Philly and Delco are everywhere in ESPN story about the NBA’s most notorious referee
Strange Philly and Delco references abound in ESPN's long read on former NBA ref Tim Donaghy. Here are our favorites.
In 2007, long before sports betting was even close to becoming mainstream, a gambling scandal rocked the NBA after the FBI caught top referee Tim Donaghy betting on games — including ones he officiated.
The incident shook professional basketball and cost Donaghy — a Havertown native and Villanova grad — both his job and his freedom. He served 11 months in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2007 to two charges related to the gambling scandal.
In an in-depth story about Donaghy’s transgressions by ESPN contributing writer Scott Eden, which was posted Tuesday, Delco and Philly make several notable appearances. From a deal at an airport bar to a cameo by Frank Rizzo’s son-in-law, the story, at times, reads like a montage from a highly choreographed heist movie, starring some colorful area characters.
Here are some of the most interesting local details from ESPN’s story on the NBA’s most notorious betting scandal, and what ESPN concluded about whether Donaghy fixed games.
ESPN tries to describe Delco
Since Donaghy hails from Delaware County, it was inevitable that the story would attempt to describe this magical suburban land.
Eden’s characterization of Delco as a place “where the sports bars are abundant, where a certain easy familiarity with all forms of gambling prevails, where guys have bookies like they’ve got dentists” isn’t inaccurate, but it doesn’t paint a full picture either.
Delco — Philly’s blue collar suburb — doesn’t just have an abundance of sports bars, it has an abundance of bars. Period. According to Urban Dictionary, “there’s a 42:1 ratio when it comes” to bars vs. libraries in the county.
Guys in Delco “having bookies like they’ve got dentists” doesn’t ring quite true either. We know many Delconian men who haven’t seen a dentist in years.
Finally, Eden fails to reference all the wonderful things about Delco, like the exceptional ratio of Wawas to residents (16:1 is our guess).
‘Cradle of basketball refereeing’
It turns out the suburbs of Philadelphia are a hotbed for NBA officiating.
Eden points to at least 14 NBA referees — current, retired, or deceased — who hail from in and around Philadelphia. Three graduated, as Donaghy did, from Cardinal O’Hara High School, a large Catholic school in the Delco suburb of Springfield.
“If there is a cradle of basketball refereeing, it is here,” Eden wrote.
Among them was Billy Oakes, Donaghy’s uncle, who spent 12 years officiating NBA games before retiring following the 2000 season. Donaghy’s father, Gerry, officiated college basketball games for 40 years, including 19 consecutive NCAA Tournaments and four Final Fours. In 2008, he told the Inquirer it was tough for him to even attend basketball games following the scandal involving his son.
The Delco betting zoo
It’s not often that grocery store barons turn into sports-betting financiers, but in Delaware County dreams really do come true.
According to Eden, in the 1980s, a man name Mike Rinnier — a successful owner of Delco supermarkets — bankrolled a sports-betting operation that he staffed with Delco guys, all of whom “by chance” had animal nicknames like Sheep, Rhino, Tiger, Rooster, and Seal.
Overtime, the group became known as the Animals, Eden wrote. No word on whether their headquarters became known as “The House of the Rising Sun.”
Marriage at a Philadelphia airport bar, sealed with a joint
According to the story, Donaghy got seriously entangled in the betting world when Tommy Martino, a friend from his days at Cardinal O’Hara, set up a meeting between the two and underground bet broker James “Bah-Bah” “Sheep” Battista at the bar of the Marriott at Philadelphia International Airport.
“...in exchange for providing Battista with his betting ‘picks,’ Donaghy would receive $2,000 per game -- but only if the pick won,” Eden wrote. “Much later on he would come to call this meeting ‘the marriage.’”
To celebrate their union, the three men smoked a joint in a car parked under fluorescent lights at a nearby gas station because they were obviously not concerned about getting caught doing anything.
“They passed it back and forth -- Battista, who’d snorted some coke earlier, demurred,” Eden wrote, “and as the car filled with smoke, they made, Martino told me, ‘a pact.’ The pact was: ‘Don’t tell anybody. Because that’s how you get in trouble.’”
Delco man uses his brothers as code words
In what may be the only reference ever in a national publication to Boothwyn — a Delco community of about 5,000 people — Eden writes that it was at Martino’s house in Boothwyn where Donaghy and his old high school buddy came up with code words to use on the phone when discussing basketball games:
“Martino had two brothers. One, Johnny, lived in Jersey. The other, Chuck, lived in Delco,” Eden wrote. “According to Martino, if Donaghy mentioned out-of-state Johnny’s name, the pick was for the visiting team. If Donaghy talked about Chuck, bet the home side. Not exactly the Enigma cipher but better than yapping about specific teams and risking someone overhearing.”
The Rizzo connection
According to Eden, Rizzo’s son-in-law, Joseph “Joe Vito” Mastronardo, was a “major black-market bookie” who served “as a kind of shadow bank for the global underground gambling industry.” In fact, Mastronardo — who was also known as the “gentleman gambler" — had so much cash at hand that when he was arrested, authorities found $1.1 million in cash packed in PVC pipes buried in his yard, the story notes.
“To help get his clients’ bets down, Battista as a bet broker needed Joe Vito," Eden wrote. "That’s why, according to someone close to both men, Battista had no choice but to apprise Mastronardo of the Donaghy situation, to tell Joe Vito that this ref was picking sides in his own games-and, most likely, using his whistle to help the bet win.”
In on the fix?
Donaghy, Eden points out, has never publicly admitted to fixing games, only to placing bets on them. But the report details all the ways Donaghy could influence the outcome after making his pick. NBA betting lines are low, meaning he only needed to shift a few points in either direction to get the outcome he wanted.
ESPN ran an independent analysis of games Donaghy officiated during the 2006-07 season, which ended with federal and NBA investigations into the scandal. In 77 percent of the games, ESPN found, “Donaghy favored the side that attracted more betting dollars,” and more betting dollars meant that was the team gamblers were picking.
The NBA told ESPN it stood by its original findings — Donaghy bet on games, but didn’t fix them.
Now, the NBA has become a league that embraces sports betting, following the line that many gambling advocates spout — legalization leads to regulation, which leads to transparency, which means it would be harder to fix games.
Donaghy, however, declined to take a polygraph test to prove he didn’t fix games, according to a former book publisher. The publisher wanted to know why he refused.
Writes Eden: “Because, he replied, he would fail it.”
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