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Tim Donaghy and the NBA: Whaddya Know? When Did'ja Know It?...By Nelson Lardner

NBA Commissioner David Stern faced waves of inquisitive media Tuesday morning, for the first time since all hell broke loose late last week regarding an NBA referee (subsequently identified as Tim Donaghy) who has apparently - for quite some time - been in the habit of (a) betting on NBA games, and (b) indiscreetly releasing sensitive, restricted knowledge regarding individual NBA games to interesting characters.

For the most part, Stern said the right things, leading with the hopeful "We think we have here a rogue, isolated criminal here." That isn't the usual smooth, slick Stern sentence structure, but that wasn't the typical, calm, collected Stern standing before the press, Tuesday. "I feel betrayed by what happened on behalf of our sport," Stern continued.

Some statements rang truer than others. Donaghy's endured a measure of media scrutiny for a good while. The Philadelphia Inquirer knew enough to run a story that Donaghy had been requested to chat with league officials about possible ramifications of Donaghy's being a known gambler . . . but since the league did not have iron clad evidence of Donaghy's having either (a) bet on basketball, or (b) consciously fiddled with game results while on the job, nothing came of it. Run-ins with neighbors, sour practical jokes, and tales of significant gambling have been bandied about.

When queried regarding NBA-conducted background checks of referees, and their apparant inability to come up with much of what has come to light in the past few days, Stern danced around the question, saying that "I'm surprised, but I guess no more surprised than the head of the FBI or the head of the CIA, when rogue employees turn on their country despite the best investigative procedures in the country."

That response strains credulity. It's been noted that the league offices largely knew what was coming by June 20, but were asked to restrain themselves, pending further developments. Donaghy resigned his referee position on July 9. But with the stories going around, it's difficult to believe that the NBA didn't have at least some inkling that Donaghy was shredding established anti-gambling strictures long in place, re-emphasized by the distribution of the informational/warning pamphlet, "Bad Bets: Understanding the NBA's Anti-Gambling Rules", close to a year ago. The league's written policy is that referees can ONLY gamble at racetracks, and ONLY during the "dark" period before or after each NBA season. You could drive a truck through the credibility gap existing between that iron clad edict . . . and what information that the NBA may have already had in hand regarding Donaghy's off-court activities over the course of the past couple of seasons.

Stern didn't trash Vegas, but implicitly slapped at the offshores. Please. How many books in New York's five boroughs, alone, deal far high limits than the vast majority of the remaining viable offshore operations on the landscape? In recent days, major Vegas sports-gaming figures have gone on record to the effect that some of the games Donaghy worked that featured weird in-game developments did NOT show up on Nevada's finely-tuned radar screens. Books - either in Nevada, or offshore - COULD serve as barometers of unusual wagering activity, if monitored properly . . . though we must note that the marked majority of Vegas outlets do not deal as high to sports-only players as many offshores or illegals remain willing and able to accommodate.

Clearly, "What did Stern know, and when did he know it?" remains a throbbing consideration. And no one left with anything resembling a straight answer, in today's public airing.

One must be very careful in weighing individual news sources here. The Worldwide Leader, ESPN, is deeply ensconced with the NBA at this juncture, carrying an extensive schedule of their games. You know Bristol plays home favorites (you ever seen so much Arena Football stuff on Sportscenter, prior to Disney assuming a tangible interest in the league?), so be careful not to swallow anything whole. Figured that someone's news judgment was amiss when I saw an online story beseeching an individual in this business (who shall remain nameless here) for his wisdom regarding how sports betting functions, and how our spotlighted NBA operatives may have gamed the system . . . ye Gods! Lobbed questions such as: "Given your expertise in watching and wagering on games, what influence does a referee or official have in the gambling outcome?" . . . you were expecting, perhaps, "A Critique of Pure Reason?" It's indeed difficult for us to grant full credence to a public figure who was depicted as writhing on a mens' room floor, straining to flip a coin in order to determine one of his annual Super Bowl selections, in the movie Two For The Money. There are perhaps some two dozen sports service operators currently in business who I have some measure of respect for. Somehow, the guy Matthew McConaughey portrayed in that movie didn't make that cut.

More to come, as we wait for (a) more names to emerge from the mire, and/or (b) for Donaghy to be picked up, especially since the commissioner noted that he understood that Donaghy is contemplating entering a plea . . . Don't leave, just yet . . . plenty more to see and learn, here . . .

Nelson Lardner

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