Covert since Dave Scheiber and Jackie Mac did their award winning articles back
in 2006, 2007....
NBA referee recounts his days infiltrating the mob
Delaney is alive because for him, that saying is truth.
The veteran NBA referee spent his formative years as an undercover police officer infiltrating the mob in New Jersey. He started off looking as raggedy as Bill Belichick with pullovers, jeans and a beard, but graduated to a semi-Pat Riley look with a Fu Manchu, three-piece European suits and a Lincoln Mark V.
He appeared to be a wise guy. His life depended on it.
He told his full story in the book Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob, which was co-written by Dave Scheiber and was released last year. The paperback version was recently released and Delaney has also agreed to a deal for the movie version of the story. It will be directed by Ron Shelton, who has also directed Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup.
NBA players are familiar with and obviously fascinated by Delaney’s adventures, and it’s not uncommon for the two worlds to meet in unlikely places.
During a regular-season game a few years ago in Los Angeles, Delaney called a foul on Kobe Bryant and went to the side of the court.
Bryant followed and it looked as if he was complaining about the call. The play-by-play announcer described the confrontation by saying: "Delaney is getting an earful from Kobe on that call."
Appearances can be deceiving.
Actually, Bryant’s "earful" consisted of this:
"Man, what was it like to wear a wire?" Bryant said. "That had to be wild."
Delaney answered only with a smile.
There were few funny moments for Delaney from April 1975 to September 1977 while he was part of "Project Alpha," the code name for the operation that focused on organized crime’s infiltration into legitimate businesses on the New Jersey waterfront.
The mob engaged in extortion, the trafficking of stolen goods, narcotics, and bookmaking. To get the evidence on the perpetrators, Delaney, who was only 23 at the time, had to wear a wire that went up both sides of his body and connected to a tape recorder that he wore in a jock strap.
Nothing funny about that.
But there were some odd, lighter moments. At an Italian restaurant one day, one of the mobsters gave a busboy what looked like two dozen quarters and told him to play the same song on the jukebox. It was the theme from The Godfather, which was released in 1972 and followed by Godfather II in 1974.
Turns out, the wise guys adored the movie.
"I love that song," one of them said. "I can never hear it too much."
One of the key meeting places was a bar called the Sting Lounge.
But undoubtedly the strangest and funniest aspect of the operation was Delaney’s undercover name: Bobby Covert.
Delaney’s superiors wanted to find a name of a deceased person who was about the same age as Delaney but also who had the same first name. There would be enough stress in the operation, so the idea was to make it easy for Delaney by having him answer to his real first name. A near match with Delaney’s birth date was found at the Bureau of Vital Statistics. The name was Robert Alan Covert.
At the time, the term "covert" was not law enforcement jargon. Undercover operators were "narcs" or "street agents." So no one — Delaney, his superiors or the mobsters — gave the name a second thought.
"It wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen," Delaney said. "Thirty years later, it’s amazing. I’ve had people come up to me and say, 'Why didn’t you just call yourself Johnny Undercover?"
Doing some good
When Terry Lyons agreed to handle public relations for Delaney’s book, the first question he asked was: "What do you want from this book?"
"He said he wanted something that probably wasn’t possible to get," said Lyons, who worked in the NBA PR department for 26 years before leaving in 2007. "He said he hoped somebody from Pat Kelly’s family would contact him so he could let them know that Pat wasn’t a bad guy."
Patrick John Kelly was the key figure in infiltrating the mafia. A confidant of the DiNorscio family and with contacts in the Bruno and Genovese families, Kelly was approached by federal and state agents and told he could either cooperate with authorities or go to jail.
Kelly was an engaging, charismatic schemer and ultimately he decided to turn on the mob. Along with Delaney, he began wearing a wire and taping conversations that ultimately led to more than 50 arrests in New Jersey, and also provided leads on investigations throughout the country.
Delaney ended up testifying before a Senate committee in 1981, and Kelly and his family were relocated.
In 1999, Delaney found out where Kelly had been moved when Kelly shouted at Delaney before a Suns game in Phoenix. It was an eerie meeting that was powerfully described in the first few pages of the book. The two met several times for drinks and conversation when Delaney was working games in Phoenix.
Although the two had their flare-ups while working undercover, Delaney liked Kelly and thought he was, overall, a good guy. Kelly was relocated with his wife and six children, but because of the danger of mob retaliation, the past became taboo. It was never discussed.
