Tim Donaghy returns to spotlight in Netflix documentary — but something’s missing
The Netflix doc about the ex-NBA referee’s gambling scandal doesn’t include a best-selling author’s work.
LAS VEGAS — By January 2007, Jimmy Battista’s NBA bets had attracted the attention of the world’s heavyweight gamblers, who had connected referee Tim Donaghy to that action.
“Only a fool,” Dr. Sean Patrick Griffin wrote, “would have ignored Battista’s ridiculously obvious wagering success.”
Griffin’s three-year descent into offshore betting was triggered by his curiosity about the mafia’s involvement with sports wagering, stemming from an FBI wiretap of the Gambino crime family.
Donaghy was mentioned on those tapes. Ensuing betting-scandal headlines jolted the NBA. One of its officials is dirty, film at 11. That, though, represented only one knot of the tangled webs.
Griffin, a criminal justice professor at The Citadel and former Philadelphia cop, untangled much of that mess in his best-selling 2011 book, “Gaming the Game.”
He details the genesis of the scheme involving Donaghy, Battista and Tommy Martino, onetime classmates at Cardinal O’Hara High in Springfield, Pennsylvania, and how Battista manipulated global-betting markets.
After it hit the fan and the legal process dragged on, Battista hoped to expose Donaghy’s mountain of lies by testifying. However, Griffin details why Battista, the professor’s main “Gaming” rudder, opted for a plea.
Griffin’s impressive work is again relevant because on Aug. 30, Netflix is scheduled to air “Untold: Operation Flagrant Foul,” about the scandal. It touts interviews with Donaghy, Battista and Martino — not Griffin.
He told me Monday that those producers called him, they talked for maybe 90 minutes and Griffin provided relevant notes and potential lines of inquiry.
But the person who knows more about the case than anyone isn’t on the show and won’t be watching.
“I have incredibly low expectations for whatever they produce,” Griffin said by phone from Charleston, South Carolina. “People know I have documents and files, and they constantly ask me questions whose answers they don’t like.
“And it drives them crazy. They just march on, say whatever they want, anyway. They produce whatever they’re going to produce, independent of the evidence. Netflix, to me, is the next iteration of that.”
Donaghy published a book in June 2010, nine months before “Gaming.”
Guess which one contains footnotes, source notes, cross-referenced facts from many officials and resources and exhaustive due diligence conducted by a forensic expert with a Ph.D. in Administration of Justice from Penn State?
Griffin became so acutely and repeatedly aware that the former ref was full of fabrication and fiction that he’d relegate Donaghy to the disingenuous shadows of his own imagination.
“Don’t forget that I got involved with this not realizing Donaghy’s story is [b.s.],” Griffin, 52, said. “I was just researching it. I’m one of the idiots who bought Donaghy’s book.
“Once I realized that I’d be dealing with these offshore guys who may as well be your next-door neighbors, I was overwhelmed with that entire sociology.”
It stuns Griffin how media, especially sports-talk radio, has provided Donaghy with a platform for his sensational fodder.
“It’s absurd. He gives the media a press packet, and they read him the questions from it, like it’s a PR campaign,” Griffin said. “No one realizes it’s a scam. I’ll never understand that.”
Battista, who called Donaghy “a pathological liar” with bottomless greed, told Griffin, “I knew that Timmy’s demand for money far exceeded his ability to get it. He was [expletive] shrewd and believed everyone owed him the world.”
But Battista refused to squeal on Donaghy.
“The Feds wanted to talk to me and go against him, but I wouldn’t,” Battista told Griffin. “That could’ve helped me and absolutely would have hurt Timmy, [but] I wasn’t a rat.”
Had Battista gone to trial, Donaghy’s character would have come under immense scrutiny.
In high school, during a trip to the Jersey Shore, Donaghy got drunk and scavenged through neighbors’ homes, stealing items. Battista called him “a strange, mean-spirited guy.”
Battista said Donaghy and Martino were close in high school because both liked to smoke pot. When Donaghy became an NBA ref, that continued, sometimes with hookers.
Griffin documented how Donaghy admitted to getting into Villanova, in part, by having someone take his SAT for him. Martino said Donaghy cheated on tests, too, at Villanova.
Dust-ups with neighbors (one who called Donaghy “a flaming maniac”), an assault on a mail carrier and the West Chester, Pennsylvania, mayor noting Donaghy’s “very aggressive personality” also were filed.
Donaghy once slipped a dead, maggot-infested bird into fellow golfer John Minutella’s bag. “Nobody wanted to golf with him,” Minutella said. “I can’t say one nice thing about him. I believe this guy was almost soulless.”
NBA commissioner David Stern kept Donaghy from working the second round of the 2005 playoffs because of the “sheer volume” (Stern’s words) of such reports. One more incident, and Stern would sack Donaghy.
Battista heard Donaghy make racist NBA comments. The scandal architect, Battista was addicted to various pills and cocaine, yet he was the straight-shooter, as reams of evidence and others corroborated his most-minute details.
