Personal Foul: A First Person Account of the Scandal that Rocked the NBA

Personal Foul: A First Person Account of the Scandal that Rocked the NBA




What do Tim Donaghy and Bill Clinton have in common? How you feel about them and whether or not you believe their stories might come down to how you define a single word. In Clinton’s case that word is “sex” and in Donaghy’s case the word is definitely “fix”.


The media has often speculated and sports fans have debated, but until now no one has known the real story. 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.
©2009 Tim Donaghy (P)2013 Tim Donaghy


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Tim Donaghy scandal in the NBA is that when the story broke most fans were not surprised in the least. The NBA had been known for poor officiating going back decades, and even after the supposed reforms prompted by the Donaghy scandal, poor officiating seems to dominate a lot of basketball discussions. I remember being in 8th grade when I was first asked by a friend if I thought NBA games were being fixed, and that was in 1994.
‘Personal Foul’ goes a long way towards explaining why fans have been suspicious. Donaghy gives an account of a referee system that had poor hiring and promotion practices to start. As in many jobs, moving up the ladder of NBA officials depended more on who you were friends with or who was a member of your family than it did on whether you were actually good at your job.
Donaghy explains how referees, coaches and players would form relationships, for better or worse, and how those relationships would impact the way particular games were refereed. He cited some well-known examples of big NBA games that would be familiar to most fans and how they were influenced by officiating.
The meat of the story is about Donaghy’s gambling addiction, how it started out as betting on games of golf and hands of cards and turned into betting on other pro sports,eventually leading to the NBA. Donaghy explained how his system for betting on NBA games was based in part on who would be refereeing those games and what type of relationship an official might have with a player, coach or team. If it was a poor relationship, Donaghy knew that team was unlikely to get a lot of calls, and that could impact the margin of victory, if not the game’s actual outcome.
Donaghy gives accounts of the games he bet on and what happened in them. He also relates how this made him feel and what it did to his relationship with his wife, daughters, parents and friends. It is quite the journey to watch a man’s gambling addiction turn from betting on rounds of golf to betting on NBA games with men who had either direct or indirect ties to the mafia.
The only part of the book with which I take issue is Donaghy’s claim that he never actually fixed an NBA game. Whether you buy into that claim of Donaghy’s will depend entirely on what you believe constitutes a fixed game.
If you believe that fixing a game means that you control who wins and who loses, then Donaghy is correct when he says he never fixed a game. After all, as he points out, not all of his bets paid off, and in fact at one point he lost several in a row, which raised some suspicion among his partners.
However, if you believe that you can fix an outcome without determining a winner or loser, then Donaghy’s claim holds less water. If under normal conditions, a home team in the NBA has a 55% chance of winning any game (accounting for home court advantage) and referees officiate in a way that moves that percentage up to 60% or down to 51%, how is that not fixing a game? You’re manipulating things in a way to make a more favorable outcome more likely. Just because things didn’t always go according to plan, it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t an attempt to manipulate things toward a desirable outcome. A fix is a fix whether it is successfully carried out or it fails.


There is that famous saying about how crime doesn’t pay. Tim Donaghy is a shining example of what that statement actually means. Donaghy was the low man on the chain in the gambling scheme, but he is the one who suffered the most.
It is doubtful that his co-conspirators lost their dream job, close friends, sacrificed a marriage and more. Even if they had similar prison stays, upon release they could go back to what they were doing before. The criminal element often does. For Donaghy, there was no return to the NBA for him once he did his time and paid his debt to society. So crime does indeed not pay, unless you are closer to the top of the ladder.


The performance of Chris Della Penna is a bit of a mixed bag. He has a great voice and did not read the text without conveying some of the emotional turmoil experienced by Donaghy.
The problem is that he reads the text in a way that often makes it sound like one giant run-on sentence. This is because he doesn’t take a lot of pauses in his narration, either for dramatic effect or otherwise. This means he is reading at a pretty brisk pace, but it also means that you don’t always have a chance to process a particular statement of impact because by the time you do, he is two or three sentences ahead by that point, and you have to go back and make sure you didn’t miss something else of importance.


The track sounds pretty good with no glitches or changes in volume levels. There are no music cues or other sound effects present.
At the beginning and end of the book, someone announces the name of the book, the author, and the narrator, and it sounds like it was recorded on a cheap digital tape recorder that was inserted at the last minute. I have no idea why that was done.


While I definitely take issue with Donaghy’s contention that he never fixed an NBA game, in general I found the book to be both honest and compelling. Donaghy is not afraid to name names and give specific examples of scenarios. Thirty years ago that might not have meant much, but in the age of YouTube, Internet searches, DVRs and classic sports networks, going back and reviewing tapes of the games Donaghy discusses and looking for the things he points out is not as difficult.
The story of Tim Donaghy is something anyone with an interest in addiction should take note of. There becomes a point when you can no longer stay ahead of your addiction, and that is when it catches up to you, consumes you, and you lose control of your situation. Donaghy’s addiction cost him his marriage, friendships, his dream job in the NBA, and a year of his freedom, among other things.


Title Author Narrator Publisher Genre Release Date Running Time Score
Personal Foul: A First Person Account of the Scandal that Rocked the NBA Tim Donaghy Chris Della Penna ACX Biographies & Memoirs 07/31/2013 7 hours, 26 minutes 8.25/10


A copy of ‘PERSONAL FOUL: A FIRST PERSON ACCOUNT OF THE SCANDAL THAT ROCKED THE NBA’ was purchased from Audible for review.