Does This Ex-Con, Ex-Referee Know the NBA Better Than LeBron?

Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy. Photo: Simone Lueck
Does This
Ex-Con Know the NBA Better Than LeBron
Disgraced referee Tim Donaghy sees a different game from the rest of us. Which is why, out of prison, he’s now sports gambling’s golden boy.
Photographs by Simone Lueck

On Easter Sunday, Timothy Francis Donaghy, a self-described “good Irish Catholic boy from Philly,” attended the 7:30 a.m. Mass at St. Martha’s church in Sarasota, Florida, receiving Communion to cleanse his soul. “My mother calls every weekend to make sure I go,” he says, then adds, “I lived with my parents until I was 27.”

On this Easter, Donaghy attended Mass with his daughter, Molly, 13, and his girlfriend of six years, Carolyn Thomas, a blonde hairdresser. But some Sundays Donaghy goes to Mass alone. “I’m Catholic, I’m conditioned to confess,” he says. But “it’s been hard to forgive myself. My sins changed the lives of my four daughters. My wife divorced me. God had given me everything. A great job, money, a wonderful family. I knew it was wrong, but I thought gambling was a venial sin. That’s why I didn’t confess it to a priest until after I was caught.” 

Donaghy had been an NBA referee for nine years when, in 2003, he began to place bets on NBA games — though he swore in an FBI lie-detector test, which he passed, that he never “fixed” a game with dubious calls. “I didn’t have to,” he says. “It was too easy using my insider’s knowledge.” After he resigned from the NBA and pleaded guilty in 2007, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison, lost what he describes as his $300,000 annual salary and his six-figure pension, and was ordered to pay $195,000 in restitution. His gambling exploits netted him only $100,000 in winning bets, he swears. “But I didn’t really do it for the money.”

A few days before Easter, at 8:30 a.m., Donaghy and I are sitting at the kitchen counter of his modest townhouse in Sarasota, studying his website, Refpicks. It’s a handicapping service for sports gamblers that employs a dozen other handicappers around the country who specialize in sports other than basketball. Donaghy himself only makes picks for the NBA, using his knowledge of the officials for each game. “I’m the only handicapper in the country who bases his picks on the refs,” he says. He’s successful roughly 60 percent of the time — that’s about five points higher than most professional gamblers, which means that in the world of sports gambling, the name Tim Donaghy is gold. In the real world, that name is mud. Donaghy is usually referred to in the media with a prefix, like a tail pinned to a donkey: “disgraced referee” Tim Donaghy.

Donaghy’s NBA-Finals commentary: The former ref walks us through what he’s seen in the Cleveland Cavaliers–Golden State Warriors series. Game 2: “The games are way too physical so far. I have no idea why the refs are allowing this, but the league should come in before the third game and say, ‘This is what we need to be corrected.’”

Many subscribers to Refpicks are small-time bettors. They can pay as little as $20 for a basic tip or $299 for a week’s subscription to Donaghy’s picks. The bigger gamblers pay Donaghy $6,000 a year for his information and guidance, and some of his whales will pay him up to $50,000 a year for personal advice, which Donaghy delivers over the telephone. He pulls up his profits for the first three months of 2015 on his computer to show me. More than six figures. When I start to jot the number down, Donaghy panics. “Don’t write that,” he says. “My ex-wife and the IRS will come after me.

“These guys are not professional gamblers,” he says. “They’re successful lawyers, doctors, businessmen, who can bet as much as 100 G’s on a game for their entertainment.” But what they want, of course, is to win.

