In 2002, consumer advocate and current presidential candidate Ralph Nader quickly criticized the NBA referees who worked the Lakers' controversial Game 6 Western Conference finals victory over the Sacramento Kings.
Now that former referee Tim Donaghy has claimed in a court filing this week that two of the game's referees were "company men" who "manipulated" the outcome by calling several questionable fouls on the Kings and provided the Lakers a staggering 27 fourth-quarter free throws to create a revenue-boosting Game 7 won by the Lakers, Nader said he's hopeful a league whistle-blower will affirm the tainted referee's account.
"Incompetence cannot be the sole explanation," Nader said Thursday, six years after firing off a letter to NBA Commissioner David Stern requesting a review of the 2002 game's officiating. "It's sufficiently horrendous to not investigate this claim more closely."
Yet, Nader said any member of Congress will find it politically dicey to request hearings to explore the claims of Donaghy, who pleaded guilty last year to felony charges of assisting professional gamblers and betting on games himself. He is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court in New York on July 14 and faces up to 33 months in prison, his attorney said.
"This issue is probative," Nader said. "That game has never been fully explained, and now Donaghy has revived it. I don't expect Congress to look at it. Without good evidence, they'd be subject to colossal ridicule for taking this on. But Donaghy may provoke whistle-blowers.
"Let's say these guys were company refs and they wanted to get David Stern more money. If that's in their mind, David Stern doesn't even have to wink at them. They know how to do it. These claims have aroused that critical opinion, and the NBA should be concerned by that. If people say they don't trust this game anymore, that could be the beginning of the end."
Nader said he was weighing whether to bring a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission because "engaging in deceptive practices like what these referees have been accused of is consumer fraud."
ESPN.com reported Thursday that two former NBA referees, including Hue Hollins, were questioned by federal investigators about referee Dick Bavetta, who worked the Lakers-Kings' Game 6. "They wanted to know what I knew about Dick Bavetta in terms of holding calls, making sure this team wins, that team wins," Hollins told ESPN.com. " . . . I never heard of that."
Another of the game's referees, Ted Bernhardt, told the website, "I stand by my calls in that game. I was right on. I believe in Dick Bavetta, and I believe in [fellow Game 6 referee] Bob Delaney, and I believe in the NBA for that matter."
Stern told Bloomberg Radio's "On the Ball" program that will air this weekend that he was seeking a new director of officiating, and Bloomberg reported a person "familiar with the plan" reported the new hire will for the first time be someone who was not a former referee.
Nader insists more reforms are necessary, including the implementation of instant replay and the use of a nonpartisan commission to select referees for playoff games.
Addressing media before the start of Game 4, Stern adamantly dismissed the possibility that referees were instructed to alter the outcome of the playoff game six years ago.
"My memory recalls that that was not one of the best refereed games," Stern said, later adding. "I'm saying to you that the allegations about that are incorrect, are not true. I don't want to even fudge words, OK? They're not true.
"That said, [officials] get about 90% of the calls correct. Given the size of the players, the speed of the game, the position they find themselves, and as a result, there are always games, some of which are refereed, quote, better with a higher percentage of correct calls than others. But that's the extent of it."
Stern also said that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson recent assertion that referees should be controlled by an entity other than the NBA isn't happening any time soon.
"I think that would not be a wise management decision," Stern said.
Times staff writer Jonathan Abrams contributed to this report.