Courting danger

NBA behemoths don't faze ref Bob Delaney. They're not the mob.

Published October 31, 2006

BRADENTON -- Even from a distance, you can pick him out in a heartbeat. Inside the crowded basketball gym where he runs his referee school, the man with the black NBA polo shirt, matching black sweats and stylishly slicked-back graying hair has his gaze fixed on the mob in motion - young hotshot players and student officials racing up and down the hardwood.

Right away, you realize Bob Delaney is considerably taller than he looks on national TV when he's maintaining order alongside the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and so many towering pro players.

The 20-year veteran of countless NBA battles - a respected crew chief known for his hard-nosed, fearless style - stands 6 feet 1 with an athletic, 188-pound physique that most 55-year-old men would envy. There is also a distinctive presence about him, emanating from his streetwise New Jersey accent and calm blue eyes that have stared into much worse than the frequent glares of angry multimillionaire players and coaches.

On this morning, the Bradenton resident can be found courtside by a yellow 20-foot scaffold. It is the final session of an intensive, four-day program of his Officiating Academy in IMG's spacious basketball gymnasium, part of the sprawling Nick Bollettieri sports complex that is home turf to such marquee athletes as tennis player Maria Sharapova and golfer Paula Creamer.

He is busy talking into a miniature mike attached to a long wire that winds its way to a video camera high above the fast-paced action. All his comments and insights are recorded, so graduates can return to their referee jobs in high school, college and the pros with a personalized DVD critique from the master.

"Very good, very good," Delaney, head of IMG's entire sports officiating program, says encouragingly into the mike when one of his pupils makes a proper call. "But I wouldn't get into a big smiling thing about it. You don't want to be smiling when you're making a call, as if it's a joke. This is business."

In another lifetime, long before he entertained thoughts of becoming an NBA referee, Delaney blew the whistle in a considerably different kind of business.

And he worked with a far different type of wire.

He wore one.

A game of life and death

There were no jocks in this world, except the one he put on to hide the tiny tape recorder inside the plastic cup, and the second jockstrap he would wear over that as an added precaution. One wire ran from the recorder up the side of his body under an arm, the other he pulled through the inside of his pants pocket so he could easily activate the record button.

You see, for nearly three years in the 1970s, Bob Delaney was Bobby Covert, an undercover cop for the New Jersey State Police on a special mission: infiltrate the mob.

His 21/2-year investigation of large organized crime families in New Jersey and Philadelphia, at a time when the mob was at the height of its power in America, could have been straight out of the Sopranos. Amid rumors that he had gone bad, he literally disappeared from the force to work with the state police and FBI. He became the fake president of a fake trucking company with a fake rap sheet. And gradually, he earned the trust of some of the most ruthless criminals in the Northeast.

In that realm, it was Delaney's ability to blend in, not stand out, that made him so successful. It kept him alive when one slip would have meant a bullet to the head. And the experience ultimately led to his future in the NBA and the heights he has achieved there.

Most stories about sports figures at the top of their games require a look at formative athletic moments and impressive stats in high school, college, the pros. In this one, the stat that mattered most was 30 - the number of indictments brought against members of the Genovese and Bruno crime families, the result of Delaney's undercover duty.

Most such stories involve the names of big sporting influences along the way. In this one, the high-profile moniker is Donnie Brasco - the alias used by fellow undercover cop Joe Pistone, whose story was made into the 1997 movie Donnie Brasco, starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. Delaney and Pistone crossed paths in a tense episode during the course of their investigations, and neither had any idea the other was actually with law enforcement.

"Myself and another undercover went to a sit-down to help mediate this beef with another family and Bobby was there," says Pistone, who spent six years in New York City infiltrating the Bonanno crime family. "He was very convincing. I was impressed, because if he loses the beef, he ends up dead."

Delaney's story is a study of a man forever changed by the hazardous duty of his early 20s, how he grappled with the unexpected psychological burden of living two lives simultaneously, how he refused to let fear hold him back in bitterness or seclusion in the years after.

And how the intimidation tactics he faces on an NBA court don't faze him in the slightest.

"Nothing," Delaney says with a half smile on his made-for-Hollywood face, "compares to what I lived through."


The making of an undercover cop

He grew up tough and confident in an Irish-Italian working class neighborhood in Paterson, N.J. And though he loved playing basketball, police work was always in the back of his mind.

His father, Robert Delaney, was a distinguished 30-year veteran of the New Jersey state trooper force and a captain in the 1970s. Back then, the agency not only patrolled the highways in uniform but sent a large number of officers into the field in plain clothes to do all manner of crime-fighting - from narcotics to murder investigations to busting up mob activity.

Delaney was a basketball standout for three years at Jersey City College but left before his senior year to join the state police in 1973. "My dad gave me my badge," he says. "It was a great moment that you remember your whole life."

Just 21, and with such a strong trooper background, Delaney seemed to have a terrific future. He was partnered with a veteran who had seen about everything on the job, Bob Scott, and was assigned to the rural area of Flemington, where there was no local police department. They lived with other troopers in a barracks, 15 days on, 15 days off.

"I had just come off turnpike duty when Bobby came in as a young recruit," Scott, now retired, says. "He was a big, tall, handsome, tough kid and very energetic. I made a lot of arrests as a trooper and I liked Bobby because he was a go-getter. I just took him under my wing and tried to teach him."

Much of their work dealt with domestic disputes, drunken drivers, bar fights and break-ins in six different townships. To stay in shape, Delaney worked as a referee at junior varsity and community basketball games. Three months into the job, Delaney experienced something that opened his eyes to a gut-wrenching facet of the work. He was called in to investigate the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl from her family's farm. He and Scott eventually discovered her sexually mutilated body - a crime later attributed to a man who had stopped to tell her one of her cows had gotten loose.