“The NBA is entertainment, too, not sports,” he says. And the refs are the closest thing the league has to dramaturges. They can make a big difference, even when they don’t mean to: A few years ago, an academic study demonstrated that in the NBA, the referees confer an advantage on the home team. Particular refs respond in particular ways, of course, which is something that a veteran like Tim Donaghy knows. He also knows which refs have histories with which players and which coaches, and a pretty good sense of how those histories will play out on the court. He knows which coaches can bully refs and which can’t, and he knows which refs are especially likely to defer to superstars or to give an advantageous call to one team or player to make up for an earlier mistake. These are all small effects, but they add up, and, especially in the playoffs, when games tend to be tight, they can explain why one team advances while another goes home — and why some gamblers win while others don’t. 

Donaghy works seven days a week, an hour and a half in the morning and an hour and a half at night. The day I’m with him, at precisely 9 a.m., Donaghy receives a phone call from Danny Biancullo, a.k.a. “Danny B,” a northeastern handicapper and sports-talk-radio-show host. Biancullo has the gravelly voice one would expect of a sports handicapper. He mentions the name of another gambler to Donaghy and says, “This guy loves ya, pal.”

Donaghy says, “He’s on an eight-to-one win streak, 30 G’s.”

Danny B complains about the northeastern weather. “Still snowing. My Maserati won’t drive in the snow.” Then, “How’s Molly?” Donaghy says, “Molly’s good. How’s your son?” Danny B says, “He’s playing the saxophone now. I can’t concentrate on the games.”

Game 2: “The league doesn’t want the series to be decided in the last second on a physical play at the buzzer and have the ref miss the call as he did in Game 2 with 1:36 left in overtime. That happened in Game 2. LeBron James was clobbered on a shot and no whistle was blown. There’s no logical reason for ref Tony Brothers not to call that foul.”

They discuss two NBA games, and Donaghy offers his thoughts about the referees managing each. One of them, he says, “can be controlled” — lobbied by a coach into giving favorable calls to that team. As it happens, that referee is officiating a game featuring an especially skilled lobbyist. He suggests betting on that coach’s team. The other game’s ref not only “can’t be controlled,” he won’t even give the home team a typical home advantage. Donaghy suggests picking against them. That night, both his picks covered their spread and were winners for him.

Donaghy doesn’t much watch the NBA, and when he does he just studies video of the last few minutes of games that ended with a controversy. “I’ll look for a ref’s missed calls,” he says. “In a Cleveland game in March, a Cleveland player kicked the ball out of bounds but the ref missed it and gave the ball to Cleveland. Now after the game, when he sees video showing his mistake, it’ll affect the ref’s next game with Cleveland. He feels he owes that visiting team a call. So I look for that next Cleveland game with that ref and that same visiting team. Sometimes, too, if a coach complains about a ref to the media, that ref will want to stick it up his ass the next time he works that coach’s game.” Game 2 of this year’s finals is a good example — two calls late in overtime went against LeBron James, a phenomenon so unusual the announcers couldn’t stop talking about it. “LeBron James was clobbered on a shot and no whistle was called,” Donaghy tells me after Game 2 — calls the NBA later acknowledged the officials had missed. “There’s no logical reason for ref Tony Brothers not to call that foul. It could’ve cost Cleveland the game. Just like those two no-foul calls in overtime on jump balls. The league’s lucky Cleveland won Game 2 or those three blown fouls could’ve determined the series.”

These are the kinds of plays Donaghy focuses on, trying to determine whether the ref made the right call, blew it accidentally, or blew it for a reason — a vendetta against a coach, say. If the ref just blew the call accidentally, then the next game he might feel compelled to give that team a few extra calls, he says. If he blew a call on purpose, then Donaghy figures he’ll do that whenever he faces that coach again.

Of course, the NBA denies that its referees are influenced in this way, or that they’d ever feel obligated to give a team a makeup call (though the idea is so common that television announcers invoke it to explain confusing calls). The great insight of his operation is that refs are petty creatures at the center of an extremely high-stakes environment. Donaghy says refs are paid in the low-to-mid six figures, plus expenses and a few hundred dollars per diem. “We’re on the road 27 days a month during the season,” he says, “which is fine, if you’ve got a bad marriage.” He says refs are small-minded men with big egos “who resent the fact they don’t get the recognition the players do. They think the fans come to see them. So they hotdog it, like Joey Crawford.” That’s a ref Donaghy reportedly once punched out in a fit of anger. “If a player’s ready to shoot a free throw, Crawford will grab the ball from him and rush over to the scorer’s table and begin screaming about something.” That way, he knows the cameras will follow him.

