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February, 2009

The NBA
Where Game Fixing Happens

By Lou V

Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and ARod used steroids. Everyone used steroids. (Why is no one barking up Martina Navratilova's tree?) The swimmer smoked pot. The football player had his dogs fight. We sit on our high horse and point fingers with indignation as we eat our hot dogs. Meanwhile the NBA allegedly fixed playoff games for years to make sure big-market teams advance, as directed by David Stern in the commissioner's office, and no one gives a shit. It is all swept under the rug - no congressional inquiry as promised; no fan protests except for internet din. The NBA is allowed to conduct its own investigation, announce itself squeaky clean, and we get on with the stories of where LeBron will play next (NY of course, giving the NBA suddenly-repaired glamour franchises in Boston, LA, and NY; a stroke of luck!).

Contrast this with last year in New York, when Isiah Thomas was scorched at every home game with vicious booing and chants for his firing for simply doing a bad job as coach. There are no protests that David Stern, somehow, is still the commissioner of the NBA. Nor that the referees accused of fixing playoff games are still officiating games! NBA broadcasters barely mention the charges, as if it never happened, or if it did happen, it's in the past. Attendance at NBA games isn't down. The NBA ran an internal investigation which came back with a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil 'Tim Donaghy was a lone shooter' verdict, and Stern hired a former US Army General in Iraq as overseer of NBA refs. Everything's fixed - the fixing is fixed.

But something still stinks in Denmark, aka 645 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan; it's been an awful smell that's been observed for years with 'home cooking' a standard NBA practice (refs giving the home team the benefit of the doubt on foul calls) and 'Jordan rules' but no one could believe their worst thoughts could be true - the NBA playoff games weren't on the level; big-market teams were nurtured into advancing into the final rounds to increase revenues, and its referees were like those guys in wrestling who look the other way while the bad guy hits the good guy on the head with a chair.

Here's what it all means:

  • Put an asterisk on the San Antonio Spurs* championship of 2006-07; the Phoenix Suns can lay equal claim to that championship. Which would mean Knick fans can rejoice that Mike D'Antoni's coaching methods can result in an NBA championship.

  • Put an asterisk on the Los Angeles Laker* championship of 2001-02; the Sacramento Kings can lay equal claim.

  • Take away the NY Knicks*' Finals appearance in 1999 - when Indiana's players complained afterwards that it seemed like the league officials stilted the calls so the underdog but big-market Knicks would advance.

  • Remember Charles Smith of the Knicks getting fouled three times while trying to score inside in Game 5 against Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls* in 1993, and the refs didn't call a single foul? The Knicks had finished with a better seasonal record than the Bulls, and led the series at one point 2-0, but those non-calls broke their home-court-advantage and ushered Jordan to the finals. Put an asterisk on Jordan* in general for years of "Jordan Rules", where he could manhandle players on defense, but if players so much as touched him, it was a foul. Jordan as superman (not nearly as effective in college at North Carolina by the way) made billions for the NBA.

Here’s a recap for those of you who, like me, haven’t had the time to write this all down on a piece of paper:

  • Tim Donaghy was an NBA from 1994-2007; he officiated 772 regular season and 20 playoff games. An FBI investigation found that he bet on games that he officiated in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007, and made calls affecting the point spread in those games. He officiated over 100 games those two years. Tim Donaghy pled guilty to those charges and was sentenced to 15 months in Federal prison in July, 2008. It is a matter of conjecture how many games prior to 2005 Donaghy fixed.

  • Donaghy in turn blew the whistle on the NBA, revealing in a letter to the court during his trial that the NBA has for years been using certain veteran officials as ‘company men’ who affect playoff games to help big-market teams advance in the playoffs to the benefit of the NBA. He spelled out two particular playoff series that were fixed. One was in 2002 where a small-market team was denied winning the series in the sixth game; as officials ignored blatant fouls committed by the big-market team’s players and called "made-up" fouls against the small-market team, giving the big-market team more free-throw chances.

