Sources tell SI that the federal government, which has been investigating NBA officials since 1994 for tax fraud, is poised to indict as many as seven referees next month, while 15 more remain under investigation. The refs allegedly downgraded airline tickets supplied by the league from first class to coach, pocketed the difference and failed to report that cash as income—the same practice that resulted in the indictment last year of four other veteran officials. At least three referees who are under investigation but have not yet been charged are receiving psychiatric counseling, according to sources. "We're all a bunch of basket cases," says one veteran who worked deep into the playoffs last season and expects to be indicted.
The referees' anxiety is understandable: According to the collective bargaining agreement between the their union and the NBA, any official convicted of a felony must resign. Three of those indicted in 1997—Hank Armstrong, Jess Kersey and George Toliver—avoided incarceration by pleading guilty to filing false income-tax returns but lost their jobs. The fourth, Mike Mathis, has not yet pleaded and is facing four charges of filing false tax returns and one charge of obstructing Internal Revenue Service laws. He has a March 9 trial date in Cincinnati. "It's been rough," says Mathis, 55, who has been suspended by the league since last year and has already spent close to $80,000 in legal fees. "It's killing me to watch all these games and not be on the floor, and to not know what my future is."
Commissioner David Stern remains tight-lipped about the federal investigation, except for saying that the referees who pleaded guilty last year are not necessarily barred from the NBA for life. "No one has called this a death sentence," Stern says. "We have refused to say this is a permanent ban." The league has continued to pay Mathis during his suspension and has indicated it will do the same for any subsequent referees who are indicted. It has also granted severance pay to both Toliver and Armstrong even though each was a nine-year veteran at the time of his indictment, one year short of the time required to qualify.
Sources confirmed that Mathis's attorneys met with league officials last Friday in hopes of gaining some assurance of future employment. But, the sources say, the NBA's legal team would not offer any guarantees. As part of their plea agreement, Armstrong, Kersey and Toliver will be called as government witnesses in the Mathis trial and will have no choice but to give testimony that could be detrimental to their friend and former colleague. On Jan. 12, the NBA's supervisor of officials, Darrell Garretson, appeared before a grand jury investigating other referees. "If we lost anyone [else], obviously it would cause concern," Garretson says.
A sampling of coaches and general managers told SI that the officiating has been satisfactory this season. But most of those asked agreed that the removal of seven more veteran refs would be disastrous. "If they go down," says one Eastern Conference coach, "we go down with them."
Picking the Stars
The fans' choices to start in the All-Star Game will be announced on Sunday. As an alternative to that popularity contest, SI offers its All-Star picks (missing games due to injury lessened a player's chances of making the cut):
Eastern Conference. Starting lineup: Grant Hill, Pistons, and Shawn Kemp, Cavaliers (forwards); Dikembe Mutombo, Hawks (center); Michael Jordan, Bulls, and Tim Hardaway, Heat (guards).
Reserves: Glen Rice, Hornets, and Dennis Rodman, Bulls (forwards); Rik Smits, Pacers (center); Rod Strickland, Wizards, and Steve Smith, Hawks (guards).
Wild-card entries: Antoine Walker, Celtics (forward); Reggie Miller, Pacers (guard).