The movie Inside Game, which debuted in theaters nationwide on Friday, is a re-telling of the story of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who was involved in a shady betting operation in the 2000s that went very, very sour.
But for a casual movie-goer who has never heard of Donaghy, the movie likely would be assumed to be fiction — if plausible fiction.
Three youngsters grow up together in the Philadelphia area, sharing a love of basketball. One becomes an NBA referee, and the other two, well, they get involved with bookies and dealing and taking drugs.
If it hadn’t been ripped from the real headline, the plot and character development might seem creative. Rather than the usual path of having the referee character start out as a paragon of virtue who gets dragged down by bad people, in this case the ref himself is no prize, either. Donaghy is in cahoots with another gambler before his pals find out and kick off a conspiracy of their own.
That’s the twist that distinguishes the movie — and that should ease concerns of some that this movie might inappropriately elevate Donaghy.
Instead, the film offers a vivid enhancement of an eye-opening saga that even many of us who were involved in covering top-level sports didn’t want to believe: It could happen; it did happen.
A referee’s extra edge
The movie illuminates the true fact that the nature of pre-game activity in locker rooms leaves referees in close contact with NBA players and trainers — a potentially critical source of information for those involved in sports betting.
The same goes for NBA beat writers, as we had locker room and courtside access of our own in the 90 minutes before a game. (The movie makes me grateful that it was a referee and not a reporter who got caught up in such shenanigans.)
But a referee has an extra opportunity that a beat writer or a trainer would not: an opportunity to influence the outcome with calls made, or not made, on the court.
At one point in Inside Game, the Donaghy character (played by Eric Mabius) asks buddy Tommy Martino (Party of Five’s Scott Wolf) if “you understand the defensive three-seconds rule.” When Martino says no, Donaghy laughs and says, “Nobody does!” — offering an easy opportunity to change a possession in a bettor’s favor.
Donaghy does get a couple of moments of gentle handling in the movie, namely a quick scene in which an FBI agent can’t find a smoking gun in the videotapes of Donaghy’s games and another where Donaghy claims, “I never made a bad call.”
But Donaghy, who served 15 months for wire fraud, bets thousands of dollars per game, and the movie had him sleeping with women outside his marriage and generally being a lousy husband. And it strains credulity to think he might not have “massaged” a call here and there, given the stakes.
Whatever “over/under” anyone sets on the number of “F-bombs” uttered in this movie, take the over. There are common prepositions that probably got less audio time in Inside Game.
James “Baba” Battista, Donaghy’s other buddy who is brilliantly played by Will Sasso, is a major middle man in gambling who has a wife and kids but goes on a horrendous downward spiral that includes cocaine, pills, and an addiction to an offshore poker site called “Provada.” His frantic efforts to manipulate the point spread in Las Vegas — sometimes reaching $1 million on a single game — are fascinating.
Martino is a low-level pot dealer who is beaten up in a men’s room in an Atlantic City casino in the opening scene, only to be rescued by Donaghy and Battista.
There is a certain amount of drama in the final courtroom scene for those who don’t come in knowing which character — if any — rolled over on the others in a bid for leniency.
The NBA’s brave new world
It’s not really a spoiler, especially for those who know anything about the sports betting industry, to note that as the movie ends, it’s remarked that principal photography for the film began on May 14, 2018, the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992.
That decision paved the way for any state to offer legal sports betting if it chooses — and for all sorts of partnerships to be formed. That includes several with the NBA itself, such as a deal reached with MGM Resorts just two months later.
Donaghy, meanwhile, has conducted a number of interviews recently, including one with Philadelphia’s 94 WIP sports talk show host Angelo Cataldi. In another interview, Donaghy suggests that games are still “manipulated by the league for certain reasons” such as extending the length of a playoff series. Of course, Donaghy’s credibility at this point is not exactly beyond reproach.
The movie is also being promoted by 2006 World Series of Poker champion Jamie Gold, who is friends with some of the people behind the film, knows the gambling industry well, says he bet on games Donaghy officiated, and is listed as an adviser on the project.
(As far as the fact that the plot also could play as creative fiction, I’m reminded of when The Soprano State: New Jersey’s Culture of Corruption, Part 1 documentary came out a decade ago, starring future Governor Chris Christie, with me in a supporting role. The producer once told me that in screenings at New York City film festivals, attendees would tell him they enjoyed the movie before adding, “But none of that really happened, right?” This despite the fact that the movie was a documentary. Meanwhile, the narrator of the movie was convicted of extortion months after the movie came out. Sometimes truth really is alarmingly stranger than fiction.)
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