A Shadow in the Spotlight

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007

When forward Rasheed Wallace received a seven-game suspension in 2003 for confronting a referee in the loading dock of the Rose Garden in Portland, Ore., the target of his anger was Tim Donaghy. When members of the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons fans brawled at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., in 2004, Donaghy was one of the three referees at the game.

And Donaghy was on the court in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs last spring that ended in controversy because of a slew of questionable calls.

Donaghy was at or near the center of three of the most notorious and well-documented events in the NBA over the past decade, yet few people in and around the league seemed to have had strong opinions about him, one way or the other, before the disclosure that he was the subject of a federal investigation for allegedly betting on games and providing inside information to gamblers during the past two seasons.

With his nondescript features, short-cropped dark hair and slight, 5-foot-8 build, Donaghy could easily blend into a room. He maintained such a low profile among the NBA's 58 referees that the league listed an incorrect pronunciation of his last name in its official guidebook -- it's Dahn-ah-gee, with a hard 'g' -- until this week, when Commissioner David Stern told a news conference in New York that his alleged transgressions had cut to the core of the integrity of the sport. In his 13 years in the league, Donaghy never achieved the rank of lead referee on the three-man crews that officiate games.

"I can't think of anything that ever stood out about him and I don't remember any conversations with other players about him either," said guard Roger Mason Jr., who played 62 games for the Washington Wizards last season.

Interviews with players, coaches, neighbors and friends of Donaghy elicit a mixed portrait of the 40-year-old father of four whose own father was a longtime college basketball referee and whose uncle officiated in the NBA. Many describe him as a friendly man who loved a good joke, and say they are stunned at the allegations against him. Others, however, have a different opinion, describing Donaghy as a man with a quick temper who had run-ins with former neighbors in the Philadelphia suburb of West Chester, Pa., and once got into a fight with veteran NBA official Joey Crawford at a referees training camp.

One referee said Donaghy had a reputation -- at least among some fellow officials -- for "deliberately blowing calls," though the official added that he never suspected he was deliberately trying to influence the outcome of games.

"I saw him have a couple of calls where I was like, 'Wow,' just like anybody else," said the referee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But I thought he was a better referee than that, so I was a little bit surprised."

Donaghy, who resigned from the NBA on July 9, is expected to turn himself in to authorities at U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the coming days. He has not commented to reporters since the FBI probe became public, and reportedly has remained inside his home in Bradenton, Fla., where he lives with his wife and four daughters.

Frank Capece, a New Jersey lawyer who considers himself one of Donaghy's friends, said he is shocked by characterizations of Donaghy as a "hot-tempered ogre" on the path to self-destruction.

"This pains me. It pains so many of his friends, what he's going through," Capece said. "Obviously, I don't think the end of the day is going to be a great result for him. There is going to be pain. I pray that it's minimal pain."

Capece, a longtime season ticket holder for the New Jersey Nets, became friends with Donaghy over the years when the referee would officiate Nets games. The two would often meet at restaurants in New York or New Jersey and discuss traffic or the topics of the day. "Guy stuff," Capece said.

Capece said he offered financial advice to Donaghy one time after seeing him driving a fancy new BMW, reminding him that he would someday have to pay college tuition for four girls and should be cautious with his money. Stern said Tuesday that Donaghy earned $260,000 last season.

Gambling was never mentioned in any of their dinner conversations, Capece said, and the only time they discussed basketball was when Capece told Donaghy that he liked Derrick Coleman, who at the time with the Nets had a reputation as an underachiever. It resulted in Donaghy giving him a quizzical look.

"I'd tease him at games: 'Boy, what a lousy ref!' You'd see this big grin on that Irish face of his. He'd laugh," Capece said. "Now all of sudden, he's a pariah among his fellow refs. I never saw it. I found him to be a very nice guy."

Donaghy started a refereeing clinic every summer at Don Guanella School for developmentally challenge boys in suburban Philadelphia 10 years ago. The clinic included instruction from a handful of officials, pizza and NBA souvenirs. Robert Neely, the school's activities director and friend of Donaghy, said the embattled referee would routinely return each Christmas with jackets and shirts for the boys.

"I guess I feel disbelief more than shock," Neely said. "That he could possibly be fixing games? I was surprised that he would've went that far. He didn't seem that type of fella."

Donaghy followed in the footsteps of his father, Gerry, a basketball referee in the ACC. His uncle, Bill Oakes, was a longtime NBA official. Donaghy attended Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield, Pa., which also produced fellow NBA referees Crawford, Mike "Duke" Callahan and Eddie Malloy. He worked as an official in the old Continental Basketball Association for five seasons before joining the NBA at age 27.

Stern said Donaghy ranked in the "top tier of accuracy" among NBA referees, but not every coach was a fan of him.

"I thought he was a real jerk," said a former NBA head coach who had more than a decade of experience dealing with the referee. "I've always felt that 90 to 95 percent of the referees were good people and even if you had a run-in with them or they hit you with a technical, it wasn't personal and they were really trying to do the best job they could. But from my perspective, he was a guy who was antagonistic and oftentimes, he came into games looking for confrontation."

That combustible personality came to light two years ago, when Peter and Lisa Mansueto of West Chester, Pa., sued Donaghy for harassment and invasion of privacy, claiming that he set fire to their lawn mower and drove their golf cart into a ravine. They also claimed that Donaghy followed Lisa Mansueto around the Radley Run Country Club, where they were members. Peter Mansueto told SportsIllustrated.com that Donaghy's nickname around the country club was "Nutsy."

Stern summoned Donaghy to a meeting at the league's offices to discuss the situation, and Donaghy claimed to be the victim. Stern banned Donaghy from participation in the second round of the 2005 playoffs because of the incidents, but the league never gave him a serious reprimand for his off-court behavior and allowed him to continue working -- with a warning. "We told him if it continued, he would no longer work for the NBA," Stern said.

Donaghy moved his family to Florida later in 2005 and the civil suit was dropped. It was about that time, Capece said, that he began to notice a change in Donaghy. It was the same period that, according to the NBA, Donaghy began to bet on NBA games.

"He became more circumspect, more distracted," Capece said. "I spoke to him a lot less the last year or so. I think he was distracted, but I just attributed it to the fact that he moved to Florida."

It never crossed his mind that Donaghy was involved with gambling or organized crime. He still refuses to accept that it's a possibility. "He's got his problems here, but it's time for the judicial system to play it out."

Staff writer Ivan Carter contributed to this report.

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