Archive for Sports

Gaming the Game: Baba, Elvis, and the NBA Betting Scandal

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Sean Patrick Griffin’s new book Gaming the Game won’t make disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy happy. In 2007, Donaghy was busted by the feds for conspiring with pro gambler Jimmy “Baba” Battista and their mutual boyhood pal, low-level drug dealer and all round dogsbody Tommy Martino. Donaghy had been supplying Battista with picks on games he refereed. (He was also betting those games through Battista.) Donaghy claims the devil, aka Battista, made him do it. Sean Griffin locates the devil that made Donaghy do it, in Donaghy’s own greedy soul.

Tim Donaghy, Tommy Martino, and Jimmy Battista had attended the same Catholic High School near Philadelphia. Tommy Martino was tight with both Donaghy and Battista. Donaghy and Battista were never close. But in late 2006, they became partners in crime.

Tim Donaghy’s version of events goes like this: after Jimmy Battista discovered through other gambling professionals that Donaghy was a gambling addict and was betting on NBA games, he extorted Donaghy into supplying NBA picks. According to Donaghy, Battista also threatened his family; implying that if Donaghy didn’t cooperate his wife and children might be “visited” by people from New York. As in, mob thugs. With 15 months in a minimum security federal prison behind him and an exculpatory book to peddle, Donaghy continues to paint Jimmy Battista in mobbed-up colors.

The Real Deal

Prior to conspiring with Battista and middleman Tommy Martino, Tim Donaghy was secretly betting on NBA games he officiated. He was also betting on games he didn’t referee, as well as other sports. By late 2006 he was dissatisfied with the paybacks he was receiving from his prime enabler (remember, we’re talking addiction) and switched to Jimmy Battista. Tommy Martino, a runner for Battista who also supplied him with drugs (as he did for Tim Donaghy), set up the meeting that got the NBA deal going. Jimmy Battista was stoked. “As a gambler, having an NBA referee tell you what games he likes was like taking a kid into a candy store and saying what flavor do you want.”*

As candy store guy, Tim Donaghy got a real deal; he didn’t have to cover his losses. Yes– he did make bad bets. According to Jimmy Battista, when Donaghy wasn’t referee his picks were much less reliable.

Jimmy Battista never asked Tim Donaghy directly if he was making calls to benefit his bets (don’t ask don’t tell being the rule) but he figured Donaghy “was going to do whatever it took to win”. Tim Donaghy maintains that all he did was handicap games from an ultra inside position. His winnings flowed from superior knowledge. The feds who prosecuted Donaghy never charged him with influencing outcomes. Though the plea deal Donaghy accepted did include a line about the possibility of his on-court performance being “subconsciously affected”. As for any lingering suspicions, Gaming the Game lays out new statistical research into the games Donaghy bet. Theoretically speaking, it does seem as if “Elvis” (Battista and Marino’s nickname for Donaghy, the King of NBA picks) might have shown his own interests a hunka hunka burning love.

Rest easy readers. Gaming the Game isn’t a compendium of statistical charts. Though important to the question of Tim Donaghy’s alleged doings, the stats are confined to an appendix. Plus, Gaming is far less about Donaghy than it is about the life and times of pro-gambler Jimmy Battista. As such, it’s a compelling character study and more historically interesting than a rundown of the corrupt actions of one greedy Gus with an edge. Sean Patrick Griffin, an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Pennsylvania State, Abington, and a former Philadelphia police officer, combines an eye for human detail with the ability to convey broad social themes. He’s a fluid, crisp writer and an A-1 historian of crime. Griffin’s earlier book, Black Brothers Inc.,The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Black Mafia, revealed a hitherto unacknowledged chapter in the history of crime in Philadelphia. Brothers was made into an episode of the Black Entertainment Television (BET) series American Gangster and has been optioned as a motion picture. Griffin’s knowledge of the crime scene in and around Philadelphia illuminates Gaming the Game.

Born in 1965, James “Jimmy” Battista grew up in a working class town near Philadelphia. He was a black sheep (hence the nicknames “Baba” and “Sheep”) in a close knit, morally centered family. His parents personified the work ethic. Despite his non-absorption of their other beliefs, Jimmy did soak up their attitude about work. From his early entry-level hustler jobs (as a cocaine distributing shoe salesman, he substituted coke for the silica salt packets in shoe boxes) through his learning curve as a paper-juggling bookie, to his glory days as a computerized pro gambler near the top of that industry’s legal and illegal ladder, Baba busted his hump. As an ultra successful pro gambler, he lived on the down low. No Damon Runyan excess, just a nice McMansion life with a wife and kids in a suburb forty minutes out of Philly.

Though Jimmy often worked at home, his family life was almost nil. He spent most of his time in the basement– in his home office slash betting center. Confabbing with other bettors and movers via Skype (harder to bug) and glued to a towering stack of TVs and monitors feeding him nonstop sports action and betting info from sources such as casinos and offshore sportsbooks. When a betting line made a mega move in say, Taiwan, a computerized voice alert (installed by Jimmy) would intone “Major Line Movement”.

