This piece was written with support from the Las Vegas Mob Museum.
Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy was arrested for betting on hundreds of games, including several that he refereed himself, back in 2007. It was a bombshell that shook the sporting world, but it was not basketball’s first mob-related scandal; NBA superstar Bob Cousy had critics within the FBI in the 1950s.
Cousy was a little too cozy with Jerry Angiulo and Frank (Frankie Sky Ball) Scibelli for the FBI’s liking, although they never filed an indictment. Angiulo ran Boston in the late 1950s as underboss of New England’s Patriarca crime family. Scibelli helped oversee the Western Mass rackets for the Genovese family through the 1980s. Cousy hung out with bookie Andy (The Arm) Pradella and cried at a press conference when prodded about his friendship with Pradella.
Refs, players, coaches. The mob worked everyone in the game. Players shave points. Refs swallow their whistles or find phantom fouls. Coaches control rotations, direct bag men, and provide exclusive access to certain Friends of the Program. They run a tight program because there is too much money to be made to let any loose lips sink ships.
The New York Post story breaking the Tim Donaghy news was heavy on unnamed sources. The unconfirmed conspiracy is that then-NBA Commissioner David Stern was the source. The theory is Stern was protecting the NBA, and his job, by branding Donaghy as a lone operator. Mafia figures, corrupt referees, and possibly a player were on the fringes of an investigation. NBA HQ wanted to stifle controversy.
Donaghy cooperated with federal prosecutors on the case and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. He says he did bet on games he officiated and used the biases of other refs to make informed bets. In unrelated news, Chris Paul has yet to win a game (0-14) whistled by Scott Foster. Donaghy’s book Personal Foul: A First-Person Account of the Scandal That Rocked the NBA was published in 2009. He spoke publicly on the issues at length in Las Vegas at The Mob Museum in 2013.
He says in his book, “During this dark period, I associated with sleazy bookies and reputed Mob figures, slowly becoming someone my family and friends no longer recognized. I passed inside information to wiseguys who were making millions of dollars on my picks and lining the pockets of Mafia heavyweights.”
Michael Franzese of the Colombo crime family in New York claims he had multiple NBA officials on his payroll in the 1990s. Donaghy was not on the Franzese roster. Franzese says the best way to control a game is to buy a referee, as it’s harder to detect a fix and every play can be altered. A player can be subbed out.
There is no point in fixing a game unless money can be made on the betting lines. Refs can swing a game by 3-8 points on a given night. The mob can make millions in the process, but today their enterprises are shrinking with legalized gambling.
Defense lawyer John Meringolo, the briefcase that kept John “Junior” Gotti and reputed Philadelphia mob boss Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino out of prison for a while, said legal sports betting “will have a detrimental effect on the mob and anyone who tries to make a living through this type of vice.”
The mob will not take in as much merely taking bets so they must try to leverage games. Anthony and Rocco Perla convinced the 1978-79 Boston College team to shave points throughout the season. The scandal even roped in Henry Hill of Goodfellas fame after receiving approval from Lucchese family capo Paul Vario.
Coaches can get their cut from the criminal element as well, especially in college. The under-the-table payments to get a player on campus are just the start. It stretches from the CCNY point-shaving scandal of the early 1950s to the Tulane Green Wave program being disbandment for four years in the 1980s. Playing with the mob’s money is a more serious game for all involved. When agents look to cut and run, like Tark’s Victor Weiss, they sometimes wind up dead.
Legendary UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian allowed Black Mafia Family leaders Demetrius (Big Meech) Flenory and Terry (Southwest T) Flenory access to practices and courtside seats to watch the Running Rebels. Big Meech Flenory is perhaps the most iconic black mobster since Magic and Bird were battling. Rick Ross did a whole song built around the Big Meech persona and dealt with the death threats a corrections office should expect.
The Flenory’s went way back with Anderson Hunt, a starter on the Running Rebels’ 1990 National Championship squad. The Las Vegas Review-Journal TMZ’d some photos of New York’s Richard (Richie the Fixer) Perry in a hot tub with UNLV players Anderson Hunt, David Butler, and Moses Scurry. The story led to such criticism that Tark would soon leave the job.
Perry was convicted twice for fixing sporting events. The first was related to horse races in New York before getting mixed up in the Boston College scandal. And that’s the rub. Fixing games is hard work, and you still have to avoid the FBI’s radar. Benjamin Bifalco and Joseph Amato Jr., the son of an alleged Colombo captain, learned that the hard way in 2019. Criminals that see big scores will always take chances. No matter how unscrupulous the setup, the game is largely decided by the innocent players on the court.
As Paul Mazzei, one of the five men convicted in the Boston College scheme, said in the ESPN 30 for 30 Playing For The Mob, “That was the worst fix in the history of fixing games. How can you have a fix and go broke or lose $10,000 or $20,000? What kind of fix is that?”
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