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PHILADELPHIA - Unlike the Cheers bar, no one really knows your name at the watering hole inside the Renaissance Hotel, just a short cab ride from the Philadelphia Airport.
It is a businessman’s haunt, and the 20 or so patrons who are finishing their day with a cold beer are staring into their Smartphones when Tommy Martino walks in, a huge smile on his face and a beautiful woman on his arm.
After a handshake and introduction, the third link in the most notorious NBA betting scandal in the league’s history sits down and talks about the past (a little), the present (more) and the future (a lot).
Tommy Martino (back lett) and Jimmy Battista (back right) heading to a court date in July 2008.If the name Tommy Martino escapes you, you’re not alone. As the intermediary between NBA ref-gone-bad Tim Donaghy and professional gambler Jimmy Battista, Martino did not draw the intense media scrutiny that the other two in the three-cornered stool did.
Donaghy wrote a book (“Personal Foul: A First-Person Account of the Scandal That Rocked the NBA), and Battista was the primary source and subject of a subsequent book (“Gaming the Game: The Story Behind the NBA Betting Scandal and the Gambler Who Made it Happen”). If the three were centerfielders in New York in the 1950s, Battista and Donaghy would be Mantle and Mays, and Martino would clearly be Duke Snider.
As the businessmen nurse their drafts and pay only scant attention as the Eagles go up 17-0 on the Browns, Martino orders a drink for himself and Grey Goose for the stunner, and opens up about how it all went down a half-decade ago.
“There are some things I can’t say for the record,” Martino told me in an interview for Covers.com. “I’ve got a book deal in the works and it will all come out.”
So we agree that when he needs to go “off the record,” he will point to the tape recorder and I’ll hit the pause button.
We start at the beginning, the day that former high school friends Donaghy, Battista and Martino hatched a scheme to make money by betting on NBA games, many of which Donaghy officiated.
“We made a pact at the [Philadelphia] Marriott that day,” recalls Martino of the meeting about a mile from where we now sat. “Battista said it stays between us three. Nobody will say a word to nobody. Well, somebody said something to other people. And it wasn’t me.”
Word eventually spread throughout the betting community that Donaghy was providing winners. Donaghy insists to this day that the fix wasn’t in, that he was merely using inside information – about players, referee prejudices, conversations that he’d overhear – to nail the spread.
Others, including Gaming the Game author Sean Patrick Griffin, scoff at Donaghy’s claims, examine the evidence and come to only one conclusion: That was fix was indeed in.
Martino, whose own book on the scandal has hit some snags due to editorial control issues with the publishing company, is clearly uncomfortable when I ask him flat-out whether or not Donaghy told him that he was fixing games. All Martino will say on the record is that Donaghy had a very good record in picking games. “Tim says he didn’t fix games,” he says now.
Martino says that Donaghy received $2,000 for each game that he successfully picked. Martino got half that for acting as the go-between, getting the pick from Donaghy and relaying it to Battista, and getting money from Battista and delivering it to Donaghy.
“I can remember flying into Phoenix with thousands of dollars in cash strapped to my body,” he says now. “Could never do that now. Too much detection.”
The money kept flowing in during the 2007 NBA season, until it didn’t any more.
Someone dropped a dime on the Battista/Donaghy combine, and the feds moved in the way only the feds can.
Martino got his own call from the FBI in May 2007 and stumbled all over himself during a grand jury session that results, months later, in perjury charges. Those charges are later lessened to obstruction, and in April 2008 Martino cops to wire fraud. [The previous August Donaghy had pled guilty to conspiring to commit wire fraud, and conspiring to transmit gambling information across state lines.]
A week after Martino’s guilty plea, Battista pleads guilty himself, to transmitting wagering information. All three wind up in the slammer, with Battista and Martino amazingly in the same Brooklyn prison.
All three do about a year, and Martino’s time wasn’t, he says now, too pleasant. He spent some time in the hole (isolation) — the result, he says, of being ratted out in prison by Battista [while Martino and Donaghy are BFFs, Battista is persona non grata with both].
“When I got out of the hole,” says the 5-foot-5 Martino, “I was so skinny that guards could identify me only by my tattoo. But a few months later I was able to finish out the term at Devens. (Fort Devens is a former Army base in Massachusetts, near the New Hampshire border, that now serves as a prison.)
Martino admits to getting drugs for Battista, before it all came tumbling down. “He gave me the money, I bought the drugs for him. Does that make me a seller? I guess.”
Martino, Donaghy and Battista still owe thousands of dollars to the NBA in court-ordered restitution. “Tim and I both want to pay it back and we’re even willing to take a second mortgage on our houses to do it,” says Martino. “But Battista won’t.”
As convicted felons, Martino, Donaghy and Battista are prevented from associating with each other until the terms of their probation are over. For Martino, that’s a year from now. Over the fall, winter and spring, when labor issues may force the NBA to the sidelines, Martino will bide his time, working in the family business as a hair stylist in Philadelphia, trying to pull together that book and perhaps even entertaining a movie offer. “Nothing definite yet,” he says, “but we’ve had calls.”
I joke that his part would be perfect for a younger Joe Pesci, and he beams and says that Donaghy once told him the same thing.
“When this thing is completely over,” says Martino pointing to Ashley (the stunner), “we’re going to get married.”
As he gets up he says, without being asked, that there is much more to the scandal than whether or not Tim Donaghy fixed games.
With that Tommy Martino and the stunner head out the door, and around the bar the businessmen continue to play with their Smartphones, hardly taking notice of 45-year-old Tommy Martino, a man whose life has been far more interesting than their own, and whose final chapters have yet to be written.