Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Setting the Record Straight on Tim Donaghy's 60 Minutes Interview

Note: I started writing for The Painted Area just for fun, really, as I simply enjoy sharing my opinions on all things basketball. But, as I step away from the on-court fun and games, and delve into the hypersensitive topic of Tim Donaghy, I feel like I should disclose that I worked for NBA Entertainment from Sept., 2003 to Nov., 2004, and I also worked on NBA.com at a third-party company, from the site's initial launch in 1995 through March, 2000.

Tim Donaghy has repeatedly leveled accusations insinuating that NBA games are manipulated both by individual referees and by the league itself, most recently in his new book, Personal Foul, and on the recent media tour to promote the book.

Donaghy's charges are certainly explosive and disturbing to any NBA fan, and of course need to be examined seriously. Many of Donaghy's allegations seem plausible at first blush, to the point that it seems like there must be some fire to accompany all that smoke.

Digging into the facts below the surface of Donaghy's allegations, however, has consistently unearthed information suggesting some of his claims are flawed, at best. Recently, the yeoman work done by Henry Abbott and Kevin Arnovitz at TrueHoop showed that many of the tactics Donaghy claims to have employed to run up such a spectacularly successful winning percentage on his bets - such as betting on big underdogs if Dick Bavetta was officiating - were strategies that fell far short of the 70-80% success rate which Donaghy has claimed, and were actually losing strategies in many cases.

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In general, my personal sense regarding many of Donaghy's allegations has been that he does not necessarily tell outright falsehoods. It's more that pieces of information (often involving well-known NBA hot buttons) get twisted and stretched to the point where things are misleading and do not hold up to scrutiny when one actually digs into the data.

I had such a reaction following Donaghy's recent interview on 60 Minutes, a high-profile appearance which was Donaghy's first public interview since his arrest.

A key piece of information offered in the 60 Minutes story to support the claim that Donaghy did not let his bets affect his officiating was this: Donaghy once ejected Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich during the first quarter of a game in which he had bet on San Antonio.

The clear implication in the story was that this Popovich ejection caused San Antonio to lose the game. From the 60 Minutes transcript:
    "In one game you were betting on San Antonio, but you threw their coach Gregg Popovich out of the game," [60 Minutes reporter Bob] Simon pointed out.

    "I didn't think about the bet during the game. And in my mind, he needed to be ejected," Donaghy said.

    Losing their coach cost San Antonio the game and cost Donaghy his bet.
The AP story about the 60 Minutes interview, which ran in countless news entities around the world repeated this claim right in its lead:
    NEW YORK (AP)--Disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy says he refused to make calls to affect games even if it meant he lost money and it angered the mob.

    In one game where he bet on San Antonio, he ejected coach Gregg Popovich midway through the first quarter and the Spurs eventually lost the game. That drew the ire of the mob, which reportedly lost money using his tip.

    “I just told them that I wasn’t making calls in games to influence the outcome,” Donaghy said in an interview on “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday night on CBS. “And I’m not going to be able to obviously predict the winner every night, and they have to accept that’s what’s going to happen.”
First of all, any reasonable basketball fan understands that an ejection of a coach in a single game does not necessarily mean that that team will lose. Often, it is thought that an ejection of a head coach can light a fire under a team which inspires it to victory. In this particular instance, the matchup featured the 27-13 San Antonio Spurs playing at home against the 15-22 New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, who were without Chris Paul due to injury. Frankly, it's a bit of a stretch to think that a Popovich ejection would necessarily cause a Spurs defeat in this particular matchup.

But, more importantly, here's the rub: The Spurs won the game in question. No, really.

Believe me, I was stunned to learn that the actual results of this game were wildly different than how they were portrayed on national television. I double- and triple- and quadruple- and cross-checked to make sure that this was the correct game, and it is. January 19, 2007, Hornets at Spurs, Gregg Popovich ejected at the 6:21 mark of the first quarter with the score 9-8, San Antonio.

Yes, it is true that betting on the Spurs was a losing proposition in this game, as this research indicates that they were favored by 15.5 points, yet won the game by 13 points, 99-86.