Reporters at ESPN and other media outlets have established this to be the Sacramento Kings-Los Angeles Laker Western Conference Finals, which the Lakers won in 7 games. In game 6, referees Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney, and Ted Bernhardt called an excessive amount of fouls against the Kings, giving the Lakers 40 free throws, 27 in the decisive fourth quarter of the 106-102 L.A. win. They also failed to call glaring fouls by the Lakers, leaving the national broadcast announcers (such as Bill Walton) audibly flabbergasted at the time. In the closing seconds, Mike Bibby of the Kings was clobbered by a forearm by Kobe Bryant, in full view of the referees and television cameras, and no offensive foul was called. The calls in this game were so conspicuously bad that Consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote a letter to the NBA after the game complaining that the officiating of the game did not seem on the level.

  • Adding insult to injury to all of this, the NBA commissioner David Stern commissioned an internal investigation led by former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz. Released on October 2, 2008, the NBA’s investigation found no evidence that any referee miscalled a game to favor a particular team or player. About the Laker-Kings game and the Bryant-Bibby play in particular, the Pedowitz report claims that the referees were simply in bad position to make the call. In the TV broadcast of this game available for viewing on youtube, you can see that one referee was in great position and had a very clear view. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_i3Vnd0n44&feature=related; then read the Pedowitz-run NBA internal investigation at http://assets.espn.go.com/media/pdf/081002/PedowitzReport.pdf

Strong speculation by ESPN analysts and fans suggest that Donaghy fixed game 3 of the Phoenix Suns – San Antonio Spurs game of the 2006-2007 playoffs, considered by observers as one of the worst officiated games in history. Phoenix seemed robbed of a victory in game 3 by Donaghy’s calls. To make matters worse, and nothing to do with game fixing but adding to the ire of Phoenix Suns fans – the Spurs’ Robert Horry slammed the Suns’ Steve Nash into the scorer’s table and floor in game 4; the Suns’ Amare Stoudemire happened to be walking to the scorer’s table to check into the game at the time; he was suspended from the next game for stepping onto the court during the fracus (along with Boris Diaw who unambiguously left the bench, and Horry). See  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0qe7PGCQvI .

Gag Orders?

During the NY Knicks - San Antonio Spurs game in November, 2008, the Knick game announcers chatted about Mike D’Antoni’s distaste for the San Antonio Spurs, saying D’Antoni related to them that he flinches at the mere mention of their team’s name, since they had eliminated his Phoenix Suns team from the playoffs so many times. At no point during their 5 minute chat did they ever mention the Donaghy charges, or the idea that maybe at least once D’Antoni’s team had been unfairly eliminated by the Spurs. It was as if it never happened. Being a Knick fan in NYC, and watching or listening to a great majority of their games, I’ve not heard the announcers on TV or radio mention the game fixing once this 2008-2009 season. Walt Frazier, who used to regularly talk about “home cooking” calls at the end of games – I’ve not heard him refer to “home cooking” once this season.

Jordan Rules

A running joke amongst fans on sports forums for years is that the Jordan Rules were not only a defensive strategy employed by the Detroit Pistons to stop Michael Jordan, and the title of a book by Sam Smith, but also the informal way that NBA referees applied fouls to Michael Jordan – allowing him to manhandle players on defense without a foul being called, but calling a foul on even the slightest touch foul against him when he was on offense. These ‘rules’ enabled Michael Jordan, certainly one of the great players of all time, to become Superman on the court, which the NBA rode to greater awareness of its league throughout the world.   

Indiana Complains About Calls in 1999 Cinderella Knicks Series

I can’t help but think back on the 1999 playoffs, when the Cinderella and undermanned Knicks (with Patrick Ewing injured) miraculously beat the Indiana Pacers, and when the series ended, Indiana players alleged that the referees had blatently made calls favoring the Knicks so the big-market team could advance.

