James “Jimmy” “Bah-Bah” “The Sheep” Battista was a stressed-out, overweight, Oxy-addicted 41-year-old, in the hole to some underground gamblers for sums he’d sort of lost track of, when he settled in to watch an NBA game for which he believed he’d just put in the fix. It was January 2007. A month or so back, not long before Christmas, he’d done something audacious: He’d sat down and cut a deal with an NBA referee. Now he feared the scheme had become too obvious.
“You wanna get paid?” Battista had said to the ref. “Then you gotta cover the f—ing spread.” The bribe was only two dimes, $2,000 per game — an outrageous bargain. If the pick won, the ref got his two dimes. If the pick missed, the ref owed nothing; Battista would eat the loss. A “free roll,” as they call it. But this referee didn’t lose much. His picks were winning at an 88 percent clip, totally unheard of in sports betting for any sustained period of time. They were now entering the sixth week of the scheme — what you might call a sustained period of time.
Cast of characters
(in order of appearance)
James “Bah-Bah” “Sheep” Battista
Underground bet broker, or mover, who was at the center of the Tim Donaghy betting scheme.
Veteran NBA referee who wagered on his own games but was never charged with manipulating them.
High school friend of Donaghy and Battista who served as the go-between in the betting scheme during the 2006-2007 NBA season.
Suburban Philadelphia insurance salesman and friend of Donaghy who, in spring 2003, partnered with Donaghy to bet on NBA games that the referee was working.
Pete “Rhino” Ruggieri
Gambler, bookmaker and sometime partner of Battista and the Animals betting office who took over the Donaghy scheme after Battista went to rehab but quickly ended the operation.
Wife of Tim Donaghy at the time of the scandal. Filed for divorce immediately after the investigation became public.
FBI special agent and head of the investigative unit focused on the Gambino crime family at the time of the investigation. Supervisor of the FBI probe.
NBA commissioner at the time of the scandal.
Battista had known the ref, Timmy Donaghy, for 25 years. They’d gone to the same parochial high school in the working-class Catholic neighborhoods of Delaware County, just outside Philadelphia — Delco, as it’s sometimes called — where the sports bars are abundant, where a certain easy familiarity with all forms of gambling prevails, where guys have bookies like they’ve got dentists.
Battista was a creature of that world. He was what’s known as a mover. Strictly speaking, movers are neither gamblers nor bookmakers. They’re a species of broker that provides services to sports bettors, laying down wagers on their clients’ behalf with bookmakers of various types around the world, legal and not. Battista was positioned well enough in that world that, without Donaghy’s knowledge but based on Donaghy’s picks, he’d helped set up a kind of loose, disorderly hedge fund. Several people from the sports-betting underworld had, in effect, staked Battista a bankroll — a fund he was now using to bet on games officiated by this one NBA referee. One member of the group called it “the ticket” and “the company.”
“Maybe the company never sat at a table together,” he says. “But they all had a piece of the pizza.” The main problem now was keeping a lid on the thing.
In his endeavors, Battista had a sometime assistant, another high school chum, Tommy Martino, who acted as a liaison in the Donaghy scheme. Close friends with the referee since they were kids, Martino had a day job as an IT guy at JPMorgan. Using burner phones, Donaghy would call Martino and inform him of his pick for the game he was officiating. Martino would then relay the pick to Battista. Battista and Donaghy were never to speak directly. Battista would spend the day betting heavily on Donaghy’s selection. In total, according to a person with knowledge of their operation, he hoped to get down about $1 million of his investors’ money in each of Donaghy’s games.
You want to get paid, you gotta cover the spread, Battista had told Donaghy. But Battista never used the word “fix.” Or “influence” or “manipulate” or in any way discussed the mechanics of fixing.
“There wasn’t no need to,” Battista has told friends. The whole thing had been merely insinuated, a matter of strong innuendo. “The only mechanics, he had in his hand. He had the f—ing whistle.”
IT REMAINS ONE of the most tantalizing questions in all of American professional sport: Does game-fixing still exist? In the 100 years since 1919, when gamblers blackened the Chicago White Sox, only the Tim Donaghy scandal has offered the hint of an answer — but also a repudiation.
For 11 years, the official plotline has been that Donaghy was a rogue, gambling-addicted ref who made some bets on his own games — and nothing more. The NBA conducted its own investigation and concluded that Donaghy, in fact, did not fix games. But for many in and around the league, suspicions have remained that the full story has not been told, that what really happened has been suppressed.
It matters all the more now. On May 14 of last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law that had forbidden states from legalizing sports gambling within their own borders. It’s widely believed that the ruling will lead to a lifting of the interstate prohibition on sports betting, which, in turn, would give rise to a massive increase in the money wagered on American sports. At the same time, the NBA — which once balked at gambling — has now openly embraced legalized sports betting more than any other U.S. pro sports league. In 2014, commissioner Adam Silver penned an op-ed in The New York Times advocating for legalization. In July of 2018, he announced a multiyear deal for MGM Resorts to be the “official gaming partner of the NBA.”
Proponents of legalization have long argued that regulation leads to transparency, which helps root out game-fixing schemes. But there is much evidence to suggest the opposite. As economist Wladimir Andreff of the University of Paris has written: “All economic analyses conclude that the more money there is inflowing to sport, the greater the sport corruption.”
And so it is that May’s Supreme Court decision demands a review of the Donaghy affair. If it were shown that Donaghy had indeed fixed the games he reffed, it would reveal an uncomfortable truth, one that almost everyone — leagues, teams, fans, gamblers — would prefer to ignore: just how easy and profitable it is to fix an American sport.
In early 2017, inspired by the 10th anniversary of the scandal, ESPN set out to reinvestigate it. The research entailed interviews with more than 100 people, including current and former NBA referees, current and former NBA staff, gamblers, bookmakers, lawyers, law enforcement officials and friends and relatives of Donaghy. (Donaghy himself declined repeated requests for an interview.) Freedom of Information Act requests were filed. Thousands of pages of court documents and investigative records were scrutinized. Hundreds of hours were spent watching every NBA game Donaghy officiated in the 2006-07 season. Every foul call was logged, the resulting data analyzed, along with betting-market line-movement histories for every game Donaghy reffed that season.
Two years of reporting later, the story can now be told: This is the definitive account of how Tim Donaghy conspired to fix NBA games — and how, in so doing, he unwittingly enriched an array of gamblers to the tune of likely hundreds of millions of dollars.