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David Aldridge

The Dish

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The state of officiating: Conspiracy charges hard to swallow

By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jun 16 2009 1:37PM

For weeks, TNT analyst David Aldridge has been delving into the state of officiating in the NBA, trying to separate the perception of the league's referees and how they do their job with the reality of it. He's heard from fans, talked to officials, debated with owners and gone straight to the top, to NBA commissioner David Stern.

Here is the first of Aldridge's three-part, in-depth examination:

Grab some coffee. And a donut. This is going to take a while. But it's important.

Seven years ago, after the infamous Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Kings, I wrote a column saying that the NBA has a perception problem.

The problem was not that there was, in fact, a conspiracy on the part of league officials, in concert with their referees, to ensure that big-market teams and/or superstar players advance in the postseason. The problem wasn't even that crazy people could believe in such things.

The problem, I wrote, was that there were a lot of reasonable, non-crazy people who believed there was a conspiracy on the part of league officials, in concert with their referees, to ensure that big-market teams and/or superstar players advance in the postseason.

These were not crackpots. These were people who liked basketball, maybe even loved it, who were book smart and street smart, who didn't see biblical faces in a block of cheese or hear voices in their heads. But they thought something was rotten in Denmark -- if Denmark was the NBA's mid-Manhattan offices.

Fast-forward seven years, during which time, among other events, Tim Donaghy delighted us with his presence and accusations. The perception that something in the league is amiss remains strong, if my inbox is any anecdotal indication.

And if people don't believe the NBA is legit, then what's the point of all of this?

Last month, I wrote a column decrying the wingnuts and loons that, this time around, just knew the fix was in on the NBA's part in order to assure that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James would meet in The Finals. Every whistle against their team -- if their team wasn't L.A. or Cleveland -- only proved it. Reality destroyed that thesis, with Orlando beating the Cavaliers in six games. But next year, when the Playoffs begin again, so will the conspiracy talk.

Forget that such a conspiracy would have to involve, at minimum, dozens of people -- at the league office, among the refs and their associates and, in all likelihood, the networks. None of these people could talk. Ever. All would have to be paid for their silence in perpetuity.

Is that even possible? Is it remotely realistic?

A longtime front office team official says thusly: "If the league gave any indication --either directly or tacitly -- to the referees that it wanted a certain player or a certain team to win in the Playoffs, it would be in the press within an hour."

Yet a lot of people still think such a thing is possible. And that is still a problem for the NBA.

The best thing that any sports league has going for it is the idea that the outcome of its games is determined solely by the participants -- all of whom should be playing on an equal footing (i.e., without performance-enhancing drugs) -- with referees and/or umpires in place to make sure that the game is played fairly and within the rules. Other factors (where the game is played, the experience level of the players on each team, fatigue, etc.) are variables that can impact the outcome, but the performance of the players and coaches is the key determinant. If that is not the case, you have professional wrestling, an athletic competition in which the result is scripted and/or preordained.

The good news: The vast majority of people who responded to my latest column agreed overwhelmingly that such conspiracy talk is madness, and doesn't stand up to the least amount of scrutiny.

The bad news: A minority, perhaps small but nonetheless vocal, disagreed. It's likely the same minority that tyrannizes local sports talk radio stations and dominates sports websites and is, in all likelihood, frustrated that its team didn't advance past the Lakers or Cavs. Or the Spurs or Pistons in years past.

But among that minority were many who claimed to be basketball fans, and NBA fans in particular, who love the game but can't escape the nagging suspicion that something is wrong.

Within that minority is another subgroup: people who simply think that NBA officiating has been horrible in the Playoffs and can't understand why the league doesn't fix it. The terrible officiating feeds these folks' suspicions.

Well, guess what?

I don't necessarily disagree.

I think the officiating in these Playoffs has left a lot to be desired. Too many calls at crucial minutes of games have been flat-out wrong. Antoine Wright did foul Carmelo Anthony intentionally in Game 3 of the Mavericks-Nuggets series. Chauncey Billups did step out of bounds before hitting a clutch three in Game 2 of Lakers-Nuggets. Rajon Rondo did flagrantly foul Brad Miller in the final seconds of Game 5 of Celtics-Bulls. NBA commissioner David Stern, at his pre-Finals news conference, said that his referees get calls right 92 percent of the time.

