Hey, does anyone remember how the Suns got absolutely screwed over by the NBA referees in the 2007 playoffs — and likely the 2005 and 2006 playoffs as well — most notably in that second round series against the San Antonio Spurs?
The Phoenix Suns were the best team in basketball in 2007, but somehow they lost to an excellent but not quite as good Spurs team in part because a lot of ‘go either way’ calls went against them in that second round series.
In that series, the Phoenix Suns had home court advantage but lost all three close games: game one at home (111-106), game three in San Antonio (108-101) and game five at home (88-85). The Suns won a 20-point pasting in game two (101-81) and the Spurs won handily in game six to close out the series against the by-then-broken Suns.
Yes, the series was marred by the suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for the back-breaking game five for leaving the bench during an altercation between the players on the court at the end of regulation of game four. But it sure seemed like a lot was going against the Suns throughout that whole series.
Did the referees collectively intend to help the bad guys from the Alamo win this series?
I know we all felt it at the time. Then Tim Donaghy, one of those referees in game three, goes and gets himself indicted for betting on and fixing games he worked. Donaghy worked more than 750 games from 1994-2007, including 20 playoff games from 2001-2007 before the indictments ended his career.
Donaghy most notably worked game three of that 2007 series and told Bickley and Marotta recently that, yes, he bet on games he worked and that, yes, he made a gob-load of money on the games he bet on because they always turned out the way he wanted, but NO, he did not fix that Suns-Spurs game to win a bet. He says he was just following orders from supervising official Tommy Nunez, who hated new Suns owner Robert Sarver.
That seemed convenient to me — that Donaghy was just following orders from his NBA boss, not his mob bosses — and that betting on the game was just an easy way to make money.
So I followed up with former NBA official Tim Donaghy myself to get some more detail on what happened in that series.
“He hated the Suns owner because of the way he berated referees,” Donaghy of Tommy Nunez, who was the superviser of officials in that second round series in 2007. “He dictated the entire series what to call and what to look for in that series, and everything was going in favor of San Antonio. To me, Phoenix was definitely put in a disadvantage in that series.”
Each game in the series had a different set of officials. In all, 18 different officials worked that series on the court. Those officials were James Capers Jr., Bob Delaney, Mark Wunderlich, Jim Clark, Dan Crawford, Bill Kennedy, Tim Donaghy, Eddie F. Rush, Greg Willard, Joe DeRosa, Steve Javie, Jack Nies, Bernie Fryer, Ron Garretson, Michael Smith, Dick Bavetta, Joe Forte, Tom Washington. Nunez, who lived in Phoenix and flew to San Antonio for each road game, was the only link from game to game on officiating.
According to Donaghy, this is the kind of inside information he used to bet on games. In this case, he knew Nunez and the whole group of referees hated Suns owner Robert Sarver and that Nunez was especially interested in hurting Sarver’s team during that 2007 playoff series.
Donaghy cites the NBA and FBI investigation results to support his claim he did NOT fix games by himself.
“No,” he said of fixing games. “I did things out on the floor within the scope of what the NBA wanted us to do, but I wasn’t going there and sending stars to the bench so that any of these bets would win.”
He did, however, bet on a lot of his own games and won almost every time.
Let’s get back to our dear team owner. How did Suns managing general partner Robert Sarver make the referees so mad at him that they’d take it out on the players?
“[Sarver] came in and saw what Mark Cuban was doing,” Donaghy explained. “And I think he was going to take it to a whole new level and would just sit right there on the court and scream and yell at the referees all night. We kind of laughed at him. We thought he was a drunk nut.”
Donaghy laughed it off here, calling Sarver a drunk nut, but clearly Sarver’s attitude rubbed officials the wrong way.
“Some referees take it extremely personal,” Donaghy said. “And when something can go either way they’re gonna make it go against him. And that’s what a lot of people were doing. And unfortunately for [Sarver] he got on the bad side as soon as he came in, of the whole entire officiating staff.”
Sarver began his ownership at the beginning of the 2004-05 season, when the Suns blitzed through the NBA three straight years only to fall short in the playoffs each time.
Based on what Donaghy says, though, they must have had a real tough time deciding what to do in that Suns-Mavericks Western Conference Finals in 2006, because they hated Marc Cuban too.
“Oh definitely. The referees hated Mark Cuban,” Donaghy said. “When he came into the league, he wanted our work load to increase. He made sure we all had laptop computers, we all were responsible to review games afterwards. And he constantly called and complained to the league office about the officiating.”
