June 16, 2015


Does This Ex-Con Know the NBA Better Than LeBron (Pat Jordan, 6/16/15, New York)

A few days before Easter, at 8:30 a.m., Donaghy and I are sitting at the kitchen counter of his modest townhouse in Sarasota, studying his website, Refpicks. It's a handicapping service for sports gamblers that employs a dozen other handicappers around the country who specialize in sports other than basketball. Donaghy himself only makes picks for the NBA, using his knowledge of the officials for each game. "I'm the only handicapper in the country who bases his picks on the refs," he says. He's successful roughly 60 percent of the time -- that's about five points higher than most professional gamblers, which means that in the world of sports gambling, the name Tim Donaghy is gold. In the real world, that name is mud. Donaghy is usually referred to in the media with a prefix, like a tail pinned to a donkey: "disgraced referee" Tim Donaghy. [...]

"The NBA is entertainment, too, not sports," he says. And the refs are the closest thing the league has to dramaturges. They can make a big difference, even when they don't mean to: A few years ago, an academic study demonstrated that in the NBA, the referees confer an advantage on the home team. Particular refs respond in particular ways, of course, which is something that a veteran like Tim Donaghy knows. He also knows which refs have histories with which players and which coaches, and a pretty good sense of how those histories will play out on the court. He knows which coaches can bully refs and which can't, and he knows which refs are especially likely to defer to superstars or to give an advantageous call to one team or player to make up for an earlier mistake. These are all small effects, but they add up, and, especially in the playoffs, when games tend to be tight, they can explain why one team advances while another goes home -- and why some gamblers win while others don't. 

Donaghy works seven days a week, an hour and a half in the morning and an hour and a half at night. The day I'm with him, at precisely 9 a.m., Donaghy receives a phone call from Danny Biancullo, a.k.a. "Danny B," a northeastern handicapper and sports-talk-radio-show host. Biancullo has the gravelly voice one would expect of a sports handicapper. He mentions the name of another gambler to Donaghy and says, "This guy loves ya, pal."

Donaghy says, "He's on an eight-to-one win streak, 30 G's."

Danny B complains about the northeastern weather. "Still snowing. My Maserati won't drive in the snow." Then, "How's Molly?" Donaghy says, "Molly's good. How's your son?" Danny B says, "He's playing the saxophone now. I can't concentrate on the games."

They discuss two NBA games, and Donaghy offers his thoughts about the referees managing each. One of them, he says, "can be controlled" -- lobbied by a coach into giving favorable calls to that team. As it happens, that referee is officiating a game featuring an especially skilled lobbyist. He suggests betting on that coach's team. The other game's ref not only "can't be controlled," he won't even give the home team a typical home advantage. Donaghy suggests picking against them. That night, both his picks covered their spread and were winners for him.

Donaghy doesn't much watch the NBA, and when he does he just studies video of the last few minutes of games that ended with a controversy. "I'll look for a ref's missed calls," he says. "In a Cleveland game in March, a Cleveland player kicked the ball out of bounds but the ref missed it and gave the ball to Cleveland. Now after the game, when he sees video showing his mistake, it'll affect the ref's next game with Cleveland. He feels he owes that visiting team a call. So I look for that next Cleveland game with that ref and that same visiting team. Sometimes, too, if a coach complains about a ref to the media, that ref will want to stick it up his ass the next time he works that coach's game." Game 2 of this year's finals is a good example -- two calls late in overtime went against LeBron James, a phenomenon so unusual the announcers couldn't stop talking about it. "LeBron James was clobbered on a shot and no whistle was called," Donaghy tells me after Game 2 -- calls the NBA later acknowledged the officials had missed. "There's no logical reason for ref Tony Brothers not to call that foul. It could've cost Cleveland the game. Just like those two no-foul calls in overtime on jump balls. The league's lucky Cleveland won Game 2 or those three blown fouls could've determined the series."

These are the kinds of plays Donaghy focuses on, trying to determine whether the ref made the right call, blew it accidentally, or blew it for a reason -- a vendetta against a coach, say. If the ref just blew the call accidentally, then the next game he might feel compelled to give that team a few extra calls, he says. If he blew a call on purpose, then Donaghy figures he'll do that whenever he faces that coach again.

Of course, the NBA denies that its referees are influenced in this way, or that they'd ever feel obligated to give a team a makeup call (though the idea is so common that television announcers invoke it to explain confusing calls). The great insight of his operation is that refs are petty creatures at the center of an extremely high-stakes environment. Donaghy says refs are paid in the low-to-mid six figures, plus expenses and a few hundred dollars per diem. "We're on the road 27 days a month during the season," he says, "which is fine, if you've got a bad marriage." He says refs are small-minded men with big egos "who resent the fact they don't get the recognition the players do. They think the fans come to see them. So they hotdog it, like Joey Crawford." That's a ref Donaghy reportedly once punched out in a fit of anger. "If a player's ready to shoot a free throw, Crawford will grab the ball from him and rush over to the scorer's table and begin screaming about something." That way, he knows the cameras will follow him.

Posted by at June 16, 2015 2:44 PM

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