Go to a basketball game in Cardinal O'Hara High School's spacious gym and you'll spot them, usually in an isolated cluster high up in the stands.

They are men, many of them Irish, who once played basketball. They played together for coaches Buddy Gardler, Jim Purcell or Bob Palestini at O'Hara, or as opponents on school and CYO teams in Delaware County's numerous basketball-mad Catholic parishes.

They are there because they still love the game. Some sate their passion by coaching the teams they once played for or reminiscing in bars in the neighborhoods where they grew up.

Others referee.

Tim Donaghy, the 40-year-old ref who finds himself at the white-hot center of an NBA scandal, is a product of that environment. So were his fellow NBA referees Ed Malloy, Duke Callahan and Joe Crawford.

Remarkably, all four of those NBA officials graduated from O'Hara, a 44-year-old high school in Springfield Township across the street from the archdiocesan cemetery, SS. Peter and Paul.

"When you think about how many NBA officials there are, four is certainly a disproportionate share to have come from one high school," said Mike Daly, a 1968 O'Hara graduate and a member of Villanova's 1971 NCAA runner-up team. According to the NBA Referees Association Web site, there are 58 referees.

"It must be something in the water there, or in the nature of the culture that surrounds Philadelphia basketball," Daly said.

Donaghy, Malloy and Callahan played basketball for Gardler, the longtime O'Hara coach. Crawford, the oldest at 55 and a 1969 graduate, was cut from the team by Palestini.

Malloy was the best player of the bunch, going on to star for Herbie Magee, perhaps the quintessential Philly gym rat, at what was then Philadelphia Textile. Donaghy went to Villanova, though officials there insist he did not play baseball for the Wildcats as his NBRA biography suggests.

Crawford and Callahan did not graduate from college, according to the NBRA.

"But Callahan was a heck of a player," said Daly.

Typically, they all stayed in the area, though Donaghy recently moved to Florida after experiencing difficulties with neighbors in West Chester.

Callahan lives in Drexel Hill. Crawford lives in Newtown Square. He grew up in Havertown, as did Donaghy. Malloy resides there now.

Callahan, Crawford and Malloy have been instructed by the NBA not to comment on Donaghy or other NBA issues.

As a further example of this little world, consider John McFadden. An all-Catholic guard at O'Hara in the mid-1960s and later an assistant coach at Rutgers, McFadden has a sister, Mary, who is married to Crawford. Jake O'Donnell tended bar at the Clifton Heights tavern owned by McFadden's father. And O'Donnell became Crawford's entree to the NBA.

"Seems like the NBA has had great success with guys from Philly, Donaghy being the exception," said McFadden, who now lives in Medford. "So maybe they are predisposed to go back to the same well for more water."

All four O'Hara grads began their careers working CYO and high school games in and around Philadelphia. They eventually moved up into the Continental Basketball Association.

Crawford, whose NBA career started in 1977, also worked games in the Eastern League, which, like the CBA, is now defunct.

"When you're learning to officiate, you need mentors," Crawford said in an earlier interview. "I was 19 years old doing a CYO game, and Jake came to teach me things. I would teach people if they wanted to be taught. It's the only way that you can get better."

Crawford got into trouble of his own this season and was suspended indefinitely by the league in April after he ejected San Antonio star Tim Duncan from a game for laughing on the bench.

The routes that Callahan, 47, and Donaghy took also included CYO, high school and the CBA.

The 36-year-old Malloy, meanwhile, in his sixth NBA season, officiated extensively in college, including the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast Conferences, as well as in the NBA Development League.

The O'Hara four were helped by the longstanding pipeline that has sent Philadelphia-area officials to the NBA since the early 1950s.

O'Donnell began to mentor the 19-year-old Crawford, the son of major-league umpire Shag Crawford, when he was still working CYO games. Crawford, in turn, helped Callahan, now entering his 18th NBA season, get his job.

Malloy and Donaghy were hired by Ed T. Rush, another Philadelphia native and a longtime NBA ref who taught at Marple Newtown High School, just down the road from O'Hara, and also served as the NBA's director of officiating from 1998 to 2004.

O'Donnell and Rush lived in Delaware County and, along with Crawford, were responsible for mentoring several NBA officials from Delaware County who came after them, including Ed Middleton, Billy Oakes - both now retired - and Mark Wunderlich.

Steve Javie, in his 21st NBA season, was born in Philadelphia, went to La Salle High and Temple, and now lives in Blue Bell.

Former referee Joe Gushue was from Philadelphia. Earl Strom, a giant in black-and-white stripes, hailed from Pottstown. And Mendy Rudolph, the most recognizable offical during the NBA's first four decades, also was a Philadelphia native.

"I think it has to do with the old guys like Jake O'Donnell and Eddie Rush," Gardler said. "They developed such a strong fraternity among the Catholic League and college referees. There was just a real strong bond among all those guys."

Curiously, there are uncomfortable similarities between Rudolph and Donaghy, who allegedly had a gambling problem that led to what prosecutors contend was contact with members of the New York mob.

After Rudolph's death in 1979, his wife talked of his gambling problem. She said he went into debt and had been approached by a Las Vegas gambler about shaving points.

"It goes against all my principles," Susan Rudolph quoted her husband in 1992. "I love the game too much, respect it too much. . . . If I have to go into bankruptcy, something I'd hate to do, I'd do it."

Then there are those solid Catholic ties that can't be discounted in the O'Hara four's rise to the NBA.

All those people high in O'Hara's stands know each other. They all know whose nephew or niece is a rising hoops star, what sixth-grade team needs a coach, what league needs referees.

"It's an extremely tight-knit world," said Daly. "It's either that or the water."

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.