This made the referees conspire to call games in favor of Cuban’s opponents, per Donaghy.
“He made Ed Rush’s job a lot harder and Rush hated Mark Cuban,” Donaghy says. “And dictated to the referees what to call and how to officiate a lot of games.”
Donaghy specifically referenced the 2006 Finals — after the Mavs beat the walking-wounded Suns — where the Mavericks lost the Miami Heat after taking a 2-0 series lead.
Interestingly, the Heat came back to win four straight games in that Finals based on a herculian performance from Dwyane Wade, who got a ton of shooting foul calls in key situations to extend and win games the Mavericks had in hand.
“There was a problem in that Finals in 2006,” Donaghy says. “And Rush was the supervisor of officials and he was dictating what to call by the referees. And I think they stuck it to Dallas in that Finals every chance he got.”
Mavericks fans would still have nightmares about that series today if they hadn’t been able to break through for a World Championship a few years later in 2011.
Now many of those referees are retired. And since Adam Silver took over as Commissioner, the league has instituted even more checks and balanced to ensure referees don’t dictate too much outcomes.
However, Donaghy says it’s clear the preferential treatment hasn’t gone away.
“I do,” he said of this treatment still occurring today. “I think when it comes to something that can go either way, if you’re someone that’s been trying to embarrass certain referees, they’re not gonna give you the benefit of the doubt. There’s still some of the veteran referees who go out and do that on a nightly basis. And I see it take place in the games that I watch.”
I asked Donaghy if he could name some players, coaches or owners in particular.
“When you embarrass a referee, you’re gonna get that bad reputation,” Donaghy replied. “When I was involved, the guy that everyone tried to stick it to on a continuous basis was Rasheed Wallace or Gary Payton. Because they were constantly coming after the officials.”
And what about today’s game?
“You see that today with some of the players like LeBron James,” Donaghy offered. “He doesn’t really give referees respect. He kinda demeans them and makes faces at them. He’s a guy that is the star in the league and when he goes to the Hall of Fame, sometimes he gets the benefit of the call because of him being a star, but sometimes referees when they’re upset they let that easy ticky-tack foul go that other referees give him when he goes to the basket. They don’t call it because of his arrogance.”
I’m sure LeBron James would have to agree with this. I asked Donaghy about other players who were difficult with officials.
“Charles was tough on referees,” Donaghy said of former Suns star Charles Barkley. “Because he wanted star treatment like some of these other stars, like Michael Jordan, and if you didn’t give it to him he would make your life miserable.”
Donaghy says this of the old days versus today, after earlier mentioning LeBron as someone with a love/hate relationship with the refs: “Back then the preferential treatment was a lot more than what it is today, and those star players expected it.”
I asked about former Suns players with out-sized reputations with officials, good or bad, and Donaghy’s answer to that question was unexpected.
“Charles Barkley was buddies with Derrick Stafford,” Donaghy replied. “A lot of times they went out to dinner with each other and they hung out. And Eddie F. Rush was friends with Michael Jordan. In fact, he hooked him up with his mistress that he got caught cheating on his wife with.”
Donaghy did not mention any other particular relationships but did say that the league and the officials are very careful about keeping those under wraps.
“There was a lot of relationships that took place with some referees and some players and a lot of those relationships the league would hope would stay in the closet.”
I also asked Donaghy about how legalized betting might influence the league, and his thoughts predictably mirrored his own predilections about gambling. He is excited about the chance for fans to bet on parts of games while they are going on, such as betting whether a certain player will reach the 20-point threshold in a blowout, and how that might keep fans in their seats longer while they see how the bet plays out.
Donaghy was addicted to gambling.
“Eventually it spilled over into gambling on sporting events,” Donaghy explained of his addiction. “And I started to cross lines I shouldn’t have been near as an NBA basketball referee. Unfortunately I got really hooked on gambling and started giving people information on the NBA and then eventually on NBA games that I officiated.”
Donaghy’s story on gambling and on his dangerous connections with the Gambino crime family are about to be shared with everyone in a nationwide release of a feature length movie. The story is definitely dramatic in its own right, full of physical threats to Donaghy and his family in addition to exposing him as a fraud and making sure he went to jail. The scheme made millions of dollars for the crime family.
Inside Game premiers this Friday, on November 1, 2019, at a theater near you. Who knows, you might even see some Suns highlights in there!