Today's book review is Personal Foul by Tim Donaghy, 2009, Clerisy Press. This isn't a book on the Celtics but it is one that I recommend for every NBA fan to read. Tim Donaghy is a very polarizing figure. Most NBA fans either love him or hate him. But whether you love him or hate him, what he has to say in this book needs to be said.
Personal Foul takes an in-depth look at former NBA referee Tim Donaghy and the betting scandal that rocked professional basketball. This is the decisive book that reveals exactly what was done and how it all happened. Which games were affected and how? Did referees target particular players or teams? Just how much did the NBA know and when? How did the mafia get involved? The book answers all of these questions and more. Thrilling and poignant, Personal Foul takes readers on the journey of one man wrestling his own demons and shines a light on a culture of gambling and "directive" officiating in the NBA that promises to change the way sports fans view the game forever.
The book also includes a foreword by Phil Scala, the FBI Special Agent who worked the Gambino case. The fact that Scala wrote the foreword gives veracity to everything that Tim says in his book as he agreed to write the foreword only after reading the book and being assured that everything written there was true. Also giving credence to Tim's statements is the fact that he passed lie detector tests while working with the FBI to bring the case to a close.
The style of the book is personal as are the confessions included in it. Tim Donaghy made mistakes. He allowed his gambling obsession to take over his life and he has paid for it with a prison sentence. He has since dedicated his life to helping others with gambling addictions as well as helping people to see the problems that exist in the NBA. Those problems threaten the integrity of the game more than one referee with a gambling problem ever did.
Here are some excerpts from the book to whet your appetite:
First is a story about how the refs make wagers among themselves that influence how a game is called.
To have a little fun at the expense of the worst troublemakers, the referees working the game would sometimes make a modest friendly wager amongst themselves: first ref to give one of the bad boys a technical foul wouldn't have to tip the ball boy that night. In the NBA, ball boys set up the referees' locker room and keep it stocked with food and beer for the postgame meal. We usually ran the kid ragged with a variety of personal requests and then slipped him a $20 bill. Technically, the winner of the bet won twice — he didn't have to pay the kid and he got to call a T on Mr. Foul-Mouthed Big-Shot Du Jour.
After the opening tip, it was hilarious as the three of us immediately focused our full attention on the intended victim, waiting for something, anything, to justify a technical foul. If the guy so much as looked at one of us and mumbled, we rang him up. Later in the referees' locker room, we would down a couple of brews, eat some chicken wings, and laugh like hell.
We had another variation of this gag simply referred to as the "first foul of the game" bet. While still in the locker room before tip-off, we would make a wager on which of us would call the game's first foul. That referee would either have to pay the ball boy or pick up the dinner tab for the other two referees. Sometimes, the ante would be $50 a guy. Like the technical foul bet, it was hilarious — only this time we were testing each other's nerves to see who had the guts to hold out the longest before calling a personal foul. There were occasions when we would hold back for two or three minutes — an eternity in an NBA game — before blowing the whistle. It didn't matter if bodies were flying all over the place; no fouls were called because no one wanted to lose the bet.
We played this little game during the regular season and summer league. After a game, all three refs would gather around the VCR and watch a replay of the game. Early in the contest, the announcers would say, "Holy cow! They're really letting them play tonight!" If they only knew...
During one particular summer game, Duke Callahan, Mark Wunderlich, and I made it to the three-minute mark in the first quarter without calling a foul. We were running up and down the court, laughing our asses off as the players got hammered with no whistles. The players were exhausted from the nonstop running when Callahan finally called the first foul because Mikki Moore of the New Jersey Nets literally tackled an opposing player right in front of him. Too bad for Callahan — he lost the bet.
I became so good at this game that if an obvious foul was committed right in front of me, I would call a travel or a three-second violation instead. Those violations are not personal fouls, so I was still in the running to win the bet. The players would look at me with disbelief on their faces as if to say, "What the hell was that?"
Next are a couple of quotes about star treatment. The fact that LeBron averages less than 2 fouls a game while barreling through the lane at will proves this without any other examples.
Relationships between NBA players and referees were generally all over the board — love, hate, and everything in-between. Some players, even very good ones, were targeted by referees and the league because they were too talented for their own good. Raja Bell, formerly of the Phoenix Suns and now a member of the Charlotte Bobcats, was one of those players. A defensive specialist throughout his career, Bell had a reputation for being a "star stopper." His defensive skills were so razor sharp that he could shut down a superstar, or at least make him work for his points. Kobe Bryant was often frustrated by Bell's tenacity on defense. Let's face it, no one completely shuts down a player of Kobe's caliber, but Bell could frustrate Kobe, take him out of his game, and interrupt his rhythm.
You would think that the NBA would love a guy who plays such great defense. Think again! Star stoppers hurt the promotion of marquee players. Fans don't pay high prices to see players like Raja Bell — they pay to see superstars like Kobe Bryant score 40 points. Basketball purists like to see good defense, but the NBA wants the big names to score big points.
If a player of Kobe's stature collides with the likes of Raja Bell, the call will almost always go for Kobe and against Bell. As part of our ongoing training and game preparation, NBA referees regularly receive game-action video tape from the league office. Over the years, I have reviewed many recorded hours of video involving Raja Bell. The footage I analyzed usually illustrated fouls being called against Bell, rarely for him. The message was subtle but clear — call fouls against the star stopper because he's hurting the game.
If Kobe Bryant had two fouls in the first or second quarter and went to the bench, one referee would tell the other two, "Kobe's got two fouls. Let's make sure that if we call a foul on him, it's an obvious foul, because otherwise he's gonna go back to the bench. If he is involved in a play where a foul is called, give the foul to another player."
Similarly, when games got physically rough, we would huddle up and agree to tighten the game up. So we started calling fouls on guys who didn't really matter — "ticky-tack" or "touch" fouls where one player just touched another but didn't really impede his progress. Under regular circumstances these wouldn't be fouls, but after a skirmish we wanted to regain control. We would never call these types of fouls on superstars, just on the average players who didn't have star status. It was important to keep the stars on the floor.
Tim Donaghy has freely given of his time to appear on both Celtics Stuff Life and Celtics Late Night Show. He has a Facebook page where he interacts with anyone who has questions for him. He has been very honest and open about the gambling that caused his downfall and his efforts to make amends. After reading the book, I was left with the impression that he truly wants what is best for the league and is trying his best to bring that about.
After watching the playoffs this past season, in particular game 7 of the Finals, only the most jaded of fans don't see a problem with the officiating in the NBA; If you've ever been watching a game and wondered how a ref could possibly make that call, this book will explain it. If you read just one book on the NBA this year, I recommend that this be the book.