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2020 Theodore Roosevelt Award: Bob Delaney

Former undercover trooper-turned-NBA referee devotes life to helping others facing post-traumatic stress

Bob Delaney stood in front of an attentive crowd at the Jersey City Police Academy, offering a presentation he’d given many times before. Everyone wanted to hear the story of the trooper who was a key player in Project Alpha, a three-year investigation that sent him deep undercover with the pseudonym Bobby Covert to cozy up to Mafia families and learn firsthand how organized crime infiltrated legitimate businesses in New Jersey.

The evidence he gathered during the deep undercover operation, along with his testimony in front of the U.S. Senate, led to the arrest of more than 30 mafiosos. Delaney emerged from the ordeal unharmed — or so it seemed. As Delaney relayed the success story to that rapt audience of law enforcement hopefuls, one man in attendance saw pain where the rest of the room saw triumph. After the presentation, Henry Campbell pulled Delaney aside. Campbell, long ago Delaney’s college psychology professor, had listened intently as his former student detailed his time undercover — what it was like to live in fear of his cover being blown, to wear a wire that, if discovered, would cost him his life, and to eventually have to turn in men who had become friends.

“Bobby,” Campbell told Delaney, “what you’re going through is post-traumatic stress.”

“Get the hell out here, Hank,” Delaney snapped back.

As the conversation wore on, though, Delaney relented. He began to articulate how he had been affected by the unyielding stress, and the more he shared his feelings, the better he felt. That intimate conversation provided a new perspective on the story he told himself and others about a harrowing assignment, a realization that would propel him to a lifetime of supporting post-trauma survivors throughout his accomplished career as a decorated New Jersey state trooper and respected NBA referee and executive.

A Covert Operation

Delaney played two seasons under Larry Schiner at Jersey City State College (now New Jersey City University), serving primarily as the Gothic Knights’ sixth man. His teammates admired his leadership and elected him captain for the 1971-72 season. “He was an outstanding player and team leader in every respect,” Schiner says.

Bob Delaney

Further, the lessons basketball taught him about leadership, disappointment and humility were critical to Delaney’s success after he stepped away from the game during his junior year to join the New Jersey State Police. (Delaney eventually would return to New Jersey City University to finish his coursework and graduate in 1985 with a degree in criminology and go on to earn his master’s in leadership at Saint Mary’s College of California.) The state police were offering the trooper entry exam in 1972, which they hadn’t done in recent years, and Delaney knew he couldn’t miss the rare opportunity. His father was a police lieutenant for the force, and Delaney yearned to serve his community, too.

After a year of service as a uniformed trooper, Delaney received a note instructing him to contact Lt. Jack Liddy, who was assigned to the criminal investigation section of the organized crime bureau. Worried he was in trouble, the young officer was stunned when the lieutenant asked him if he would be interested in undercover work.

Thrilled to get a coveted undercover gig so early in his career, Delaney accepted. Later, the rookie trooper learned that “Project Alpha” was a joint operation between the New Jersey State Police and the FBI. The mission: Become “Bobby Covert,” the president of Alamo Trucking on the New Jersey waterfront. Delaney was confident he would be able to play the part.

He was sworn to strict confidentiality, informed sternly by Liddy that if he spoke to anyone about their conversation, he would be pulled from the operation. As part of the narrative necessary to protect his cover, Delaney resigned from the state police, and rumors began to swirl about him, a cop gone bad. His former partner, Bobby Scott, heard that Delaney had been arrested for murder in Miami. His family’s reputation was tarnished in the state police community. However, living in secrecy and perceived disgrace seemed a small price to pay for the undercover assignment.

An assignment that Delaney was told would last six months evolved into three years inhabiting someone else’s skin. Armed only with a wire, he became deeply enmeshed in the Bruno and Genovese crime families. Bobby Covert earned the trust of the mobsters, buying and selling stolen merchandise to help them turn a profit. His business eventually became the “house trucker” for the Genovese seafood business. The long days were taxing, as Delaney worked tirelessly to run the Alamo Trucking front while also knowing that one misstep could blow his cover and cost him his life. He was dealing every day with “capable” guys, meaning men capable of putting a bullet his head if he were to slip up.

Delaney outsmarted those criminals until his gig as Bobby Covert came to an end in 1977. The hundreds of hours of taped conversations memorialized by his wire were compelling evidence that federal prosecutors leaned on to convict over 30 Mafia members. Although the sting operation was a monumental success for law enforcement, Delaney’s satisfaction was muted by feelings that he had betrayed his friends. “I thought it was going to be the greatest day of my life, but it turned out to be one of the worst,” Delaney remembers. “What I felt like was going to be the end of the job was just the beginning.”

Delaney’s courageous covert work led to nearly 100 spinoff investigations in subsequent years, and he testified at Senate hearings on organized crime in 1981. Through those successes, though, Delaney’s internal turmoil continued to brew because he couldn’t share his feelings of hypocrisy with other troopers or FBI agents, fearing that they would think he had gone bad like the persona he had long inhabited. So, he kept it inside. “It’s an unwritten rule on the schoolyard that you don’t tell on your friends,” Delaney says. “As Bob Delaney, I was a state trooper. But as Bobby Covert, I was friends with these guys.”

