Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tim Donaghy Did Not Act Alone

Let me make a few predictions:

  1. Tim Donaghy did not act alone. It is nearly impossible for one ref to destroy the flow of a game.
  2. Many big games have been manipulated.
  3. The NBA is in huge trouble.
When this first happened, I told my husband that this guy was not alone. No. Way. Impossible. That games could be rigged or manipulated by refs didn't surprise me at all. So many games have seemed intentionally blown by refs that it was just a finally, there's some proof.

I had always assumed that the conspiracy came from Commissioner David Stern with advice to refs like "keep it close" or "be kind to the home team in the last few minutes". Wink. Wink. The consistently crappy calls were so infuriating, the players lackadaisically phoning it in so pathetic, I quit watching the NBA even though I love basketball. But there's no teams today like the old LA Lakers or Detroit Pistons or Boston Celtics or the Bulls before Jordan's and Pippen's heads expanded to fill every stadium they entered.

So there's dirty refs. The problem with this is: no one is surprised. No one. Bill Simmons at ESPN is more charitable towards Stern that I feel. I mean come on! Any lover of basketball saw the officiating mess that happened at the end of nearly every single end of season game. The players goof off 'til the fourth quarter. The refs stand taller and interfere to get the outcome they want. And the commissioner doesn't notice this? Simmons does have this right:
So that's one problem. The second problem is more complex. When news of the scandal broke on Friday, as J.A. Adande pointed out in his column that day, every diehard NBA fan had the same reaction. They weren't thinking, "I can't believe it!" or "Oh my God, how could this happen?" They were thinking, "Which one was it?" This was like finding out that your grandfather who smoked three packs a day for 50 years just came down with lung cancer. It was sad but inevitable. It was only a matter of time. These guys never made enough money (as we learned from the airplane ticket scandal) and struggled at their jobs consistently enough that there was no way to tell the difference between blowing a call and intentionally blowing a call.

More than any other professional league, an NBA referee can directly affect the outcome of every game. We've seen it happen time and time again, only we always assumed that the refs in question were working for the best interests of the league, that they were following orders like Luca Brasi (even if there was no definitive proof) -- like the guys who worked Game 6 of the Kings-Lakers series in 2002, or Game 7 of the Suns-Sonics series in 1993, or the infamous Hubert Davis Game in 1994. After Dwyane Wade and Miami received some Vince McMahon-level assistance in Games 3 and 4 of the 2006 Finals, I wrote an angry column about the "officiating crisis" (my words) that prompted Mavs owner Mark Cuban (tired of being fined) to post the link on his blog along with the sentence, "I never have to say a word again." After Dallas squandered that series, Cuban was so traumatized by the officiating that he nearly sold the Mavericks before family and friends talked him out of it.

For anyone who loves the NBA, the officiating has always been the proverbial "elephant in the room." No league has endured more jokes along the lines of "I'm not sure where the NBA ends and the WWE begins." Whether it's because of bad luck, poor training, measly pay or the thanklessness of the profession itself -- maybe it's all of those things -- the NBA employs a handful of good referees and an astonishing number of bad ones. In the playoffs, there never seems to be enough quality officials to go around. If that wasn't bad enough, the league displayed a nasty "habit" (note: I'm using quotation marks because you could never prove anything more than a series of coincidences) of assigning better referees if they needed road teams to prevail (like a marquee team trailing 2-1 and playing Game 4 on the road) and weaker referees if they needed home teams to prevail (because weak referees are more likely to have their calls prejudiced by a raucous home crowd). This "habit" was miraculously cured this past spring, one year after the fallout of the 2006 Finals, when the officiating assignments became noticeably more haphazard and we ended up with just one Game 7 in four rounds. Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe not.

And that's before factoring in the public's perception (well-earned, by the way) that superstars receive more favorable calls than non-superstars. It's like Chris Rock's bit about dad getting the biggest chicken leg at the dinner table -- once you reach a certain level in the NBA, the whistles will come. This perpetual leeway allows gifted athletes like Wade, Gilbert Arenas and LeBron James to drive recklessly into traffic in crunch time, knowing they can either score or draw a foul. (Even when Michael Jordan won the '98 Finals on what everyone believed was his final shot ever, he famously shoved Utah's Bryon Russell to the ground before launching that jumper. No whistle.) If anything, LeBron's pre-2007 game depended on this leeway so much that he was completely ineffective in the 2006 World Championships; he kept bowling his way into the paint and waiting for calls that never came. The international refs almost seemed amused by him. The NBA refs would have been bailing him out.

So when news of the Donaghy scandal broke, everyone's reaction was the same: "Which one?"

Which one? Ha! The real question is "Which ones?" Mr. Simmon's optimism amuses me. No, for all Donaghy's evil scheming, he didn't scheme alone. He had help.

The NBA won't ever be the same. Hopefully, that will be a good thing. Eventually.

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