Friday, February 18, 2011

Thoughts on Gaming The Game, New Book Covering The NBA's Tim Donaghy Scandal

Gaming The Game: The Story Behind the NBA Betting Scandal and the Gambler Who Made It Happen is an important new book written by Sean Patrick Griffin about the NBA's Tim Donaghy scandal, centered around Jimmy Battista (also known as "Ba Ba" or "Sheep"), a Philadelphia-based professional gambler who was at the heart of the betting scheme, and who served 15 months in prison for illegal gambling as a result.

The Donaghy scandal is a very complex story with lots of layers to unravel, with motivations both intersecting and divergent for key entities like Donaghy, Battista, the NBA, the FBI and many figures in the gambling world. As a result, Gaming The Game is, almost by its nature, not the easiest read, even if it is ultimately rewarding to those interested in the topic.

Gaming The Game is actually the full story of Jimmy Battista's long career in gambling, more than just the tale of the Tim Donaghy scandal. Battista's origins in gambling are delved into in deep detail. In particular, the book offers a full picture of how the world of big-time sports gambling operates, as Battista worked with and for several of the sharpest sports gamblers in the world, who would bet hundreds of thousands or even millions on individual sporting events, eventually including NBA games officiated by Tim Donaghy.

I find this stuff fascinating, but those without an interest in big-time sports gambling might start itching to get to the Donaghy stuff, which doesn't really occur in earnest until about 125 pages in. While I was reading the early parts of Gaming The Game, I wondered if Griffin was spending too much time on the gambling world, but by the end, I realized that this background had paid off in a big way, in establishing critical context about who Jimmy Battista was and the culture in which the Donaghy scandal occurred.

Jimmy Battista comes off as a credible figure within this world, a man who was respected, trusted and well-known within the circles of big-time sports gambling. Further, I interviewed Griffin recently, and asked him if he'd had concerns about Battista's credibility, especially considering that Battista has a history of drug use, which spiraled into addiction during the heart of the Donaghy scandal. The author said:
    "Of course, that's why the book took so long to write! As an author, it's the number one question. If Battista had described to me back in March of '08, 'Well, we were in Vegas, and this happened, this happened, this happened, this is what we did, whatever,' well, I went out to Vegas and tracked down the people who used to work with him or for him or against him - those are the people, by the way, who really increased his credibility - I sought out the people to whom he owed money, people who despised him because he either jammed them on deals or was manipulating lines and they were on the other side of the line moves, and even though these people didn't like him, as far as what he had described about his role in the betting underworld, his role in Vegas and all that stuff, he was accurate.

    For me, his credibility increased with the months and months and months of research because it was never the case that I had someone come up to me and say, 'He's freaking crazy. He's a liar, he's full of [crap], that didn't happen.' I never had that happen once. I never had a problem with somebody saying, 'Oh, that didn't happen.' And that to me is all I needed to know. There were a million ways that could've happened, with the NBA scandal, or the history of betting he was in, and I never had someone say, 'He's full of it.'"

I believe that Gaming The Game offers what is not only the fullest depiction of the Tim Donaghy scandal to date, but also the one which is closest to the truth. Griffin demonstrates how the FBI investigation and the NBA's "Pedowitz Report" were both incomplete efforts. More notably, the thorough depictions in Gaming The Game raise doubts about key pillars of the story told by Tim Donaghy himself. Let's examine a couple:

The Mob Made Him Do It

As depicted in Gaming The Game, Jimmy Battista was a pro's pro of a gambler - a guy who worked endlessly in pursuit of the best information on games and the most favorable betting lines, and to "move" money in sports books literally around the world in order to maximize the amounts that he and his partners could bet on games.

As told in the book, Battista was considered a so-called "white-collar" gambler - he worked with major professional gamblers and did not have direct ties to organized crime rings. Yet, widely-circulated reports have indicated that the FBI heard the Battista-Donaghy scheme being discussed on a wiretap investigating the Gambino crime family in New York. It wasn't terribly surprising because, at a certain point, many gambling insiders had noticed that Battista was winning large NBA bets at an astonishing rate of success, and wanted to know which games the Sheep was picking.

There is nothing in Griffin's exhaustive research which indicated that Battista was involved in organized crime. The author told me: "There is nowhere in the official record - and I also spoke to people in the FBI - there is a never a reference to organized crime in the thousands of pages of filings in all the months and months of court proceedings." Interviews with Battista's associates and adversaries alike are consistent on this topic as well; he was a white-collar gambler, not a mob guy.

