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Crisis of character

Gambling scandal cuts to heart of league's integrity

Posted: Friday July 20, 2007 7:04PM; Updated: Sunday July 22, 2007 5:02PM
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Tim Donaghy was a senior referee working the infamous Palace brawl in November '04.
Tim Donaghy was a senior referee working the infamous Palace brawl in November '04.
Joe Murphy/Getty Images
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Note: Additional reporting by Ian Thomsen, Steve Aschburner and Chris Mannix

LAS VEGAS -- Kobe Bryant has lost 15 pounds and is moving like a cobra. LeBron James is excited to be here. Everyone was waving the red, white and blue out in good ol' Sin City on Friday afternoon as 17 NBA players got together for a summer practice session prior to an Olympic qualifying tournament next month.

And the NBA is facing possibly the worst crisis in its history.

"I never would have believed that this would happen," says Mark Madsen, the player representative of the Minnesota Timberwolves. "It's tragic. I never thought I'd be hearing this in 100 years, about any official in any sport."

But it has happened. Sometime next week, referee Tim Donaghy, lowly regarded as a whistle-blower in some circles but qualified enough (in the NBA's view) to work postseason games, reportedly will surrender to the FBI to face charges that he conspired to make calls that would affect the point spread of games. Donaghy, 40, a 13-year veteran who officiated five playoff games in 2007, allegedly had a gambling problem that landed him in financial difficulty, according to the New York Post, which broke the story on its front page on Friday. Says one league source with ties to Philadelphia (Donaghy is one of four NBA refs who graduated from Philadelphia's Cardinal O'Hara High; he attended Villanova and resided in the Quaker City suburbs until recently): "When I heard that a referee was in trouble with gambling, I knew right away it was Donaghy."

Donaghy, who was on duty the night of the infamous Nov. 19, 2004, brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, has made no comment. NBA officials have been similarly close-mouthed, saying that the FBI has asked them not to speak. Calls to half a dozen referees went unreturned.

But when commissioner David Stern does talk, he will have to answer this: If others knew that Donaghy was a gambler, why didn't the NBA?

In a bit of irony that is no doubt souring Stern's innards, the story broke as the NBA was working out its star-spangled troops in Las Vegas, which is also the site of the Olympic qualifier. Years ago, Stern looked upon Vegas as a modern-day Gomorrah best left ignored because of its ties to gambling. That has changed. Though Stern still expresses reservations about a Vegas-based NBA franchise, the 2007 All-Star Game was staged here, and now that is followed by next month's FIBA Americas Championship, which USA Basketball, headed by former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, lobbied for. One of the league's most prominent ownership teams, the Sacramento Kings' Maloof brothers, Joseph and Gavin, owns a Vegas hotel (the Palms) where players and coaches stayed during All-Star Weekend.

Beyond the issue of the ref's alleged gambling, and whether or not the NBA knew about it, the baby-faced Donaghy is no stranger to trouble. In January 2005 his next-door neighbors in suburban Philadelphia sued him for harassment and invasion of privacy for a pattern of discord that had reportedly gone on for several years. Peter and Lisa Mansueto claimed that Donaghy vandalized their property and stalked them, even to the point of following Mrs. Mansueto around Radley Run Country Club, where Donaghy and the Mansuetos were members. After an internal investigation, Donaghy was suspended from Radley Run for the summer and early fall of 2004. The suit also alleged that Donaghy set fire to the Mansuetos' tractor and crashed their golf cart into a ravine.

Efforts to reach the Mansuetos to confirm the disposition of the lawsuit were unsuccessful as of 6 p.m. on Friday. Donaghy has since sold his Pennsylvania house and moved his family to Bradenton, Fla. Donaghy is the least-regarded of the Cardinal O'Hara foursome, which also includes Joey Crawford, Mike Callahan and Ed Malloy. One NBA coach calls him "absolutely the worst referee in the league," but others are somewhat more charitable. "I'd put him about in the middle," says another coach, requesting anonymity. "Then again, it's a large and undistinguished middle."

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