At the black heart of the Tim Donaghy scandal, at the place where culture, connections, and camaraderie coagulated into a crime that shook the Gibraltar-like NBA, was a concept called “Delco.”

Implied in that now-familiar sobriquet for blue-collar Delaware County was its reputation as a basketball hotbed, a nursery for referees, a sports-mad community where one could bet a Sunday afternoon parlay as easily as ordering a pizza.

All those traditions contributed to the now-infamous scheme hatched by Donaghy and two of the disgraced NBA official’s Delco buddies. With a referee’s whistle, access to money and gamblers, and a cheesesteak-flavored chutzpah, Donaghy, James “Baba” Battista, and Tommy Martino devised a way to enrich themselves by wagering on games that Donaghy officiated.

For four months in 2006 and 2007, it worked perfectly.

“But they weren’t perfect people,” Andy Callahan said, “and it all fell apart pretty quickly.”

Callahan is a Drexel Hill-raised screenwriter. His script on the Donaghy-Battista-Martino collaboration was the basis for a new movie, Inside Game, that on Nov. 1 will open in 100 theaters in 20 NBA markets, including Philadelphia.

Echoes of Delaware County

Likely the only Hollywood writer able to grasp this sordid episode’s nuances, Callahan played basketball at St. Dorothy’s in Drexel Hill and later at Haverford School. One of his best friends was the son of Ed T. Rush, the former NBA director of refereeing. Another veteran NBA official, Joe Crawford, was his parents’ neighbor. Battista, Donaghy’s gambling connection, once lived next door to an aunt.

“I didn’t know the characters personally, but I knew their voices,” said Callahan, 44, who lives with his family in Los Angeles. “I knew guys and girls from that world, so I was able to tap into an enormous well of experience and inspiration.

“I heard echoes of growing up in Delaware County the entire time. This was a Delco story pulled off by Delco guys. There were these three childhood friends from Drexel Hill, a place where basketball was taught, studied, and revered. One grew up to become an NBA ref. Another grew up to become a bookie. And the third guy, the go-between, was a pot-smoking womanizer.”

Andy Callahan
Handout
Andy Callahan

Fittingly, the film opens with an aerial shot of Drexel Hill while an unseen narrator explains that area’s unique basketball culture and how it shaped the characters.

“I’m about 10 years younger than those guys, but I’d grown up playing CYO and learning the game the way it’s taught in Drexel Hill — teamwork, fundamentals, helping your friends,” Callahan said. “For me, when they were pulling off this scheme, it felt like they were back on the court. In their minds, if they kept backing up each other up like they were taught, they’d get away with it.”

Callahan had no contact with Donaghy and Battista, though the former has seen the film and agreed to participate in promotions after its opening. Instead, the writer relied on Martino, who had yet to tell his story publicly.

During the lengthy process from concept to screen, Callahan and Martino spoke weekly on the phone. The writer traveled here to spend time with the source and re-immerse himself in Delco.

“One of the things instantly interesting to me was how much Tommy’s version of events differed from the public version Donaghy told to the feds, to 60 Minutes, and is in his book,” Callahan said. “Donaghy said two mob-affiliated guys, Battista and Martino, threatened to hurt his family if he didn’t give them picks. That never happened.”

Human frailties

Callahan was always a movie buff, but his interest in writing didn’t surface until a screenwriting seminar his senior year at Yale. His still unproduced script on the rowing dreams of Philadelphians John B. Kelly and his son, Jack Jr., earned him an agent. He’s written for TV shows such as Person of Interest and Lethal Weapon.

Then in 2011, he got a call from a man he’d met eight years earlier at his wife’s North Penn High School reunion. Paul Martino, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was Tommy Martino’s cousin. He remembered Callahan was a screenwriter.

“At that point, he didn’t know I was a basketball player from Drexel Hill. I was just the only person he knew in the world who wrote screenplays,” Callahan recalled. “He said, 'Look, Donaghy has a book. Battista has a book. Tommy hasn’t gotten to tell his story.’ ”

Tommy Martino, (second from left) with attorney Vicki Herr and James Battista, with attorney Jack McMahon (right) exiting Brooklyn federal court in 2008.
Louis Lanzano / Associated Press
Tommy Martino, (second from left) with attorney Vicki Herr and James Battista, with attorney Jack McMahon (right) exiting Brooklyn federal court in 2008.

Though they’ve sometimes been viewed as inept and greedy, it was the Delco trio’s proficiency that most interested him.

Donaghy, he said, was at the pinnacle of his profession, skilled enough to influence games and not be detected. Martino was an ideal middle man with access to all the things their newfound money could buy. And Battista was a gambling savant, one who as a bookie could maintain records in his head.

“Baba is a tremendously intelligent money guy. In a different life, he would have been a hedge-fund billionaire,” Callahan said. “He grew up in a world of bookmaking and rose to the top. But the other side of the story is that their human frailties — drugs, women, and money — turned them into amateurs and destroyed a scheme that could have lasted a long time.”

According to court documents, Donaghy had been betting on NBA games before hooking up with his two fellow Cardinal O’Hara High graduates. When Battista and Martino found out, they met with him and, in December 2006 at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott, devised a system.

“They did it in a way that technically no one could prove what they were doing,” Callahan said. “The only way they could get caught was if this childhood bond cracked.”

Since Donaghy couldn’t have any contact with a professional gambler, Martino acted as the go-between. Battista by then had progressed from bookie to “mover,” earning a percentage of unusually large bets by parceling them out to smaller gambling outlets.

Tim Donaghy exiting Brooklyn federal court following his sentencing on July 29, 2008.
Louis Lanzano / Associated Press
Tim Donaghy exiting Brooklyn federal court following his sentencing on July 29, 2008.

The more successful they were, the more money Battista was able to move to games Donaghy worked. But big shifts in the point spreads tipped off the FBI, which then heard talk of the scheme on a Gambino crime family wiretap. By April 2007, subpoenas were issued. Arrests followed. Donaghy and Battista would be sentenced to 15 months in prison, Martino a year.

When Callahan finished a first draft in 2011, another Silicon Valley figure, one with movie connections, came on board, as did a director, Randall Batinkoff. They all liked the script, they raised the money themselves, and in 2018, after several fits and starts, production began.

“It’s difficult to get any project across the finish line,” Callahan said. “Lots of things had to go right to get Inside Game there.”

Much of the location shooting for the film, which stars Scott Wolf, Will Sasso, and Eric Mabius, was done in Albany and in North Jersey.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, Callahan noted, was the NBA, which officially had concluded that while Donaghy bet on his games, there was no evidence he influenced their outcomes.

“We were telling a story we know was a black eye on the NBA,” he said. “We knew we had to make it in a way that was true and that wouldn’t cause us to get sued out of existence. We were very careful about what we alleged.”

Whatever happens with the film, the scandal-related realization that might linger longest with Callahan was the way in which the Philadelphia area both churns out referees and vilifies them.

“There are so many refs from there, but there’s also so much animosity toward them,” he said. “I realize people hate refs everywhere. But in L.A., you would stick out like sore thumb if you directed the kind of animosity toward them that you see in places like Upper Darby.

“I can remember chairs being thrown at refs during Christmas tourneys in fourth- and fifth-grade basketball. And yet so many grow up to join that profession. It’s an interesting dynamic.”

Tim Donaghy during his days as an NBA referee.
Associated Press
Tim Donaghy during his days as an NBA referee.