Back in the 1990’s when we were innocent enough to believe that the government didn’t keep aliens on ice at Area 51 or that the military did not create the AIDS virus to kill black people, there were whispers of dark conspiracies surrounding the most popular professional game on the planet – the National Basketball Association. There were intimations from crazed fans and journalists hungry for controversy that referees, in cahoots with the league office, were fixing the outcomes of games in the playoffs so that the NBA could realize the best matchups that would guarantee the most revenue.
There were also charges that the zebras would routinely work to extend playoff series so that the most revenue could be wrung from the match-ups.
It was also alleged back then that star players got special treatment from the refs regarding a lack of technical fouls ( allowing them to get away with thuggery) and, in order to keep them in the games, not calling personal fouls on them.
This was the decade that saw the end of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird era and the beginning of the Chicago Bulls dynastic run of 6 NBA championships in 8 years. Led by arguably the greatest basketball player in history, Michael Jordan, the Bulls slugged it out early in the decade with first the Detroit Pistons and then, their arch nemesis the New York Knicks.
Those Bulls-Knicks series’ were bloody, take no prisoners affairs that have now retreated into legend. But at the time, it seemed that each game witnessed some of the strangest foul calls in the history of the NBA.
Rebounding was the key for both teams and the battle under the boards was incredible; pushing, shoving, elbows to the face, holding uniforms – anything to gain an advantage in positioning in order to grab the rebound. This, in and of itself was not unusual. In playoff refereeing, it was generally recognized that the players would be allowed a little more leeway than was vouchsafed during the regular season.
But the scrum under the boards wasn’t the problem. It was the phantom fouls being called by referees on defenders guarding shooters that raised eyebrows. Little or no contact with the shooter would draw a whistle and send the player to the free throw line. I can recall several games in this series where players and coaches were beside themselves as a result of a foul called for some ticky tacky contact or worse, no contact at all.
Sports talk radio (just coming into its own back then) was hot with callers claiming conspiracy. The league wanted the series to go on, was the charge. The refs were in the bag, whispered the paranoid.
NBA referees, influenced by cozy relationships with league officials, rigged a 2002 playoff series to force it to a revenue-boosting seven games, a former referee at the center of a gambling scandal alleged Tuesday.
Without identifying anyone or naming teams, Tim Donaghy also claimed the NBA routinely encouraged refs to ring up bogus fouls to manipulate results but discouraged them from calling technical fouls on star players to keep them in games and protect ticket sales and television ratings.
Donaghy is a former ref convicted of manipulating games on which he bet. He also took money from gamblers to try and fix the point spread on games, receiving $5,000 for every game in which he was successful. At the time the scandal broke, I wondered if he was the only ref involved:
The NBA is in deep trouble. Donaghy, who will turn himself in this week, is said to have agreed to cooperate with the FBI in their investigation. If it is revealed that there are indeed other officials involved in this scandal, it could very well destroy the league. As it is now, fans will be watching NBA games with extra care next year and wondering.
And now, in the midst of the most watched NBA Finals in years, Donaghy apparently confirms all the nasty rumors and conspiracies that have been swirling around the league for more than a decade.
Or is his story just too perfect, too pat?
In one of several allegations of corrupt refereeing, Donaghy said he learned in May 2002 that two referees known as “company men” were working a best-of-seven series in which “Team 5” was leading 3-2. In the sixth game, he alleged the referees purposely ignored personal fouls and called “made-up fouls on Team 5 in order to give additional free throw opportunities for Team 6.”
“Team 6” won the game and came back to win the series, the letter said.
Only the Los Angeles Lakers-Sacramento Kings series went to seven games during the 2002 playoffs. And the Lakers went on to win the championship.
At the time, consumer advocate Ralph Nader and the League of Fans, a sports industry watchdog group, sent a letter to Stern complaining about the officiating in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.
The Lakers, who beat Sacramento 106-102 in that game in Los Angeles, shot 27 free throws in the final quarter and scored 16 of their last 18 points at the line.
The letter also alleged manipulation during a 2005 playoff series.
“Team 3 lost the first two games in the series and Team 3’s owner complained to NBA officials,” the letter said. “Team 3’s owner alleged that referees were letting a Team 4 player get away with illegal screens. NBA Executive Y told Referee Supervisor Z that the referees for that game were to enforce the screening rules strictly against that Team 4 player. ... The referees followed the league’s instructions and Team 3 came back from behind to win the series. The NBA benefited from this because it prolonged the series, resulting in more tickets sold and more televised games.”
In that same series, the letter says “Team 3” lost the first two games of the series and that team owner complained to NBA officials. The letter also alleges that the opposing team’s coach later was fined $100,000 after revealing an NBA official informed him of the behind-the-scenes instructions.
That would correspond with the 2005 first-round playoff series between the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks, in which Mark Cuban complained to officials and Jeff Van Gundy was fined.
This “evidence” is not as compelling as one might think. It could very well be that Donaghy was simply “confirming” what was believed by some observers in two very high profile incidents where such referee malfeasance was suspected. He has no physical proof that the league ordered the refs to rig the games. Only the word, as the league points out, of a man desperate to have his sentence reduced:
He’s a singing, cooperating witness who is trying to get as light a sentence as he can,” Stern said. “He turned on basically all of his colleagues in an attempt to demonstrate that he is not the only one who engaged in criminal activity. The U.S. attorney’s office, the FBI, have fully investigated it, and Mr. Donaghy is the only one who is guilty of a crime. And he will be sentenced for that crime regardless of the desperate attempts to implicate as many people as he can.”
All true, except…
Except the US attorney and the FBI may not have been informed of this additional information about NBA refs in a conspiracy with the league office to rig games because the letter containing the damning charges wasn’t filed until last Monday. The feds have investigated Donaghy and determined that no other refs or league officials were involved in his gambling schemes. But have they investigated these other charges?
Stern’s statement is unclear on this matter. However, nothing changes the fact that Donaghy’s letter was self-serving and totally void of proof. All we have is the word of a convicted gambler that conspiracy theories that have been the staple of sports talk radio for more than a decade may actually be true – not a lot to hang your hat on for most observers although I’m sure the lines will be hot with “I told you so’s” from the conspiracy promoters at the big sports talk radio stations today.
If the charges have not been investigated, it is paramount that the prosecutor and FBI do so. If the specific allegations have been looked at and found to be baseless, the league should make that plain to the public. As it stands now, David Stern’s statement is ambiguous about these additional charges.
Donaghy put the pro game under a cloud with his gambling. His shocking allegations could bring the NBA crashing down – if they were true. But even if they haven’t been investigated, Donaghy’s lack of proof in making these spectacular charges only reinforces the idea that he is just another con looking for a break from prosecutors.