. The Feds made no mention of game-fixing. To Scala, Stern seemed mostly upset that the NBA's in-house security people had failed to discover Donaghy's wrongdoing before the FBI. The commissioner promised the league's full cooperation.
Today, Scala considers that meeting a mistake. "If you're going to ask me if I would do it differently now, the answer is yes. I would not have gone to brief Stern," Scala told me. (Through the NBA, Stern declined an interview request for this story.) In Donaghy's many conversations with the Feds through these weeks, he had begun pointing fingers and making allegations about other referees -- other refs who may have been corrupt. So the FBI had worked out a plan. "We were prepared to do some undercover things to corroborate Donaghy's story," Scala says. Namely, they were going to wire up Donaghy so he could get other allegedly corrupted NBA referees to incriminate themselves.
About a month after the meeting with Stern, however, the New York Post blared news of the FBI investigation across its front page. "Our plans were blown up by the fact that somebody leaked this," Scala lamented to me. "I don't like to talk in terms of coulda, woulda, shoulda, but if the Post story didn't come out, [Donaghy] would have worn a wire, and I don't know where it would have gone. Things may have been different. That's the bottom line."
Scala, at the time, was livid. He even contacted Murray Weiss, the Post reporter who wrote the story, to uncover the source of the leak. But Weiss, a veteran newsman, protected his source. "He said, 'I can't tell you. It came from above,' " Scala recalls. (When I contacted Weiss, who now works as a producer for CBS News' 48 Hours, he said he didn't recall this conversation.) Scala won't say whether he believes the NBA leaked the story. But Warren Flagg, a private investigator and former FBI agent who worked with Donaghy's attorney during the case, will. "Someone in the NBA notified the press [in order] to stop this investigation, in my opinion. To shut it down."
Weiss disputes that; he told me his tipster wasn't affiliated with the NBA "as far as I know." But the longtime crime reporter says he did at one point talk to a person "involved with Stern and the NBA in that era." The person wanted to deliver a message about Weiss' more critical reporting on the scandal. "I was warned," Weiss told me, "that if I stumbled, Stern would do anything he could to crush me. I was told, 'They're the kind of people who will do anything they can to protect themselves and the game.'"
ACCORDING TO SCALA, the truncated probe meant the Feds left several lines of inquiry hanging. Among them: Who made the real money? Who besides Donaghy, Battista and Martino was in on it?
There have been hints and suggestions. There is a footnote buried deep in Gaming the Game that refers to someone taking home in excess of $200 million. Several sports-betting experts -- two former underground movers and a longtime professional NBA gambler -- agreed that global markets contained enough liquidity in 2007 for an in-the-know bettor to win as much as $100 million.
There's also Scala, who told me he heard from his informants that underground gamblers "could have been making over a hundred million dollars" on Donaghy's games. Perhaps this is why the men who formed Battista's loose, disorderly investor group, the men who were "on the ticket," have, for all these years, remained in the shadows. They were the gamblers and bookmakers closest to Battista. They were among his biggest brokerage clients and most trusted outs. Whether or not Battista made them explicitly aware of his agreement with Donaghy, their money was used to make one very specific genre of bet: games refereed by Tim Donaghy. They were the real moneymakers of the Donaghy scheme.
And now they can be identified.
One of them was a man nicknamed Tiger. In 2003 in Curaçao, when the Animals had made their original deduction and followed the Donaghy-Concannon bets, Tiger had been the leader of the Animals' betting office. "Tiger was the brains behind that group," says one gambler who knew them well. "No way Battista kept this quiet from Tiger," another told me. "Tiger was his boss." They were also brothers-in-law; the women they'd married were sisters. By most accounts, Tony "Tiger" Rufo is no longer a gambler. Over the course of the past decade, he's built a company that has become one of the biggest Planet Fitness franchisees in the nation, with more than 30 locations and exclusive rights to the regions of Philadelphia and Chicago. (Rufo declined to comment for this story.) One of Rufo's business partners in the gyms was his old Animals colleague Rhino Ruggieri. The management entity that controls the gyms is registered as Rhino Holdings, and according to its articles of incorporation, it was formed in Delaware County in February 2008.