That's great. That's also not good enough.

"You try to improve it," Stern said. "People question your refereeing, you do it. People question certain things, you have instant replay. But the reality is that there is some percentage of referee calls that are wrong, and each one gives the opportunity for complaint and the like."

I don't think that 8 percent misfire rate is because anyone's on the take. It's because refs, believe it or not, are human. They make mistakes.

What's being done about those mistakes? Now we have something to talk about ...

So let's get everything on the table. The refs, the conspiracy theories, all of it.

The arguments of the pro-conspiracy/anti-ref groups fall into a few categories:

The conspiracy doesn't have to work to be a conspiracy.

These fans believe that the league doesn't specifically order a given result; i.e., Lakers-Cavs in the Finals, but attempts only to nudge the odds that way.

"... Referees can try to take a game away from a team with very questionable calls. The better team will win regardless. So David Stern can send his politicians (the referees) out there to TRY and fix a game, but great teams will overcome the BS calls and superstar treatment.
-- Stan Pinkston

"...It is by no means a conspiracy set in stone by David Stern wherein Stern states 'the Finals will be between these two teams' ... it is actually a conspiracy where Stern and league executives state, 'Let's see if we can nudge these two high-ratings teams into the finals; let's see what we can do to help them....'"
-- Chris Philbrick

"... I don't think most fans think that you can rig a complete series by just officiating. You can, however, sway the series by officiating. If one team is just better and beats another team, there is nothing that the officials or Stern can do to keep that team from advancing ..."
-- Joel Larson

Does it trouble you, I asked Stern before Game 1 of The Finals, that there is a sizeable number of fans -- fans who like professional basketball -- who genuinely believe that the NBA, whether successful or not, attempts to rig the outcome of its postseason tournament?

"That just demonstrates the corrosive effect that repetitions of libels and slanders can have," he said. "It becomes easy to make it some conventional wisdom. But I don't believe that the record numbers of people that are tuning into our games are tuning in for anything but the spectacular competition -- unscripted drama -- that it represents. If they want scripted drama, I would send them to the WWE. Vince McMahon does it better than anybody. If they want unscripted drama, I think we do it as well as anybody."

Do players believe, I asked Derek Fisher, the Lakers' guard, that either referees intentionally blow games, or that the league instructs them to make calls that favor one team over another?

"No," said Fisher, also the president of the National Basketball Players' Association. "Not that officials conspire to throw games, no. Guys do talk about how are game is obviously a business. And you heard guys in the last series mention that 'everybody,'" -- here, Fisher makes the air quotes with his fingers -- "'wants to see the Lakers and Cavs play in the Finals.' We have those kinds of talks. But I've never heard anybody feel that the referees themselves have a vested interest in who wins and loses."

Stern ticks off the things that the league has done in previous years to respond to complaints from teams and fans alike: rules changes to make the game more open, the Draft Lottery to halt the belief that teams were deliberately tanking to improve their Draft position, increasing transparency with officials and officiating.

There is, also, the revamping of the Operations Department. The NBA hired former two-star general Ronald Johnson to supervise the officials' department this year, splitting the former job of Stu Jackson, now the league's executive vice president of basketball operations, in two. Former referee Bernie Fryer now is the supervisor of officials and works with Johnson, with the former supervisor, Ronnie Nunn, acting as a roving instructor for young officials. Referees have been graded on an increased basis for the past several years, with every call made by every referee in every game graded for its accuracy, or lack thereof, both by observers at each game as well as group supervisors that float around the league. Refs are quizzed weekly on a database that allows them to review tough calls.

The referees' preseason camps have been opened to the media for the past several years. This year, referee assignments were made public as of 9 a.m. on gamedays on, instead of the previous time of 90 minutes before tipoff. This was because part of the inside information Donaghy provided to gamblers were the ref crews. The league also vowed to do more intensive studies of statistical trends in NBA games, to see if there were correlations between those trends and gambling trends.

Some of these changes were responses to recommendations in last year's Pedowitz Report, issued by former prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz, that found no indication that any other referee other than Donaghy bet on games or nefariously influenced the outcome of games. Pedowitz determined that a number of referees had been gambling in casinos during the offseason, in violation of then-existing rules that barred officials from being in casinos. (The league has since relaxed those rules.)

