By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Whether or not these allegations by former referee Tim Donaghy about game-fixing are true, the NBA is facing an enormous issue. Commissioner David Stern can rail all he wants at his accuser, a convicted felon, and a cynical news media. But it's indisputable, whether you believe Donaghy, that the league's credibility is now at the center of public debate. And that is a much more damaging problem, potentially, than the NFL has had with Spygate.
One complex, multifaceted topic dominated the national sports discussion Wednesday, and it wasn't Celtics vs. Lakers in the NBA Finals. It was Refgate. It was Donaghy's public allegation that the league and its referees conspired to favor the Los Angeles Lakers at the expense of the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 Western Conference finals. It was Donaghy crashing the NBA's biggest celebration in 10 years. It was Stern's stern reaction to Donaghy. And it was the notion that the NBA perhaps ought to stop assailing the messenger and conduct some serious self-examination, sooner rather than later.
It's a good thing for the NBA that the Lakers and Kings both play in the state of California; that will presumably preclude one of the state's many elected officials from calling for a congressional inquiry since the team that benefited from the horrendous officiating six years ago lives here, as well as the aggrieved party. Then again, perhaps what the league needs is for someone to take an Arlen Specter level of interest and demand a fuller inquiry into this mess.
As obsessively as Spygate was covered by the media, it was still a story of one team trying to get a competitive advantage. It was isolated and more than a little vague. People are still debating how much benefit the spying team could derive. But a problem with referees, even if more perceived than real, affects the entire league and the presumed legitimacy of the competition. There's nothing fuzzy with tampering with the results. And because this notion of conspiring to arrange the outcome didn't start with Donaghy, but is certainly seen as fair game because of his allegations, we're way past the point, whether Stern wants to admit it, where reminding the public that Donaghy is a sleazebag and a felon addresses the critical issue.
Stern told a handful of reporters before Game 3 of the NBA Finals that he's aware of the perception problem and will address it later.
That's not good enough. It needs to be addressed now. Stern needs to empower an independent panel to investigate referees and their relationship with the league in much the same way Major League Baseball conducted an independent investigation into steroid use. Stern told us the U.S. Attorney's office and the FBI had thoroughly investigated all of Donaghy's claims. Yet, Bob Delaney, one of the three officials who worked the infamous Lakers-Kings Game 6 in 2002, told ESPN he had not been questioned. So, how thorough could the investigation have been? Did somebody forget? Was it a whitewash? Was Dick Bavetta, who also worked that game, questioned? Was Ted Bernhardt, the third official, questioned?
Not many people are marching in lock step with Stern's plea to simply boo Donaghy and get on with the Finals. People employed by his own league's member clubs aren't buying that. Stern fined then-Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy an unheard-of sum of $100,000 for saying he was told by a league executive that Yao Ming had been targeted to be called for a certain kind of foul. Now, Donaghy's claims support Van Gundy's assertion. Maybe Stern will refund Van Gundy's 100 grand, maybe not.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has for years been calling for a complete overhaul and independent monitoring of the league's officials. Phil Jackson is quoted by various news organizations as saying he and many of the coaches also want a separation of referees and the league. He was quoted saying that referees should be under a separate entity than the NBA entirely. "It seems to be more consistent with what we want to have happen to keep it from being influenced," Jackson said.
On the other hand, coaches aren't without blame in the larger perception of officials being handled by the league and its television partners to guarantee the most attractive matchups. Jackson and Pat Riley, above all others, have raised to an art form the off-day bashing of referees and the fouls called the previous game (if they've lost that game) since the late 1980s. The two have won 14 of the NBA's last 25 league championships and fans have taken their cue from them as much if not more than columnists or talk-show hosts that Stern would like to dump the entire mess on.
Most of us, beyond some flippant mention of conspiracies, have never bought into the notion of the league arranging results. How, at a time when nobody can keep anything secret, would that not have been discovered years ago, even if by accident? I covered the 2002 Kings-Lakers game and found the officiating that night to be offensively bad. But the three referees in question have been too good over too long a period of time for me to buy that they conspired without Donaghy providing some tangible proof to such an end. Did they receive money, and if so, from whom? If they were simply "company men" as suggested, then to whom were they so frighteningly loyal?
Of course, Donaghy and his lawyers know Stern has no such proof. But one of Stern's biggest problems, as he tries to convince the general public that everything in his league is fine, is that he can't prove there wasn't conspiracy to fix. Thing is, we know Donaghy's a cheat; his credibility really isn't ultimately at issue here. The NBA's is. What is David Stern going to do to convince the ticket-buying, shoe-purchasing, soda-guzzling patrons of his league and its sponsors that the results of his league's competition are beyond reproach? A growing cynicism, even among people who like the product and call themselves basketball fans, will do the league great harm if the commissioner doesn't move quickly and decisively.