Another man who profited off Donaghy was a well-known New York and South Florida bookie and whale who sometimes went by the nickname Popeye on account of his oversize forearms. He was a man who was, as they say, connected; a man from whose open hotel room window once dangled a person in debt to a Bonanno crime family member; a man whose clients included Hollywood celebrities; and a man who, back in June of 2006, had sat with Battista in a VIP box at Citizens Bank Park for an interleague Phillies-Yankees game. That was when he told Popeye that, come the 2006-07 NBA season, Battista would need to increase the size of some of his NBA wagers. These games would be mostly winners, so Popeye should feel free to move them -- and copy them too. Popeye, no dummy, asked the obvious question: Who's the handicapper behind these games? And Battista, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not smartly, gave him the truth. There was this NBA referee named Tim Donaghy ... Popeye's eyes grew wide. Popeye, who died of heart disease in 2014 at age 61, was born in Manhattan and raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, but remained estranged from most of his family for most of the rest of his life. Popeye's real name was Taylor Breton, and he was the great-great-grandson of Marcus Goldman, the founder, in 1869, of Goldman Sachs.
Another key figure was Joseph "Joe Vito" Mastronardo, a major black-market bookie who served as Battista's most significant out. Married to the daughter of powerful Philly mayor Frank Rizzo, who held office in the 1970s, Mastronardo was well-connected. He had many lucrative gambling-related businesses. He served, for example, as a kind of shadow bank for the global underground gambling industry. For that reason, he had a lot of cash on hand. (The last time he was arrested, the police dug up his yard and found sections of PVC pipe buried there. Inside the pipes was $1.1 million.) To help get his clients' bets down, Battista as a bet broker needed Joe Vito. That's why, according to someone close to both men, Battista had no choice but to apprise Mastronardo of the Donaghy situation, to tell Joe Vito that this ref was picking sides in his own games-and, most likely, using his whistle to help the bet win. Joe Vito cannot speak to that today; he was busted in 2012 at age 63 for illegal bookmaking in an unrelated federal case. In 2015, Mastronardo had a stroke and died in prison.
Another moneymaker -- according to people with knowledge of the events -- was a man named Spiros Athanas. Born in Greece in 1960, a Boston street bookie in the 1980s, Athanas by the late 1990s had moved to Jamaica, where he turned himself into a sharp bettor and bookmaker on a global scale. According to multiple sources, Battista first began moving bets for Athanas in 2005. And at some point, per a person close to the situation, Battista had to tell Athanas, a heavy NBA bettor, that Battista believed he had a profitable edge; a different person close to Athanas' syndicate a decade ago told me that Athanas bet more heavily on Donaghy's games in the 2006-07 season than he did on other NBA games. An attorney for Athanas wrote to ESPN that Athanas never "received information that Tim Donaghy ... was making wagers on games in which he was the referee," and so never made any bets based on any knowledge of the scheme. In 2013, Athanas was indicted as part of a federal sports-betting case that was unrelated to Donaghy. He forfeited $5 million, agreed to three years' probation and now lives in the Lakes Region of central New Hampshire, in a home with views of the cold blue lakes and, beyond them, the massed forms of the White Mountains.
ACT 5: THINGS THAT ARE HIDDEN ...
One morning in early July 2007, Ronnie Nunn was asleep in a hotel room in Las Vegas when his cellphone buzzed him awake. Nunn, then the director of NBA officials, was in town for the NBA summer league games held annually among the casinos, where referee candidates from the minors are assessed for possible promotion to the Show. His mind still foggy with sleep, Nunn could hear the voice of his boss, Joel Litvin, then NBA president, asking questions about Tim Donaghy. Litvin's tone was urgent. Had Nunn heard anything about Donaghy's resignation? Had he heard about Donaghy's gambling "issues" -- about what he had done? Now sitting bolt upright, Nunn answered "no" to all the questions. Litvin then filled him in on the worst of it and told him there was an ongoing investigation, instructing him to say nothing about any of it to anyone. Then he hung up.
A few weeks later, four days after the Post story broke, David Stern gave his first news conference. His messaging was clear: Donaghy was a rogue. He'd acted alone. This was an episode of gambling, yes, but almost assuredly not match-fixing. "Indeed," Stern assured the assembled media, "as a matter of his on-court performance, he's in the top tier of accuracy."
Stern's conclusion that Donaghy did not fix games would be validated by the federal investigation. Donaghy, in August 2007, and Martino, in April 2008, would plead guilty to two charges: conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to transmit gambling information. Battista would cut a deal, pleading guilty in April 2008 only to the charge of transmission of gambling information. Martino would receive a year and Donaghy and Battista 15 months each in federal prison. But while Donaghy would admit to betting on his own games in his plea agreement, he would not admit to fixing games.
