NBA referees have had a rough go of late, beginning with Joey Crawford's suspension for his exchange with Tim Duncan during the 2007 playoffs, through the ongoing drama surrounding Tim Donaghy, who is about to be sentenced for fixing games in a gambling scam.
In "Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob," the former trooper-turned-striped shirt recounts (with Dave Scheiber) his nerve-rattling days as the principal undercover agent in Project Alpha, the '70s-era investigation into the Genovese and Bruno crime families that resulted in over 30 convictions, greatly disrupting the Mafia's operations in America.
For Delaney, the investigation, however fruitful, came with a heavy price. Throughout his three-year ordeal as Bobby Covert -- an executive at a fictitious trucking company using the mob to circumvent union interests -- and for many years later, Delaney struggled with the emotional and physiological ramifications of his harrowing work, which included stress-induced bouts of vomiting and diarrhea.
In returning to the hard court, Delaney, who hooped for Jersey City State College, would find a haven from his internal storm. The highly respected veteran, now in his 20th year as an NBA whistle-blower, turned to officiating because, as he explains, "I'd seen so much bad, I needed to surround myself with good." That was the case for a while, anyway.
Delaney, 56, recently took some time to talk about his book (due this week from Union Square Press), his work in the groundbreaking investigation and how his background prepared him for his current occupation as well as the proverbial black eye Donaghy would inflict upon it.
|Click here to purchase "Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob" by Bob Delaney with Dave Scheiber.
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Delaney: It's not just a story about the mob. There are lessons in it. I still teach at the federal law enforcement training center in Glencoe, Ga., as well as many state and local training academies, and I know the psychological and emotional hardships of my experience spoke to the officers in the audience who were going through the same thing -- undercover local, state, federal and military officers. We don't like to speak about things that are looked upon as less than brave for someone in law enforcement. People in these investigative situations need help to become whole and return to who they are. It's like grieving. You get in a room with others and realize, "I'm not the only one going through this." I wanted to get society to understand the dedication these people are giving to this country, and the physical, emotional and psychological injury that goes with it. Undercover work is the greatest investigative tool we have in law enforcement. But there's a price we pay for it.
How did your position at Alamo trucking company get you access to the two crime families?
You get lucky in life. We got to where we got because of the informant, Pat Kelly, the consigliere with the Bruno crime family, the North Jersey faction which was run by the DiNorscio family. It was a perfect storm. The DiNorscios were all in jail, and someone had to represent them on the street. Pat was designated, and he became an informant for the FBI. They gave him a choice: go to jail or work with these undercover guys we have in place. Pat became the vice president, and I was the president. He was the guy with the mob contacts. You can have great undercover people, but you need someone to walk you through the door.
This may be hard for you to quantify, but what was the single most dangerous experience you faced?
It wasn't one particular situation. It's an ongoing thing. I'm wearing a wire in a jock strap between my legs everyday, knowing that if it's found on me ... in that world, informants die. You live with that cloud over you. If one wire wiggles out of place, if someone pats you on the belly or back, they find that thing. It's not like I had surveillance teams on me. In deep cover, that's impossible. And I have no credentials saying that I'm a cop. My identification said my name was Robert Allen Covert.
Covert. Wasn't that a bit of a risk?
It's a catchy name for an undercover guy, but back in the '70s before Watergate, that word wasn't common. It wasn't like we were being cutesy. We took a guy who died at birth, and I became that person. But today, it's obvious that people will think that's a pretty cool undercover name.
Was there a time where you thought, "Man, I'm about to get caught"?
Not so much that. The danger is, you get too comfortable. You start making decisions based on what Bobby Covert would do. The line starts to get blurred between Bob Delaney and Bobby Covert. That's a safety problem. I'm thinking like Bobby Covert on a daily basis, and I had to pull back to remember, "It's not about the trucks." I became so worried about how the trucks were running that my morality changed.
Like, for a uniformed officer to arrest somebody for driving a truck of stolen goods, I would've thought I'd be the trooper of the year. But now I'm undercover, and I'm thinking, "Naw, this driver isn't a bad guy. He's just putting food on the table." A bad guy became someone who puts bullets in heads. So your morality changes. It's Stockholm Syndrome. You identify with your captors. Your life is in their hands. You're going to do everything you can to not let them think you're a threat. You get too comfortable, get closer, but you know that in that world, informants die.
Speaking of moral ambiguity, what criminal activities did you participate in?
Stolen property, loan sharking, gambling, purchasing of guns. There's a story in the book: An undercover FBI agent -- a guy who was married, had a family -- the investigation was too much for him. He had to bow out. Well, we had to come up with a reason he's leaving. So another undercover agent and I were talking about it at a luncheonette, and the owner -- a guy we were betting with -- overhead us and thought we wanted to whack (the FBI agent). He said, "You want the tools for that? The thing you were talking about?" The next day, he gives us two fully loaded guns, serial numbers cleaned off, ready to go with gloves inside a to-go bag. He sold them for $450, thinking they're going to be used to kill somebody. So here's a guy who the police think is merely a bookmaker, but in reality, he's ready to be an accessory to murder. You realize the people you're working with have the ability to commit heinous criminal acts, and you're a part of that mix.
