If you’re looking for sympathetic characters in the new Netflix documentary Untold: Operation Flagrant Foul, about the Tim Donaghy NBA refereeing scandal, well, you won’t find many. A redemption story this is not, but it’s incredibly relevant to how Americans’ attitudes — in particular, those Americans who are in charge of major sporting organizations — have evolved since Donaghy gambled on games he officiated, and how his tips helped fatten the wallets of the Gambino crime family.
Timmy (Donaghy), Tommy (Martino), and Jimmy (Battista) all attended the same Catholic high school in suburban Philadelphia, which we learn has always been a hotbed of NBA refereeing talent (Joey Crawford and Steve Javie hail from the same area). Timmy and Tommy were thick as thieves, whereas Jimmy counted Tommy as a friend, but Timmy and Jimmy were mere acquaintances. (If you’re unfamiliar with Donaghy’s story, there are multiple spoilers ahead.)
At some point after the trio graduated, Timmy became a pro basketball referee and Jimmy started working at a restaurant called Lombardo’s, which doubled as an underground bookmaking operation. Jimmy soon graduated to taking high-dollar sports bets as part of a crew of Philadelphia bookmakers known as “the Animals,” but he had a falling out with the group in the mid-2000s and ventured out on his own.
By this point, Donaghy was an up-and-coming NBA official who quietly wagered on football and baseball through a golfing buddy of his by the name of Jack Concannon. One day, Jack asked Timmy for three NBA plays — all of which cashed.
“It’s a line I shouldn’t have been near,” said Donaghy, who noted that, at the time, NBA referees were contractually prohibited from all forms of gambling, though almost none of them kept their hands completely clean.
Jimmy knew Jack because Jack got his action down with the Animals, who, once they found out how sharp Jack’s information was, began heavily piggybacking on Jack’s $2,000 bets by wagering “10, 20 times that amount.”
The Elvis of fixing games
When Jimmy parted ways with the Animals, he asked Tommy to set up a sit-down with Timmy at a Philadelphia-area Marriott. Tommy, knowing that Timmy would not knowingly take part in such a meeting, didn’t inform the referee that their old pal would be in the room.
But the three proceeded to converse anyway, and struck a deal whereby Jimmy would pay Timmy $2,000 per winning NBA pick, but wouldn’t have to account for any losses. Timmy said he agreed to do this because Jimmy threatened to harm both his livelihood and family.
“The job I had, the family I had, I really didn’t have a choice,” said Donaghy. “If it wasn’t for that, I definitely would not have bet with him because I knew he was a schmuck and an a**hole.”
Unsurprisingly, Jimmy had a different recollection of the meeting.
“Timmy was f**kin’ thrilled to work with us because he wanted to make money,” said Battista, who denied threatening Donaghy — an account Martino vouched for.
However their agreement was forged, Timmy provided Jimmy with an instant winner when he recommended betting Boston to win in a game against Philly because the 76ers were tanking to improve their draft position. The Celtics won by 20. Later, Donaghy and the two other officials working a Denver game conspired to call palming on Allen Iverson instead of ignoring the star’s infractions, which was the status quo at the time. Denver wound up scoring a season-low 84 points in a double-digit loss to Utah after Donaghy told Battista to back the Jazz.
During the course of their collaboration (with Martino as the go-between), the pair went 37-10 based on Donaghy’s information, with Battista moving $2 million to $3 million in bets per game, some coming from “the most prominent gamblers in the world.”
All the while, Donaghy insisted he never fixed a game.
“I had inside information, and that’s all I needed to make these picks correct,” he said.
Again, Battista remembers things differently.
“He [Donaghy] has a f**king whistle in his pocket. He has the lottery ticket,” said Battista, who called Donaghy “Elvis” because “Elvis was the king of rock, [and] Timmy was the king of fixing games.”
While pop culture’s real-time infatuation with the Mob basically ended with the 1992 conviction of John Gotti, the FBI continued to investigate organized crime and learned from a peripheral wiretap that the Gambinos had an NBA referee in their “hip pocket.” That referee, by way of Battista, was Donaghy. In fact, the FBI estimated that Battista’s bookmaking operation enriched the Mafia by “somewhere between $20 and $30 million.”
It wasn’t long before Tommy, Jimmy, and Timmy were all charged with crimes ranging from illegal gambling to wire fraud. Each of the high school classmates pled out and received prison sentences of about a year.
But there’s more to the story.
Did the NBA manipulate officiating?
Late in Donaghy’s first game as an NBA official, the hometown Pacers’ Reggie Miller leaned into Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon and drew contact. Donaghy called an offensive foul on Miller, leading several fans to rain the contents of their beverage cups onto the court.
In a later game, Chicago’s Michael Jordan dunked on a defender after executing a spin move. But Donaghy called him for traveling, explaining in the film that the NBA had made a special point of encouraging its officials to make exactly that call.
Donaghy made the right call in each instance. Problem was, he blew the whistle on the wrong players.
After that, “I called what the NBA wanted me to call,” said Donaghy, explaining that the league made clear its intent to protect big-name players and teams and have playoff games officiated to result in seven-game series whenever possible.
Nowhere did Donaghy’s claims seem more valid than in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, which found the Lakers shooting 18 more fourth-quarter free throws than Sacramento to force a Game 7 back in Los Angeles. Donaghy was not part of the officiating crew for that game.
While Donaghy and Martino cut deals with prosectors in part to spare their families the ordeal of a trial, Battista originally signaled a willingness to fight his charges. But, he said, once he and his hardball attorney, Jack McMahon, threatened to call every referee to the stand to discuss how they might have run afoul of league — or legal — policy, Battista was quickly offered a deal where he would only have to plead guilty to illegal gambling, something he was willing to do all along.
“The NBA did not want this to go to trial, whether it was me or Battista,” said Donaghy.
Upon receiving word of the plea bargain, Battista thought to himself, “Holy s**t, David Stern controls everybody.”
Integrity comes full circle
Largely credited with lifting the league from its cocaine-addled morass of the 1970s and early ‘80s, Stern was the NBA’s commissioner at the time of the Donaghy scandal. When confronted with the referee’s accusation that the NBA manipulated its officials into calling games a certain way, Stern invoked gangster-speak in calling Donaghy a “singing, cooperating witness.”
Stern pledged to cooperate with the FBI’s investigation into whether nefarious behavior among officials extended beyond Donaghy. But, as former FBI agent Phil Scala recounted in the documentary, “We got what they wanted to give us, but it was all bulls**t.”
Furthermore, just as Donaghy agreed to go undercover and wear a wire in hopes of gathering dirt on his colleagues, word of the referee’s situation was leaked to the press, short-circuiting law enforcement’s attempt to delve deeper. While Donaghy’s defense attorney didn’t directly accuse Stern and the NBA of orchestrating the leak, he accurately pointed out that the league was the only entity with anything to gain from such an outcome.
“Once you lose integrity, it’s difficult to get it back,” said Scala.
About that: Before the closing credits, the film makes a point of mentioning that, since sports betting in the U.S. became legal outside of Nevada in 2018 (four years after Stern stepped down as commissioner), the NBA has entered into official partnerships with several sportsbooks to protect the integrity of the game. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Donaghy’s saga, it’s that when it comes to understanding and regulating humans’ affinity for risk and vice, it’s better to have things out in the open than in the dens of Animals.
Photo: Michael Chow/USA TODAY