The story behind the NBA betting scandal

Jun 7, 2011 3:00 AM

Like most professional handicappers, my time during the heart of the betting season is in very short supply.

From the start of the NFL preseason in early August through the first few rounds of the NBA playoffs in May, a bettor involved in multiple sports doesn’t have a lot of free time.

You’ve got NFL, college football and MLB through the fall months. When baseball ends, NBA and college hoops begin. When football ends, hoops take center stage. And when the ultra-intense college hoops season winds down, its baseball time again.

If you’re looking for a job with lots of downtime and a relatively easy schedule, you don’t want to become a sports bettor!

But things do calm down a bit over the summer months. MLB is certainly time consuming, but it’s not as much work now as it was in March, April and May, when there was a ton of preseason prep and early season work.

The NBA Finals, while fun to watch, are not a hotbed of research activity – you’re not going to find many under-the-radar edges at this late stage of the NBA season. If a handicapper wants to get something done outside his field of work, it’ll be in June or July.

Which brings me to the point. In honor of the NBA Finals this past week, I sat down and read "Gaming the Game" – Penn State professor Sean Patrick Griffin’s recently released book on the "story behind the NBA betting scandal and the gambler who made it happen."

It’s a tremendous read on the story behind the infamous NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who was involved in the only major "crooked ref" scandal of the modern professional sports era.

We all know the basics of the story by now. Over a multi-year span, Donaghy bet dozens (maybe hundreds) of games he was either reffing or where he had an "inside information opinion" on how another ref was likely to call the game.

When he finally got busted, the league painted Donaghy as rogue, a lone wolf involved with the betting underworld. After a plea bargain deal, he served a relatively short prison sentence. Upon his release, Donaghy came out with a book and hit the talk show circuit; cementing his version of the story into the public consciousness.

"Gaming the Game" doesn’t tell Donaghy’s story directly. Instead, it focuses on the story of Jimmy Battista, the Philadelphia-based professional bettor who worked with Donaghy in his final season as an NBA ref. Battista’s version of the events varies quite dramatically from what we’ve heard from Donaghy, casting all kinds of doubt on the "public" version of the events we’ve been privy to.

The story begins in the 80’s when Battista first got involved as a serious bettor while working in the restaurant/bar business outside Philly. I can certainly relate to that part of the story – I personally became a serious bettor while working in the restaurant/bar business in Michigan before I moved to Las Vegas to take my own dream to the next level.

Battista worked with a handful of different syndicates over the years; betting groups working together to influence pointspreads and get down more money on a game than any single bettor is able to do. He was no ‘capper himself, but he was getting "good information," and like just about every successful pro, his concentration and effort to get the best of the number cannot be overstated.

 Battista’s early story is fascinating. From his modest start in Philly, he gradually rose through the ranks of the betting world. As his bankroll and his reputation grew, Battista was in position to take advantage of some great learning opportunities, including a stint in Vegas working with a handful of runners and another stint in the Caribbean working for a prominent (at the time) offshore book.

By the pinnacle of his sports betting career, in the mid-2000’s, Battista was working with some of the most respected names in sports betting worldwide. He was loaded with "outs" for his bets – local bookies on the East Coast and around the country, the legitimate Vegas joints, and offshore sportsbooks around the world. That gave him the ability to move enormous sums on the games he was betting.

The Asian and European books were a huge part of his betting arsenal and a fascinating part of this story. Here in Vegas (and in the U.S. in general) most bettors don’t deal with the Asian offshore marketplace. Griffin’s description of Battista’s ability to use the Asian sportsbooks to influence worldwide pointspreads is truly a must read section for any bettor serious about the global marketplace.

Battista vaguely knew Donaghy from high school, and they had a close mutual friend, Tommy Martino. According to the book, Battista knew something was amiss before dealing directly with Donaghy – he had been following the line moves on Donaghy’s games for several seasons. In December 2006, the three guys got together and hammered out a betting arrangement that was expected to put enormous sums of money in their collective pockets.

The more publicized version of this story (Donaghy’s version) claimed Donaghy was only betting games where he thought he had an edge, based on the personal biases of the referees. Donaghy claimed he never fixed a game or made a call based on his own wagers.

The NBA’s own investigation came up with the conclusion Donaghy was a "lone wolf" but he didn’t throw games, and the league didn’t have a systemic problem with their refs.

Battista’s version of the story is very different, although he did agree Donaghy was probably a "lone wolf" referee. Battista claimed his personal syndicate quickly realized the information Donaghy was giving them about other referee biases wasn’t profitable to bet.

Within a matter of weeks, the only games they were betting were games that Donaghy had a whistle around his neck. Donaghy’s picks in those games weren’t perfect, but they were pretty darn close, cashing better than 75 percent of the time!

Griffin’s descriptions of the money involved and the dramatic line moves in those games was nothing short of gripping for this reader. But moving millions on an NBA game isn’t easy, especially with all kinds of "followers" betting behind them.

The situation quickly spiraled out of control; Battista went into rehab with an oxycodone addiction; and their massive wagering on Donaghy’s "information games" ended by April of 2007, barely four months after it started.

The FBI brought down the trio, but ended up making plea bargain deals with all three, none of who served more than 18 months – there was never a trial (to the enormous relief of NBA commissioner David Stern and his advisors).

All we have is Donaghy’s version – a biased tale if there ever was one; the official NBA version – clearly, a whitewash (the league had much to lose and little to gain with a wider reaching investigation) and this version.

In my opinion, this is by far the most believable of the three stories.

"Gaming the Game" left me with one burning question once I finished the book. Battista’s quote near the end (pg. 270) stood out:

"Do I think stuff like this, involving corrupt officials, is going on in other leagues? Absolutely… the money involved is too big to ignore.

"You have to consider the financial situation for these officials… They’re making pennies compared to the athletes and people get jealous… Also don’t forget how much some people like to gamble – once somebody owes a bookmaker some cash, who knows what they’d do to pay off their debt."

My question, of course, is who, when and where? We’ve all seen dicey calls in just about every sport we bet. How many of those atrocious, indefensible calls can be attributed to "a bad day?" How much is "general incompetence?" And what percentage is legitimately "shady;" a concern for bettors around the globe?

We probably won’t know the answers to those questions until the next scandal surfaces at some point in the not-too-distant future.