In a memorandum filed this week in federal court, disgraced NBA official Tim Donaghy alleged that the NBA "allowed an environment to exist" that converted inside information, such as which officials would work games, into "valuable" betting information.
"For example, particular relationships between officials and coaches or players affected the outcome of games, and other practices prevented games from being played on a level-playing field," Donaghy's attorney, John Lauro, wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Coaches and players get in arguments with officials every game. Is there a pattern to this behavior that could be exploited by gamblers, especially if they knew the officiating assignments in advance?
"I can't really buy it," said NBA official Bill Saar, who worked in the league for 21 years, retiring in 1995. "I just can't put any credibility to it. To me, he's up for sentencing, so the more he keeps going with the diarrhea of the mouth, they're hoping they take something off his sentence."
Saar said he had opinions about different coaches and players, acknowledging some "ill feelings toward [former coach] Bill Fitch - I just thought he was a different kind of cat. . . . It never affected my game."
When asked if relationships between coaches and referees ever influence the outcome of games, one current NBA coach, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, "I think there's a lot of personality conflicts between coaches and referees. I know there are times when I got on the bench, and I looked out there and I wasn't feeling real confidence - whether that's justified or not, I don't know."
But this coach said he "sensed it, and I think my players at times felt there were certain referees they didn't feel very good about. If someone was being truthful, most people would say that."
This coach said he thinks it's human nature for officials to develop opinions about coaches and players, "just like as a team, if you see a guy has been unfair, whether it's founded or not, it would probably affect the way you play."
The coach said he never thought any kind of bias could have been the result of a gambling issue.
"I might look at some guys that didn't like me, and it affected their judgment a little bit," the coach said, "but not because they were gambling, just maybe because they had a deal with me or one of my players."
This coach thought that the efforts made by the NBA to keep teams and officials apart away from the court could have a negative effect.
"We don't stay at the same hotels . . . You don't know each other as human beings," the coach said. "This is a partnership. It's not them against us, and I think [the league has] created that atmosphere."
A former NBA team executive said he was aware of "one NBA ref, whose name escapes me, used to run a charity golf tournament every off-season in Cincinnati. He would solicit donations from various businesses and people. But the league told him to stop because they didn't want the appearance that he would be beholden to anyone. There's little or no contact these days. . . . The league has made sure they stay in different hotels."
The ex-team official thought this made sense: "There's mutual respect, but no cozy relationships, nothing unsavory."
Donaghy, 41, a Cardinal O'Hara High and Villanova graduate, was fired by the NBA last year and has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting betting information through interstate commerce. His sentencing is scheduled for July 14.
The NBA fired back this week at the Donaghy sentencing memorandum, saying in a statement from NBA official Joe Litvin, "The letter . . . contains an assortment of lies, unfounded allegations and facts that have been previously acknowledged, such as the fact that certain NBA referees engaged in casino gambling in violation of NBA rules."
In an interview yesterday, NBA Hall of Famer and former coach Lenny Wilkens said there used to be closer personal relationships between coaches and officials.
"That really hasn't happened [in] a long time, since guys like Earl Strom and Jake O'Donnell were in the league," said Wilkens, who last coached in 2005. "We saw them outside of the game. You could have a drink with one of them, and it never had anything to do with the game. Those guys were professional. Those relationships don't really exist anymore."
Wilkens, whose coaching career began in 1969, said he understood why they don't exist.
"When [the league] grows, there is more on the line, more exposure, and that altered relationships," Wilkens said.
Saar related a story about a run-in with Charles Barkley, how he gave the 76ers star a technical for words Barkley spoke to another official.
"Bill, I didn't say that to you," Barkley said to Saar, who acknowledged he knew that. In response, Barkley said, "Come to think of it, you're a [bleep], too." Saar gave him another technical, resulting in an automatic ejection.
"Two nights later, I've got a game in Philly," Saar said. "Charles said: 'Different night?' I said, 'Different night.' "
He believed that was the typical code of the NBA.
As for whether one referee attempting to influence a game could do it, Saar said, "Without a doubt. He could have a profound effect on that game."
A memorandum filed Friday by the U.S. Attorney's Office said Donaghy "bet on numerous games that he worked" from 2003 to 2007.
The memorandum said the government's investigation revealed that Donaghy "provided picks for anywhere from 30 to 40 games for" the 2003-04, 2004-05, and 2005-06 seasons.
"During the 2006-2007 season, Donaghy bet on approximately 30 games, including about 14 games that he refereed," the memorandum said.
So Donaghy, who knew which officials were working which games, bet on 16 games he was not working himself.
"The damage to the game is so unbelievable I would hope this is an isolated incident and we move forward, because the trust is such an important thing," said the current NBA coach.