Home Team Wins Majority of the Time

NBA home teams win a greater percentage of their games than any of the other major sports. Since 2002, NBA home teams have won 61 percent of the time (in the playoffs the numbers skyrocket -- In the 2008 NBA playoffs, the home team won 64 of 86 games -- or 74 percent of the time). There have been numerous articles written through the years to try to explain this. “Home cooking” by the referees, as Frazier has always called it, is one widely held theory. Are the officials simply affected by the cheering of the home team, or do NBA officials use a rule of thumb to ‘give the home team some’? Bottom line: even if your local team sucks, odds are you’ll buy tickets to a game or two if you know that even a bad team has a 50-50 chance of winning.  As Frazier has always called it, “home cooking”. As a Knick fan, I remember the lopsided series that they would play against the powerhouse Celtic teams in the eighties. Typically, the Celtics would blow the Knicks off the court in games at Boston Garden; and the Knicks would squeeze out victories at Madison Square Garden, extending the series to the full complement of games.

Movement of Players Arranged by NBA?

Pao Gasol’s trade to the Lakers last winter (2007-2008) in what appeared to be a lopsided trade certainly worked out well for the NBA, as it helped give them a Laker-Boston Celtic finals. NBA fans in other cities were left to wonder, if Pau Gasol was so readily available, why didn’t their team offer a little more to get him? The same thoughts were echoed throughout the league the summer before, when Kevin Garnett was traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Celtics in an apparent lopsided trade; a trade that catapulted the Celtics from a 23-59 season to the league championship. At the time Isiah Thomas, GM of the Knicks, said he would have approached Minnesota with a competing offer, but he never even knew Garnett was on the trade block. Did the NBA choreograph these trades for the good of the NBA as a whole? Fans will never know.

What Next

David Stern is still the commissioner of the NBA. It’s hard to understand why. The referees who were alleged to have thrown the Sacramento-Laker series in 2002, Dick Bavetta and Bob Delaney, are still refereeing.

Action Plan

Every NBA fan attending a game this year, should shout out “FIXED” whenever a bad call is called at the end of a game, with the same vengeful enthusiasm that Knick fans serenaded Isiah Thomas with chants of “Fire Isiah” last year. Because you never know. Even if you think it was just a bad call by the ref, who will obviously be on best behavior this year and the next year or two. Yell out "Fixed" just to get under the collar of the refs and David Stern. Force them into some sort of action beyond what they've done so far, which is basically nothing. Fill the internet blogs with "That game was fixed". “Fixed! Fixed! Fixed!” should be the rallying cry.

And don’t listen to the announcers and sports writers, who will no doubt chastise the fans for such behavior. The media makes their money off of the sport; if the sport gets hurt at the gate, they get hurt. Imagine arenas all over the NBA rumbling to the chant of FIXED whenever a referee made a questionable call. David Stern would have to step down, hopefully followed by the rest of the current NBA management, and fans will clean up the game we love.

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The Readers Respond:

Great article. But I will take it a step further and add that I am convinced that many star players have been and still are a part of the "fix."

I was initially convinced in 1984 when Magic Johnson in I believe game 5 or 6 threw a pass directly to a Celtic player (Dennis Johnson?) whereby, James Worthy stole the ball back and gave it to Magic who appeared to look disgustedly at Worthy and proceeded to immediately throw another pass directly to a Celtic player. I was incredulous! Indeed, basketball has never quite been the same for me since that moment.

I can tell story after story but over the years I have seen more and more star players participate. Kobe and Shaq in 2004 against Detroit stands out and this year Pau Gasol against Dallas.

I've seen it again and again. In fact I didn't even watch much of the playoffs this year after that and probably won't watch much of any basketball in the future since I believe college is even worse. At least Junior High and, perhaps, still High School (although I've seen a lot of referee cheating there for completely different reasons than money) -- those levels are largely untainted. But good luck getting your opinion out there. You won't get much media since you would be killing the goose that lays golden eggs (and they stink! lol)..

Al Corney

Indianapolis, Indiana