Wednesday, June 11, 2008

This is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening....

The allegations of Tim Donaghy, summarized in an ESPN article that came out this morning (here), are fairly extreme, and describe a conspiracy that goes all the way to the commissioner. Most significant is Donaghy's assertion that the league was behind controversial refereeing in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Kings and the Lakers (the Lakers went on to win the Finals that year). If what Donaghy states is true, basketball would sustain a black mark rivaling any in the history of sports. David Stern's reputation would dive into Nixonian territory and, frankly, basketball could find itself in the hands of a different governing body.

Let's remember, though, that Tim Donaghy is a convicted felon and a Grade A scumbag. He's the kind of gambling-addicted suburban slob that once tried to run his mailman off the road when the mail truck hit his recycling bin. He's the idiot who took loans from the mafia. He has shown a clear lack of morals and honesty and his own selfish sense of self-preservation led to his downfall. He may be just a rat trying to swim his way to shore, only this time he's trying to welch his way out of dealing with the FBI instead of the mob.

It's impossible at this time to tell which side is telling the truth, but it seems worth it to at least discuss what's going on here. I vividly remember the 2002 playoffs (and many series of those years) for their incredibly inconsistent refereeing. That Kings/Lakers game in particular stands out as one that I will never forget because I felt it was actually turned by poor officiating. From that day on, if you asked me for an example of a game should have gone the other way, I would have said Kings/Lakers, 2002, Game 6.

I realize my memories, like those of most people, are susceptible to change over the years, so I decided to check out some video highlights from the game. Interestingly, there are none anywhere on the internet. Considering this was one of the most important (and discussed) games of all time, I found that surprising, especially in the wake of this morning's news, but maybe it's just a coincidence.

Actually, I had a hard time even finding the play-by-play. Once I got a hold of it, I realized that it wasn't going to be much help--it's hard to bring back memories of what actually happened (calling phantom fouls, for instance) with numbers on a chart. But here's what I can tell you:

The game was tied at 75-75 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. It went back and forth until 3:06, when the Kings took the lead at 92-90 and the Lakers called timeout. Up until that point, if you're reading the play-by-play and can't remember anything and are only able to analyze the numbers, nothing seems awry.

After they were down 92-90 at 3:06, the Lakers scored sixteen points. Fourteen of those points came from eight trips to the free throw line (in 2:55). In the same period of time, the Kings went to the line three times, made six foul shots, and scored two baskets, losing 106-102. The Lakers' only conventional score came at 0:52 (by Shaq).

That Shaq basket made it 101-98, Lakers. In the next forty-three seconds, the Lakers went to the line three more times, went 5-6, and put the game away.

If that helps you, great, but I hope some video of the actual refereeing or the whole quarter comes out sometime soon. If it does, I'll post it here. Numbers never tell the whole story and I wouldn't be surprised if many close games end in a flurry of free-throws by the winning team because the losing team is forced to foul (though by my reading, this was not the case in the Lakers/Kings game).
Whether or not Donaghy is telling the truth about this game or his other allegations is hard to judge, because he's created a "chicken or the egg" situation. Is he finally able to provide evidence that games many have always thought were rigged actually were, or is he using those assumptions to take advantage of fans who demand an explanation and save himself? Donaghy's letter (only five pages, written by his lawyer) discussed almost exclusively highly-publicized refereeing controversies of the past few years, and each of Donaghy's allegations are based on things he "heard" from referees or officials involved with the game. Though the supposed transgressions are explained in detail, there is no explanation why Tim Donaghy, a man who did not officiate any of the games in question, would have access to such dangerous information. Although Donaghy was the back-up official for one of the games he described, it may be that he is merely using that fact to gain a foothold to show he has primary knowledge.

The unfortunate truth that it is so hard to determine whether there are teeth to Donaghy's allegations underscore a larger problem for the NBA: this is an era of inadequate officiating. If fans were satisfied with the quality and fairness of officials, it would be a lot easier to deny Donaghy. Of course, fans of all sports are always complaining that the referees are biased, but in my opinion, for the last decade the NBA has retained the least professional, least consistent officials in major American sports. This is significant regardless of their intent.

One thing I thought was interesting about Donaghy's letter (not in the ESPN article) was his statement about the lack of objectivity of the NBA's "observer" program (something he would have actually had direct experience with). This program is set up to monitor referees, and a designated (and I assume anonymous) observer goes to a game, takes notes, reviews the game tape, and writes a report on how fair he thinks it was called. According to Donaghy "the observer rating system was frequently manipulated. Although the observers were supposed to remain anonymous, all the referees knew who they were. Referees friendly with NBA observers monitoring their game would likely receive a good report."

The only example of impropriety Donaghy could give was an observer asking a referee to buy his book, which doesn't sound like a big deal. However, a breakdown in oversight is hard to identify and there is often no evidence because it's more about cordiality and lack of professionalism than formal deal-making or guns, drugs, and money. Arthur Anderson's failure to objectively audit Enron because the executives were buddy-buddy and too trusting of each other is a good example of this. I wonder if the observer program is a problem that Donaghy was aware of that he tried to exaggerate into something criminal to support himself. Obviously, that throws doubt on whether anything he says is true, but it follows the pattern of his trying to take a problem and make it look like impropriety, and if the observer program is that - a problem - then it underscores the bigger point about poor refereeing.

At this point, I believe David Stern, and do not think there is a conspiracy by the league to help some teams and hurt others. The ten years of embarrassment by the New York Knicks and the fifteen years of hell for the Celtics before 2008 are the basis for my beliefs, along with what I believed were preferential calls for the small-market, unexciting San Antonio Spurs since roughly 1999. (And how about that other team from Los Angeles?)

The thing is, when the quality of officiating stinks, it leads fans to conspiracy theories, and everything that is accomplished by any team is thrown into question. That the Donaghy situation even developed is evidence of the NBA's failure to exercise oversight over its referees.

In the end, let's hope that the NBA does the right thing to heal itself from this scandal. Fix the referees, fix the league.

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