Thus, it's startling to go back to Donaghy's book, Personal Foul, and be reminded of how central the perception of mob influence and threats were to Donaghy's narrative for why he bet on NBA games.

Donaghy had been betting relatively small amounts on his games through his friend Jack Concannon, starting in 2003. On the fateful night of December 12, 2006, Donaghy met with his longtime friend Tommy Martino, and Battista - all three had attended Cardinal O'Hara High School in Philly in the '80s - in Philadelphia to hatch the scheme which made Donaghy's bets much more profitable during the 2006-07 season.

Battista claims Donaghy was motivated by sheer greed - a desire to make more money on his bets - but Donaghy asserts that he had decided to stop making NBA bets in November 2006, and was threatened by Battista, who had been piggybacking on Concannon's bets after learning of their success rate and the Donaghy connection.

In the first chapter of Personal Foul, Donaghy makes multiple references to the idea that Ba Ba was "connected" to the Gambino crime family, and claims that he only agreed to continue betting after Battista said, "You don't want anyone from New York visiting your wife and kids in Florida, do you?"

At the end of the chapter, Donaghy writes, "I had suddenly become the central figure in a Mafia-controlled gambling ring and that my picks would generate millions of dollars for the Gambino crime family.... From respected NBA referee to mafioso. What the hell happened to me?"

Donaghy repeatedly uses coded language in reference to Battista and Martino. At one point, Donaghy refers to them as "petty thugs." He calls Martino "nothing more than a low-to-mid-level goombah." Donaghy writes that, after learning Battista was entering rehab in March 2007: "There had to be more to the story, I figured.... Maybe he was wearing cement galoshes at the bottom of the Delaware River."

After learning that Martino had talked to the FBI, and had also let Battista know of this, Donaghy writes: "I supposed Tommy recognized the need to keep his boss in the loop. After all, Ba Ba's friends don't look kindly upon rats. If Tommy pissed off the wrong people, he could find himself hanging from a meat hook in a refrigerated freight truck headed for Tijuana."

About himself, Donaghy writes, "I often thought [FBI Special Agent Phil Scala] viewed me as a pawn of the mob, someone that could be easily exploited and then discarded into the East River like yesterday's trash. I was the right kind of pinch for a gangster: a little cocky, a little greedy, a little reckless...."

Perhaps most entertainingly, on page 127 of Personal Foul, Donaghy writes, "[G]uys like Ba Ba never look at the big picture. They live for today; driving the fancy cars, wearing the imported silk suits, flashing wads of cash - that's how guys like Ba Ba lived their life."

That description, in particular, is diametrically opposed to the portrayal of Battista in Gaming The Game. In the prologue, Griffin writes, "His semi-slovenly appearance and well-traveled minivan perfectly belied his significance and standing in the international betting world."

When I asked Griffin about that Donaghy quote specifically, he said:
    "That is the most factually incorrect part of the book. Granted, it may not be the most important point of his book, but that is one of the most absurd comments, among other absurd comments. Battista is the guy who showed up in federal court one day in shorts and a golf shirt. That is Battista's wardrobe. And anyone who's ever known him, knows him as a 'fat slob.' As Battista describes in the book, part of that was for business reasons, it wasn't just for comfort, it was because he didn't want to be a somebody. That was what he had learned years ago, that you don't want to draw attention to yourself.

    Battista drives a Dodge Caravan that probably has like 180,000 miles on it. It has had over 100,000 miles on it for years. That is who Battista is. When [Donaghy] says Battista lives for the moment, you can't get to Battista's level of gambling by living for the moment. The only way you can get involved in that universe, where you're being asked to 'move' millions of dollars a day, is if you've demonstrated year after year that you can show up on time, pay off your debts, make sure you get the right numbers on your bets. That requires a lot of trust and a lot of diligence. That particular narrative is just absurd."
Donaghy has taken the fact that the betting plot was uncovered on a Gambino wiretap, and investigated by the FBI's organized-crime unit, and run with it with a Forrest Gump-like fervor, to help make the argument that he was essentially entrapped into this scheme by the mob.

To reiterate, Gaming The Game's exhaustive research uncovered no evidence that Battista was directly connected to the mob. Griffin writes that "[a]mong bettors and law-enforcement officials, the term 'white-collar' is often used to professional gamblers who are not part of an organized crime conspiracy.... Battista's rather high-end clientele and his partner group each consisted exclusively of white-collar gamblers for whom sports betting was a profession." There's no sense that Battista was the type of gambler who leveled serious and credible threats of violence at adversaries.

