Did Tim Donaghy and other NBA officials fix games throughout the 2000s?

Tim Donaghy was an NBA official from 1994-2007, making him a verteran in his field of expertise.  Oddly enough, it didn’t always look like it out on the court.  So, in 2007, when the NBA and FBI launched an investigation into NBA officials fixing games that they officiated for gambling purposes, it was no surprise to see that Donaghy was the center of attention.

Throughout the history of the NBA, there would always be games that were poorly officiated or hinted at favoritism towards its star players, but there was never a game that allowed someone to think that either the NBA or the NBA’s officials would be fixing games.  Then, came the 2002 Western Conference Finals.  

There had never been anything like it, and it is without question that this series was the reason people started to believe there was more than the surface level excuse of bad officiating.  It was game six of the Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings.  The Kings had the best team in the Western Conference at 61-21, with the Lakers three games behind at 58-24.  The Lakers were two time defending champs, and were looking for the threepeat.  However, their backs were against the wall, as they were behind 3-2 in the series, and the Kings had looked like the better team throughout the playoffs as well as in the series.  It looked like the dynamic duo of Kobe and Shaq were headed home before the NBA Finals.  Then, the officials stepped in.

What would ensure was a three hour bloodbath between the two teams, both fighting tooth and nail for their playoff lives.  They both knew that whoever survived this series was more than likely to kill the New Jersey Nets, who were patiently waiting to take on the winner.  The officiating was absolutely terrible from tip-off.  

The Kings attempted 25 free throws to the Lakers 40, and Kobe and Shaq shot more free throws than the entire Kings’ roster.  The Lakers attempted a ridiculous 27 free throws in the fourth quarter to Sacremento’s nine.  In fact, foul calls favored the Lakers at a rate of 7-2.  There were blatantly obvious fouls committed by the Lakers that went unnoticed, while it seemed that the Kings’ big men couldn’t breathe without a foul being called on them.  

The most noticeable and absurd call of the game came with 12.5 seconds to go in the game.  The Lakers led 103-102 and were inbounding the ball.  During the inbound, Kobe Bryant flew his elbow into the face of Kings’ guard Mike Bibby, leaving him down on the court.  It seemed that the officials turned the other cheek because there was no foul call, and the Lakers got the ball in and would end up winning the game by a score of 106-102.  NBA fans were outraged, claiming that the officials and the NBA had rigged the game for the Lakers to win because they thought it was best for business.  This would be a hard theory to dismiss, as the Lakers would win an overtime thriller in Game 7 to punch their ticket to the NBA finals, where they would crush the Nets in just four games.  

Fast forward to 2007, when Tim Donaghy was now being investigated for the possibility of him fixing games.  There was no question he had been betting on games after he had pled guilty.  Now, the investigation had to prove that he had fixed games that he officiated in order to further prosecution against him.  The investigation found that Donaghy’s gambling habits were an addiction, and that the ties went further than anyone would have ever imagined.

The New York Post found information that connected Donaghy to the mob, saying that he got in trouble “wagering with mob-connected bookies”.  This troubled the situation even more, and really opened the door to the possibility that Donaghy had fixed games to get himself out of a jam with the mob.  However, Michael Franzese, a former member of the Colombo crime family, went on a whistleblower podcast and spoke on the topic.  He claimed that the mob had their foot in the door when it came to officiating in sports, and that he had two NBA officials on the payroll during the 90s.  He claimed that neither of those officials were Tim Donaghy, but he also refused to release the names of those officials.  The remainder of the investigation found no conclusive evidence that Tim Donaghy was fixing games, and he was sentenced to just 15 months in prison from the felony charges from a result of his gambling.

Many were unhappy with the ending of the investigation, claiming that there had to be some evidence of games being fixed.  Then, someone spoke out about the fixing of NBA games.  However, the source wasn’t incriminating Donaghy, it was incriminating the NBA.  The source was Tim Donaghy himself.  For years, he would throw out serious accusations against the National Basketball Association, claiming that they incentivized officials to fix games for the benefits of television rating and ticket sales.  He would claim that the NBA encourages officials to allow teams back into games, to prolong playoff series, and do what must be done to keep viewership high.  The most damning accusation, however, was one that incriminated the NBA in fixing one of the most controversial playoff series of all time. 

