More fuel for the fire: The NBA's perception problem keeps growing
It's a lot harder to laugh at the NBA conspiracy theorists today, isn't it?
When they tell you that the 1985 draft lottery was rigged to make sure Patrick Ewing would be a Knick, they don't sound quite so paranoid or delusional anymore.
If they lay out their theory that Michael Jordan's first retirement was really a hush-hush suspension for gambling, you don't feel quite as confident in brushing them off.
And if they tell you Game 2 of this year's Finals, when the Celtics shot 38 free throws to the Lakers' 10, smells fishy, well, can you really argue?
That's what Tim Donaghy, the rogue referee who is fast becoming commissioner David Stern's worst nightmare, has brought about with his stunning accusations of biased officiating, fixed playoff games and other improprieties. He has put it all in play -- all the suspicions, all the skepticism, all the whispers that something about the NBA just doesn't feel completely on the up-and-up.
We knew that Donaghy himself had bet on games and accepted cash for inside information to gamblers, crimes for which he has been convicted and faces a possible 33 months in prison. But in a letter filed by his lawyer to the sentencing court Tuesday, Donaghy alleges he was far from the only culprit, that the dishonesty and deception and rigging of outcomes in the NBA reached as far up as the league's executive offices.
The veracity of Donaghy's claims, in which he named no names, is very much up for debate. As Stern pointed out Tuesday, these are the allegations of an admitted felon, and it's easy to attack his credibility. Also, although the specific allegations came to light Tuesday, Donaghy originally shared the information with the authorities months ago, yet he remains the only NBA official or executive charged with any wrongdoing. In short, the possibility exists that the accusations are as baseless as Stern says they are.
But ... there is that "but," isn't there? There is so much smoke that maybe Donaghy is finally exposing the fire. Remember how the Miami Heat overcame a 2-0 Finals deficit in 2006 when Dwyane Wade suddenly began getting every call against the Dallas Mavericks? How about the end of Game 4 of the Lakers-Spurs series this year, when Brent Barry didn't get an obvious foul call just before the buzzer that might have given San Antonio life? Suddenly, crucial, controversial calls or non-calls all seem worthy of another look with a more cynical eye.
Much of what Donaghy alleges seems plausible enough. The charges, if true, would explain a great deal. He told authorities that in 2002 two referees conspired in a playoff series to ensure the series would reach a seventh game. The only series that went seven games that year was the Western Conference finals between the Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers, in which the Lakers shot a whopping 27 free throws in the fourth quarter of Game 6, helping them to avoid elimination in Los Angeles. They eventually won Game 7 in Sacramento as well.
Anyone who watched that game remembers how strangely lopsided the officiating seemed, particularly in the fourth quarter. Among the egregiously blown calls was a blatant elbow by Kobe Bryant against the Kings' Mike Bibby that somehow escaped detection. It was a game that immediately aroused the suspicion of conspiracy theorists and the suspicion of Kings fans, but it was eventually chalked up as another example of the unpredictable nature of officiating rather than any intentional effort to control the outcome. Now, we're not so sure.
But Donaghy doesn't stop there. He also claims that referees were instructed by league executives to protect star players from technical fouls and ejections in order to keep television ratings up, and that when a star player was ejected from a 2000 playoff game, an official was privately reprimanded by the league.
It would be easier to chalk up all of this as the groundless allegations of a desperate man if it didn't play into so many of the suspicions about the league that have existed for years but have been dismissed by the NBA as a minor annoyance instead of a serious issue to address. About two years ago, before the Donaghy scandal came to light, I sat with Stern in a conference room in the NBA offices in New York as he laughed off the idea that the league had a reputation for questionable officiating. He said there were no referees in any sport that were scrutinized more closely than NBA officials, and that he had no doubts about their honesty.
Stern can't be laughing now. Even if Donaghy's claims aren't true, league executives have to recognize that the NBA has given fans reason to believe that his claims are, partly because of the league's cavalier attitude toward the inconsistencies in the way games are called. Players, coaches, media and fans have all questioned NBA officiating at one time or another, and the league would be wise to finally take those questions seriously.
A good place to start would be with making the process more transparent, including having referees give more interviews to explain controversial calls. The league office should also publicly instruct the referees that they are to call the game without giving special treatment to stars, and without considering the time or score. No more swallowing the whistles at the end of close games. There's not much Stern and his associates can do to change what happened in the past, but they can address the future.
Stern can shout from the top of the Manhattan skyscraper that houses the league's headquarters that none of Donaghy's allegations are true, but the real problem for the NBA is that hardly anyone would be surprised if they were.