Around the same time as Stern's news conference, the NBA also commissioned an investigation, to be led by Larry Pedowitz, a partner with the elite New York law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. With a team of four young lawyers, Pedowitz took a little over a year to conduct the probe and write up the findings in a 133-page report. (Pedowitz, who has retired from his firm, did not respond to requests for comment. David Anders, an attorney who helped Pedowitz run the investigation, declined to comment.) His brief was to audit the entire NBA referee program for corruption, but he also had a narrower goal: figuring out whether Donaghy had indeed fixed games. And, if he did, what was his method?
To answer those questions, Pedowitz convened a group of NBA basketball operations personnel to watch games worked by Donaghy during the 2006-07 season -- but the ensuing report did not fully explain the limited number of games they decided to review. The FBI had discovered that Donaghy had wagered on as many as 40 of his own games with Concannon during each of the three seasons between 2004 and 2006. Based on information from Tommy Martino, among others, there were reasons to suspect Donaghy had money on the vast majority of his games during the fateful 2006-07 season, from the very beginning until as late as April 11 -- 65 games in all. Yet the number of games reviewed by Pedowitz's group of NBA employees was only 17.
In this, Pedowitz followed the lead of federal investigators, who had analyzed video of Donaghy's games -- recruiting Nunn himself to review eight of them -- based on Donaghy's admission to the Feds that he'd wagered on just 16 of his own games in the final season of his career. (The Feds never said which 16 games they were, so Pedowitz's team had to deduce them from court documents and FBI requests for game videos, and the set of possible games it came up with was 17.)
The NBA employees "examined every play and determined whether, in their view, Donaghy's calls (or absence of calls) were correct." According to the report, only one of those 17 games, Pistons at Nets on Dec. 16, 2006, "raised concerns that Donaghy's calls and substantial errors might have been aimed at favoring Detroit (which covered the point spread)." In this game, the second after the marriage with Battista, Donaghy called five straight fouls on New Jersey in the fourth quarter when the spread was in doubt. Just one game of potential funny business out of 17 wasn't nearly enough to accuse the referee of anything.
And so, in the end, on the question of whether Donaghy fixed, Pedowitz upheld the findings of the U.S. Attorney's Office -- which never charged him with such crimes. "Based on our review, and with the information we have available, we are unable to contradict the government's conclusion."
"You could see he was calling more fouls on the team he bet against and less fouls on the team he bet on. That was obvious." A gamber in The Office at the time
But Scala, the FBI agent who pursued the case, has doubts. "Donaghy says he never threw a game," Scala told me. "But you know what? That never really flew with us." According to Scala, his and the FBI's position has always been that Donaghy's deals with Concannon and Battista irrevocably "tainted" his capacity for officiating, even if only subconsciously. (This notion even found its way into the Pedowitz report itself.) Scala recalls that he and Donaghy went around and around on the issue. "I said to him, 'Listen, don't tell me that you have some independent, decision-making ability in your mind's computer that's going to be unbiased, because that's not going to f---ing happen. All those gray-area decisions you have to make, Tim? Because you're betting on the game, your judgment is off -- and you threw the game.'"
Still, in Scala's telling, the FBI eventually just had to move on. Short of an outright confession, how could you prove that Donaghy had fixed the games anyway? And what more did you want? The guy's career was ruined and his life in shambles. They'd shut down a Gambino profit center. They were an organized crime squad, dealing with murder and mayhem. They had to get back to it. The Feds' job, on this one, was done.
IT WASN'T JUST Donaghy who tried to convince the FBI that he didn't fix games. The NBA did too. Whenever Scala's special agents interviewed NBA executives for the case, they heard a refrain: "They told us, 'You can't fix a game in the NBA. It's impossible,'" Scala says. Too many invested observers -- referee supervisors, coaches, players, owners, media, fans -- would be too quick to complain if they saw something fishy, the NBA argued. But as Scala put it, "When someone tells you something's impossible, you know they're full of s---, because nothing's impossible. But that was the company line."
Simply put, to show that Donaghy fixed games would suggest that it's easier for gamblers to manipulate games than any sports league would want to admit. Conspiracy theories about corrupted refs have dogged the league for decades. For that reason, the NBA is particularly wary of any hint of the fix. Even if it made them strange bedfellows, then, Donaghy's denials of match-fixing guilt were, in the end, a gift.
After Donaghy, the NBA put into place a host of new measures designed to detect any nascent game-fixing schemes. They included a beefed-up computerized system for monitoring refs' foul calls; enhanced scrutiny of betting-line fluctuations that might reveal suspicious wagering; the hiring of staff with experience in law enforcement, security and data analysis; and even the cultivation of tipsters within the sports-gambling industry who could relay rumors of possible corruption.
