December 12, 2009

Tim Donaghy, the NBA ref who was driven from the game in disgrace after he was caught gambling on games, including those he officiated, has a new book out making some sensational claims about how the NBA is run. And he went on Greta Van Susteren's show on Fox last night to talk about it.

Van Susteren: You talk about discussions you had beforehand where refs would say they didn't like a particular player, didn't like a particular team, that that sort of factored into whether you thought that the ref would maybe call something or not call something.

Donaghy: Right. I think there was a situation where certain referees, in my mind -- and it obviously proved successful -- could change the point spread in an NBA game based on relationships by four or five points. And when you talk about adding four or five points onto any line that's at Vegas it's like sitting at a blackjack table and knowing that your first card is an ace when the dealer starts to deal.

Van Susteren: You know, that actually shocked me much more in your book, than your own conduct, because as a fan, or as a viewer, I thought this was all done so straight, and then I find out that the refs are also, you know, talking trash about players and about team owners -- and that that has an impact on some of the calls. It took away, sort of, the honesty in the game for me.

Donaghy: Right, and I think the, you know, NBA fans are very knowledgeable. And over the last 10 or 15 years, they know that a lot of unusual things have taken place.

Donaghy describes how officials would single out and punish players like Allen Iverson if they felt the league hadn't punished them enough for misdeeds on the floor. And sometimes they would just pick on players because they had earned the displeasure of the refs:

Donaghy: One player where referees targeted on a continuous basis was Rasheed Wallace. He was one of those guys that just constantly -- seemed to go out of his way to embarrass referees. And when you do that to the referee staff, you know, at times they would come together, and basically try to put him in his place, or try to get him in a position where, you know, he would stop doing what he was doing.

Van Susteren: So there are the NBA players who sort of get the harsher treatment, deliberately. Are there any NBA players who are particularly well liked, or favorites that get a pass? Where maybe they've fouled somebody, or did palming or traveling, and everyone said, 'Let's let him go'?

Donaghy: I mean, there are situations, and the referees are trained in the fact that, obviously, you don't want to be throwing the stars out of the game, or you don't want to be giving a star a foul that you can give to somebody else who's in that area.

Van Susteren: You mean, you'd deliberately pick who you give the foul to? I mean, if there's a collision of players, you'd pick who you'd give the foul to?

Donaghy: Sure.

Van Susteren: So that someone who might be near the limit on the fouls and who might be a star might not get it, but you'd give it to somebody else?

Donaghy: Absolutely.

Van Susteren: Deliberately?

Donaghy: Deliberately.

Van Susteren: And was that discussed beforehand and afterwards, you know, we're going to do this if the situation arises or something like it. And afterwards, good job, you did that?

Donaghy: Well, it's the way that you were trained. Obviously you don't want to give a Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal or LeBron James a foul that may be his second or third foul in the first quarter, to where he's going to have to go to the bench. I mean, it was openly discussed in meetings that, you know, people paid big dollars to see these stars on the floor. So if there's a situation where you can have two people to pick from, you're certainly not going to pick one of them, you're going to pick someone that's the sixth, seventh, or eighth man on that team.

Van Susteren: And that's expressly said, that that's what you should do.

Donaghy: Absolutely it is.

Now, there's no doubt Donaghy has plenty of motivation to slag his former league, since profits and revenge often mix together. But what Donaghy is describing actually rings true for anyone who has watched NBA games closely over the past several decades.

It has become increasingly clear over the years that NBA officials are corrupt, but not in the usual way; they call games badly at times that are convenient most of all for the NBA, when it wants certain marketable matchups in the playoffs. They are also corrupt in that they clearly make calls based on grudges they hold, and their egos have become the most dominating force on the court.

Anyone who was watching Michael Jordan's rise as the league's premier superstar knows that, in addition to prodigious talent, Jordan was also blessed with a league that stood to gain even more by elevating his stature, and thus with taking it easy on him when it came to officiating.

I was a 12-year season ticket holder to NBA games, and have watched hundreds of NBA games live over the years, and even more on TV. And the process Donaghy describes -- wherein officials decide ahead of time to ameliorate fouls against league stars whenever possible, while simultaneously targeting both players and coaches they deem to be a threat to the officiating crews' supremacy on the court -- was fairly self-evident to anyone who watched many games.

The officials are just symptomatic of the larger problem of the NBA game generally: team play — which is really where the beauty of the game emerges — has for years been sublimated to talent. Michael Jordan in effect ruined the NBA, so that now all that fans root for is that somehow their team can draft or somehow nab the league’s next great talent. Defense is an afterthought in the NBA, and the pick-and-roll is about as team-oriented as you get on offense. The college game — though its players are inferior — is far superior from the standpoint of the game itself.

But the NBA's biggest problem is that it is based on a hoax: It pretends that its games are real competitions honestly officiated, but NBA officials openly control the pace and flow of games and often their outcomes. It also pretends that it's part of the communities in which teams play, but it's willing to rip teams out of those communities if they aren't willing to spend taxpayer dollars lining the pockets of owners. All of that is deeply corrupt.

I thought the NBA's denial to Van Susteren was interesting: It simply insisted that there was no criminal wrongdoing in its operations.

Which is probably true. But there's nothing criminal about the WWF or other wrestling operations, either. That doesn't alter the fact that they're essentially scams, though.

And the NBA these days resembles nothing so much as a hyped-up wrestling scam that still likes to clothe itself in the mantle of being an objectively officiated sport. It's not. And anyone who's watched the game much in the past 20 years can tell you that.

It's tragic, really: Basketball players are the greatest pure all-around athletes in the world, IMHO. And the best of them play in the NBA -- which has become a dysfunctional carnival scam, predicated on raking in as much dough as possible, while the game itself is just a sideshow, a platform for promoting media stars.

Full disclosure: I was a lifetime Sonics fan. And still bitter about it.

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