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The Philadelphia connection

Did old-boy network help Donaghy land job as ref?

Posted: Thursday August 23, 2007 1:16PM; Updated: Thursday August 23, 2007 1:36PM
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The NBA on Tuesday named former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz to head up an internal review of its gambling policies and referee hiring procedures. Here's one question Pedowitz might want to put at the top of his list:

Is there an old-boy network at play in the hiring of NBA officials?

It seems a fair question in light of the Tim Donaghy scandal. Donaghy is one of seven refs (out of 58 who worked games last season) from the Philadelphia area. He is one of four from the same high school -- Cardinal O'Hara in Springfield, Pa.

This is what is known as a statistical anomaly.

What is it about Philadelphia that makes for better referees? Is there something in those cheesesteaks?

"Philadelphia has an inordinate number of refs basically because a lot of the best candidates come from that area," said Nets president Rod Thorn, who as a former NBA VP oversaw the league's officiating staff during the time when Donaghy was hired in 1994. "It's been like that for a long, long time."

"If you go all the way back, there's always been a lot of refs from Pennsylvania, and [specifically] Philadelphia," Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said. "Some of the greatest officials in NBA history have come from that area. ... I never thought it was an issue. To me, I just thought a lot of guys who want to ref happen to come out of Pennsylvania."

The Philadelphia area indeed has been famous for producing NBA officials over the years -- many of them among the best in the game. Earl Strom. Mendy Rudolph. Jake O'Donnell. Ed Rush. Steve Javie.

And the other refs from Cardinal O'Hara -- Joey Crawford, Eddie Malloy and Mike Callahan -- all are considered to be above average. Even Donaghy was highly rated, according to NBA commissioner David Stern.

Furthermore, just because a city produces a disproportionate number of refs doesn't necessarily mean there is anything wrong with the hiring process. Thorn notes, for example, that before the growth of the CBA and the NBDL, the Eastern League served as the NBA's main minor league. It became a training ground for NBA refs, with many coming from the East Coast and Philadelphia in particular.

"Philly guys got in the system, and they got other guys in the system," Thorn said.

But the Donaghy case raises questions as to whether the NBA might have become too comfortable in its reliance on the old Philly network.

According to published reports, Donaghy was suspected of cheating on his SAT exam while a student at Cardinal O'Hara. He reportedly walked out of the classroom to take a bathroom break and had another student take the test for him. A teacher witnessed the incident, but the school didn't have enough evidence to take action.

Donaghy's bio in the NBA officials media guide also contains apparent falsehoods. It says he was All-Delaware County in basketball at O'Hara, and that he played varsity baseball at Villanova. Neither is true, according to the coaches at the respective schools. (An NBA spokesman would not confirm that Donaghy supplied the information.)

Either way, it seems as if a more thorough review by the NBA at least would have raised red flags.

But that's precisely the risk when relationships and politics become part of the hiring process.

Donaghy, on first glance, was a safe candidate. His father, Gerry, was a prominent and well-regarded NCAA ref who worked several Final Fours, including the 1992 Michigan-Duke contest. His uncle, Bill Oakes, was a longtime NBA official.

He looked like another product of a Philly system that was tried and true. O'Donnell helped Crawford get his start. Crawford helped Callahan. Rush, who served as NBA director of officiating from 1998-2004 and now helps run its training program, helped Malloy and Donaghy. And so on and so on.

It had all worked pretty well for so many years. So why would anybody question Donaghy's résumé when it came across his desk?

"It's rare, but I'm sure [favoritism in hiring] has occurred," said one referee with more than 15 years of experiencee. "I've heard it once or twice since I've been in the league, where a guy maybe [got fast-tracked].

"You just don't want to think stuff like that plays any role. You want to have a good system."

Maybe relationships played no role in Donaghy's hiring, and the NBA was simply the victim of some tough luck. Or maybe there was just enough of an old boy's network in place that the NBA let down its guard.