Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Fix Is In

Obviously the big story today is the revelation that ex-NBA official Tim Donaghy may have bet on NBA games, including some that he officiated. I'm having a hard time putting into context how big of a story this is. I'm sure I'm forgetting some biggies, but part of me feels that this might actually be the biggest sports scandal of my lifetime.

If these allegations are proven true, it's going to change the way we watch basketball--and possibly sports in general. We've all made the jokes about officials taking money or betting on the games, but no one (apart from possibly PSU fans) actually believed it. Now? We've moved into a world where an official has quite possibly fixed games that he was officiating.

The NBA would like you to believe that this is one man, acting alone. But is it? How do they know? If they didn't know about this guy, how do they know that there aren't others out there? How many names were bandied about when the allegations came down, before the man was identified? Joe Crawford was doubtlessly the first name on everyone's mind, what with his strange ejection of Tim Duncan and extremely severe suspension that followed. I'd be lying if I said it didn't cross my mind that maybe David Stern got wind of him gambling, and that suspension for Crawford was for other reasons than the incident with Duncan (kind of similar to the story that Stern suspended Jordan for gambling, during his "retirement").

The first thing that crossed my mind was, "God help this league if he officiated during the 2006 NBA Finals". Thankfully, he did not. If he had been officiating during that debacle, it would've taken this to Black Sox level. And Mark Cuban would never have let down. My next thought was "Hmm....I wonder if I wasn't just being a shameless homer about some of the calls in the Cleveland and Miami series the last couple of seasons". Again, thankfully he didn't do any of those games. Though, Hit By A Pitch points out that Bill Simmons railed the crew who did Game 3 of the Spurs/Suns series, and Donaghy was a part of it.

Another game he officiated was the St. Patrick's Day Pistons/Knicks game. I kind of remember Detroit fans being pissed about this one, myself included, and Detroit Bad Boys recalls why.

Chauncey Billups, who scored 24 points, said afterward that he wishes the league held the officials publically accountable for their calls.

“My thing is, after the game, I have to talk about what happened down the stretch, why we did this or that,” Billups said. “I wish the refs had to do that.”

“My thing is, if you’re going to let them play, let them play,” Pistons coach Flip Saunders said after the game. “There was a little bit of inconsistency, so it was hard to adapt to that.”

The officials called 36 fouls in the second half, including seven technicals. And while the Pistons were careful to take some of the blame in a game they led at one point by 16, they wouldn’t shoulder all of it.

“I think (the officials were) more of a factor tonight than any game we’ve played this year,” said Tayshaun Prince, who scored 15 points. “Even though some other games were the same, I thought it was more important in this than any other one.”

And therein lies the real reason that the effects of this scandal will be so far-reaching. Back then, we chalked it up to general incompetence. Now? There's a very real possibility that the fix was in. Keep in mind there's no evidence (yet) that Donaghy fixed that game or even tried to manipulate who covered. But it's in your head now, isn't it? And it will be in my head for a long time, whenever the officiating seems too one-sided. Or those "phantom fouls" occur.

What was once thought to be horrible officiating could now conceivably be viewed as fixing the outcome. And the NBA has a long way to go to win back the trust of the fans in that regard.

Donaghy also officiated the Palace Brawl game, which I actually attended. I don't remember that one as being poorly officiated as much as I remember the Pistons sucking big-time. That one is a black mark on his record more for the way the crew handled the events after Artest's flagrant foul than anything else. No amount of point-shaving could've saved Detroit in that game, though.

Additionally, Donaghy was the official who had a run-in with Rasheed Wallace after a game in Portland, which cost Sheed seven games.

What's truly scary for the NBA is that when these allegations came out is that people weren't necessarily shocked by it. I kind of had a "Hmm...that ain't good. But I'm not surprised" reaction to the news.

What's scary is that there were so many names thrown out there, and a case could be made for all of them, whether it be Crawford's suspension or Jess Kersey's wild swing in games against the spread from 05-06 to 06-07.

What's scary is that it would be easy for an NBA ref to do what Donaghy is accused of. There are so many fouls called in a typical game, so many points scored, so many possessions, that even if you call touch fouls on a few that you would normally let go, you can drastically alter the outcome of the game (or the outcome vs. the point spread). Quite frankly, you wouldn't have to do anything overly obvious. It's not like you'd have to be Robert De Niro in The Fan when he was umpiring Bobby Rayburn's last at bat. A whistle here, a whistle there. Suddenly a 5 point game is a 10 point game. A 2 point lead for Team A is a 4 point lead for Team B. And you've got some pissed off fans, but nobody pays too much attention.

Well they will now.

Marc Stein is right. It's amazing to think that something could happen that trumps the baseball steroids scandal along with the Michael Vick/Ron Mexico/Ookie dogfighting ring, but it happened. And don't think for a second that David Stern wouldn't trade for either one of those issues over what is facing his league tonight.

Needless to say, Stern has to be pissed. The league has just received an influx of young stars (LeBron, Wade, Melo, Oden, Durant, Amir Johnson (heh) amongst others) and now they receive a black eye that's going to be around for a long, long time.

And if the situation as a whole isn't bad enough, these allegations came out on the very day that NBA officials were set to meet with a developer about a possible arena in Las Vegas, according to ESPN's J.A. Adande in his excellent article about the situation. The Las Vegas mayor says that if anything, this strengthens their bid for a team. Personally, I think that's spin that Baghdad Bob would be proud of. I can't see the NBA being in a real hurry to put a team in Las Vegas now. Stern was concerned about putting one there due to the gambling in the city before these allegations came out. To me, this likely sets their bid back years...if it doesn't crush it entirely.

For the sake of basketball, I hope this is an isolated incident. That Tim Donaghy really is just a man with a gambling problem who got in too deep with the wrong people. Because if it runs any deeper than that, then the NBA is faced with a very real problem of not only incompetent refs, but refs that are on the take as well.

Referees are like rookie defensemen. When you notice them, it's usually not a good thing. And today, we noticed the NBA officials in the worst way possible. It's hard to think of a worse scenario for a sports league than to have an official fixing games. And it's going to be really interesting to see what David Stern's response is.

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