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NBA ref Scott Foster breaks silence

HOUSTON -- Over the last 16 months NBA referee Scott Foster has been poked and prodded by government and independent agencies to determine the nature of his relationship with Tim Donaghy, the disgraced former official who is serving 15 months in a Florida prison after pleading guilty to wire fraud and transmitting wagering information across state lines.

Foster, 41, has been crucified by the press for the 304 phone calls he exchanged with Donaghy between December 2006 and April 2007, during which time Donaghy has admitted he shared inside information with two known gamblers. Foster has been convicted by the public for nothing more than what he characterizes as a friendly relationship that began 17 years ago in a Los Angeles airport, when two young men armed with the same dream first struck up a conversation. And he has had to come to grips with the fact that a man he once considered a close friend "probably" involved him, however unwillingly and unknowingly, in the worst scandal in league history.

Through it all, Foster has remained silent. He has waited for the FBI to finish its investigation, which revealed no evidence that Foster was associated with any illegal activities. He has waited for Lawrence Pedowitz, an independent investigator hired by the NBA to probe the Donaghy scandal, to publicly clear him in a 133-page report released last month, eight pages of which were devoted entirely to Foster.

He has waited. Patiently. Well, maybe not patiently.

Sitting behind a wooden desk in a downtown Houston hotel room Monday afternoon, Foster doesn't look particularly angry. He is clean-shaven and neatly groomed, and his face does not reflect the torturous months that have seen the reputation he had worked so hard for -- and one that earned him a coveted spot officiating in the 2008 NBA Finals -- torched and his family embarrassed. But in his first public comments since a July FoxNews.com report detailed the 134 phone calls made by Donaghy to Foster's cell phone, the frustration in Foster's voice quickly becomes evident.

"Two or three days after [the report] came out, I remember telling [NBA president for league and basketball operations Joel] Litvin that I can't just sit on the sidelines and let them beat my ass," said Foster. "If someone said, 'He raped me' and they were in Portland, Maine, and I was in Portland, Ore., I would get on a pulpit and say this isn't fair. But because this had an NBA thing attached to it, I couldn't speak."

When asked if he had ever gambled on the NBA or provided information or assistance to gamblers, Foster responded with an emphatic "No."

Since Foster's close friendship with Donaghy first became public, Foster says he has been eager to tell his side of the story. Foster first met Donaghy in 1991, when both were invited to an officiating camp in Los Angeles. The two became friends in part due to their parallel lives. Both entered the NBA the same year (1994) and started families at roughly the same time. Their relationship was close enough that Foster asked Donaghy to be the godfather to his eldest son, Jake.

The two continued their friendship as their careers moved forward but, as Foster said, "There wasn't a lot of face time." Foster and Donaghy did carry on regular phone conversations.

"I'm on the road 150 days a year," said Foster, crouching forward in his chair. "It's not atypical for officials to play phone tag from time to time. Just today I've talked to two refs twice and two refs once. We go back and forth. I get to the airport and I'm in the security line, I'd give him a call. I'd be watching SportsCenter, I'd give him a call. It's constant water-cooler chatter. That's how we work out here. You have one or two buddies who you bounce things off of and share experiences with.

"I made a list of things [Donaghy and I] could have been talking about. It was about 45 things. It could be a family thing or who was hotter, Betty or Wilma. If I'm in Houston or he is in Miami and we're watching the same game and we see a play in the first quarter, that's a call. [NBA VP] Stu Jackson might fine somebody, I might call him up. There are all kinds of little things and information that we share in phone calls."

In fact, the frequency of the phone calls contributed to Foster's first learning that something might be up with Donaghy.

"It first started to break for me in early June [2007]," said Foster. "Timmy called me in the locker room and said he couldn't come to a golf tournament. He said he had a bad back and had to get an MRI. I called him to see if he was OK and he wouldn't return my phone calls. So a few weeks went by and I finally left him a kind of nasty message and said, 'Hey, if you're not going to call me back and be a jerk, basically go screw yourself.' Nothing came from that. Another couple days went by and I spoke to some people who told me that Timmy had gotten into some trouble with the NBA. I assumed it was something he had done off the court. I thought he had a tiff on the street. I never put it in the context of where we are now. When the [New York] Post broke the story [about an NBA ref being investigated by the FBI], it didn't take a scientist to figure out [who it was]."

When NBA commissioner David Stern confirmed during a news conference in July 2007 that the league was investigating Donaghy, Foster knew that his personal relationship with Donaghy would tie him to the probe.

"The first thing I said to my mom was, 'Do you know how this looks for me?' This is [going to be] guilt by association!' " said Foster. "The day he resigned [July 9, 2007] people were looking to me for answers and the only answer I had is that he hadn't talked to me in almost a month. I had a real fear of how I was going to prove myself, that we were strictly friends. One of the attorneys that works for the union called and said the FBI wanted to talked to me. He said he thought Timmy's phones were tapped. I said if that's the case, maybe that will be the thing that really sets me free. My personal attorney said based on his experience with the FBI he didn't think that was the case. That was a downer for me."

Foster's relationship with Donaghy, however, remained a secret until last July, when the phone records became public. With fans still reeling from the initial Donaghy scandal and unwilling to give the NBA -- or anyone associated with it -- the benefit of the doubt, suspicion was immediately cast over Foster. The public flogging took a tremendous toll on Foster and his family, which includes three children, ages 10, 8 and 6.

"That's a pretty emotional thing for me to talk about," said Foster. "My dad is a big talking-head fan and they were talking about me. I could see he was pissed. My name was on the bottom line all day long. My mom saw it. My kids know how to Google and they had some pretty odd questions. They understood Tim did something bad and that he was in jail, and then they see my name attached to this and they ask, 'Dad, are you going to jail?' Especially my 6-year-old. He couldn't put it together."

Three days after the FoxNews report ("Days of complete anguish and anger," said Foster) the veteran referee flew to New York for a meeting with Pedowitz. At the NBA offices, the two men had an emotional two-hour meeting.

"I was talking about my family," said Foster. "I told him, There is no way that you can write a report that clears my name. Until the NBA lets me speak to the press and lets me let them see how angry I am about this, it's not going to mean a hill of beans. People don't want to hear from lawyers, they want to hear it from my mouth."

Foster says that for him the relationship with Donaghy is over. The Pedowitz report cleared him, the FBI case is closed and the league publicly has stood behind him, giving Foster a vote of confidence at the annual coaches and officials meeting in Chicago in September.

"We have absolute confidence in Scott Foster," said Litvin.

Foster says he hasn't explored removing Donaghy as Jake's godfather but doesn't see how the two men could ever remain friends. He says he thinks about a potential Donaghy book ("He can say whatever he wants in it," said Foster) and worries that his association with Donaghy will haunt him forever. But he also knows the only thing he can do is move on.

"I don't think he can affect me any more professionally than he already has," said Foster. "I felt like I was reaching the point in my career where I was a go-to guy. I've been striving to be that for 22 years. You want to be the referee who walks on the floor and people say, 'Hey, we're going to get a fair shake tonight' or, 'He's professional'. People in the NBA have been told that [the NBA] has 100 percent confidence in me. [But] my credibility in some way has been diminished. Now I have to go back out and build those brownie points back up by being professional and doing my job. I think there is some doubt. Not just in the players and coaches and general managers, but the fans as well. I'm attached to the worst thing that has happened in pro sports."

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