When I asked Griffin about Battista's mob connections, he said:
    "Well, he was certainly not part of the mob. As far as whether he was associated with the Gambinos, as I explain in the book, at best, Battista, like many pro gamblers, knew people who were two or three degrees removed from organized crime. That's why, when you hear people say that the Gambino family profited from the scandal, that's absolutely true. Of course, that has nothing to do with whether Battista was funneling proceeds to the Gambinos, or was being extorted by them, or anything like that. We'll never know if Donaghy actually believed that, or if he made it up for the sake of selling books or gaining sympathy. Who knows? But as far as the FBI and other federal district attorneys, they said Battista had essentially nothing to do with the mob."
This is the style of argument which Donaghy has employed consistently. In a back-and-forth discussion on Donaghy's Facebook page last year, professional gambler Harabalos Voulgaris (who has disputed several of Donaghy's claims) wrote this about Donaghy's claims that NBA refs manipulated games: "While I do think the NBA is credible, I also think that while there are kernels of truths in what Donaghy is saying - the problem is he vastly overstates or twists the truth to deflect the attention from the fact that he actually fixed games."

It's the same tactic he used regarding the mob connections. Yes, the Gambinos may have known about the betting scheme, and they may have been profiting, but the connections are much more tangential than he portrays them. More than telling full-blown lies, Donaghy distorts small pieces of information drastically - a series of exaggerations in pursuit of a deceptive overall narrative - to the point where his credibility can be called into serious question. And where that matter of credibility becomes especially important is on the issue of whether games were fixed. Let's briefly examine that key pillar....

He Only Used 'Inside Information,' He Didn't Fix Games

Donaghy has steadfastly maintained that he never fixed games to win his bets, that his access to inside information gave him the only edge he needed to pick NBA games at such an incredibly successful rate. He has leaned on statements from the FBI and the NBA's "Pedowitz Report" as evidence supporting his claim. However, as many have pointed out, while those statements indeed do not accuse Donaghy of fixing games, nor do they conclude definitively that Donaghy did not fix NBA games.

Gaming The Game calls Donaghy's assertions about game manipulations into serious question, as most anyone who's looked into the scandal at any level of depth has seemed to conclude as well.

Griffin is careful with his language, and shies away from the word "fix" for the most part, as does Battista himself, who claims he never asked Donaghy to fix games. Ba Ba only cared that Donaghy delivered winning picks.

Battista referred to Donaghy as "Elvis," "because he was The King." Battista said that Donaghy's betting record on games he officiated was "something like 37-10," while he lost six of seven games when betting on games he wasn't officiating.

According to Griffin, "Battista bet an average of $1 to $2 million on games Tim Donaghy officiated versus an average of $10,000 to $20,000 on other (non-Donaghy) NBA games." Other professional gamblers who were following Battista's picks were focused specifically on games officiated by Donaghy.

Battista is quoted saying: "Inside information was probably part of how he bet, but it had little to do with the final outcome of his bets.... Inside information like injuries and stuff like that might have accounted for a small part of Elvis' ability to pick winners, but being able to control the outcomes was the big reason he won his games. That was why he couldn't pick those games."

An entertaining anecdote described how Battista was watching the pregame of an NBA game that he had bet on based on Donaghy's pick, when Sheep realized that Donaghy was not officiating this particular game. Battista went into a panic because he had bet $1 million on the game, but now felt the pick was worthless. He frantically tried to "buy back" the game, but it was too late, and the bet was a loser. It caused a falling out between Battista and a New York bookie who lost $2-3 million on the game.

There is plenty more evidence provided by Gaming The Game, such as analysis of betting-line movements, which only strengthens my belief that Tim Donaghy fixed NBA games, and that he is not telling the truth when he claims otherwise.

Monday, February 14, 2011

2011 NBA All-Stars: Where They're From

With NBA All-Star season upon us once again, it's time for our annual survey examining the backgrounds of the world's best basketball players - where they came from, how much college ball they played, when they were drafted, how they got to their current teams. (Here's last year's look). Let's go:

Dwyane WadeChicago, IL35Draft
Amar'e StoudemireOrlando, FL09UFA
Dwight HowardAtlanta, GA01Draft
LeBron JamesAkron, OH01UFA
Kevin GarnettMauldin, SC05Trade
Paul PierceInglewood, CA (L.A.)310Draft
Chris BoshDallas, TX14UFA
Joe JohnsonLittle Rock, AR210RFA/Trade
Derrick RoseChicago, IL11Draft
Rajon RondoLouisville, KY224Draft/Trade
Ray AllenDalzell, SC35Trade
Al HorfordPuerto Plata, DR33Draft