Game 2: “It could’ve cost Cleveland the game. Just like those two no-foul calls in overtime on jump balls. The league’s lucky Cleveland won Game 2 or those three blown fouls could’ve determined the series. I think the league will get this cleaned up in Game 3 and the refs will blow lot of early whistles to get it done.”

Mostly, Donaghy says, refs get along fine with players, but that’s because they always want something from them. “They’ll ask Michael Jordan for a pair of his sneakers, signed, and then sell them for 20 G’s online. Then they give Jordan all the calls.” Of course, the NBA denies this kind of thing, too, but Donaghy tells me a story about a baseball umpire who went over to a star player before the game and asked him to autograph some baseballs. The player told him to get lost. When the player came to bat in the first inning, the umpire called balls in the dirt strikes. Before he went back to the dugout, the player said, “Send those baseballs to me after the game and I’ll sign them for you.”

The coaches are a different story, since they don’t have anything to offer refs. “It’s mostly the coaches the refs don’t like,” says Donaghy. “Like Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. Jackson is a master at setting up refs, always telling them they’re against his team, playing mind games. Now, Popovich they hate because he won’t take shit from any ref. He’s not afraid of a 26-year-veteran ref or a new one. And he only complains if he has a legit point.” Refs hate some owners, too, like the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban. “Not only because he acts like a child,” he says, “but because he wants the games called by the rules, not to favor stars or to advance a big-market team in the playoffs.’”

New refs “are weak and walk away from controversy,” Donaghy says, but a few old-timers, like Crawford, “don’t take shit from veteran players. Crawford once threw Tim Duncan out of a game for laughing at him,” though he got suspended for the rest of the season as a result. “Refs used to be like cops, they did whatever they wanted to. But no longer, because of video.”

Donaghy didn’t much like prison. “Too many criminals,” he says. Men who had killed informants, meth dealers, wives. He called his mother: “Mom! Oh my God! I don’t belong here! I could get killed.” But that didn’t stop him from ratting out his fellow inmates for gambling. Then he joined a white-power gang to avoid retribution (he didn’t want to get the tattoo and says they let him shave his head instead).

When he was paroled in 2009, he returned to Sarasota and slept on a sofa in his friend’s office. His daughters were humiliated and his ex-wife hated him, he says, so, in despair, he visited his parents’ home on the Jersey Shore. He sat with his father in an office decorated with memorabilia from his father’s NCAA refereeing career. Donaghy noticed “a sizable void on the wall” that had once been filled by a framed newspaper photograph of Donaghy and his father as two famously respected referees. When I ask Donaghy if he’s reconciled with his father, he says, yes, they’re close again. “Did your father put back up that framed newspaper photo of you two as refs?” I ask. “No,” he says.

We are driving around Sarasota, in a middle-class neighborhood of concrete-block homes with scruffy grass yards. Donaghy’s a landlord here and points out homes he owns while he talks.

He says his first job out of prison was as “a counselor at a gambling-treatment center, but the guy never paid me.” He had other offers, from gamblers, Vegas, bookies, to be an NBA handicapper, but his probation officer forbade him to take any job related to gambling until his parole was up. “I was on ice,” Donaghy says, before his book, Personal Foul, came out. But the book didn’t make any money, according to his publisher, Shawna Vercher. Donaghy was certain she “was trying to steal my money.” Vercher claimed she sent all of Donaghy’s royalties to the U.S. Attorney’s office as restitution for his crimes.

