In a former life, he was Bobby Covert of Alamo Trucking, a false identity and fictitious business created to infiltrate organized crime on the New Jersey waterfront for undercover work as a member of the state police.
Now, he's best known as Bob Delaney, his real name, and for his work in 21 seasons as an NBA referee. His 14 years in law enforcement in his home state -- nearly three of those working undercover in the mid 1970s in what was called Project Alpha -- has given way to the visible new line of work.
In a question-and-answer session in New Orleans during All-Star weekend, Delaney spoke with The Bee of his work undercover, his years as a referee, including the emotional conflict of having worked with and lived in the same housing development as disgraced former official Tim Donaghy on Florida's Gulf Coast, and this year's release of his book detailing his unique life: "Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob."
Question: Were you worried, for the obvious reasons, about doing this book?
Never miss a local story.
Answer: No, because this story is not new to the people that I arrested or convicted or hung around.
Q: But isn't this really throwing it in their faces? It's one thing to do newspaper stories, but to have a whole book come out and to do a book tour, this is like a victory lap for you.
A: The big part of the story, and what's intriguing to people, is the undercover stuff. But I see this more as a life story. That undercover part is only one segment of my life.
A lot of the people that I've arrested have died. Some of them have done their time and come out. Like I said, it's not new news to them. But I understand the statement. My personal security level has been at Orange since 1978. Everyone can understand that because from 2001, with 9/11, we've all been at that.
But I'm aware when I walk in a room, and I'm still very involved with law enforcement. Intelligence information is made available to me. I still do a lot of training with undercover operatives from the federal, state and local levels in the United States, Europe and Canada. So I still look at myself as part of law enforcement.
Q: Your job requires you to be surrounded by 15,000 people all the time. That doesn't make you nervous?
A: No. You know (fellow NBA referee) Bennett Salvatore. He's a good friend of mine. He told us one time, "You notice nobody stands next to Bobby during timeouts." What I would say is, I'm not flip about it. I'm aware. But also I have a decision to make and it's if I'm going to go on with my life. I don't think I'm any different than a law-enforcement officer who has arrested someone. Every cop who has ever put someone in jail lives with that and understands that the possibility that the retribution that some person may decide to take when they come out of jail is there.
Q: Why did you decide to become a ref? That's an awfully dramatic change in career paths, from police officer and undercover police officer to NBA referee.
A: I felt guilt because I thought the greatest day of my life was going to be when we arrested everybody and the job was over.
I was told (Project Alpha) was six months. I get a lot of pats on the back. I got in something I couldn't get out of. I thought it was going to be six months, I was going to be done and be back. Then it got to a year, and that wasn't too bad.
Year and a half. Two years. You didn't know when it was going to end. Then it was totally, "I'm caught here in quicksand, and I don't know how to get out." When that day of the raid came, I thought it was going to be tremendous. They brought in all the defendants. They brought in 30. They had a major raid at the West Orange Armory in West Orange, New Jersey. Two troopers in uniform, plain-clothes detectives, FBI agents went out and picked them up. Early-morning hours.
As they're starting to be processed, Sgt. Barry Lardiere, a guy I know, says to me, "You want to go downstairs where they're being processed?" It's the first time I'm really going to see these guys in a different light. Subconsciously, I probably did that parade-rest stand, the military pose.
I'm in plain clothes and I'm standing next to Barry, who has got his badge out on his lapel. And Ronnie Sardella, one of the guys I had hung around with (while undercover) was being locked up looked over at me and said, "Bobby, what'd they pinch you for?" And before I could answer, Barry says, "Pinch? He's with us. He's a trooper." And I dropped my hands. He thought I was cuffed. He looked at me, and the look that went between us was a look I'll never forget. It wasn't anger. It was hurt and disappointment. He said, "Bobby, how could you do it to me? I'm your friend."
Q: You were feeling guilty that criminals got arrested?
A: I was feeling guilty. Freeze frame and go back to St. Mary's Grammar School, fifth grade, Patterson, New Jersey. The good Sisters of St. Dominic are teaching me, I get caught doing something by Sister Joseph Rosaire and I'm gonna get punished.
I said, "Sister, Jimmy DiLella's doing it, too." My best friend to this day, I gave him up in a heartbeat. She hit me with a slap. You know the ring that says they're married to God? (Wrong.) That's there to put welts on your head. Bang! She slapped me.
She said, "Delaney, you don't tell on your friends." We've all been socialized with the unwritten rule from the schoolyard, don't tell on your friends. What we do as undercover operatives is we get close to people and then we tell on 'em. That makes you feel guilty. You feel absolutely horrible. Not all the time, but it can happen.
From hard crime to hardwood
Q: So how did you go from that to being a referee?
