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Donaghy claims NBA referees altered playoff games

If Tim Donaghy is to be believed - and that's a big "if," according to his many enemies - the NBA has a potentially cataclysmic situation on its hands.

Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy has accused the league of altering playoff games. (Getty Images)
Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy has accused the league of altering playoff games. (Getty Images)Read more

If Tim Donaghy is to be believed - and that's a big "if," according to his many enemies - the NBA has a potentially cataclysmic situation on its hands.

It has nothing to do with the fact that Donaghy spent the last four seasons of his career betting on games he officiated and calling in "picks" to a Delaware County insurance salesman and a couple of buddies from Cardinal O'Hara.

It has everything to do with what Donaghy has been telling the feds in New York in an effort to reduce his sentence on wire-fraud and interstate gambling charges.

Just as the NBA was tamping out the embers on the Donaghy betting scandal - his sentencing in Brooklyn Federal Court is only a month away - the former referee's lawyer shows up with the napalm.

In a letter submitted yesterday to U.S. District Court Judge Carol Amon, attorney John Lauro detailed Donaghy's testimony on the "inner-workings" of the NBA - a league in which Donaghy alleges executives manipulate games to boost earnings, referees accept gifts from coaches, and "anonymous" observers who are supposed to monitor the referees' performances hobnob with the refs in their locker room.

In Los Angeles, for Game 3 of the NBA Finals between the Celtics and Lakers, commissioner David Stern responded to the allegations.

"All I can say is that he's looking for anything that will somehow shorten the sentence, and it's not going to happen," he said.

During meetings in July and September of last year, according to Lauro, Donaghy told federal prosecutors and FBI agents about instances in which referees acted as the pawns of league executives, withholding calling technical fouls on "certain star players" so as to not "hurt ticket sales and television ratings."

One referee who went against those instructions - sent down by an NBA executive - in January 2000 was privately reprimanded by the league, Donaghy claimed.

Donaghy, 41, a Havertown native and Villanova grad who began working as an official in 1994, also said that at least two playoff games were manipulated to prolong the series.

In 2002, for instance, he claims that a pair of referees conspired to push the Lakers-Kings Western Conference finals to a seventh game by "heavily" favoring Los Angeles in Game 6. The teams were not named in the letter, but only the Lakers-King series went seven games that year.

Officials called "made-up fouls" against Sacramento and ignored fouls committed by the Lakers, Donaghy alleged. He described the referees as "company men," always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA's interest to add another game to the series.

Los Angeles won, 106-102, shooting 40 free throws to the Kings' 25. The refs called 31 fouls against Sacramento - Scot Pollard and Vlade Divac fouled out - and 24 against the Lakers, who went on to win the series.

Before last night's Celtics-Lakers game, LA coach Phil Jackson rejected the notion that some referees are "company men" who make calls with the goal of boosting ratings or ticket sales, but said he would like to see the referees operate "under a separate entity than the NBA entirely."

"But I don't think that's going to happen," Jackson said.

Donaghy also told the feds, according to his lawyer, that "if the NBA wanted a team to succeed, league officials would inform referees that opposing players were getting away with violations. Referees then would call fouls on certain players, frequently resulting in victory for the opposing team."

Some referees frequently socialized with coaches and players, others accepted free merchandise and meals from teams, Donaghy alleged. One used a team's practice facility to exercise, while another frequently played tennis with a team coach, he said.

The government has acknowledged that Donaghy cooperated in last year's investigation and provided substantial assistance, but it has not confirmed that the information Lauro revealed yesterday is accurate. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Goldberg, who is prosecuting the case, declined to comment.

Donaghy is facing up to 33 months in prison at his July 14 sentencing, but Lauro is asking the judge for a probationary sentence. Two of his associates - James "Baba" Battista, of Phoenixville, and Thomas Martino, of Marcus Hook - have pleaded guilty to accepting inside betting information from the referee and are scheduled to be sentenced July 11.

Yesterday's letter did not name any teams, players, coaches, referees or league executives "because we believe that, at some point, another prosecutor's office may examine these matters," Lauro wrote in a footnote. He wrote that the government had all the names, but declined to elaborate on the court filing.

Some of the information revealed yesterday, if true, involves potentially criminal activity, sources said.

Stern said it's all baseless.

"He turned on basically all of his colleagues in an attempt to demonstrate that he is not the only one who engaged in criminal activity," Stern said. "The U.S. attorney's office, the FBI, have fully investigated it, and Mr. Donaghy is the only one who is guilty of a crime. And he will be sentenced for that crime regardless of the desperate attempts to implicate as many people as he can."

An NBA source close to the officials said of Donaghy: "He sounds like a sports-talk-show fan, that everything is a conspiracy. He'd throw his own mother under the bus to save his [butt]. That's all this is.''

Lauro also requested yesterday that the court issue a subpoena for NBA documents relating to the league's request for restitution from Donaghy. The league claims that the Donaghy case, and the internal investigation it sparked, cost it $1 million. *

Daily News sports writers Phil Jasner and Joe Santoliquito, and wire services contributed to this report.