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.
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.
- 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.