NBA Suffers Crisis of Confidence

tim donaghy - nba referee
Most NBA fans have had their hunches about certain referees for some time, and one possible crooked cop among them opens up a Pandora's box to question an entire league's credibility. (AP)
By Mike Wise
Sunday, July 22, 2007

There are no warped, sore-loser fans in the NBA left. Those whiners who cried their team got jobbed by the referees? Today, they're all healthy skeptics.

No more dismissing the zealot in Sacramento, who claims his Kings were robbed against the Lakers in 2002. Or the guy with the contorted face in Salt Lake City, swearing for nine years that Bryon Russell drew an offensive foul against Michael Jordan that, if called, would have prevented the shot that sank Utah.

Even the Dallas Mavericks and their nails-on-a-chalkboard owner have a case. Maybe Dwyane Wade wasn't fouled every time a defender touched him in the 2006 NBA Finals. Maybe the Cuban Whistle Crisis had real merit.

Tim Donaghy has given every wronged fan, owner, coach and player reason to have his grievance aired. The 40-year-old referee, who is under FBI investigation for allegedly betting on games -- including ones in which he officiated -- is not just David Stern's nightmare come to life.

Donaghy is the smoking gun for every fan who ever wondered if the fix was in, if the outcomes of NBA games were ever decided by the sinister motives working to undermine the values and integrity of the game.

And it will not matter one bit to the NBA consumer if he acted alone. Most fans have had their hunches about certain referees for some time, and one possible crooked cop among them opens up a Pandora's box to question an entire league's credibility.

In a statement on Friday, Stern called Donaghy "an individual who has betrayed the most sacred trust in professional sports," which is about the strongest wording you can use against a man yet to be indicted or convicted.

No commissioner in major American sports has been more proactive in addressing his league's problems. But this isn't Latrell Sprewell choking his coach or a collective-bargaining showdown with his players. This isn't the Malice at the Palace (which, by the way, Donaghy refereed) or an image problem that can be airbrushed away by dress codes or a 30-second "NBA Cares" spot.

This is a crisis of confidence in the product. It will ultimately go down as the major stain of Stern's 20-plus-year stewardship, and how he deals with it and how the league rebounds will ultimately be how he is remembered.

Next to a betting scandal and the allegation that low-level mobsters got to one of his officials, transitioning from Bird and Magic to Jordan and beyond -- globalization, all the unprecedented network TV deals, everything -- will be in the fine print of Stern's last day on the job.

On Friday night, I e-mailed a player who once criticized Donaghy's work after a game and asked him what he thought. In his reply, Shaquille O'Neal wondered, "How many games did he throw that I played in?"

Donaghy actually refereed eight Miami and Portland games last season, the most he worked any teams' games. Let's examine one game Donaghy worked that might raise Shaq's suspicion.

On Feb. 26 at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks shot 39 free throws next to Miami's eight. The foul discrepancy was 25 to 14. Pat Riley and assistant coach Ron Rothstein were both assessed technical fouls and Miami had three other technicals for defensive three-second violations. O'Neal picked up five fouls and the Heat lost, 99-93. New York was favored by 4 1/2 points.

The result hardly jibes with Donaghy's record on a betting Web site, but now his entire career is up for debate. You see a box score like that, it makes you wonder. Already Donaghy has committed a most egregious crime. By association, he has cast aspersions on every NBA official he's ever worked with.

Of the three indelible images from the 2007 NBA postseason -- Golden State shocking Dallas, LeBron dropping 48 points on the Pistons in a seminal Game 5 and Steve Nash and the Suns getting hip-checked out of the playoffs by Robert Horry and the league's unforgiving leave-the-bench rule -- fans most remember the suspensions that cost Phoenix a shot at the title.

The league's decision played into all their long-held conspiracy theories. It conjured up the non-call against Jordan in Utah and the awful discrepancy in fouls that led the Kings to lose Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals against the Lakers.

Tim Donaghy is felt at the core of that conspiracy crowd. He ramps up the disenchantment of fans to a level David Stern and his league have never known, and it may be a long while before the NBA recovers from the damage.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company