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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tim Donaghy's Tales

I don't believe Tim Donaghy's assertion that NBA executives deliberately and maliciously altered the outcome of two playoff series; it strains credulity that such a large conspiracy could have taken place without already being exposed and it also strains credulity that the people who run the NBA would risk the credibility of a multibillion dollar enterprise for the sake of making a playoff series last longer or so that one team would beat another team. It is pretty obvious what is really going on here: the NBA asked the court to force Donaghy to pay the league $1 million in restitution, so he is trying to smear the league's name so that he will not have to pay the $1 million and in hopes that he will receive a lighter sentence for the crimes that he committed.

That said, it certainly looks foolish for the NBA to have made this restitution request: $1 million would hardly have a significant impact on the league's bottom line and Donaghy's retaliatory comments have certainly cost the league far more than $1 million worth of public relations damage. A few months ago when I was covering a game, some writers and I talked about how remarkable it is that the Donaghy story had all but disappeared from public view at that time; I had expected it to be in the headlines throughout the season. If the NBA had left well enough alone perhaps Donaghy would not have made these allegations and his story would have not become so prominent again.

Now that the Donaghy genie is out of the bottle once again, the NBA needs to be very proactive in addressing his charges. Donaghy and his lawyers very cleverly chose two playoff series that received a lot of attention and about which doubts had previously been raised. The NBA must once and for all explain to the general public exactly what did and what did not take place in both instances. Although the Donaghy document speaks in "code," everyone has figured out that he is referring to the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and the Kings and the 2005 Western Conference first round series between the Mavericks and the Rockets.

Donaghy asserts that in game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals--a contest worked by Bob Delaney, Dick Bavetta and Ted Bernhardt--two of the three referees were, in his words, "company men," who followed NBA orders to call fouls against the Kings and not call fouls against the Lakers so that the Lakers would win the game and extend the series. The Lakers won game six 106-102 and then won game seven 112-106 to advance to the NBA Finals, where they captured the third and final title of the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant era. Scot Pollard, a Boston reserve who played for the Kings at that time, told reporters at the Finals that he thought something was strange about that game back then but he added--in remarks that have not been nearly as widely reported--that the Kings could have won that series anyway if they had not allowed Robert Horry to hit a buzzer beating game winning three pointer in game four or if they had taken care of business on their home court in game seven. No questions have ever been raised about game seven, so what Donaghy is essentially suggesting is that the NBA risked having the entire sport being exposed as corrupt in order to get television revenue from one additional game.

In game six, 31 fouls were called against the Kings and 24 fouls were called against the Lakers; the Lakers attempted 40 free throws compared to 25 for the Kings. O'Neal, who was in his prime, and Bryant, who has always been excellent at drawing fouls, shot the majority of the free throws: O'Neal shot 13-17 from the free throw line, while Bryant shot 11-11. That game attracted attention because the Lakers attempted 27 of their free throws in the fourth quarter. It is worth mentioning that the last three fouls and last six Laker free throw attempts happened in the final 19 seconds when the Kings had to foul to stop the clock and get the ball back. Still, prior to that time there were several calls and non-calls that many observers thought were unusual.

The NBA reviews and grades its referees not only for every call they make but also for non-calls that they miss, so there is a simple way for the league to once and for all dispel the idea that this game was fixed: reveal exactly what its grading process said about that game, particularly in terms of certain calls/non-calls that have aroused suspicion. In the league's judgment, was this simply a poorly officiated game or does the league believe that the calls/non-calls were correct according to its interpretations of the rules?

Of course, the NBA is never going to disclose this information for a variety of reasons, including that the referees' association would have a fit. However, I thought that one of the best things the NBA did regarding its officiating is creating the short lived NBA TV program "Making the Call with Ronnie Nunn." Nunn, the league's director of officials, showed videos of various plays from the previous week and explained exactly why they had been called the way they were and he frankly admitted that some calls were wrong (which did not make him a particularly popular figure with some referees and is no doubt one of the reasons that the NBA took the show off the air). Most fans don't even know all of the rules regarding things like the "restricted area" and the "lower defensive box" and this ignorance only fuels their perceptions that their team is getting the short end of the stick even on calls that are routine and correct. Nunn's show was a wonderful educational tool. The NBA should put it--or something like it--back on the air and the first episode should be an examination of game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals: what did the referees see, why did they make the calls and non-calls that they did and what grades did they receive from the league? I don't believe that the NBA fixed this game or this series but the league is going to face a serious credibility gap with a lot of people until it addresses this issue forcefully and directly. Even if the answer simply is that the game was poorly officiated that would be better than having a cloud of suspicion hanging over it. Maybe the referees were out of position on certain plays and thought that they saw contact when there was no contact (or vice versa). Delaney and Bavetta are two of the league's most prominent and respected referees and the NBA is essentially tainting their names if it does not take action to clarify what happened in that game. As we have seen so many times in so many walks of life, the cover up--or, in this case, even the appearance that something is being covered up--is more damaging than the original offense. In this case, I'm not even convinced that there was an original offense, which is all the more reason for the NBA to resolve this matter as suggested above.