But at the time the scandal broke, the NBA closed ranks. Lamell McMorris served as the lead negotiator for the referees' union in its collective bargaining with the league. "David Stern and I had never interacted much, and when we did it was not positive," McMorris told me. "But Donaghy changed our working relationship. It was either sink or swim together for all of us."
When the FBI began interviewing Donaghy's referee colleagues, the agents, according to Scala, eventually spoke to perhaps 10 of them. According to the FBI's investigation files, obtained in an FOIA request, some referees had to be served with subpoenas before they would talk to the Feds. The notes taken by the agents during these interviews have a mantra-like similarity: "recalled feeling 'shocked' when he learned about Donaghy ... did not discuss this matter with other referees" ... "described his initial reaction as 'surprised' and 'shocked,' and stated that he did not discuss this matter with any other referees" ... "described Donaghy as a very accurate referee with few missed calls" ... "did not hear other refs discuss TD ... thought he was a good ref."
To this day, what amounts to something like a self-imposed gag order on the subject of Donaghy persists, even among those refs who no longer work for the league. To discuss Donaghy with more than a dozen of them now is to sense that their silence has more to do with the fact that they hate the guy. None of them says anymore that Donaghy "was a good ref."
"I didn't touch it 10 years ago, and I'm not touching it now. ... Don't be fishing, because you ain't getting anything out of me." ... "I refuse to comment on him. I refuse to talk about him." ... "No one wants to talk about that. Or even put him in any kind of limelight at all. It's despicable." ... "I think there's enough that's been written about Tim Donaghy."
Not every retired referee is reticent. There is, for one, Ed T. Rush, former NBA director of officials, a Philadelphia native and, for 32 years, a referee at the highest level, starting in 1966. When Donaghy was still slogging it in the minors in the early 1990s, Rush had taken it upon himself to mentor his young fellow Philadelphian. The Philly ref blood runs deep. "His father is an outstanding man," Rush, now retired, says today. "We all had expectations that Tim was going to be really, really good. And he could have been."
After the scandal, Rush was among those NBA personnel tasked by Pedowitz with reviewing a set of Donaghy games for evidence of game-fixing. Rush recalls watching maybe 10 such games. What did he see? When I asked, I expected Rush to answer much the same as Nunn had to me: Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Instead, he surprised me. "There were lots of whistles in the game, by him, that did not fit the game," he says. "It's called literal interpretation."
In the early 2000s, Rush went on to explain, the NBA undertook a wholesale revision of its refereeing guidelines, changes that would naturally lead to the entire NBA referee corps calling a greater volume of fouls, at least initially. All this occurred while Rush was director of officials, from 1998 to 2003. "And like everything else, when you make changes, initially you'll have an overreaction. Typically. Then people settle in."
But Donaghy didn't settle in. Rush, as director of refs, took notice but didn't think much of it at the time. It was only later, in 2007, after Donaghy had been exposed, that Donaghy's letter-of-the-law foul-calling acquired a darker hue. Watching games for Pedowitz, Rush noticed the same propensity to call "literally interpreted" fouls in situations where they were not warranted -- ones that ran counter to the flow of the game. Only this time, Rush viewed these calls with suspicion. Still, as Rush explained to me over the phone, these were just "trends," not "red flags," and the NBA and the Pedowitz people were interested only in red flags. "They were looking for something real obvious. A play that had to be called one way and that [Donaghy] called the other way. That's what they were looking for. I didn't find it."
In the end, Rush felt there was no need to relay his observations to the Pedowitz people. He felt the trends were embodied in the stats: The volume of Donaghy's calls was noticeable; it must be obvious to all. And so nothing about any of this would end up in Pedowitz's final report.
ACT 6: ... CAN BE FOUND
What does it mean to "fix" a game? And how, in turn, could you uncover evidence of it years, even a decade, later? The methods of fixing are rather straightforward. A player who's on the take can shave points, purposely missing baskets, say, in an effort to lower the score for his side. A ref, on the other hand, can effectively add points -- calling fouls that result in free throws. And if a ref were to target one particular team with fouls, he could push the score for the opposing side higher than it otherwise would be.