Let the record show, however, that not only did the Spurs win the game despite Popovich's ejection, but they were utterly in control of the game from start to finish. They were actually running ahead of the 15.5 point spread for the majority of the second and third quarters, and were at least in striking distance of covering the spread for essentially the entire game from the end of the first quarter on. Check the play-by-play:

- San Antonio outscored the Hornets 17-4 after Popovich was ejected, to take a 26-12 lead at the end of the first.
- The lead ballooned to as much as 22, and was never less than 13, in the second quarter, with San Antonio ahead 53-36 at the half.
- In the third quarter, the Spurs lead fluctuated between 12 and 19 points, with San Antonio holding a 16-point lead, 76-60, at the end of three.
- The Hornets made a run in the fourth quarter to cut the lead down to 8 (83-75) at the 5:52 mark, before San Antonio pushed it back up to 15 (95-80) with two minutes left.
- The Hornets ended up cutting the final score to 99-86, covering the spread.

So, yes, it is not a lie for Tim Donaghy to say that he made a call that was against his interest in ejecting Gregg Popovich, and yes, he did end up losing that bet. But the portrayal of how this situation played out was highly misleading.

Of course, this may be as much an indictment of shoddy TV newsmagazine journalism by 60 Minutes as anything. In Personal Foul, Donaghy does note that the Spurs won the game in question.

However, he writes that, after ejecting Popovich, "the complexion of the game changed – advantage New Orleans. The Hornets kept the game fairly close, but San Antonio won 99-86." Based on the facts of the game provided above, you can make your own judgment about whether that is a misleading account of what actually happened.

Donaghy also noted that one of the reasons he bet on San Antonio was that fellow ref DeRosa "specifically commented that the Hornets had been playing poorly as of late." While the team had been struggling overall in Paul's absence, New Orleans/Oklahoma City had actually won its three previous games heading into the January 19, 2007 contest.

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Another key allegation brought to light in the 60 Minutes interview was Donaghy's claim that officials conspired against Allen Iverson in a game between the Nuggets and Jazz - in which Donaghy says he bet on Utah - on Jan. 6, 1997.

Ken Berger of CBSSports.com did an outstanding job breaking down these claims:
    [T]he most significant piece of news that emerged from the interview Sunday night was Donaghy's assertion that he did, in fact, manipulate calls that helped him win a bet on a game between the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz on Jan. 6, 2007. This is the first time that Donaghy has publicly disclosed a particular game that he wagered on and described the actions he took -- coincidentally, he claims -- to win that bet.

    A bombshell -- until you watch the game.
    ...
    If Donaghy was able to execute his plan, he did a better job concealing it than you could imagine. The Nuggets attempted 31 free throws to Utah's 17, and Iverson went to the free-throw line more than anyone else in the game; he was 11 for 12. But there's more, thanks to Synergy Sports Technology, which logs in-depth statistics, play outcomes and video clips of every NBA game.

    In the game in question, Iverson drove to the basket 12 times. I watched every one of those plays. Iverson made two driving layups, missed four, lost the ball once and drew five fouls -- three of which were called by Donaghy himself. He was called for two personal fouls and drew nine in the game.

    Iverson was called twice for palming the ball, an infraction known as a discontinued dribble. One call was made by Zielinski and the other by Donaghy, who also whistled Utah's Deron Williams for the same infraction with two minutes left in the game. At the time, cracking down on palming was a point of emphasis for the NBA's officiating department, according to a source.

    The Synergy video clips showed one play on which Iverson obviously was fouled and didn't get the call. With 2:28 left in the third quarter, Iverson missed a driving layup in transition. Donaghy, the baseline official on the play, failed to call Mehmet Okur for hitting Iverson with his left arm. Donaghy did, however, call Okur for fouling Reggie Evans, who got the offensive rebound and missed both of his free throws.
I have to note that I literally LOL'd at one piece of "evidence" presented for this game by 60 Minutes reporter Bob Simon, who first said to Donaghy, "According to the game's announcers, even late in the game, you kept hurting Iverson's team by letting defenders bludgeon him without calling any fouls."

