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Major Hoopla

The Fairly Detached Observers

Jul. 16, 2008
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The NBA was having the best of�times and worst of times when the Observers got together on June 13. The vintage Lakers- Celtics matchup for the championship was clouded by allegations from disgraced referee Tim Donaghy that other refs skewed their calls to help the Lakers win a crucial game in the 2002 Western Conference Finals against Sacramento. Donaghy has pleaded guilty to gambling violations and money laundering and will be sentenced next month.

Artie: Hey Frank, the NBA—is pro wrestling’s Vince McMahon the shadow commissioner of this league? Shouldn’t it be the WWNBA? I don’t want to say the games may have a predicted outcome that the league favors, but how far away are we from the players wearing capes and masks and putting a choke-hold on the opposing point guard when the ref’s back is turned?

Frank: You know, it seems that for decades there have been these rumblings that “the league really wants” this or that to happen in the playoffs—certainly since they started getting the big TV contracts. I suppose that’s true of any pro sport, but it seems pretty common in the NBA—the idea that they’d prefer not to have San Antonio in the finals, or Detroit or Indiana, because they don’t have a big enough TV market or enough of a national following.

Artie: Or the Bucks in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals versus Philly?

Frank: Now, David Stern didn’t have anything to do with Glenn Robinson missing that short shot that would have won Game 5.

Artie: Something fishy about that series, 11 technical fouls called on the Bucks, and two on the Sixers? And Game 7, wasn’t there a foul disparity...

Frank: Gosh, was there a foul disparity in an NBA game? I found it very interesting that when Tim Donaghy said his fellow refs essentially gave the Lakers that Game 6 over Sacramento in 2002, all the writers who covered that game said, “You know, we really thought there was something really bad about the officiating that night.” That doesn’t prove anything, but it does say the game stood out. And just today I saw something about how one of the refs from that night, Dick Bavetta, was the subject of questions even during the inquiry about Donaghy.

Now everybody’s saying there has to be an independent investigation, or that the refs should be under some organization separate from the NBA. I’m not sure that would prevent any pressure from gambling interests.

Artie: But it seems to be the most talked-about solution. What’s the situation with baseball umpires?

Frank: They’re all under Major League jurisdiction, and it’s the same for the NFL and NHL. Are people suggesting that there should be an entity that encompasses all pro sports, and chooses and monitors all officials? Even if there were such a thing, if you’re an NBA official you’d know what matchups the league would prefer. You’d know that under any circumstances the league would prefer a Game 7.

Artie: No doubt, basketball’s a difficult game to referee, and foul calls are subjective. But the suspicion of unfairness is a real problem. And the NBA is not alone.

Frank: There are good examples of that in one of your favorite sports.

Artie: Beer pong?

Frank: Soccer, my friend. In Germany three years ago, they learned that matches had been fixed in the second-highest national league. Gamblers had gotten to some referees, who did things like calling penalty kicks that decided games. And in 2006 in Italy, there was something even worse.

Officials of some of the top teams in the No. 1 Italian league, like Juventus and A.C. Milan, got together with league officials about choosing the referees for matches, and thereby influencing the outcomes. This was absolutely huge, but eventually the punishments were relatively light, and now things are pretty much back the way they were. I think everyone said, “Well, match fixing is bad, but we have a lot of fans and a lot of money to make.” That scandal was pretty much the kind of thing the NBA is being suspected of.

Artie: So is Mr. Senator Arlen Specter going to kibosh his NFL “spygate” thing and focus on the NBA? Or heaven forbid, oil company gas-price fixing?

Frank: I heard someone suggest that if the 76ers were involved, Sen. Specter would be all over it. But he’s more of an Eagles guy right now. As for the NFL, this thing with Bill Belichick shows that every sport has its own little netherworld of wrongdoing. To say nothing of drugs: You’ve got baseball, track and field, cycling. And in what might have a little implication for the NBA, a lot of these drug things started out with people saying the accusers were tainted and couldn’t be trusted.

Artie: Just as the subtle Stern does with Donaghy, and tosses “felon” into the discussion every other word.

Frank: Take baseball with Jose Canseco. He’s kind of a joke because he’s an admitted steroid user, but a lot of what he said has turned out to be either true or assumed to be true. Certainly Congress assumed it, and that’s what forced action to be taken.

Artie: They say Donaghy’s supposed bean-spilling is just a shot at a lighter sentence, but that doesn’t mean what he says can’t be true.

Frank: In track and field, you had this Victor Conte guy who was the head of BALCO...

Artie: He used to be in that ‘70s band Tower of Power, ain’a? What a career—from playing bass on a soul-funk tune like “What is Hip?” to selling a Broadway show tune like “On A Clear Day, You Can Hit Forever.”

Frank: When he started naming names, Conte tried to morph into the good guy by saying, “I’m just telling you this because I’m trying to clean up the sport”—the one he’d dirtied up. Marion Jones spent two or three years saying, “Don’t believe him; believe me.” And then she’s in front of the courthouse with tears in her eyes saying, “I lied.”

And the guy who’s accusing Roger Clemens, yeah, he’s no saint, but he looks a little more credible the more that comes out of Clemens’ mouth.

Artie: And what’s this about Roger Clemens taking Viagra ‘cause it’s supposed to help make the steroids more effective? Man oh manischewitz, when they say Clemens had the best “high, hard one” in baseball, they’re not just whistling Dixie.

Frank: As you would say, ba-ding! So getting back to the NBA...

Artie: Yes, the ref controversy. They have to do something. What it is, I don’t know. Any way you look at it, their credibility’s in trouble. Take Game 4 of these finals, with the Celtics coming back from that huge deficit, and although the free-throw totals were pretty equal—even that could be questioned with the suspicion that the refs bent over backward...

Frank: As you said earlier, it’s an impossible game to call. They’re wrestling each other on every possession, not to mention traveling on every possession and palming on every possession.

Artie: LeBron James, anyone? When you check an NBA box score the “MP” stat refers to “Minutes Played,” but for LeBron “MP” refers to “Miles Palmed.”

Frank: Now here’s a little offshoot of this. Everybody whines about the officiating anyway...

Artie: The coaches, the players, the fans…

Frank: Absolutely. Phil Jackson’s complaining is one of the league’s great traditions. Because he’s the “Zen master,” that takes on some higher purpose or something. But he’s just doing what Red Auerbach did, what they all do.

Artie: Yeah yeah, Phil’s Zen thing: “What is the sound of no whistle blowing—on my team.”

Frank: But here’s something very interesting: Everybody laughs at Mark Cuban and what a nut job he is as the owner of the Mavericks, complaining about every call. But this week I see the headline, “Cuban Sets Sights on Buying Cubs.”

Artie: And if his bid falls short, you’ll read the headline: “Close, but no Cuban cigar,” ain’a?

Frank: So imagine Mark Cuban sitting in the first row at beautiful Wrigley Field watching, what, 260 or 270 pitches every game? And then the calls on the bases. This opens up the mother lode for complaining! But it will be a great new source of revenue for Bud Selig.

Artie: All those fines, you betcha.

Frank: The NBA made millions over the years from this guy. Now, Bud probably isn’t as accustomed to leveling these big fines as David Stern is.

Artie: Imagine that. A former used-car salesman able to fine someone for complaining.

Talk about newsworthy. That’s entering the realm of “Man Bites Dog,” don’t you think?

Frank Clines labored almost 20 years in the sports department at the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and covered the Brewers part-time for most of those years. Art Kumbalek remains in the race for the presidency of the United States.

Frank and Artie at MJ’s | Photo by Kate Engbring

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