Betting scandal cloud lingers


A dark cloud of suspicion shadows his game, which was struck last summer by a crooked referee and a gambling scandal, and the reaction from NBA commissioner David Stern remains a smug expression of disbelief.

Instead of answers and apologies, Stern continues what might be perceived as an arrogant display of denials and finger pointing.

Something was rotten inside the NBA, and that is the only truth plainly evident more than 10 months after the FBI announced an investigation of former referee Tim Donaghy.

Details of tainted games and the level of corruption still are mostly a mystery. As the case's facts are slowly filtered for public consumption, questions persist about a possible basketball game-fixing scheme that demands full disclosure.

"I'm sure the NBA is hoping it goes away," Las Vegas Sports Consultants oddsmaker Ken White said. "They want to try to keep it as quiet as possible."

For several months, the Donaghy controversy was almost a forgotten issue. It resurfaced last week, when Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Goldberg filed a letter in a New York federal court saying Donaghy bet on more than 100 games he officiated over four seasons from 2003 to 2007.

Donaghy was fired by the NBA last year after he admitted to providing inside information to help gamblers wager on games. He said he recommended bets to gamblers and received $5,000 for his correct selections.

"Donaghy bet on numerous games that he worked," Goldberg wrote in his letter. "The government's investigation revealed that Donaghy provided picks for anywhere from 30 to 40 such games for each of those three seasons (2003-04, 2004-05 and 2005-06). During the 2006-07 season, Donaghy bet on approximately 30 games, including about 14 games that he refereed."

The case has no direct link to Las Vegas. Sports wagering is tightly regulated in Nevada, but no state officials claimed knowledge of the FBI investigation when the initial allegations became public July 20.

Still, those in Las Vegas who bet on or book the NBA might doubt the legitimacy of some games.

"The bottom line is people want there to be integrity in the games, and the games (Donaghy) was involved in, obviously that wasn't the case," MGM Mirage sports book director Robert Walker said.

Donaghy's actions have been damaging to the NBA's image, yet few doubt the league's perception among bettors and fans can be repaired.

The time to forgive and forget is not now, however. If the gambling issue extends beyond Donaghy to other referees and league personnel, as he has implied, more trouble might be on the horizon.

Donaghy pleaded guilty to charges he conspired to engage in wire fraud and transmitted betting information through interstate commerce. He is scheduled to be sentenced July 14.

Donaghy's attorney, John Lauro, said the former referee told investigators in the betting probe that relationships among officials, coaches and players "affected the outcome of games."

Lauro also suggested Donaghy told investigators about the gambling activities of other NBA officials, and the attorney asserted the league might have "pressured" the U.S. attorney's office "into shutting down this prosecution to avoid the disclosure of information unrelated to Tim's conduct."

Stern denied those claims and derided Donaghy's character, calling him an "isolated criminal."

Joel Litvin, the NBA president for league and basketball operations, issued a statement this week saying Donaghy's claims to investigators were "the desperate act of a convicted felon who is hoping to avoid prison time."

Amid the accusations and legal wrangling, Donaghy is disgraced and the NBA is staging its playoffs under a dark cloud that is not disappearing anytime soon.

The NBA long has been a feeding ground for conspiracy theories, so Stern's league is not working on a perfect record. Last year, there were suspicions about teams tanking games late in the season to improve their draft status, and within the past decade other referees ran afoul of the law.

INSIDE THE BETTING NUMBERS

Donaghy left fingerprints on his work, but in which games did he potentially affect the outcome, and how did he do it?

White, a former bookmaker who serves as LVSC's chief operating officer, has looked for those answers. He researched betting trends involving the former referee and sent his report to the NBA last fall.

"They never called back to discuss it or anything," White said.

Conducting his own investigation was R.J. Bell of Las Vegas-based Pregame.com. Bell studied moves in betting lines and outlined 19 games that Donaghy refereed during the 2006-07 season that could raise red flags.

"At every stage of the controversy, the NBA only has been willing to admit what was readily obvious," Bell said. "And at every stage it has gotten bigger.

"As more information is released on the Donaghy scandal, the more incriminating the facts become."

Bell found 15 games refereed by Donaghy last season in which the consensus betting line from Las Vegas and offshore books moved by at least 11/2 points, and the line move was correct each time.

"I feel real confident in those games being rock solid," Bell said. "The big-money gamblers won 15 of 15 times on his games. The odds of that happening randomly are 32,768 to 1."

On Jan. 17, 2007, the Phoenix Suns opened as 4-point road favorites over the Houston Rockets. The Suns closed as 51/2-point favorites and won, 100-91. The total dropped from 203 to 1991/2, and that move also was correct as the final score of 191 fell under the total.

On March 21, the Milwaukee Bucks opened as 61/2-point home favorites over the Los Angeles Clippers. The closing number was 3, and the line move was correct as the Clippers won, 104-103.

On April 7, the Orlando Magic opened as a 101/2-point home favorite over the Memphis Grizzlies. The Magic closed as a 12-favorite and won in a 116-89 blowout.