Then, Simon showed video of an Iverson drive to the basket against Derek Fisher which was a no-call. (Donaghy said, "We're looking at a foul that was let go", though I thought the no-call was reasonable - it was a marginal foul at worst.)

Overlaying the video, we heard Denver Nuggets TV analyst Scott Hastings say, "Tim Donaghy will not call a foul when Iverson goes to the basket.... About three in a row where he got to the basket and got fouled, we thought; no call."

Scott Hastings says the Nuggets aren't getting a good whistle. There is your indisputable evidence, folks.

Let's point out that 1) Scott Hastings is employed by the Denver Nuggets, 2) local (team-employed) broadcasters around the league rant each and every night of the NBA season - with or, often, without merit - about how the calls are going against their team, and 3) in a profession filled with guys biased in favor of their team, Scott Hastings is one of the most notorious "homers" in the entire league. Really, that "evidence" was outright comical to me.

Again, to be fair, the misinformation as described in this post often seems to be as much of a function of subpar work by 60 Minutes as explicit allegations straight from Donaghy.

Still, such a high-profile interview is yet another addition to a public record filled with information and allegations which just don't quite add up.

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I'm not here to claim that none of the scores of allegations leveled by Donaghy in Personal Foul and elsewhere have any merit. Lots of things in the book seem like they could be plausible and deserve to be vetted and explored further.

In particular, the claim that individual officials carry personal biases onto the court has seemed to ring so true with league insiders that it certainly seems plausible. (We'd recommend this Yahoo! Sports video interview with Kenny Smith and Adrian Wojnarowski for a sober-minded discussion of what "personal bias" means in practice – something closer to human nature than sinister manipulation.)

It's not that Donaghy's claims should be dismissed out of hand, or should not be a cause for concern. It's more that he creates so much noise (often by purposely poking at the most celebrated raw meat of NBA conspiracy theorists) with allegations that prove flimsy upon the shallowest investigation, that he really needs to be scrutinized precisely.

11 Comments:

At 11:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is such bullshit....I read that book and I believe every word in it...Stern must go and the fans are fed up with the NBA game...Donaghy told the truth and the fans know it,,,I have seen too many things that are crazy over the years....

 
At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also read that book and believe every word in it,,,the fbi supported this guy...the fbi,,,the fbi,,,the fbi,,,do i need to say it again...

 
At 12:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe zero words in that book. Every bit of "evidence" has been stretched and distorted beyond the pale for me.

Donaghy's just making himself look worse and worse every time he opens his mouth.

Now that the fact checkers are in play, he's getting torn apart worse than that guy who wrote that book of lies and sold it on Oprah.

 
At 1:25 PM, Blogger TheOdenator said...

Hey anonymous, How about you put some facts up for comparison. All Haub did was bring to light the rest of the story. Just because something is in a book, doesn't mean shit about whether it is true or not. Especially when they're coming from the mouth of the guy who Admits to betting on the games he was reffing.

The FBI? First, if you read the book then you know that the FBI didn't check any of his claims (why the fuck would they care about if some guy rigged games, they're the goddamn FBI?). Second there are over 1200 games, with about 90 possessions in each game, in the NBA every year, of course you're going to see crazy things. That's over 110,000 opportunities for bad calls to happen, of course you're going to see crazy things. Third, wake up man, he's clearly lying, if these were his tactics he wouldn't be so clearly wrong in remembering them.

 
At 1:52 PM, Blogger ytuty said...

All of Donaghy's detractors are those with either a mouth poised to suckle at the NBA teat, like those guys from ESPN and Truehopeless.

In the same way that the press sat on evidence of Tiger's philandering, never giving voice to the persistent whispers of infidelity (see how the National Inquirer failed to inquire) - or how the Main Stream Media sat on stories of John Edwards shenanigans ( see how the National Inquirer inquired,lol)

Where the press has a benefit to be gained from those whom it is supposed to be investigating and reporting, you can rest assured that such investigation and reporting is at best, self serving.

Donaghy's allegations not only have a ring of truth, they are directly observable and even more, just plain common sense.
The chummy relationships some refs have with some players, owners and officials is well known, which makes the NBA's denials and protestation (and that of it's sycophants) all the more annoying..

