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Page-turning back story

Ref Delaney details undercover work in riveting book

Posted: Friday January 4, 2008 11:37AM; Updated: Friday January 4, 2008 4:57PM
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Bob Delaney, a former New Jersey state trooper, worked undercover for three years in a fight against organized crime in the '70s.
Bob Delaney, a former New Jersey state trooper, worked undercover for three years in a fight against organized crime in the '70s.
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In my two decades as an NBA scribe (scribe, incidentally, being the gently derisive term that Steve Nash uses to describe ink-stained wretches), I've always felt a kinship with the referees. We are both a peripheral part of a game dominated by millionaires (though the zebras are less peripheral) and we both attract attention mainly when we do something wrong (though they get more attention).

I was closer to the older generation of retired refs (Jake O'Donnell, Eddie T. Rush, Bernie Fryer and the late Earl Strom to name a few) and remain closer to the more senior members of the current crew, especially Joey Crawford, Steve Javie and Dick Bavetta. There is a reason for this beyond the obvious fact that we are chronological contemporaries: The league has gradually discouraged contact between refs and the media, preferring that the striped-shirts be just that -- background scenery to the main event. That's a shame because many of these guys are fascinating personalities who bring unique life experiences to the job.

In the case of Bob Delaney, a 20-year veteran, that is a vast understatement. In fact, few personalities in the world of sports, or the world in general, have a more captivating back story than Delaney, whose league-desired anonymity will diminish -- if not disappear entirely -- with the Feb. 4 release of his autobiography, Covert: My Years Infiltrating The Mob.

With the help of co-author Dave Scheiber, a fine Florida-based journalist, Delaney, a former New Jersey state trooper, tells his tale lucidly and, best of all, understatedly. Delaney/Scheiber followed a cardinal rule of writing: The better the material, the more it should speak for itself. The writerly touches belong, I suspect, to Scheiber, but the blood-chilling drama about his time spent undercover with New Jersey Mafia types comes from Delaney's soul, his memory and, to be sure, a mountain of audio tapes that helped bring down the jaw-breakers and law-breakers who formed his social circle during three years of undercover work in the mid-1970s.

Delaney resists what would've been the simplistic notion of tying his current occupation to his previous one. Well, dear reader, after dealing with guys who would put a slug in my chest as easy as they'd say hello, I'm here to tell you that calling a technical on Rasheed Wallace isn't so difficult. Delaney is an excellent official but others are just as good, and they didn't spend three years wearing a wire around stone-cold killers. But it's beyond obvious that you learn quite a bit about composure and demonstrating grace under pressure when your every waking breath is spent wondering if your next breath is your last one.

"The development of your off-court personality is a reflection of your on-court personality," Delaney said on Thursday when we chatted by phone about the book. "I'm sure the situations I dealt with during my undercover years help me as an official because I understand how to function when I'm under pressure."

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