Donaghy Gambling not a Conspiracy: The NBA ref who allegedly bet is a big deal but not big business

The rude revelation that referee Tim Donaghy may have tinkered with the outcome of games will add to a long list of conspiracy theories that the NBA is not entirely on the level. It shouldn’t.


While Donaghy’s alleged actions were unconscionable and could leave a permanent black eye on the league, they are nickel-and-dime stuff compared to the 1985 lottery drawing and a handful of postseason games that have historically raised the eyebrows of even the most ardent NBA fans.

Donaghy may have lined the pockets of gamblers with tens of thousands of dollars; those other incidents would have had a financial impact of millions and perhaps billions.

In fact, a friend who worked at the NBA at the time believed that Game Six of the 2002 Western Conference finals – the one where the Lakers shot a million free throws in the fourth quarter and Kobe Bryant got away with a suspension-worthy shot to the face of a member of the Sacramento Kings – was fixed.

His reasoning was that the league’s TV contracts were up for renewal that summer and that the NBA could not afford to have the Kings and the New Jersey Nets – a pair of unknowns to the casual fan base which drives viewership – establishing the ratings for the Finals, which would be used as the negotiating point for the networks interested in televising the league.

The numbers make it hard to argue with his thought process. Lakers-76ers in 2001, a series that featured two big markets, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and lightning-rod MVP Allen Iverson, had an overall 12.1 rating. Spurs-Nets in 2003, which had no large markets or larger-than-life personalities, did just a 6.5, the lowest-rated Finals before this year.

It’s easy to imagine the NBA wanting the Lakers and the second-largest market in the Finals. But it’s almost unfathomable to imagine the league fixing Game Six, then leaving Game Seven – scheduled for Arco Arena, the toughest home court in the league – in the hands of the Lakers.

Kings-Lakers is one of a number of games that have come under scrutiny. Game Seven of the 1993 Western Conference finals between the Seattle SuperSonics and Phoenix Suns, Game Four of the 1997 Eastern Conference finals between the New York Knicks and Miami Heat and Game Seven of the 2001 Eastern Conference finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers are all on the list.

But those contests have three distinct differences between anything Donaghy may have been involved in. For one, at the root of any conspiracy theorist’s reasoning is that the league itself – not a “rogue individual,” as Donaghy was called by NBA commissioner David Stern – was behind the machinations.

If the NBA wanted to ensure a playoff game’s outcome – not the point spread, not the over/under, but the outcome – one referee or player would not be enough. It would need to have multiple members of a team of players or referees in the mix.

Secondly, there is no proof that Donaghy tinkered with playoff games, which are watched by a much larger national audience than regular-season games. A Hornets-Bobcats game in January, viewed only in the local markets and by hoops junkies on League Pass, would be much easier to manipulate.

And finally, what a handful of bettors with inside information could collect on an NBA game is chicken feed compared to the financial windfalls of advertising revenue from TV contracts. The eight-year extension signed last month with broadcast partners Disney and Turner is for $7.44 billion.

If you want to excoriate Donaghy for destroying the most sacred element of the NBA, go right ahead. But don’t include him in your conspiracy theory arguments. His alleged influence is not on that scale.