Game 3: “I was disappointed refs still tolerated a physical game. I’d picked Golden State and Cleveland stole it. Curry, a slick shooter but not a physical player, is now at a disadvantage against James, a physical player.”

“We terminated his contract when he began to threaten us physically,” Vercher told me. “He demanded we pay him in cash or else.” So Donaghy got a lawyer, Nick Mooney, and sued Vercher for his money. The suit ended in June 2012, when a St. Petersburg jury awarded Donaghy more than $1.5 million from Vercher’s now-bankrupt company. Vercher’s appeal was recently denied, and Donaghy is still waiting for his money.

When I talked to Mooney, he said he was determined to pursue the judgment against Vercher “even if we have to garnish $200 a week from her wages.” He described his client as “a pretty decent guy who made a really stupid decision. He’s a caring person, a good father. His flaw is his temper. He reacts too quickly.”

When I asked Donaghy for his ex-wife Kim’s telephone number, he gave it to me and said, “But she won’t talk to you.” When I called her a few weeks later, she did, a lot. “I never knew Tim was gambling on basketball,” Kim said. “I thought just golf and poker. When he was arrested, it was devastating. I knew it was over. The marriage, the lifestyle. It had always been a very difficult marriage, and this was the last straw. He was never a very good father.” I told her Donaghy told me his daughters were “everything to him” and that “without, them I woulda jumped off the Skyway Bridge.”

Kim said, “He does nothing for his daughters and never will. He tried to make me sign a paper for $100-a-week child support, but I wouldn’t. The thing you have to understand is that Tim’s only addiction is money. How to get it and how to keep it.” (“I have no idea what she’s talking about,” Donaghy says.) Kim went on, “Tim has a problem with women. That’s why we got thrown out of the country club.” The one in Sarasota? “No, the one in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Our whole family got thrown out because of him.”

Donaghy pulls into the driveway of a house being renovated by his crew. A tall, thin, copper-colored man is standing on the roof giving instructions to his smaller, dark-skinned workers. “He’s Lebanese,” says Donaghy. “He gets his crew for 50 cents on the dollar. I pay them cash. Sometimes I buy the houses cheap, fix them up cheap, and sell them for a 100 percent profit. But don’t write that. The IRS and my ex-wife will come after me.”

Donaghy says he got into restoring houses when he left prison. He did most of the work himself back then. “I wasn’t afraid to learn,” he says, adding that he would never buy one of his houses. “I rented out most of them after I fixed them up. Always cash, and to the right person.” 

Game 3: “Because the refs aren’t enforcing the rule book. It’s easier for refs to call a physical game and let things go. But that affects a player like Curry and favors James.”

But those early months after prison were a difficult time for him, not just because he had trouble making a living but because he knew “I’d never find anything in my life as satisfying as being an NBA referee.” I asked him to describe what made that job so great — the aesthetic pleasure of refereeing a game among the most talented athletes in the world?

“It wasn’t about beauty,” he says. “It was just hard work. I was a company man. I called the game the way the NBA wanted me to so I could move up to the playoffs.” I asked him what he meant, “the way the NBA wanted.” “If Raja Bell, a tough defender, held Kobe Bryant to 13 points one night, the next night the refs would get a verbal NBA directive to call fouls on defenders hand-checking Bryant. The fans came to see Kobe score 30, not 13.” Of course, the NBA denies this allegation, and when the FBI was interrogating him, his handler asked him for written proof of those directives. Donaghy told him, “They were never written on paper.”