About a week after the raid, Delaney was called into division headquarters, where Maj. Bill Baum played wiretap audio from a Genovese social hangout in Hoboken: “They were talking about whacking me,” Delaney recalls. “Killing me.”

Hearing that recording caused Delaney to retreat further into himself, burying his burgeoning fear. “I wouldn’t tell anybody I was afraid and didn’t show it on the outside,” he says. “I wanted to act like the tough guy they were building me up to be.”

Regaining an Identity

Soon, basketball became Delaney’s form of therapy. Although his playing days were well behind him, he turned to officiating. Leaning on his experience as a former college player, Delaney transitioned from undercover life to refereeing high school basketball games. He worked his way through lower-tier professional ranks, eventually landing a job working NBA games in 1987.

“He always had great basketball intuition, this ability to understand aspects of the game immediately,” Schiner says of his former player.

Living under constant pressure and the feeling of always being watched served him well in the NBA. Where others may have buckled under the public scrutiny, Delaney did not cower when superstars like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant admonished him. His steady demeanor and understanding of the game helped elevate him as one of the NBA’s highest-rated crew chiefs in his esteemed 25-year professional officiating career.

After hanging up his whistle, Delaney moved into a front office role at the NBA in 2012 as a referee development advisor and later became the vice president of referee operations and director of officials.

Amid those high-profile professional successes, Delaney wanted to use his platform to help others dealing with comparable post-traumatic experiences. He has woven mental health advocacy into every facet of his career and urges people who have experienced trauma to seek out peers who have had similar experiences.

Delaney did so through his friendship with Joe Pistone, the famous undercover agent known as Donnie Brasco who had infiltrated major New York Mafia families during the same time Delaney was undercover. The two met and discovered they had crossed paths on their respective assignments, both unaware that the other was undercover. “The first time I spoke with him, looked in his eyes, and read his body language, I knew he got what I was going through because he lived a similar life,” Delaney says.

Through his own experience, Delaney became a proponent of a less clinical approach to mental health issues, focusing on education and awareness of post-traumatic stress. Once he was able to acknowledge his own traumas and their consequences, his speaking engagements featured a new, more emotionally resonant, version of his story; Delaney began to speak with police officers about the job’s psychological toll. His calling to protect and serve had taken on a new meaning. He became a student of post-trauma, meeting with psychologists and psychiatrists and studying the subject to become a better resource. “I refer to traumatic experiences as shadows,” he says. “But never fear the shadows, because if there’s a shadow, there’s a light nearby. It’s our responsibility to ourselves and each other to get to that light.”

Delaney’s mission to help others find that light grew during his time at the NBA. Dating back to his time as an official, Delaney has served as an NBA Cares Ambassador, promoting the league’s partnership with the United States military, Hoops for Troops and Mind Health programs. Through those programs, Delaney has been embedded with U.S. troops and NATO forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Europe and Canada and at military posts across the United States.

“He’s a guy who exudes positivity and passion, and when it’s channeled to help other people, it has an extraordinary impact,” says Kathy Behrens, NBA president of social responsibility and player programs. “We have programs in place that are the direct result of Bob being open about the stress he was under, both as an undercover officer and a referee.”

Through his work as an NBA Cares Ambassador, Delaney met retired Air Force Reserve Maj. Bonnie Carroll, the widow of an Army general who founded the Tragedy and Assistance Program for Survivors, an international program that provides comfort and care for over 90,000 families who are grieving the death of military loved ones. Carroll believed Delaney’s personal story would resonate with the families in her program, where peer-to-peer healing is the backbone of its mission. Delaney now sits on the TAPS Advisory Board, and he’s a regular speaker at the organization’s events, but Carroll emphasizes that he has had a more profound impact on a smaller scale. “Whether it’s soldiers who have experienced post-traumatic stress or families who are grieving the loss of a loved one, he has infused them with information, with hope, with opportunity to see the world in a different way,” she says. “He’s normalizing and validating their post-traumatic stress experiences, as only he could — because he lived it.”

For his efforts, President Barack Obama conferred upon Delaney the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2010. Delaney has twice been honored with The Meritorious Public Service Medal by the Army, one of the highest awards given to a private citizen. Plus, he was the 2014 recipient of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Mannie Jackson Human Spirit Award and was the 2016 NBA League Operations Humanitarian of the Year. “He is not looking for recognition, although he gets a lot of it,” Behrens, of the NBA, says. “He’s really looking to make a difference and make an impact.”

Since August 2018, Delaney has served as special advisor for officiating development and performance for the Southeastern Conference. Soon after he took the position, LSU men’s basketball player Wayde Sims was killed in a shooting. Delaney stepped in to help counsel the team, using similar techniques he has implemented in law enforcement and military grief counseling. In instances like those, for as long as Delaney can remember, he leaves those he encounters with a simple yet meaningful message. He ends every text, email, phone call, interview, presentation and conversation with a short message: Stay safe.

“Stay safe means if I can ever be of help, reach out,” he says. “Stay safe means I care about you.”

Bob Delaney is the 2020 recipient of the NCAA’s highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award. The award, which is given annually to an individual who exemplifies the ideals of college sports, is named after the former president whose concern for the conduct of college athletics led to the formation of the NCAA in 1906. Delaney will be recognized Wednesday, Jan. 22, during the NCAA Honors Celebration in Anaheim, California.