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Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Hole gets deeper for league

July 22, 2007|Mark Heisler

Just when David Stern thought it was safe to knock off for the off-season....

Make no mistake, the current scandal in which referee Tim Donaghy is alleged to have bet on games that he worked stands alone as an embarrassment to an out-of-control NBA that had already been embarrassed every other way.

Let's just say that if there's something worse than a riot in which your players punch out your customers, it must be pretty bad.

This is another one the NBA can't just walk away from. On the other hand, if embarrassment were fatal, this league would have been dead a long time ago.

Until evidence surfaces to suggest that anyone was involved but Donaghy, this is not part of a wider scandal but an anomaly.

To be sure, security measures will be reevaluated and upgraded. No one will ever think this can't happen again, and no one should.

However, it's not that no one can believe in the integrity of an NBA game. The people who care most are bettors, but I'd guess that the money bet on NBA games won't drop.

The real problem the NBA must live with isn't another fix, but that so many of its own people insist games have been fixed all along and this just proves it.

In the NBA, it always comes down to perception, starting with that of its own ever-squabbling players, coaches, teams and league officials.

NBA referees already faced the ugliest skepticism, routinely accused of fixing games to draw out playoff series or help big-market teams advance.

The fans only feed off the participants' complaints in the spectacle of a league, in which everyone is rich, devouring itself.

Some team loses every football or baseball game too. Only in the NBA does the loser ritually cop out by blaming the referees.

Only in the NBA does an owner -- Dallas' Mark Cuban -- wage a loud, never-ending campaign alleging that the league and its referees are incompetent.

As transparent as they seem, Cuban's complaints matter. His team's Game 5 loss in the 2006 Finals, in which Miami's Dwyane Wade shot 25 free throws, is still held up as an outrage.

Of course, it could also be seen as a great player going to the hoop and getting call after call ... after the Mavericks hacked Shaquille O'Neal and put themselves in the penalty.

Every other league has glamor teams too, but few say anything about NFL referees or baseball umpires.

Only in the NBA could a respected veteran such as Dick Bavetta be publicly called "Knick Bavetta" because of a perceived bias for his home-town team and home teams in general.

The ill will that NBA referees face is off the charts. Before Donaghy was identified, the Internet went wild with rumors, one more reckless and mean-spirited than the next.

Adnan Teazer of "The Bleacher Report" wrote: "I just pray that the ref under investigation is Bennett Salvatore ... who oversaw that infamous Game 5 in the 2006 Finals between the Mavs and Heat, in which Dwyane 'Breathe on me and it's a foul' Wade got his phantom call in the final seconds."

Someone calling himself "Critical Fanatic" on the website "Fan IQ" wrote: "Obviously Joey Crawford's name will come up since he's had some previous issues with taxes.

"Another name, and this would be a shocker, but what about Bob Delaney. Prior to working with the NBA, Delaney worked as an undercover cop inside of the New Jersey/New York mob scene. He certainly would have some connections."

Donaghy was a mid-level official who worked five playoff games last season. However, Bavetta, Crawford, Salvatore and Delaney are top-rated veterans, who long ago proved themselves the best of the best under fire and were regulars at the Finals.

(The hot-tempered Crawford was suspended by Stern from this spring's playoffs for cavalierly ejecting Tim Duncan but is reportedly in line to be reinstated.)

After years of whimpering, skeptics may have an actual fix to point out, which is Donaghy's gift to his colleagues. Now there may be a tangible reason to doubt them all.

Long ago, the NBA was in such a mess, players, owners and league officials put aside individual complaints to enact an economic framework that made it possible for them to thrive.

Maybe one day they'll realize their ceaseless bleating is tearing all that down.

Maybe not.


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