In a legal document submitted by Donaghy’s attorney, the following statement was made:

“Referees A, F and G were officiating a playoff series between Teams 5 and 6 in May of 2002. It was the sixth game of a seven-game series, and a Team 5 victory that night would have ended the series. However, Tim learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. Tim knew referees A and F to be ‘company men,’ always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA’s interest to add another game to the series. Referees A and F heavily favored Team 6. Personal fouls [resulting in obviously injured players] were ignored even when they occurred in full view of the referees. Conversely, the referees called made-up fouls on Team 5 in order to give additional free throw opportunities for Team 6. Their foul-calling also led to the ejection of two Team 5 players. The referees’ favoring of Team 6 led to that team’s victory that night, and Team 6 came back from behind to win that series.”

This statement was an absolute bombshell in the sports world, and all eyes turned to the NBA commissioner David Stern for answers.  He denied the allegations made, and instead attacked the character of Donaghy, claiming that these claims were just a desperate act made by a felon.  However, these allegations were no question talking about the previously mentioned game six of 2002 Western Conference Finals.  Though the statement left out real, concrete verification that it was the game being talked about, it was quite obvious that it was.  

What gave it away was the fact that the 2002 Western Conference Finals was the only seven game series in that playoffs, and that it had taken place in may.  It was clear that the Kings were referred to as Team 5 and the Lakers as Team 6.  It seemed that Donaghy had completely flipped the switch, and now the NBA was looking corrupt.  Additional claims of orders by NBA executives to referees only fueled the flames of a burning building.  The NBA now had to clear their name while also calming the fans from having such intense suspicions, especially since the accusations were in the midst of the 2008 NBA Finals between the Celtics and Lakers.

In time, the suspicions and paranoia seemed to subside, and things began to go back to normal.  However, when Donaghy exited jail, he continued to slander the NBA’s name with accusations for tampering with referees in order to have a favorable outcome when it came to monetary value.  In order to remedy these types of allegations, the NBA made lots of changes to policies pertaining to referees.  As an example, they wouldn’t reveal to the public who was officiating until the day off the game.  In addition, they added replay reviews and the two minute report, which reviews all calls made by officials and verifies or corrects them.

Donaghy also put himself back in the spotlight, and some people weren’t so sure about the FBI and NBA’s findings and did some digging on their own.  On ESPN’s The Jump, it was revealed that ESPN writer Scott Eden conducted his own research that spanned for about two years, and his findings couldn’t be further from what was found by the FBI and NBA.  He studied 40 games in which Tim Donaghy officiated, and found that Donaghy’s calls favored the side with more betting dollars in 23 out of 30 games that were competitive and were affected by the calls on the floor.  That means that 77 percent of the time, Donaghy called games that favored the higher coveted team in the betting world, which is an imbalance that has 6,155 to 1 odds of being produced.  It seems that in this case, numbers don’t lie, and those numbers are rather eye popping.

Unfortunately the case was closed, and Donaghy served his time.  Even the FBI backed him, so it seems that not much is going to change, even if that study is 100 percent accurate.  Even so, there is no doubt that there is still conspiracy about the NBA and its officials.  Officials are still messing up easy calls on a daily basis, and the NBA has very controversial moments hanging over their head, such as the frozen envelope in the 1985 draft, where is has been theorized that late commissioner David Stern rigged the draft to give the Knicks the number one pick so one of the NBA’s most loved teams were back on top.  It’s situations like this that made it hard for sports fans to perceive things as black and white, because it seems to be so obvious that there are grey areas all around.  

In the meantime, NBA fans and players are going to have to watch and play the game that they love, and investigators are going to wait for the next slip up, where they will do what they must to exploit what they feel is a corrupt system.