As we drive around Sarasota, he gives me more examples. In a recent L.A. Clippers–Golden State game, Blake Griffin, the Clippers’ star, committed an egregious foul under the basket, almost strangling an opposing player, who took a hard fall. It was a foul so flagrant, says Donaghy, that Griffin should have been ejected. But, the way Donaghy tells it, the game was too important to have a star ejected, which is why he thinks the ref just called a hard foul and Griffin stayed in the game. It reminded Donaghy of something early in his career when he was reffing a Lakers game. Donaghy called three fouls on Kobe Bryant in the first half, forcing his coach Phil Jackson to bench him. Jackson was furious. Donaghy told Jackson that those were the kind of fouls the NBA directed him to call. Jackson said yes, but it’s who you call them on that matters. Which is why, Donaghy says now, when LeBron James muscles his way to the basket, elbowing and pushing opponents out of the way, he’s rarely called for charging. (The league has also changed its rules to allow offensive players to be more aggressive.)

Game 3: “I’ll have to reevaluate how I pick my teams if the league allows this kind of play to continue. The league’s worst nightmare is for an obvious foul not to be called in the final seconds of a game, which will fuck up the series.”

Then there are those biases that refs bring to the court on their own. When Allen Iverson drove to the basket at the top of his game, he got the same deferential treatment that James does today, Donaghy says. But when Iverson’s game deteriorated rapidly in his last few years, suddenly calls seemed always to go against him. Why? Most refs were white, conservative, blue-collar guys, Donaghy explains, who hated Iverson’s extravagant tattoos, jewelry, and thuggish posse. When Iverson’s game went bad, those refs received an NBA directive, Donaghy says, they relished. “Iverson got away with palming the ball for years until the end, when an NBA directive came down ordering us to call palming infractions against him.” This claim was investigated by Henry Abbott of TrueHoop, who found no discernible change. But Donaghy says he feels for Iverson — he says the two of them have been persecuted in similar ways.

After he got out of prison, it seemed to Donaghy as if the NBA had unleashed a vindictive crusade against him. Mooney told me that the original publisher of Donaghy’s book was Random House, but that it withdrew its offer after “the NBA threatened them.” I ran that by Tom Bast, who was the publisher of Triumph Books, the imprint that had been scheduled to publish the book. “At the time we were going to publish Tim’s book, we were vetting the book and found no problems,” he said. “I totally believed what Tim wrote. Then, just as we were completing the vetting, Random House told us we couldn’t publish the book. They didn’t pressure us not to publish it; they told us not to.” Then I asked him if he believed the NBA pressured Random House. He paused a long moment. “Yes,
I personally believe that.” (Random House didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Donaghy also says that David Stern, the commissioner at the time, “tried to damage my credibility when the book came out. He wanted me to go to prison for 20 years so the book would never come out. He said he’d spend a million dollars to make sure I never got my severance pay.

“Why am I the pariah?” Donaghy asks. “Everyone gambles.” He mentions the common conspiracy theory that Michael Jordan didn’t retire to play baseball but was banned from the NBA for a few years because of gambling. Donaghy was going to put the story into his book, but “I had no proof.” (Stern has called the allegation “scurrilous and disgusting.”)

Donaghy pulls his SUV into the driveway of another house he rents. In front of us, a blonde woman is loading up her car with her belongings. “She’s one of my renters,” he says. “She’s moving out.” He gets out of his SUV and goes over to talk to her for a few minutes. She’s obviously charmed by her landlord, smiling. The “disgraced ref,” once famous, still is famous, or rather infamous, a distinction that eludes him. He tells me he got some applause at a Knicks game. He tells me that a movie company wants to make a film of his life. A museum in Vegas asked for one of his ref uniforms to put on display, he tells me. I ask if it was a basketball museum. He says, without shame, “No. The Mob Museum.”

When he gets back in the SUV, he’s smiling. “She wanted to give me a blow job, then she asked if I’d have a threesome with her and her boyfriend,” he says. “Then she told me what she wanted me to do. It was disgusting! I told her, ‘You got the wrong guy for that!’ ” I wait for Donaghy to add “but don’t write that,” but he doesn’t. Weeks later, when I asked Kim over the phone why her ex-husband had an almost pathological need to confess to things, to tell the truth, she burst into laughter. When she stopped laughing, she said, “The truth?”

*This article appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.