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Bob Ford: Donaghy's lawyer is fishing - and it smells

The federal government has former NBA referee Tim Donaghy in the bottom of the boat now, and he is flopping around there, fighting to breathe and hoping desperately that Carol Bagley Amon of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn is a catch-and-release judge.

The federal government has former NBA referee Tim Donaghy in the bottom of the boat now, and he is flopping around there, fighting to breathe and hoping desperately that Carol Bagley Amon of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn is a catch-and-release judge.

Donaghy faces up to 25 years in prison for becoming involved in a gambling scheme that included NBA games in which he officiated. He pleaded guilty to the charges and is scheduled to be sentenced July 14.

As part of the predictable process leading up to the sentencing, John F. Lauro, Donaghy's lawyer, filed a 36-page letter with Amon asking the judge to mete out no more than probation for his client.

Among the arguments for leniency were that Donaghy cooperated with investigators; was only a small part of a wider NBA gambling problem that the league is covering up; provided evidence that led to successful indictments against two cohorts; suffered from a gambling addiction and couldn't help himself; agreed to commit the crimes only when unsubstantiated threats of mob retribution were made regarding his wife and children; and a bunch of other stuff.

It takes a lot to fill 36 pages of a court filing, but lawyers get paid by the word, so the kitchen-sink approach isn't all that surprising.

"The letter is the desperate act of a convicted felon who is hoping to avoid prison time," said Joel Litvin, the NBA's president of league operations and its top in-house counsel.

The NBA conducted its own investigation and found that some of its referees have occasionally visited casinos, which is against league rules, and plans to issue a full report prepared by former federal prosecutor Lawrence B. Pedowitz once Donaghy's sentencing is complete.

Commissioner David Stern is not amused by any of this, and obviously there is a public relations issue in play that relates to the integrity of the sport, but he has steadfastly maintained that Donaghy was a "rogue" official, a crooked ref who did what no others did. There is no hard evidence to indicate he is wrong.

In all probability, the sentence given by Amon will fall somewhere between the 25 years that is possible and the zero days that Donaghy is seeking. I'd put the over-and-under at three years.

All in all, an unseemly story, and a very difficult time for the families involved. But it will pass. The guilty will be sentenced, and life and the NBA will continue, mostly as before.

An interesting, almost laughable section of Lauro's filing had to do with the way that players, coaches and referees get along. If Judge Amon is a sports fan, she will wad up this section and dunk it into the office wastebasket.

Trying to present his client as simply a misguided shell on a beach littered with them, Lauro wrote: "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."

His contention is that refs get along with certain players and coaches and do not get along with others. He also seems to feel this is news.

Anyone who has been around sports - pick any sport - knows this is true. When I covered the Sixers for seven long seasons, I could tell you that, in my opinion, referee Mike Mathis did not care for Charles Barkley, and the feeling was mutual. I could tell you that - again, just my opinion - Barkley did not always receive the benefit of the doubt from Mathis when it came to the assessment of technical fouls.

It wasn't uncommon to bump into a referee on the road, at a hotel bar or coffee shop, and talk shop and understand that some players and coaches were considered pains in the butt by some referees.

But to attempt to make money on the calculus of which officials were working which game on a given night would be foolhardy, although Lauro apparently puts a lot of stock in it.

There is a difference between having inside information and having inside information that means anything. I would often get telephone calls from "a fan," in the minutes leading up to a game, asking if, say, Hersey Hawkins' sore ankle would allow him to play that night. Now, that's information. "I'm sorry. I can't help you," was the correct response to those inquiries, by the way.

Referees are, by nature, honest, and I believe they take pride in calling a fair game, regardless of their personal feelings about the participants. Those feelings they set aside as much as humanly possible.

Tim Donaghy, who disgraced his profession by his actions, is allowing his lawyer to further disgrace it by saying that all referees are up for purchase, either directly or indirectly, depending on their affection or enmity toward coaches and players.

In a way, you can't blame him. It is lonely in the bottom of the boat, and there is nothing to do but thrash about and wait, blaming everyone but himself for the hook he greedily gobbled.