It’s Time for the NBA to Die

Former NBA referee Tim DonaghyRemember Tim Donaghy? NBA commissioner David Stern sure does. See, he’s the referee who was convicted of accepting large sums of cash from gamblers in return for providing inside information on games he was working. He served 15 months in prison for the conviction, was released, then was sent back for violating his parole. Now, to top it off, he’s written a book detailing his transgressions, and the transgressions of the referees he worked with during his NBA tenure. That’s right, he wasn’t alone.

In his book he explains in detail how referees would conspire to keep games close to keep ratings up, make bets amongst themselves about calling fouls, and even swing the tide of playoff games to force longer series (and therefore keep the sponsors happy). Basically the worst possible things you could allege referees in any sport are doing. The sorts of things that call the league’s competitive credibility into question. The sorts of things that make you wonder what the difference is between pro basketball and pro wrestling. The sorts of things that could bring a league to its knees. And make me very, very happy.

I hate the NBA. I’m not a big fan of basketball at its very best, and the NBA is far from basketball’s best. There are too many games. The games are too long. Too often the players don’t seem to care. I would be incredibly happy to see the NBA fade from the public’s interest or even go away completely.

There’s one problem: the book isn’t coming out. The NBA got wind of it before it was released and bullied the publisher into shelving the project. I have no idea whether Donaghy’s allegations are true or not, but the NBA’s action certainly make me lean in that direction. Unfortunately for the league, Deadspin got their hands on a copy, and they’re not afraid to share. Here’s a particularly damning excerpt:

Studying under Dick Bavetta for 13 years was like pursuing a graduate degree in advanced game manipulation. He knew how to marshal the tempo and tone of a game better than any referee in the league, by far. He also knew how to take subtle-and not so subtle-cues from the NBA front office and extend a playoff series or, worse yet, change the complexion of that series.

The 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings presents a stunning example of game and series manipulation at its ugliest. As the teams prepared for Game 6 at the Staples Center, Sacramento had a 3–2 lead in the series. The referees assigned to work Game 6 were Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney, and Ted Bernhardt. As soon as the referees for the game were chosen, the rest of us knew immediately that there would be a Game 7. A prolonged series was good for the league, good for the networks, and good for the game. Oh, and one more thing: it was great for the big-market, star-studded Los Angeles Lakers.

In the pregame meeting prior to Game 6, the league office sent down word that certain calls-calls that would have benefitted the Lakers — were being missed by the referees. This was the type of not-so-subtle information that I and other referees were left to interpret. After receiving the dispatch, Bavetta openly talked about the fact that the league wanted a Game 7.

“If we give the benefit of the calls to the team that’s down in the series, nobody’s going to complain. The series will be even at three apiece, and then the better team can win Game 7,” Bavetta stated.

As history shows, Sacramento lost Game 6 in a wild come-from-behind thriller that saw the Lakers repeatedly sent to the foul line by the referees. For other NBA referees watching the game on television, it was a shameful performance by Bavetta’s crew, one of the most poorly officiated games of all time.

That sounds more like the rantings of a conspiracy theorist than a former NBA referee. Now, it’s completely possible that Donaghy is sensationalizing things for the purpose of making a quick buck. Maybe Bavetta never said that, and maybe the league never sent word about calls that were being missed. Maybe Donaghy is making it all up. But what if he’s not? What if the NBA is really fixing games? Or individual refs are? Would this be the most damaging story for a sports league since the 1919 Black Sox scandal? I think so, because it calls into question the credibility of every game played in the league. How can you regain the public’s confidence after something like that? How can you convince them that there aren’t off-court influences dictating what happens on the court? I don’t have answers, and I’m not sure the NBA does either.

My hope at this point is that the book finds the light of day, and that a good, thorough journalist takes the time to investigate the claims. If they don’t hold water then the NBA should sue Donaghy for anything he has left, and the public should forget about him as quickly as possible. But if the claims are corroborated, even some of them, the NBA is in serious, serious trouble. Hopefully viewership goes down the tubes, leading to sponsors pulling away from the league. Without top-notch sponsors, ABC, ESPN, and TNT would be forced to drop NBA programming, relegating them to some third-tier network. Once they’re off the big networks they become irrelevant. Just ask the NHL. Then it will finally be time to realize that the NBA is a wounded racehorse, and there’s no long life of green pastures and endless mares in their future.