You alluded to the psychological hardship. How rough did it get?
It was intense because I was very good at repressing normal reactions to fear, but at some point those reactions had to come out. I'd go to sleep at night and think I wet the bed, but it was perspiration. In the book, I'm honest about throwing up, having diarrhea after meetings. After two hours of meeting with mob guys, wearing a wire, I get two miles down the road and have to find a gas station to throw up or because I have diarrhea. Now, that's not something I told people while undercover. You didn't want anyone to think you have mental problems. You want to get promoted.
How long did it take to get your life back in order after this?
I'm still working on it, brother. [Laughs] I'm in a better place than I was 20 years ago. It was maybe eight years until I had some kind of peace because it took so long to be honest with what I was feeling, honest with how I reacted to situations on the street and how I felt about myself. It's a process to this day. But the more I spoke about it, the more I could help people. I say in my presentations, we provide help to schizophrenics, but in undercover work we're asking officers to become two people. They need help regaining who they were.
Tim Heitman/Getty Images
From the streets of Jersey to the courts of the NBA, Bob Delaney has always enforced law and order.
I'm no different than any cop who put someone away. Retribution could happen. I'm not naive. But I'm aware of my surroundings. I have security in place that I'm not going to discuss. Also, even though I work for the NBA, I have strong ties and still consider myself a part of N.J. state police. They're very helpful, as are other agencies, in terms of intelligence information and awareness of my situation.
In what ways did this experience make you a better referee?
The challenge is very similar: There's pressure, a lot going on, and decisions have to be made very quickly. Apparently, I'm attracted to that lifestyle. [Laughs] Also, I have an awareness that comes from my law-enforcement base: I recognize when the crisis may escalate, or players are at a point where it may become a fight. And people aren't happy to be arrested, nor are they happy to have a foul called on them, so I'm used to working with people who aren't pleased.
Was there a moment in your officiating career where you thought, "Man, I wish I was back undercover"?
Oh, no! [Laughs] Never have I had that thought. And lemme tell you, never have I been asked that question. You're the only one to ever think that one up. [Laughs]
I don't think that's a good distinction. It's no secret that many ballers have an affinity for gangster tales like "The Godfather" and "Scarface." Do players ever ask you to regale them with stories?
Oh, yeah. After a game in L.A., I was doing tape review, and after I call a foul on Kobe, the announcer says, "Kobe's giving Delaney an earful about that call." In reality, Kobe came over to me during free throws to say: "What was it like wearing those wires all time? That must've been wild." And when Grant Hill was in Orlando, he came up to me and patted me down. He's like, "You still wired?" I'm like, "Yeah, and the last time I was wired, 30 people went to jail." You gotta laugh in this world, man. [Laughs] Shane Battier will always ask about what's real and what's fake in movies like "Training Day" or "The Departed."
Currently, "The Departed" is on loop on HBO. Is it hard for you to watch those films, or programs like "The Sopranos"?
I find it entertaining. It was a Jersey-based operation, so I walked the streets in "The Sopranos." One thing, though: It's far-fetched to think wise guys would be concerned with self-help. [Laughs] That's the Hollywood twist. Same with "Departed": DiCaprio did an amazing job of depicting the emotional stress, but they wouldn't send him to a police psychologist when he's undercover. And yeah, alright, a love triangle with the same psychologist? The shootout at the end is another thing: When a police captain gets thrown off a building, your job is over. You can't allow murder to take place. I'm not saying DiCaprio should be Dudley Do-Right and pull out his badge, but you're going to get pulled out and the cases are going to get made.
Is Cosa Nostra still alive and well today?
I think it is. In the '70s and '80s, the thrust of law enforcement was organized-crime investigations, but then the drug cartels became another level of interest. Today, a high percentage of manpower and time is spent on terrorism and gangs. That leaves a bit of a void. Even though those investigations had an impact in disrupting organized crime, to think that it's gone would be naive.
Final question: I think most pundits and fans would agree that, as far as referees go, you're the rule and not the exception: A good man who does things the right way. With this scandal in NBA officiating, were you concerned about being painted with the same brush as Tim Donaghy, just because you share a uniform?
Let me give a little thought on this one. I want to word it correctly. [Pauses] When it broke, I was asked to make a statement. Of course, we can't do interviews in the press. But I did answer a guy from the N.Y. Post who ended up at my home: "Due to the ongoing criminal investigation, I cannot share with you my anger, outrage and disgust over this situation." Then the reporter said, "Can I quote you on that?" So I said it again. [Laughs] But to answer the question you just asked, I have lived through corruption scandals in my law-enforcement career, where troopers or officers committed crimes. So I know the feeling of being painted with the same brush because I wear the same uniform. What I tell my fellow referees is, we may share the same uniform, but we're not cut from the same cloth. It's hard to stop evil. The criminal who happened to be an NBA referee does not represent the 99.9 percent of the dedicated professionals that I know the referees to be. And I appreciate you asking me that question. I haven't had the opportunity to share what I just shared with you. I have to be honest with you: It's emotional for me right now. I'm proud of this profession, proud of what we do and proud to be a part of the NBA. I know how good these folks are. When you get painted with the same brush, it hurts.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at email@example.com.