After the hardcover book was released, Delaney one day received an e-mail from an unfamiliar name. It turned out to be Kelly’s granddaughter.
"I knew Patrick John Kelly by a different name," she wrote. "I knew him as Pop! I knew him as a successful businessman, an avid sports fan, a devout Catholic, a loving father, and as my amazing grandfather."
The woman, who Delaney prefers to not identify because there is still sensitivity from the undercover operation, said that she had always wondered about her grandfather’s mysterious past and that he had been firm in refusing to talk about it.
The note ended with the woman writing: "I am sure that you are well aware of the lives your work saved by infiltrating the New Jersey Mafia. But I want to be sure you are aware of the lives your work helped to create."
That was stunning to Delaney.
"I had never thought about law enforcement creating lives," he said. "She explained that her father, Pat Kelly’s son, probably would have followed in his footsteps and she would have grown up in that world instead of the witness relocation program. A whole new life started. The cycle had been broken."
The result of the witness relocation is that Kelly, who died in 2001, was survived by 10 grandsons and eight granddaughters with impressive jobs, including an assistant district attorney, real estate agents, award-winning restaurant and hotel owners, members of the Air Force, Army and Navy who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and others studying to become psychologists. One is in training to become an FBI agent.
All from a former wise guy.
Coming to life
For Bob Delaney, watching The Sopranos was an experience that was different from the rest of us. He spent time driving on the Pulaski Skyway that Tony Soprano drove at the beginning of each show. Delaney worked in all those New Jersey towns that were featured on the show.
"David Chase [the creator of the show] had to have somebody inside the mob sharing stories with him," Delaney said. "He captured every one of the personalities. The only thing a little far-fetched was [Tony] going to a psychiatrist. I never heard anything like that. They weren’t really big into self help."
Delaney found, however, that self help would become a big part of his life. In spending more than two years undercover, Delaney took on the personality of a wise guy and had a difficult time shedding it when his normal life resumed. It became clear that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Ultimately, he was confronted by a friend about his obnoxiousness, bullying tendencies and constant obscene language. The friend and a psychology professor he had taken a class from while in college provided help.
Delaney’s past makes him a popular speaker, especially to police groups, and he has taught classes at the federal law enforcement training center for 30 years. His next venture will start Friday when he goes with a group to Iraq and Germany, where he plans to lecture soldiers on the reality of PTSD.
"The casualties are not only the ones that are on the battlefield," Delaney said. "When you see a solider that is physically wounded, you’re able to understand. But when there is a mental, emotional problem, we don’t see that. So it’s hard for us to comprehend."
Delaney tells soldiers how difficult it was for him as a police officer to assimilate back into a normal life and he urges them to seek help in the form of family and friends
"Clinical help can be part of it," Delaney said. "But I think it’s more than that. It’s help from your peers. If you’re going through a difficult time, the best people to help you are people who have been through what you have been through."
Part of Delaney’s story is ongoing. In having such a high public profile, it would seem that he is putting himself in danger with mob members who have long memories. But Delaney said that any police officer or judge who puts criminals in jail faces the same sort of threat. Plus, many of the people who Delaney busted in the ’70s are dead.
"I don’t look at myself any differently than any other cop," Delaney said. "The rest of the world has been at orange since 9-11. My personal security level has been orange since 1978."
Coming to life
Delaney is recuperating from an Achilles’ injury that kept him out of the playoffs, but he’ll be back in October for his 23rd season. There is no timetable yet on the movie, but when it is released, Delaney will become even more famous, which for an NBA referee is amazing.
For a long period in the ’90s, the league seldom allowed referees to be interviewed. But now Delaney is nothing less than a star.
"For quite a while, we tried to play down personalities and not let the refs talk to anybody," said Nets executive Rod Thorn, who left the NBA in 2000 after serving 14 years as head of basketball operations. "Now I think it’s probably a good idea to let fans and people in the league know these guys have personalities, and some have great stories to tell."
Delaney’s story is compelling and intriguing, but fans and players sometimes use it to give him a hard time. In Washington after he made a call he knew was not good, there was a silence before the free throw was taken and a Wizards fan shouted: "Hey Delaney, we need to put you in the witness protection program."
"I get a lot of questions from players, and some of them are funny," Delaney said. "This year, [Houston forward] Shane Battier said I needed a moniker, so instead of Bobby Covert, he calls me Bobby Whistles. That’s pretty good. When someone does something like that, you just have to smile."