Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, wearing his disgrace like a scarlet letter, awaits release of film on his scandal
"Inside Game," set for release Friday, will resurrect the incident that will forever be his legacy.
Minutes after a recent telephone interview about the new film that portrays his role at the center of an NBA betting scandal, Tim Donaghy texted the reporter with a suggestion, actually a wish that will never come true.
“Just list me as Tim Donaghy,” he wrote, “and drop the disgraced NBA referee. LOL.”
Offered with a mixture of humor and seriousness, the request reflected his state of mind on the eve of Friday’s nationwide release of Inside Game, a film that will resurrect the scandal that will forever be his legacy.
It’s been 12 years since Donaghy’s arrest for providing inside information to a pair of gambling buddies, sometimes on games he officiated. He spent 15 months in prison. A vengeful Gambino crime family member assaulted him there, according to Donaghy and his lawyer. He lost his job, his wife, his pension.
Yet the most lasting punishment might be that damning description — “disgraced referee” — which, like the whistle he wore for 13 years as a well-regarded NBA official, is draped around Donaghy’s neck.
“Every time I think it’s through,” he said, “something else pops up and puts you back in the spotlight again. It’s an absolute embarrassment. But, unfortunately, I made some poor choices and I have to live with it.”
Though the movie is based on a book of the same name written by Tommy Martino, a longtime Delaware County friend and one of his co-conspirators, and was financed by Martino’s cousin, Paul Martino, Donaghy shunned its production.
“Paul came to me to have a little say in the creative rights part of it,” he said. “But I didn’t want to get involved. I did enough wrong in my life. I didn’t need to make stuff up. Then after it was made, he came to me again and asked if I’d have a problem doing marketing for it. I watched it and decided to jump on board.”
What also impacted that decision, he said, was that film proceeds will be donated to Elwyn, a Delaware County facility for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“That was the final straw,” he said, “the reason I got involved.”
Donaghy, 52, lives in Sarasota, Fla. Divorced, he sees his four daughters regularly. He earns a living dabbling in real estate and, though he’s on probation and called himself a “gambling addict,” in the betting business.
With online sports wagering legal now, he operates a handicapping website, Refpicks.com. Gamblers can purchase his picks for $20 a game. High rollers can buy more detailed insights into officiating.
“Tim has a leg up on most handicappers,” the website states. “He has hands-on experience in officiating games and knows all too well how and what can affect a score.”
The site also claims, without verification, that over the past two years, Donaghy has “had one of the best win percentages in the nation.”
“I give advice when I see different things that may stand out or different trends with some of the referees,” Donaghy explained. “Some of these people that like to gamble put big money on these games.”
Born in Havertown and raised in Drexel Hill, a graduate of both Cardinal O’Hara High and Villanova, he has deep roots in this referee-rich area. But Florida offers more anonymity and his visits here have grown infrequent.
“It’s tough to go back,” he said. “You get that feeling of anxiety. You’re dredging up the story again, what I did and the choices that I made.”
Donaghy did return last month for advance screenings of the film at Lehigh and Villanova. Before answering the audiences’ questions, he had to watch Inside Game with them, cringing as he, Martino and James “Baba” Battista were shown planning the crime, using drugs, hiring prostitutes.
“When you’re sitting there and it’s about you, you’re so embarrassed at some of the things that took place and you’re not sure how they’re going to be perceived,” he said. “It’s not a great feeling at all to be reliving something that set you back in your life and was an embarrassment, not only for yourself but the people you love the most.”
While he and Martino have rekindled their friendship, he and Battista have not. He said he occasionally texted Battista because, according to the ex-referee, Battista owed him money.
“But I don’t want to talk to him other than that,” he said.
Donaghy pleaded guilty and was released from federal prison in July 2008 after serving 11 months of a 15-month sentence. But he soon violated his probation and was returned to prison for the remaining four months.
While in the federal facility in Florida, Donaghy said, a mobbed-up inmate, upset that he’d been a cooperating witness with the government, belted him in the knee with a length of pipe. He’s had two knee operations since.
The son of a respected referee, he still watches basketball and remains convinced a major betting scandal will soon hit the college game.
“It’s going to happen,” he said. “Some of these kids that aren’t going to make it at the professional level are going to take money to not cover the point spread. That’s a way for them to put some money in their pockets and support their families.”
Even though he was convicted of providing inside information to Martino and Battista, an NBA investigation determined there was no evidence Donaghy influenced the outcome of games he refereed.
Now, when he watches NBA officials, he recognizes that some of them still give the “star treatment” to certain players.
“Some of the things that happened when I was there,” he said, “they’re still going on.”
The “disgraced referee” insisted that more than a decade after the scandal, he has managed to find more peace than he thought possible in 2007.
“Definitely,” he said. “If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be in the position I’m in now, I’d have said you were nuts. I’m very fortunate. I have a great family, great friends. They pulled me through this. They took every bullet that was shot. And there were a lot.”
There will be more incoming fire, he knows, after Inside Game is released, then makes the rounds of cable and pay-TV outlets.
“I know,” he said. “I understand that. And I deserve it.”