Kobe BryantL. Merion, PA (Philly)013Draft/Trade
Tim DuncanSt. Croix, US V.I.41Draft
Carmelo AnthonyBaltimore, MD13Draft
Dirk NowitzkiWurzburg, GER09Draft
Pau GasolBarcelona, ESP03Trade
Manu GinobiliBahia Blanca, ARG057Draft
Deron WilliamsThe Colony, TX (Dallas)33Draft
Kevin LoveLake Oswego, OR15Draft/Trade
Kevin DurantRockville, MD (DC)12Draft
Chris PaulWinston-Salem, NC24Draft
Russell WestbrookLong Beach, CA24Draft
Blake GriffinOklahoma City, OK21Draft

It's been an especially top-heavy year for the Western Conference. As of this writing, 23 of the top 31 ranked players in PER play in the West. As such, we're also making sure to consider "Near All-Stars" - these are guys who were listed as All-Star caliber by some of our preferred analysts, such as John Hollinger, Kevin Pelton, and Kelly Dwyer (West | East).

As such, we offer 13 more players as "Near All-Stars":

Josh SmithAtlanta, GA017Draft
Carlos BoozerJuneau, AK334UFA
Steve NashVictoria, BC415UFA
Zach RandolphMarion, IN119Trade
LaMarcus AldridgeDallas, TX22Draft
David WestGarner, NC/Teaneck, NJ418Draft
Tony ParkerParis, FRA028Draft
NenêSão Carlos, BRA07Draft/Trade
Lamar OdomNew York, NY14Trade
Eric GordonIndianapolis, IN17Draft
Kevin MartinZanesville, OH326Trade
Monta EllisJackson, MS040Draft
Luis ScolaBuenos Aires, ARG056Trade

We plotted all of these guys onto a Google map to quickly examine the question: Where do the best basketball players in the world come from? (All-Stars in blue, "near All-Stars" in red; click + and - for different views)

View 2011 NBA All-Stars - Where They're From in a larger map

Obviously, this is just an overview look and things don't change that much from year to year. Still, there are a few trends we've noticed:

- Dallas emerging as hotbed for top talent: With the explosive rise of Russell Westbrook to All-Star status, the L.A. Southland (Pierce, Westbrook) now joins Dallas (Bosh, D. Williams) and the Chicagoland area (Wade, Rose) as the metropolitan areas which produced multiple All-Stars.

But stretch it out to All-Stars and "Near All-Stars", and Dallas-area native LaMarcus Aldridge, who continues his surge of exceptional play, gives the Metroplex a third All-Star caliber player, all under 30.

What's even more impressive is the pipeline of potential top talent from the Dallas-Fort Worth area in upcoming years. Baylor's Perry Jones, a Dallas native, could go as high as no. 1 in this year's Draft. Meanwhile, LeBryan Nash, who is a senior at Bosh's alma mater, Lincoln High, is rated no. 6 in the high-school class of 2011 (he will attend Oklahoma State).

Even further, 7-footer Isaiah Austin, who attends Grace Prep in Mansfield (south of Fort Worth/Arlington) is the no. 3 ranked player in the class of 2012, while Julius Randle of Dallas is the early no. 1 among the class of 2013, with another area player (Keith Frazier from Irving) ranked as the no. 7 soph.

Obviously, it's a long way from "potential" to "NBA All-Star", but the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is quietly emerging as a metropolitan area which can produce world-class basketball players as well as anywhere in the world.

- The New York drought continues: We move from an underrated basketball city back to the one which has become wildly overhyped: the Big Apple. Lamar Odom and potentially Joakim Noah threatened to end the drought of New Yorkers in the All-Stars, but came up short. That means that once again, there are zero NBA All-Stars from New York City, and there hasn't been one since Ron Artest in 2004. Say Queensbridge.

[We discussed the topic "What Happened to the NYC Ballplayer?" at length in our 2009 post.]

One thing that's notable is that the action - and probably, the coaching - is taking place across the Hudson in Jersey. St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey has the chance to pull off an amazing double: it could produce back-to-back no. 1 overall picks in the NBA Draft. Injured Duke PG Kyrie Irving currently sits no. 1 in DraftExpress's 2011 Mock Draft, while senior SF Michael Gilchrist, a player with Pippenesque qualities who will attend Kentucky, could certainly go no. 1 overall in 2012.