A: I started refereeing when I surfaced just to get back to something that was good because I had been around all that was bad. There was nothing better to me than a Friday night in a gymnasium at a high school ballgame. Watching kids compete, cheerleaders cheering, the families and the grandparents and the aunts and uncles in the stands -- that to me is the most wholesome part of all that's good in life.
I experienced it as a kid. I thought to get back to that in refereering, that would be something good for me. And that's the reason I did it. It was also to lose weight because I was so heavy from working undercover. If you see the book, I put on a lot of weight. Nervous eating, late-night hanging out in the street.
I started refereeing high school ball. It just happened that a guy by the name of Larry Hennessy, who was with the Jersey Shore Summer Pro League and played for the Philadelphia 76ers back in the day, he was the commissioner of that summer pro league and he asked if I was interested in refereeing there.
He put me together with (current NBA referee) Dick Bavetta, who was supervisor of the Jersey Shore Summer Pro League. Dick hired me there. That was my first real exposure. Darell Garretson found out about me and offered me the chance to go to Los Angeles for the summer pro league. I worked there, and he hired me into the CBA in 1983.
Q: Who has been most fascinated by your story? Any of your colleagues? Any players, any coaches?
A: Players and coaches. Shaq has a tremendous interest in law enforcement. They know parts of the story. This is the first time really people are going to hear the full story.
We had a ballgame in San Antonio and Jack Nies was getting ready to throw the ball up to start the ballgame and Shaq walked right out of the center circle, walked over to me and said, "I know you know Louis Freeh." Now, Louis Freeh was the director of the FBI. I worked with Louis when he was a street agent. I said, "Yeah, I do." He said, "Tell him I want to be an FBI agent." I said, "You'd be tremendous on surveillance. Nobody would ever notice you. How about doing the jump ball so we can get this game going." Shane Battier will ask me about all the movies. He's a movie buff. "What's real in 'The Departed'? Is that real? Is the stuff in 'The Sopranos' real?" The players ask questions.
We do a lot of tape review after every game (to assess their work), so we hear what the announcers are saying. This one night, just about a year ago, I worked a game in L.A., went back and did the tape, seeing what we got right, seeing what we got wrong.
I called a foul on Kobe and he's over talking to me.
The announcer says, "Kobe Bryant is giving Bob Delaney an ear full on this one. He doesn't like that call." The reality of it was funny to me because what (Kobe) was saying was, "What was it like wearing a wire? That must have been wild, Bob. That must have been unbelievable working undercover."
The players, they ask questions when the opportunity presents itself. My colleagues, my fellow referees, ask questions.
Donaghy 'not cut from the same cloth'
Q: One of your former colleagues, Tim Donaghy, resigned before he could be thrown out of the league for ties to the mob and gambling. You risked your life to try and stamp out mob workings. Do you have a unique perspective on what he did because of your background? Not just because you're a referee -- all the referees have an issue with what he did -- but your background is so much different than your colleague's. What's your feeling about Tim and what he did?
A: That hurt this year. I've lived through police corruption cases during my time in law enforcement, and it hurts when you get painted with the same brush.
What I shared with the referees this summer was the same thing we would say to each other in law enforcement: Although he may have worn the same uniform, he is not cut from the same cloth. That criminal does not represent who we are. I know the men and woman of this staff of referees, and they're good people and they do good things, individually and collectively between the things we're involved with. Blow The Whistle on Cancer, for the Jimmy V Foundation. The things that we did after 9/11. The things we did after the bombing in Oklahoma City, where we were very active in helping folks there. That's what I know referees to be.
Q: But do you have a different level of anger at him because of your background?
A: Anger is probably the initial reaction. What I do know from my law enforcement side is that you know that there's evil in all walks of life. We've seen it in politicians. The FBI had it with Robert Hanssen, the spy against our country. It is very difficult to stop evil, and there is bad in all walks of life.
I don't differentiate between bad guys. Bad guys are bad guys. Criminals are criminals. It doesn't matter whether it's somebody that's going to steal our wallets in this room or what that criminal did -- I don't even like using his name -- or Osama bin Laden. They're bad guys. The reason I went into law enforcement was to try and stop bad people from doing things to others.
Q: Did you ever feel a sense of failure from possibly missing something with him you could have caught?
A: No, I didn't have any of that. I didn't feel like I should have known. I didn't feel like I should have picked it up. I didn't really work a lot of ballgames with him. But I didn't have any of that sense inside of me.
Q: He lived a couple miles from you.
Q: After this broke, did you ever see him?
A: I haven't seen him since.
Q: When you drove past his house ...
A: I don't go near there. It's in a different section of the community, and there's no reason for me to go down that street.
Q: What would you like to say to him?
A: I don't really have anything to say to him. This is a selfish person who committed a criminal act and hurt a lot of people. But that's what criminals do. They hurt people. I know that criminal mind-set is very selfish. There are givers and takers in this world. It's a lot more fun being around the givers than the takers.