When not busy in the basement Jimmy was on the go with his laptop and bag of cell phones. Doing business from other cities (including Vegas), other homes, and on park benches and in cars. He was a fan of T-Mobile, because buying a phone through them didn’t require ID. Sheep, as he was best known in the gambling world, used different phones for each major client. The phones were replaced frequently. His “disposable” phones were a major business expense; disposing of them was a job. The SIM (subscriber identity module) cards were tossed into rivers. The phones themselves went into an acid dip bath intended for cleaning restaurant grills. After the dip, Jimmy pounded the remains into smithereens with a hammer.

Then there was the hassle of transporting money and collecting debts. Re the latter, Sheep wasn’t a thug. He smashed phones, not faces. If someone welshed he just stopped dealing with them. Unrecoverable loss is part of illegal business. As for moving money, doing it in the U.S. was an exercise in paranoia. Think cross-state car trips with a million or so in cash stashed under the seats. Pit stops were fear stops. Sheep carried his food and water with him, along with a hospital “piss cup”.

Back in the Philly area, Sheep and his suburban, white-collar gambling colleagues were always worried that “the boys downtown” (Philadelphia organized crime of the Italian-American variety) would get ultra heavy with independent players. During one downtown mob war, Sheep and his then business partners temporarily relocated to Vegas, to dodge an expected rise in extortion demands.

By early 2007, Jimmy Battista was a slave to the rhythm. Years spent monitoring monitors and working phones while eating takeout had ballooned his weight. He took assorted drugs to ease the pressure of his work and had become addicted to Oxycontin. For the first time in his career he was betting while under the influence and losing like the suckers pro gamblers deride. He was heavily in debt, which was angering some of his most important business colleagues. His family was falling apart. And his always high paranoia level had been jolted to new heights by growing rumors of an FBI investigation.

Jimmy Battista did business with the crème de la crème of bookies and bettors. Some were mob connected. Apparently, an FBI team assigned to the upper echelons of the Gambino family in New York City picked up wiretap chatter about Tim Donaghy and his connection with Sheep. (The gambling world had been rife with gossip about Donaghy’s NBA betting for several years.) Another story says a mob-connected bookie with a business beef turned Sheep in. Whatever. What followed is history. All of which is covered extensively in Gaming the Game.

The research behind Gaming the Game is impressive. Sean Patrick Griffin, an academic and ex-cop, combines extensive reference to court documents, betting records, law enforcement files, and media coverage with on-the-ground interviews and multi-party corroboration. Gaming is also many leveled. Via its coverage of Jimmy Battista’s evolving career, Gaming is a history of the transition from paper-based betting to information age gambling. As a character study, it leads one to ponder the mysteries of human nature– and also, by implication, the mysteries of U.S. policies re gambling. Jimmy Battista was an immensely talented individual. Why chose a life so fraught with the dangers of (partial) illegality? Given his particular skills, Sheep could have been a contender on Wall Street. Where financial speculation, manipulating the odds, and a willingness to profit from another person’s fraud almost never brings down the feds.

Another character question: why did Tim Donaghy and Tommy Martino take plea deals and turn on Jimmy Battista while Battista kept his lip zipped? Sean Patrick Griffin has many interesting things to say about that. As he does about the overall legal and public relations strategies of “Team Donaghy”. Which he refers to as their “assault on justice”. As said, this book won’t make Tim Donaghy happy.

The NBA may not be thrilled either. Though Gaming the Game sinks some of the conspiracy theories that followed the scandal (including ones spread by Tim Donaghy) it poses plenty of hard questions about the NBA’s response to the Donaghy affair– and their ongoing stewardship. NBA officials (if they don’t feel too piqued) might find the section titled Some Suggested Research for the NBA quite helpful.

As example, since the 2003-2004 season the NBA has been collecting data on the calls and non-calls made by all referees. Though the collected data was originally intended for other purposes, current and future data will now also be analyzed with an eye toward spotting referees who might be fixing games. Sean Griffin suggests the NBA also make a retrospective analysis of the call data. Tim Donaghy claims that the winnings from his NBA bets (the ones which according to his plea deal concession, might have “subconsciously affected” his on-court performance) were fairly limited. Some folks, including a number of pro gamblers, think otherwise. Analyzing the data might clear up the issue once and for all. Plus, the suspicion lingers that other refs may have been gaming the game. A retrospective check for patterns of subconscious activity could help lay that suspicion to rest.

Back to Timmy, Tommy, and Jimmy. Before being busted Jimmy Battista entered drug rehab. After a lot of legal wrangling, all three men eventually served about a year in federal prison. As always, Tim Donaghy thought he deserved a better deal.

*All quotes in this article are from Sean Patrick Griffin’s Gaming the Game, Barricade Books, Inc.

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