He documented a 78% Donaghy win rate and paying him $201,000 for his “tips,” just a cog in Battista’s tentacles, which reached Asia, Europe and Vegas.
“Just money, just business.” Battista told Griffin. “It’s not like I was laughing at his calls if they helped us, or pissed at his calls if they hurt us.
“The ‘Timmy Elvis Donaghy thing’ was only a small part of everything I had going on, and I didn’t want anyone to find out. So I didn’t really have time to focus on it, let alone enjoy it.”
Griffin unpeeled the onion.
“I don’t want to say the NBA scandal was easy,” he said, “but once I got access to personnel in the U.S. attorneys’ offices and FBI agents, they were not only confirming what Battista said but were elaborating.”
Battista and Martino were tight, and they drove to the Marriott at Philadelphia International Airport for an exploratory meeting with Donaghy on Dec. 12, 2006.
Donaghy didn’t like betting through former St. Joseph’s hoopster Jack Concannon, but he couldn’t have known Battista had been tracking his NBA wagers with Concannon since 2003, when Battista was in Curacao.
That’s when Battista started calling Donaghy “Elvis,” The King of prognosticating NBA games — including his own, Battista told Griffin. Donaghy was horrible betting every other sport.
Donaghy had Martino arrange the Marriott rendezvous. It was Donaghy’s 13th NBA season. He had an unhappy marriage, four daughters and a $260,000 salary.
“I knew what it would mean,” Battista told Griffin, “if I had an NBA ref on my side.”
For slipping him winning football picks, Donaghy had sent to Battista a Kobe Bryant-signed Lakers jersey. At the Marriott, Battista thanked Donaghy for the gift.
When they departed, Battista asked Donaghy whom he liked the next night, when the 76ers were playing host to the Celtics in a game Donaghy would officiate. Donaghy said Boston “is gonna kill” the Sixers.
The Celtics were favored by 1.5 points. Just before tip-off, Battista bet $60,000 on Boston, bumping the line to 3.5 points. The Celtics won 101-81.
The next night, the trio convened at Martino’s house to set terms. Battista rolled $7,000 in a rubber band — two for the Celtics tip, five as a signing bonus — at the edge of Martino’s couch for Donaghy.
“For our new partnership.” Battista told Donaghy.
In his book, Donaghy wrote, “I knew I was screwed and in a tight spot . . . but my gambling instincts were taking over, and I was perversely excited.”
Sometimes, Battista told Griffin, Donaghy would ring Martino from an NBA locker room to know the spread of a game he was moments from starting.
Battista envisioned the arrangement lasting for 20 years. Twenty months later, all three had avoided trials and awaited sentencing, by U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon, in Brooklyn.
Donaghy faced 25 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.
“Tim Donaghy was unwittingly placing himself in harm’s way,” Griffin wrote. “It is likely Tim did not know just how influential Jimmy had become, or how Battista’s words and deeds now affected bettors and bookies worldwide.”
Griffin already had published a bestseller in 2005 with “Black Brothers, Inc.” about the violent rise and fall of Philadelphia’s black mafia.
So when “Gaming” appeared at No. 2 on a Nielsen list in the middle of September 2011, he knew something was up when his royalty checks were a pittance. Barricade Books, his publisher, had issues.
“Embarrassing,” Griffin said. “Ridiculous.”
It cost Griffin to produce that book. A few years ago, he bought its rights and original digital files. He had the artwork. He’s publishing it independently.
Griffin has dogged determination. He works seven days every week. He has been working on “something big,” as Tom Petty sang, for 10 years, and its near-future publication will be a bombshell.
“Gaming the Game” is definitive, vital to comprehending the NBA scandal and how sports-betting money zips around the world.
Martino also penned a book in 2019. Griffin said, “While it, too, is lacking, nothing can compare to Donaghy’s book” for comic relief.
The FBI investigated the disgraced ref’s claims of other NBA officials’ involvement, with negative results. “It would have been great for me, great for sales, just for selfish reasons,” Griffin said. “[But] nothing’s there.”
Griffin has never spoken with Donaghy. Twice, Griffin said, he appeared in a television studio to partake in documentaries in which Donaghy was supposed to appear.
Both times, however, Donaghy didn’t show.
“I’m not naïve,” Griffin said. “I can imagine TV producers were looking for an on-air mix-up. I accepted because I’m an academic; we argue for a living. But it isn’t really a debate. That’s what bothers me.
“This isn’t a he-said, he-said story.”
Donaghy, Griffin said, distracts and diverts.
“I just focus on evidence, his betting records, any number of things I can quantify, the ridiculous things he says in his book, like, ‘I agree with everything Judge Amon said.’
“Really? She said there was no extortion, no conspiracy and you were more culpable than the others. You agree with all that? That’s not the [b.s.] story you’ve been telling for the past 10 years.”