As for the 2005 Mavericks-Rockets series, Donaghy alleges that the NBA instructed its referees to change the way they were officiating a certain team's star player. Based on the information Donaghy provided, it is not hard to figure out that the player in question is Houston's Yao Ming. The Rockets took a 2-0 lead and then lost the series in seven games. Then Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy--who is now of course an NBA commentator for ABC/ESPN--was fined $100,000 during that series by NBA Commissioner David Stern. Van Gundy had said that an NBA "official" told him of the league's plans to call the games differently regarding how Yao Ming set screens. During halftime of game three of this year's Finals, Van Gundy reiterated what he has previously said about this situation: when he said "official" he was referring to someone from the NBA offices, not a referee, and that he was wrong to raise the matter the way he did at that time. Van Gundy stands by his statement that he was indeed told about the plan to call the games differently but he does not ascribe corrupt motives to the league. Instead, he sensibly said that the league should be more open and transparent about such matters: if one team complains about how a game has been called then the other team should be notified and the league should clearly tell both teams the result of its inquiry, particularly if the league decides that something had been called incorrectly and would thus be called differently going forward. Van Gundy puts no credence in Donaghy's allegations that the NBA manipulated the outcome of this series. Keep in mind that Dallas owner Mark Cuban has often been a very vocal and public critic of Commissioner Stern. Why would the NBA throw a series in Cuban's favor? It just makes no sense. Van Gundy's explanation is much more logical; the league made a determination about how Yao Ming's screens should be officiated but it did a poor job of communicating that determination to the Rockets so that they could adjust accordingly.

As for Donaghy's assertion that the NBA instructed its referees to not call technical fouls on certain players and to not eject them from games, I think that Donaghy is taking something out of context and trying to make it sound sinister; it is one thing for the NBA to remind its officials to be extra careful to not have quick whistles during playoff games and it is another thing entirely to simply say to not eject certain players no matter what. I suspect that if the NBA did anything it was the former and that Donaghy is portraying it as the latter in order to smear the league. If you are an NBA fan, do you want the referees to have quick whistles and eject star players left and right or would you think that it is a good thing to encourage the referees to defuse situations instead of escalating them? On his show, Nunn frequently talked about player/referee interactions and he said that he instructed his referees to disengage from players, to try not to add fuel to the fire and to only call technical fouls when absolutely necessary.

The reason that I have always dismissed NBA conspiracy theories is that you can come up with a "conspiracy" to fit any eventuality. For example, if LeBron James plays his whole career in Cleveland you could say that there is a "conspiracy" to place him on his hometown team and thus boost the prospects of that franchise--but if he goes to New York you could say that there is a "conspiracy" to turn the Knicks into a great team. By the way, how is that "conspiracy" working out? The Knicks have not won a championship in 35 years and have only made two Finals appearances in that time; if the league is trying to rig things in the Knicks' favor then it has been bungling for decades. Here is a tongue in cheek article that shows how you can "prove" that there is an NBA conspiracy against the Lakers. The point is that depending on your perspective as a fan you can think that "they" are "out to get" any team, something that Boston Coach Doc Rivers alluded to when he mentioned that during his time as a broadcaster he discovered that every team's fans thinks that the referees are biased against them.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM



At Thursday, June 12, 2008 8:16:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

That Ronnie Nunn show was a great show. Why would they stop production of that show?

At Thursday, June 12, 2008 8:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I indicated in the post, some of the NBA referees did not like hearing Nunn talk about calls that they missed. After word of the Donaghy scandal first broke, the NBA reorganized how it oversees its referees. Nunn's role was changed and one of the changes was the cancellation of his TV show.

At Thursday, June 12, 2008 10:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the officiating is terribly inconsistent and shrouded in mystery.

obvious calls are not made. star treatment is a given.

Why would there not be conspiracy theories in these circumstances?

The NBA has to be much more transparent if it wants to improve the situation.
It needs a democratic open leader, not an eighties despot.

At Thursday, June 12, 2008 4:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure there might not be a blatant conspiracy going on.
However, that does not take away from the realistic fact that NBA referring on certain critical games is suspect. Those games in question (and add game 2 of this years finals to that list) were in fact poorly officiated games.

We cannot keep arguing that referring is subjective when these games are officiated by 10+ year "veteran" officials. How can we allow these "veteran"
officials to call fouls in one game, albeit reg-season Vs. post-season, and then not call those very same fouls later on?

That makes no sense.

Either the officials are completely inept, mentally challenged, smoked a lot of pot and have short term memory loss, or something else.

The fans, and even the NBA players, have a right to know what that something else is.

We cannot sit back and simply say that Donaghy is trying to cover is ass. There is more to it then just some dude trying to get a lighter sentence.
The proof is in those past games.

At Thursday, June 12, 2008 6:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I indicated in the post, I think that the NBA should renew its efforts to explain to the viewing public how calls are made--and missed.


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