So where to begin? Donaghy officiated in 40 games between the marriage on Dec. 12, 2006, and March 21, 2007, which according to one source is likely the last game before Ruggieri took control of the scheme. We began by obtaining the trading histories for those games and through those determined which team was the more heavily bet upon. Furthermore, exceedingly large price jumps or plunges, or even the timing of certain price moves, could signal the trading strategies of a gambling syndicate. For all their desire to ply their trade in secrecy, sophisticated gambling syndicates often leave traces. Through them, we deduced which side Donaghy had picked for Battista to bet on.
"By six points either way. That's what he told me." Tommy Martino on how much Donaghy said he could influence an NBA game
Next, we pulled game videos for all 40 games and employed a researcher with an extensive background in officiating to watch them closely, logging all of Donaghy's and his fellow referees' foul calls. (Of those calls, 2.6 percent could not conclusively be attributed to a referee and were excluded from the study.)
It is normal, of course, for a referee to call more fouls against one team than the other. There will almost always be an imbalance of calls. But examine that imbalance against the financial imbalances discovered in the trading histories-which side received the heavier betting -- and the important comparison isn't between Donaghy's foul calls and the team that won the game. The important comparison is to the team that received the greater amount of betting dollars.
Once we completed all of that, what we uncovered was that Donaghy's foul calls favored the team that received the heavier betting 70 percent of the time. But we also found that in 10 games during that 40-game span, one team was defeating the other team to such a degree that the spread was rarely in doubt. A referee wishing to manipulate game scores on these occasions would likely find he lacked much ability to sway the matter -- or the need to do so, if the score was already in his favor. And so, controlling for blowouts by removing those games from the ledger, what we ultimately found was this: Donaghy favored the side that attracted more betting dollars in 23 of those 30 competitive games, or 77 percent of the time. In four games, he called the game neutrally, 50-50. The number of games in which Tim Donaghy favored the team that attracted fewer betting dollars? Three.
In other words, Donaghy's track record of making calls that favored his bet was 23-3-4.
If one assumes there should be no correlation between wagers and the calls made by a referee, the odds of that disparity* might seem unlikely. And they are. When presented with that data, ESPN statisticians crunched the numbers and revealed: The odds that Tim Donaghy would have randomly made calls that produced that imbalance are 6,155-to-1.
We also passed along our data to Keith Crank, who served for 15 years as the program director in statistics and probability at the National Science Foundation. To control for bias, he performed what's called a hypothesis test on these numbers, which would produce a P value, or a probability, for Donaghy's calls in each game in the 2006-07 season. He then did the same set of calculations for the other two referees on the floor in each of Donaghy's games. Crank's method boasted a certain elegance: It would capture any bias a ref might display in as simple a way as possible. Blowouts would be included. No line-movement data would be required.
Crank then calculated the P value for just Donaghy's calls for the entirety of the season in question. It was 0.232. In other words, there was a 23.2 percent chance these foul calls would happen randomly. Unlikely but not outrageously so. But Crank didn't stop there. There was, after all, that definitive frame within the 2006-07 season: the 40 games between the beginning of the marriage and the end of Battista's involvement. And if you exclude two split-foul calls -- the same foul called by two refs simultaneously and credited to both -- the P value for Donaghy's calls in that set of games was 0.041, or 4.1 percent.
To professional statisticians, any P value of less than 5 percent constitutes a signal that is "significant." It means you've found something. In our case, it means there's just a 4.1 percent chance that an unbiased ref would have randomly made the calls that Tim Donaghy did during his crooked run.
IN A STATEMENT to ESPN at the end of January, the NBA said: "To be clear, the Pedowitz team and the NBA performed substantial statistical and data-based analyses to determine whether Donaghy attempted to manipulate games he officiated. All of our efforts were focused on understanding precisely what he did and how he did it so we would be best equipped to protect the integrity of our games going forward."
The NBA wouldn't share the specifics of those statistical analyses, but it did describe them in summary form. According to the league, the studies were based on "the entirety of the period during which Donaghy had admitted to gambling on games," including 194 games refereed by Donaghy himself, and entailed examinations of "officiating accuracy," "lopsided [foul] calling and the magnitude of lopsidedness," the timing of his calls during games, foul-call "streaks" and call volumes, along with an analysis of "all associated betting lines and movements."
"These analyses," the NBA told ESPN, "did not support your finding that an unbiased official would not have made the calls that Donaghy did."
TIM DONAGHY HAS always publicly denied that he deliberately manipulated games so as to win bets, arguing that he based his picks on insider information. Privately, however, he has at times taken a different position.
Ever since Donaghy emerged from prison in 2009, he has lived in the same unit in a town house apartment complex in Sarasota. He has given up making betting picks for a tout service, which he did for a time after his release from prison. His income now reportedly comes from rental properties he owns.
