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THE POSSIBILITY that games can be fixed is a shadow that hangs over basketball, largely because hoops is considered the sport most vulnerable to impropriety. A half dozen or so "mistakes" by one player—a walk, a bad pass, a three-second violation, all routine things that happen in the flow of the game—can easily transform a 10-point lead into a three-point victory, thus ensuring winnings to a gambler who took the four-point underdog.
But the shadow was always a faint one in the NBA. The pros were considered nearly untouchable by gamblers because players, even bench-sitters, make so much money that they had little incentive to cross the line. So when commissioner David Stern's greatest nightmare came to light last summer—the revelation that his league might've been tainted by a betting scandal—it was no surprise to those in the know that it was a referee who had been fingered.
After his July arrest Tim Donaghy, an NBA ref since 1994, told investigators that he had communicated information—primarily, who was refereeing what games and which officials were most likely to call more fouls and increase the game's point total—to gamblers. The NBA had turned its officiating crew into a mini-Brahmin caste, refusing to allow reporters access to them, hitting coaches and players who questioned referees' calls with heavy fines, never revealing how much a ref himself was docked for a screwup. "Our referees are the best in sports," Stern was fond of saying.
Maybe so. But Donaghy, who was widely disliked by his peers, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to transmit gambling information across state lines, as well as admitting that he took cash payoffs and bet on games he officiated. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 25 in federal court. (He faces a maximum of 25 years.) Which games he bet on and whether he ever made a call based on his wagering we still don't know. But by his actions Donaghy has told us that the game, even on the millionaire level, remains vulnerable.
Shoot First, Blog Later
WASHINGTON Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas never met a shot he didn't like or a distance from which he believed he was not accurate. Which helps explain how Arenas, who is at least two months away from returning to action after November surgery to repair a partial tear of his left meniscus, emerged as the most fascinating NBA personality of '07.
He made three game-winning shots last season and treated each as if it was routine. He weighed in on almost any topic in his Agent Zero: The Blog File on NBA.com. ("[Emeka] Okafor said he wants Dwight Howard's money.... I mean, you ain't Dwight Howard.") He is the subject of several other blogs, one called Gilbertology. He drew a reprimand from the NBA for announcing that he had bet a courtside fan $10 that he would make a game-winner. (He missed badly.) He took outlandish shots and exasperated coaches and teammates, yet in the process became one of pro sports' most lovable athletes.
6.2 NIELSEN RATING FOR THE 2007 FINALS, THE LOWEST IN LEAGUE HISTORY