No professional sport in America has the drama with officiating that professional basketball does. And the drama went to the extreme Tuesday with allegations by convicted felon Tim Donaghy, a former NBA referee, that his colleagues conspired to determine the outcome of games. Specifically, Donaghy alleges the league, through its on-court referees, sought to extend the 2002 Western Conference finals between the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers, as to give an advantage to the much more nationally popular Lakers.
That game was played six years ago here at Staples Center, where ironically, the current Lakers were trying to regroup Tuesday night after being on the wrong end of a 38-10 foul shooting disadvantage in Game 2 of these NBA Finals. The Lakers won Game 3, 87-81, and attempted 34 free throws to the Celtics' 22.
Commissioner David Stern, asked about those allegations before Game 3, said they had already been investigated by the U.S. Attorney and FBI and called them "baseless." Stern called Donaghy a "convicted felon" or "admitted felon" a half-dozen times in a five-minute stretch and added: "He's dancing as fast as he can. . . . He's a singing, cooperating witness who's trying to get as light a sentence as he can." Stern assailed Donaghy for "turning on all his colleagues when Mr. Donaghy is the only one guilty of a crime."
Stern said Donaghy and his attorney specifically picked this time, during the NBA's showcase event, to make public their conversations with federal investigators. And for many who follow basketball this issue will come down to whom one chooses to believe, a referee who has admitted to betraying the game and breaking the law, or the commissioner of a league thought by many to prefer certain teams based on national popularity and television ratings.
Stern told a small group of reporters Tuesday night that his only new concern is screaming headlines and sensational conversation about Donaghy, but surely Stern has to know the basketball public is savvy enough to be aware of the decades-old notion that the league and its television partners, now ABC/ESPN and TNT, conspire however subtly to sway things in their favor.
While Stern can frame this, disingenuously, as a media issue, his own league's employees fan the flames. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who along with rival coach Pat Riley has driven referee-related conversation on off-days during the playoffs for 20 years, was louder than any talk-show host or columnist when he questioned the officials for awarding the Celtics 38 foul shots to his team's 10 Sunday night in Boston.
And Jackson's comments before Game 3, when he learned of the latest from Donaghy, didn't help the image of referees unduly influencing games. Most unaffiliated observers of the now-infamous Kings-Lakers Game 6 here in 2002 thought the Lakers benefited from blatantly one-sided officiating that allowed them to advance to and win a Game 7, then the NBA championship.
Asked about this, Jackson said: "Was that after the fifth game after we had the game stolen away from us after a bad call out of bounds and gave the ball back to Sacramento and they made a three-point shot? There's a lot of things going on in these games and they're suspicious, but I don't want to throw it back to there."
Stolen? Suspicious? Even if Jackson meant nothing, it's exactly the kind of talk that is ever-present in NBA circles, even from former coaches and both former and current players. It's nothing for a player to say to a reporter, "You know the league needs a Game 6 in this series, so we never had a chance tonight." It's something I've never heard in 28 years of covering Major League Baseball or the NFL. But it's a constant part of the NBA, to the point that players inquire all the time about which officials are working certain games.
Players and coaches often have strong feelings on which referees are more likely to be influenced by the home crowd and which dare to be booed by making tough calls on the road. Much of it can be supported anecdotally, and it's all been part of the NBA culture for at least the last 40 years.
But most of us covering the action never assigned a motive or agenda to what was called on the court. I know a great many NBA officials, several socially, and have never thought they were part of anything illegal, never believed for one minute they were part of any conspiracy or the attempt to orchestrate the outcome of games, which would in my mind reduce elite competition to exhibition, like pro wrestling.