Donaghy was part of the officiating crew for those games, and Bell said it must be more than a coincidence that the moves in the betting lines for the 19 games he highlighted proved to be sharp decisions by gamblers.

Bell said Donaghy's "officiating style statistically changed" during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons.

During the two previous seasons, Bell said Donaghy "called significantly less fouls than the average NBA referee" and his games scored more points than the betting totals 44 percent of the time. In the past two seasons, Bell said Donaghy "called significantly more fouls than average" and his games scored more points than the betting totals 57 percent of the time.

"Consider what must be believed in order to conclude that Donaghy did not fix the games that he both officiated and bet on: First, that a person troubled enough to provide inside information to criminals was able to referee games in which he had a financial interest in the outcome without any bias," Bell said.

"We also must believe that information alone allowed big bettors to beat Las Vegas 15 straight times. And, finally, we must believe that Donaghy becoming a much more active referee his final two years is a mere coincidence rather than evidence of an effort to increase his influence on games."

White said his studies focused on wagering patterns and his findings differed from what Bell outlined. White said there were cases of more wagering activity than usual on some totals.

"We didn't find anything on the sides," White said. "I think it's mostly totals."

Bell said during the 2006-07 season, 13 games refereed by Donaghy fell within one point of the Las Vegas line.

White dismissed that statistic as insignificant, saying, "When you're fixing games, you don't want it to fall one point close to the number. You don't want to take that chance."

With no hard evidence available on specific games Donaghy might have influenced, speculation has been rampant. Two other games officiated by Donaghy last season raised concerns.

Donaghy's work in the Miami Heat-New York Knicks game on Feb. 26, 2007, was under close scrutiny.

New York opened as a 3-point home favorite, and the line closed at 41/2. The Knicks shot 39 free throws to the Heat's eight and won, 99-93.

The highest-profile game on Donaghy's resume was Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals between Phoenix and San Antonio on May 12, 2007. The Spurs were 4-point favorites and won, 108-101.

Donaghy was part of a three-man crew, and assigning blame solely to him for what was considered one of the worst-officiated games of that NBA season is unfair. Of course, when highlighting a small number of games or isolating trends, a case could be made against most referees.

The FBI's case is ongoing, and while the public waits for more to be revealed, Stern has attempted to minimize the problem by repeatedly insisting all is said and done.

"From the beginning, the initial statements that came out -- it was isolated, no other referees were involved -- were kind of ridiculous," said Steve Cofield, an ESPN Radio host in Las Vegas. "I think there's a lot more to the story.

"The NBA has done a nice job of somehow managing the story. Does the NBA have that much pull where they can go to federal prosecutors and say, 'Keep quiet.' That's the problem. There's too many questions."

INTEGRITY OF THE GAME

In more than two decades as a Las Vegas bookmaker, Walker has seen the passing of game-fixing scandals in college basketball and college football. But the integrity of NBA games rarely was questioned before Donaghy's face was recognizable.

"I haven't been overly concerned about the NBA," Walker said. "I hate to say nothing ever happened."

An off-court issue involving NBA referees arose in 1998, when respected veteran Joey Crawford was one of eight referees charged with filing false income tax returns. Crawford and the others were accused of downgrading first-class airline tickets purchased by the league and pocketing the difference without reporting the income tax. Crawford quickly was reinstated by Stern.

Gambling and NBA players also have been known to mix.

In 1993, Stern cleared former Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan after an investigation into Jordan's off-court gambling activities. Stern said there was "absolutely no connection" between the investigation and Jordan's first retirement that year.

It was reported last week that former NBA star Charles Barkley owed a $400,000 gambling debt to Wynn Las Vegas. Barkley admitted to a gambling problem and settled the debt.

In a more relevant on-court issue, the integrity of some games late in the 2006-07 season was doubted by many league observers, including Las Vegas bookmakers and bettors.

There were concerns about teams tanking games to gain a more favorable position in the draft lottery. For some teams, the last month of the season disintegrated into what seemed like an attempt to cover up a desire to lose and hopefully win a shot at a higher draft pick.

One example was the Boston Celtics' 92-84 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on March 21, 2007. The Celtics, 81/2-point home favorites, led by 15 points at halftime. But coach Doc Rivers left his five starters on the bench as his team blew the lead.

Boston, which finished with the league's second-worst record, stood to benefit more by losing the game. Asked about his strategy, Rivers said, "I was not throwing the game, or anything like that."

The theory that the betting public might fear fixed NBA games this season turned out to be unfounded. Walker said it has been business as usual for the sports books.

The game is thriving despite the negative publicity created by the Donaghy controversy.

"I thought it would be a black eye this year, but it really hasn't affected NBA wagering at all," Walker said. "I haven't heard too many people talk about it, which is a good thing. I think the public is treating it as an isolated incident."

But Cofield is not inclined to let the NBA off the hook so easily. He said Stern owes the public a better explanation, not a cover-up operation.

"We need some legitimacy on this for the bettors," Cofield said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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