"For a 21-year-old kid, all of a sudden reality sets in," he says. "You realize there are some bad people in this world, and the bad can be really bad. So my understanding of victimology started at that point, and so did my understanding of bad guys."

A month later, another important lesson: He was called to investigate a break-in that occurred days after the homeowner was killed by a drunken driver. Delaney thought he had done a good job scrutinizing the scene, only to watch a senior detective find the case-breaking clue - paint chips on the fence that had been brushed by the getaway car. The thieves, having read the obituary, robbed the house during the funeral. "That reinforced how bad some people are," he says. "But it also reinforced to me the importance of attention to detail."

His big challenge came after one year on the job. The state police had joined forces with the FBI to embark on a six-month investigation of organized crime on the Jersey waterfront. Project Alpha would involve five undercover agents, three from the FBI, two from the state police.

Delaney was approached by a trooper sergeant, Jack Liddy. "He just walks over and says, 'You ever think of working undercover, I want to talk to you. If you ever tell anybody I'm talking to you, you won't have a shot at this job.' "

The young cop wanted in.


Attending your own funeral

A clandestine meeting at a diner followed, and soon the competition for one of the two trooper spots was heating up. And Delaney, with his poise, people skills and knowledge of the state, looked good.

There was one last step in the process, however: a meeting with the major in charge of the project. It was set for noon, but hours before the session, Liddy told Delaney it had been pushed to 2. So the sergeant took the candidate to lunch. "As soon as we hit the restaurant, Jack says, 'Whaddya want to do kid, eat it or drink it?' " Delaney recalls. "I say, 'Whatever you do boss.' So we go to the bar and he puts like three beers in me. And pretty soon, he says, 'Okay, let's go see the major.' "

Delaney had a fairly decent buzz on as he sat down for the meeting. It began badly. The major expressed concern that Delaney's father was a state police captain and there might be heat from the union if his son went undercover on a highly dangerous assignment.

"I got my back up a little," recalls Delaney. "I said, 'Excuse me sir, I've never asked for anything because my father is in the outfit, but I sure don't want to be held back because of it. If that's the case, maybe you're telling me I need to go find another job.' "

Delaney had passed the final exam he didn't even realize he was taking. The major liked the moxie the kid displayed in standing up to him. Further, Delaney learned that the meeting had been scheduled for 2 p.m. all along. His superiors just wanted to see how he would handle himself in a high-pressure situation under the influence of alcohol - a spot he would constantly find himself in with the mob.

Soon after, a car arrived in the middle of the night at the station house where Delaney and other troopers lived. He slipped out and left in the car, while another trooper went in and removed his uniforms. The next day, April 9, 1975, a personnel order was issued stating that Delaney had resigned.

Aside from those involved in Project Alpha, only Delaney's parents and sister knew the truth. His mentor and partner, Scott, had been away for the week and returned to the barracks to hear the stunning news. "Somebody said, 'Did you hear about Delaney?' " Scott recalls. "I said, 'No, what happened?' And they said that he and a buddy went to Florida and got arrested for murder. I could picture Bobby - he didn't take any s--- from anybody and maybe somebody gave him some. I felt really bad about it."

Other stories swirled: he'd gotten jammed up in a criminal investigation, he had smacked a woman around, he'd gotten into drugs confiscated on busts. His parents stopped going to state police functions because of all the whispering.

Scott talked it over with his wife, Fran. Though they had four small children and lived on a modest trooper's salary, they would offer all their savings to Delaney to help him out. Scott called Delaney's father. To his shock, Delaney answered.

"I thought he'd be in jail in Florida," he says. "But I told him I wanted to help him out, and that I'd go to Florida to serve as a character reference in court - even though that probably would have gotten me fired for breaking the state police rules."

To Scott's dismay, Delaney barely reacted.

"He just said, 'Okay, thanks a lot. I'll see you.' And he hung up," says Scott. "I had just offered him my life. I never heard from him. He never called back. And I never could figure it out."

For Delaney, having to stay mum with Scott was torture. He couldn't let him know that the offer of assistance had brought tears to his eyes.

"It was like being at your own funeral," he says. "Just like that, I was gone from the face of the earth."

-- Dave Scheiber can be reached at 727 893-8541 or scheiber@sptimes.com.

>> Tomorrow: Into the shadows, onto the court

"He didn't take (bleep) from anybody. He was one of the refs that was marked who you couldn't talk (bleep) to. As a matter of fact, even if you raised your voice, he would turn around and look to give you a technical. He'd make a point to look back and see if you were going to try to argue or throw a fit. And because he always stayed like that, then you knew just not to do that."

Matt Geiger, former Philadelphia 76ers center, below

"I think he's tough, but fair. He's somebody you can talk to. He definitely draws the line when enough's enough. He doesn't hold grudges. He calls it like he sees it and if he thinks he misses a call, he says that. And the players respect that. But he's a no-nonsense guy, a guy who does a good job of controlling the game and ultimately lets the players play. I think once the story came out that he was an undercover police officer, he got a lot more respect. Everybody called him Donnie Brasco and things like that. But once you're in the heat of battle, you don't think about that stuff."

Grant Hill, Orlando Magic forward

"For a 21-year-old kid, all of a sudden reality sets in. You realize there are some bad people in this world, and the bad can be really bad. So my understanding of victimology started at that point, and so did my understanding of bad guys."

Bob Delaney

"He's a very tough ref; he doesn't take anything from anybody. He's a guy that when you go to him, you've got to go to him the right way. You just know that every time he comes in to ref a game, he is going to be fair. I respect him off the court for what he has done and what he did for his profession."

Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat guard