But before Donaghy even got out of prison, an imprint of Random House was reportedly set to publish his memoir. Per an account in New York magazine in 2015, the NBA somehow persuaded Random House to kill the book. Donaghy then found another publisher: a small, independent, newly established outfit -- so new that Personal Foul would be its inaugural volume -- based in Tampa, Florida, and operated by a political consultant and publicist named Shawna Vercher. That relationship would eventually turn acrimonious, winding up in court, with Donaghy successfully suing Vercher in 2010 and accusing her of stealing his book proceeds.
But the genesis of their falling-out occurred when Donaghy was still making the rounds to promote the book, according to documents filed in court as part of the lawsuit. The falling-out involved a polygraph test. Vercher told me that, in December 2009, after questioning from reporters, including ones from ESPN, she had wanted Donaghy to take a polygraph that asked point-blank whether he'd fixed games. Donaghy said he couldn't do that, Vercher recalled in a deposition. His attorneys, he told her, had advised him not to. Vercher asked him why.
Because, he replied, he would fail it.
IT WOULD NOT be the only time Tim Donaghy would come clean.
"He can influence a game six points either way -- that's what he told me," Tommy Martino said as we sat in the break room of his family's hair salon, where he's worked since he got out of prison in August 2009 after serving 10 months.
It took a second for me to comprehend what Martino was telling me. "When did he tell you this?" I asked. Martino couldn't remember, not exactly. "During all this s---," he said.
Martino did recall Donaghy telling him that certain games would be unfixable. In Martino's words, "Blowouts, he can't control." If the score in a game widened too far beyond the betting line, Donaghy told Martino, Donaghy would be powerless to rein it back in. Because then "you gotta call a lot of fouls," Martino said. "And it's too obvious."
A PROFESSIONAL GAMBLER once confronted Donaghy about the scandal. This was a few years after Donaghy's release from prison. A close observer of basketball, the gambler had become acutely curious after suffering losses on Donaghy-reffed games during that season.
The gambler described the conversation with Donaghy to me on the condition that I not use his name in the story. To the gambler's enduring surprise, Donaghy acknowledged that, yes, he deliberately called more fouls against the side he'd bet against. He told the gambler about other tactics as well.
"He said he liked to call an illegal defense call, right away, in the first minute." That way, the gambler said, Donaghy could force the side he'd picked against to play a little less aggressively on defense. "He said he'd pick on the big center, or the most valuable player of each team, and he'd try to get them in foul trouble."
The gambler added, "He also told me they were betting millions and he was an idiot not to ask for more."
AND THEN THERE was a former friend of Donaghy's named Aron Kulle, who recalled the time Donaghy came to his office in Sarasota in a state of high anxiety. Like so many others in Donaghy's life, Kulle and the referee would eventually have a vitriolic falling-out; at one point, Donaghy won a stalking injunction against Kulle. But at the time of the visit, in late 2007, Kulle said, the men were close.
Since moving to Sarasota in 2005, Donaghy had often volunteered for the local youth sports leagues that Kulle ran out of a community center. Now, after Donaghy's downfall but before he headed to prison, Donaghy broke down and wept inside Kulle's office. "My life is ruined," Kulle recalled Donaghy saying.
The office's windows looked out onto a basketball court, where children on youth teams were just then practicing. Their sneakers squeaked on the hardwood. Kulle got up, crossed the room and closed the blinds. That's when Donaghy "laid everything out" and "spilled everything," Kulle said.
"He knew what the spreads were going to be. He knew how to control it. He knew how to get into other referees' heads too, about different players ... because [the other refs] would follow him. ... He admitted to fixing the games."
When Donaghy had finished, Kulle leaned back in his chair. He'd been raptly listening to the referee's story -- the gambling, the cash, the secrecy, the corruption, the endless search by human beings to gain an edge, the gross opportunism that seemed almost contagious, the almost shockingly easy fixing of a major American sport -- but now there was one big thing on Kulle's mind, and it wasn't the moral of the story. Or, actually, it was the moral of this story.
"If what you're telling me is true," Kulle said he told Donaghy, "you're gonna be rich."
Kulle's eyes were practically dollar signs. He was already thinking, How can I get a piece of this action? Can I maybe even invest in this thing? In that moment -- like the many people before him who'd expanded and abetted the scheme and profited from it -- Aron Kulle sensed opportunity.
"All I'm seeing," he said he told Donaghy, "is a movie."
Additional research by Jim Keller.