 
At 2:06 PM, Blogger sev said...

If anything you prove that Donaghy is a bad writer and did a poor job of attaining the proper references.

We should not pay attention to that actual words that Donaghy is saying. We should pay attention to that possibility of fixing or influencing NBA games exists. Regardless of who the major players are, there is to much evidence from past games that will allow people to question the legitimacy of certain NBA games and the referees.

 
At 2:24 PM, Anonymous John R. said...

If I can just briefly Fisk this...

1) "Recently, the yeoman work done by Henry Abbott and Kevin Arnovitz at TrueHoop showed that many of the tactics Donaghy claims to have employed to run up such a spectacularly successful winning percentage on his bets - such as betting on big underdogs if Dick Bavetta was officiating - were strategies that fell far short of the 70-80% success rate which Donaghy has claimed, and were actually losing strategies in many cases."

Proving...nothing. Are they claiming he didn't win a staggering percentage of his bets? They didn't prove that and there is signficiant evidence that Donaghy did very well in his picks. The FBI backs him up as well as the fact that he still walks the earth despite owing somewhat dangerous people a substational amount of money.

All the Truehoop investigation did is show that they don't really understand how to do an investigation. Instead of cosmetically showing that their incomplete information wouldn't pick winners, they should have tried to find any pattern at all to win a high percentage of bets assuming knowledge of referees and spreads.

2) "Yes, it is true that betting on the Spurs was a losing proposition in this game, as this research indicates that they were favored by 15.5 points, yet won the game by 13 points, 99-86."

Lede successfully buried. 60 Minutes is a show for mass consumption, not for the hardcore gambler. Are you claiming he didn't bet on that game and lose? What exactly is your claim here?

Without their head coach, the Spurs won by less than Vegas expected them too. It doesn't prove the ejection didn't affect the outcome, but it certainly doesn't disprove it. Your whole section on this game feels like another red herring to me. You don't claim what he says happened didn't happen, but you want to split hairs over the terms wins and losses? If they kept the interview in the gambling vernacular they likely would have lost people.

3)"Then, Simon showed video of an Iverson drive to the basket against Derek Fisher which was a no-call. (Donaghy said, "We're looking at a foul that was let go", though I thought the no-call was reasonable - it was a marginal foul at worst.)"

So the ref on the court said it was a foul he let go, the announcers sitting courtside said it was a foul that was let go, but you saw it on TV so you "literally LOL'd". Well case dismissed then.

4) "I'm not here to claim that none of the scores of allegations leveled by Donaghy in Personal Foul and elsewhere have any merit."

What are you here to claim then? What is the point of this post? Truehoop and its affiliates, and as a Clipper fan I have tremendous respect for KA so it hurts me to say this, has been at least as misleading as Donaghy, possibly more. They are running around executing psuedo-science against incomplete information then hiding behind "we aren't claiming he is lying but...". Do a REAL investigation or wait for one to occur.

Make a claim; prove a claim; or stand down.

 
At 2:27 PM, Blogger HesitantBullsFan said...

The NBA is in serious trouble as far as market shares (at least in the USA). ESPN doesn't even cover the league anymore for all practical purposes. A minor baseball trade garners more attention then a buzzer beater thriller. Even though you have plenty of great teams and a whole cast of superstars.

So how does the NBA handle Donaghy? Label him a single "rogue" ref and do NOTHING, absolutely nothing to address any referee problems. If they didn't leave college after a year, I'd go back to watching college. If they aired a Euro league that was worth a crap, I'd watch that before the NBA. This issue has to be addressed.

Star treatment has always been a part of the NBA and although I don't like it, I can accept it. But when certain crews match up against certain teams and you pretty much know the outcome and the NBA doesn't want to discuss it or analyze it then a major trust with your audience is breached!

 
At 7:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"All of Donaghy's detractors are those with either a mouth poised to suckle at the NBA teat, like those guys from ESPN and Truehopeless."

As opposed to Donaghy, who is only now coming forward with these accusations because he is a totally noble guy and not trying to make money selling a book.

 
At 3:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amiable post and this enter helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you on your information.

 
At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Opulently I to but I think the collection should acquire more info then it has.

 

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