ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
A seven-foot, 275-pound man charging across a basketball court to protest a call would seem like an intimidating sight, but not for NBA referee Bob Delaney. Forget about it. That ain't nothing compared to what he endured in his previous life.
If you follow basketball, you know Bob Delaney as one of the toughest and most respected referees in the NBA. Thirty years ago he was a New Jersey state trooper. His assignment: to head up a sting operation known as Project Alpha and figure out how the mafia was taking over legitimate businesses along the Jersey waterfront.
Bob Delaney tells his story in a new book called "Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob."
Mr. BOB DELANEY (NBA Ref): You hear you're going to work undercover. You have all these visions and the adrenaline is running through you. And you start to realize that you have to become that new person. The name of the book is "Covert." I became Bobby Covert.
SEABROOK: Your name was Bobby Covert. I love that.
Mr. DELANEY: Yeah.
SEABROOK: And no one at the time was thinking, you know, it's like calling yourself Bobby Undercover.
Mr. DELANEY: Right. And not until, you know, post-Watergate did that become the common terminology in law enforcement. Prior to that it was always narcs or street agents or something along that line. We didn't do it to be cute or to be funny. We took on the identity of a child that died at birth.
Robert Allen Covert was born dead, and that was in 1948. What we wanted to do was find the same first name, same ethnic-sounding last name and same age grouping. So I had been Robert or Bob my whole life. You lie about so much when you're undercover that you want to keep some things consistent.
And I had to learn how to become part of that subculture that I was attempting to infiltrate.
SEABROOK: I don't know. I guess I want to hear how you had to keep undercover in that situation.
Mr. DELANEY: Yeah, your morality changes. So - I'll just give you an example. You go into a Holiday Inn lounge and as we got in there we sat down and George pointed out the guy that was up at the bar and he said he's a cop. And I said how do you know he's a cop? And he said, well, just look at how he stands. He's standing with his back to the wall because he doesn't want anybody behind him. He's drinking out of a bottle, not drinking out of a glass, 'cause he doesn't want to drink out of a glass like the rest of us. And he's paying cash for his drinks, he's not running a tab. That's not normal in a bar.
So what I learned very quickly is that they study us, meaning law enforcement, as much as law enforcement studied them.
SEABROOK: I mean, you must have been nervous while you were working with these people.
Mr. DELANEY: Tremendous amounts of fear. More often than not I was wearing a wire. And I was good at doing undercover work. I could go to a meeting, go through and have the meetings with the wiseguys, but I'd get two miles down the road from that meeting and I'd have to pull over and throw my guts up. I didn't tell anybody that. You know, law enforcement officers like to think of themselves as leaping tall buildings in a single bound.
Well, when you go into doing undercover work, you start to feel fears that you had never experienced before. And you don't want to tell anybody about it, and I didn't for years. For years I repressed a lot of it and carried it with me because I didn't want to sound like I was afraid.
SEABROOK: You said something about how your morality changes. How did your morality change?
Mr. DELANEY: You know, I grew up in a certain socioeconomic middle class family. And you know the difference between right and wrong, and then you become part of the street, and I refer to the street as the toilet. And if you stay in the toilet long enough you're going to start to stink.
I remember defending a guy, a guy named Ronnie Sedella(ph), saying to my sergeant, Jack, he's not a bad guy, all he's doing is stolen loads. Meaning if he wasn't breaking people's legs and putting bullets in people's heads, he wasn't a bad guy. Yet in 1973 if I would have arrested someone for stolen property, that would've been a tremendous arrest in my mind, and yet here I was defending them.
SEABROOK: And then suddenly the plug is pulled on Project Alpha.
Mr. DELANEY: Yeah. September 28, 1977, it was decided that, you know, it had gone long enough. And you couldn't wait for this day. And I thought it was going to be the greatest day of my life. We're going to arrest organized crime figures and I'm going to be back into the fold of the state police and back into the law enforcement community.
On that day they would send out two troopers, two state police detectives and an FBI agent and they would pick up the defendants and bring them in for processing. And a sergeant by the name of Barry Laudiare(ph) was with me. And for whatever reason I probably put my hands behind my back to get into a semi-military pose of parade rest to kind of feel a little bit more strength when I would see the people that I had arrested.
And a guy by the name of Ronnie Sodell(ph) looked over at me and said, Bobby, what'd they pinch you for? And before I could answer, Barry Laudiare said, pinched? He's not pinched. He with us, he's a trooper, and I dropped my hands. The look that went between he and I was not a look of anger, it was a look of disappointment, of hurt, and he said to me, Bobby, how can you do it to me? I'm your friend.
We have been socialized not to tell on our friends. It's an unwritten rule from the playground that you don't tell on someone. And now as an undercover operative what you're asked to do is become friends with someone and then tell on them. It causes for tremendous pangs of guilt.
SEABROOK: Do you miss anything about that world?
Mr. DELANEY: No, not now. I'm glad that I've moved on and that I have my life back.
SEABROOK: How did you go from being a New Jersey state trooper, mob infiltrator, to being a well-known, well-respected professional basketball referee?
Mr. DELANEY: Basketball was such a big part of my life as a kid. That game is my passion. When I surfaced from doing undercover work, basketball became so important to me because I felt comfortable on the basketball floor. It was something that was organized, it had rules, it had a direction that I was going in. All of those things I had not had in my life for so long so that was so important to me.
And what happened was that I was working a high school ballgame and a guy by the name of Larry Hennessey(ph) was at the game. He was the commissioner of the Jersey Shore Summer Pro League, asked me to referee there. I did. Darryl Garretson(ph), who was the director of officials for the NBA at the time, offered me a position with Continental Basketball Association, which is the old minor leagues of the NBA.
And I worked there and continued my job as a state trooper, but for three years worked in the Continental Basketball Association. In 1987 they offered me a full-time position with the NBA and I took it.
SEABROOK: And how does the pressure of your work now compare to the work you did as a trooper?
Mr. DELANEY: The pressure before was a lot more intense.
SEABROOK: I don't know. I might throw up if Shaquille O'Neal screamed in my face.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DELANEY: Yeah, I understand when people say that. But also that's my job. We all do things in life that we're good at. And one of the things that I'm good at is refereeing basketball. So it's a comfortableness that goes with being out on that court.
SEABROOK: Bob Delaney is a referee in the NBA and he's the author of the new book "Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob." He joined me from the Audioworks Studios in New Orleans. Thanks very much.
Mr. DELANEY: Thank you.
SEABROOK: You can read an excerpt about how Bob Delaney began his dangerous assignment infiltrating the mob at NPR.org/books.
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