Despite the increased scrutiny and training, many still think that the NBA seeks a given outcome.

So, how do you explain Knicks-Heat in 1997 and Spurs-Suns a decade later?

The league, in 1997, suspended five Knicks players, including three starters -- Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston and Larry Johnson -- after a fight between New York's Charlie Ward and Miami's P.J. Brown in the final seconds of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals -- a game won by Miami but one that left the Knicks up 3-2 in the series. Ward, Houston and Ewing, the team's All-Star center, were suspended for Game 6; Johnson and Starks had to sit out Game 7. (Brown got two games from the league.) Ewing, who had been on the bench when the fight began, stood at midcourt, nowhere near the fight. Johnson tried to stop the fight. And yet, they were both sent home -- Ewing for Game 6, Johnson for Game 7.

With the Knicks' bench in tatters, Miami won both games and the series.

New York was 57-25 that season and a legitimate title contender. A Knicks' victory would have set up a New York-Chicago conference final, a ratings dream between storied rivals, in the No. 1 and No. 3 markets in the country. The league destroyed that potential matchup with one ruling from Rod Thorn, then the league's vice president of operations. It followed the letter of its law, right or wrong.

The next day, "I had 350 voice mails," recalled Thorn, now the president of the Nets, and he knew it was 350 because his answering machine cut off. "Three hundred forty-two of them were negative, and around 10 of them I had to give to Horace Balmer (then the league's director of security). You know, 'I know where you live, and I will shoot you' ... People were enraged."

In 2007, the NBA suspended Phoenix Suns Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw one game each for coming off the bench during an altercation between the Spurs' Robert Horry and the Suns' Steve Nash in the waning seconds of Phoenix's Game 4 victory in the Western Conference semis that tied the series at 2-2. In doing so, the league severely hurt the NBA's most exciting, fan-friendly team.

Fans loved the Suns' fast-break style and their telegenic stars, including Nash, the two-time league MVP. Phoenix is a much larger media market than San Antonio -- 12th highest in the country, compared to San Antonio's 37th-highest, according to Nielsen numbers for 2007-08. (Indeed, among NBA media markets, only Memphis, 47th in the United States, and New Orleans, 53rd, are smaller than San Antonio).

The Spurs, as I've explained before, are ratings killers, having participated in three of the four lowest-rated Finals in history. Their superstar, Tim Duncan, says next to nothing to the media and doesn't have annual postseason ad campaigns from the shoe companies that could potentially boost his Q ratings.

Horry got a two-game suspension for pushing Nash and then shoving Phoenix guard Raja Bell, but that was a trade the Spurs would take every time. San Antonio went on to win the pivotal Game 5 over the Stoudemire/Diaw-less Suns, and took the series. Phoenix fans, players and team officials howled at what they believed was biased treatment in San Antonio's favor -- and they've never really moved past it. That was Phoenix's last, best chance to win a championship.

This wasn't a bang-bang call by a referee. This was the NBA deliberately stepping in, knowing it was going to change the tenor of the series, and doing harm to the aspirations of the league's most popular team. Surely, if the league was attempting to nudge the more popular Suns toward the Finals, and a date with LeBron's Cavs, it would have overlooked Stoudemire's size 17s taking a few non-threatening steps toward the fray. It would have made up some explanation that would have kept Phoenix's dominant forward on the court for Game 5 -- the winner of which, when an NBA series is tied 2-2, goes on to win that series 83 percent of the time. But it didn't. It made a very, very unpopular call that led to near-overwhelming criticism from local and national media.

As I said last week, if Stern and his fellow executives are trying to put a thumb on the scale, whether it's trying to rig the Lottery for the Knicks or to get Dwyane Wade back in the Finals, they either are incompetent at it or go about it in a very odd way.

In science, there is a principle known as Occam's Razor, which states that if there are two theories, the simpler one is more likely to be correct. Is it not more likely that teams sink or swim on their own merits rather than being aided by some large, ongoing, decades-long conspiracy?

"We have a league where Chicago hasn't been successful, New York hasn't been successful recently," Stern said. "San Antonio has. Detroit has. It's a great league. But at some point we have to just keep pushing and eliminate the crackpot ideas, even if they're somewhat conveniently embraced by some people at the margin."

NEXT: Do superstars really get all the calls?

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