Al Harrington, Sam Dalembert and Derrick Caracter are current players in the league from coach Kevin Boyle's storied St. Patrick program. Earlier this year, we caught a televised game between St. Patrick and Winter Park, FL (which features ESPN's no. 1 ranked senior, Austin Rivers). Boyle's well-coached, hard-working team was a joy to watch - we made a note to keep an eye out in case St. Patrick meets Hall of Famer Bob Hurley's St. Anthony's team somewhere down the line in the Jersey state playoffs.

- Where are the next great Europeans?: Hit "-" a few times to back the map out, and you'll notice that, once again, there are only two All-Stars from Europe (Dirk and Pau), and both players have now hit 30 years old. Certainly, the internationalization of the NBA continues apace, with many players from around the world playing key roles around the league.

But where are the next great players from Europe? Guys like Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Fernandez have not lived up to billing as potential stars, and Ricky Rubio's development has stalled as the point guard position has concurrently become overloaded with stunning young talents. Traditional powers Serbia and Croatia - who gave us Divac and Petrovic and Kukoc - are down to just four NBA players combined (Darko, Peja, Vlad Rad and Krstic).

Young players like Frenchmen Roddy Beaubois and Nic Batum, plus Italian Danilo Gallinari, certainly have a ton of potential, but also a lot to prove. Similarly, the 2011 draft class of four possible international lottery picks (Jonas Valanciunas, Enes Kanter, Donatas Motiejunas, and Jan Vesely) has a lot of promise but a lot of uncertainty.

It's improbable though not impossible that Marc Gasol could someday find his way to All-Star Game if the right circumstances come together, but it's hard to see him becoming a true All-NBA player. Joakim Noah is technically a candidate, since he may play for the French national team, but he was born and schooled in New York, played NCAA ball, and also just became a French citizen in 2007.

In 2007, a German was the NBA MVP and a Frenchman was the NBA Finals MVP, and it seemed like the vanguard of the future. Was the preeminence of Dirk, Pau and Tony the summit for European stars rather than a sign of more to come?

- College conference breakdown: Here are the standings of All-Stars and near All-Stars by NCAA conference. The first number is taken from the total of all 37 players above. The second number is strictly for the 24 All-Stars.
    ACC             4 / 3
    Big 12 4 / 3
    Big East 3 / 3
    SEC 3 / 3
    Big Ten 3 / 1
    Pac-10 2 / 2
    Atlantic 10 2 / 0
    Conference USA 1 / 1
    WCC 1 / 0
    Southern 1 / 0
    None 13 / 8
It's a fairly even spread among the power conferences, especially with first-time All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love bringing the Pac-10 back into the fold. The Westbrook/Love combo also allows UCLA to join Wake Forest (Paul, Duncan) as the only school to produce two 2011 NBA All-Stars, with the two Bruins being the only combo who were teammates in college.

- NCAA experience not necessary:: Wow, that last number above really stands out as a staggering change over the last 20 years. A third of NBA All-Stars never played a minute of NCAA basketball, more than half played no more than a year, and only one All-Star - grand old man Timmy Duncan - played a full four years of college basketball.

The average college-basketball experience for the 2011 All-Stars is as follows: East: 1.5 years, West: 1.3, Overall: 1.4 (down from 1.6 in 2010 and 1.8 in 2009).

Why has the quality of play in NCAA basketball declined so drastically over the last generation? It's as simple as these numbers. The best basketball players in the world no longer play college basketball for any meaningful amount of time.

Compare to the 1990 NBA All-Star Game - the players in that game played an average of 3.5 years of college basketball, more than two times the current average! Only 9 of the 24 All-Stars that year had played *fewer* than four years of college, and not one player had played fewer than two years.

We loved college basketball in the '80s and '90s, but now find the game extremely overrated, and often hard to watch. It's nothing personal. We just want to see good basketball, and we now rarely see the best players in the world make it to their junior or senior years.

- Dunk contest prediction: Since this will be our only pre-All-Star post, we're going to throw this in here. We love watching the nightly Blake Griffin highlight reel as much as anybody, but we're not convinced that he will be as impressive of a contest dunker as he is a game dunker. The source of Blake's ability to inspire awe in us stems from his power and explosiveness - plus that combo coming down on someone's head - more than his creativity. As such, we're predicting that crazy-ass JaVale McGee will outdunk Blake on Saturday night, though we'd still bet that the combo of home court and crowd favorite will carry Griffin to the contest win.