Accusations of fixing the finals gnaws at the NBA's integrity
By Bill Peterson
Something is seriously amiss with the NBA on the eve of its championship finals, which are alleged to be more made for TV than the law should allow. Of course, speculation as to which teams the league would prefer on its June stage has run for so long as to have become a rite of spring. But the sides of the Milwaukee Bucks' mouths muttered the conspiracy theory with bristling detail last week, which is pretty damaging gossip whether it's true or not.
The Bucks ultimately lost the Eastern Conference Finals to the Philadelphia 76ers in seven games, so they're spared the prohibitive task of tipping off against the Los Angeles Lakers for the league championship. Even before their series ended, though, the Bucks all but came right out and said the fix was in. It wasn't the only sign that the Bucks, and the league, have lost their composure.
The Sixers made 186 trips to the free throw line in the series, compared with only 119 for the Bucks. On the face of it, the Sixers stand to go to the line more often, anyway, because they drive to the basket and the Bucks pull up for the jumper. But the Bucks were outraged by several specific calls, often of the ticky-tack variety on the perimeter.
Beginning after Game 4, when the Bucks said Glenn Robinson was fouled on a fourth-quarter possession that cashed out a layup for the Sixers, the Bucks were distracted by their sense of injustice. In Game 5, early touch fouls were called against Sam Cassell and Ervin Johnson, Cassell went berserk after being stung with a technical, flagrant fouls were called against Robinson and Tim Thomas and a moving screen call went against Jason Caffey. At the end of the game, Robinson missed from the baseline with the game on the line in the final seconds and Ray Allen missed the putback, later to say goaltending should have been called against Dikembe Mutombo.
After that game, Allen told reporters he's suspected the NBA was fixed since he was in high school, adding that members of his family told him they saw NBA Commissioner David Stern carrying on at a game as if he were rooting for the Sixers. Bucks coach George Karl said three other NBA coaches called him to raise the issue. It was Bucks power forward Scott Williams, of all people, who said the Bucks were losing their cool.
So, in Game 6, Sixers star Allan Iverson drove the lane and took an elbow in the face from Williams, who would have to be on his knees to elbow Iverson's ribs. After that game, the NBA revised the call against Williams to flagrant foul 2 from flagrant foul 1, requiring that Williams sit out Game 7.
Just as one hates to see the referees decide games with late calls that are largely subjective, it's disturbing when the league basically decides a series by making a key player sit out on a reversal of a subjective decision. Not that Williams is an All-Pro, but he makes a big difference for that team, which doesn't have enough inside presence even with him. And how the Williams foul is flagrant 2 when the infamous Juwan Howard hack that knocked San Antonio's Derek Anderson out of the playoffs isn't would take some explaining.
It would be wrong, though, based just on this year's playoffs, to conclude that the NBA fixes its results for maximum television revenue. After all, the NBA has lost millions on the Lakers' 11-game blitz through the first three rounds of playoffs, which could have been made longer and more interesting with a few well-timed calls.
But the problem isn't that the NBA is fixed. The problem is that the Bucks can be comfortable talking about the possibility so openly.
The problem isn't that perception is reality, but that perception is everything respecting the integrity of athletic competition. And the NBA doesn't help itself by dismissing and laughing off the suspicion, which, if not confirmed, remains a suspicion.
The NBA's silence on the matter is almost creepy. One would expect some kind of fine against Allen for conduct detrimental to the league. It wouldn't be unprecedented. The issue isn't a lot different from the controversy for which Pete Rose serves a lifetime suspension from baseball.
Whether a league is perceived to be compromised by gambling or its own machinations, any suspicion that the games aren't fairly played and honestly won cuts at the integrity of the competition. Without that integrity, the NBA is professional wrestling or the XFL. The NBA ought to walk every last mile to protect that integrity. Instead, the league just hopes the problem goes away.
Maybe it will. Because the Bucks are right -- the NBA clearly has an interest it pitting the Sixers against the Lakers in this year's finals, which is exactly what it's got. It's national star power and two huge television markets. It's the Lakers, the defending champions and the hottest team in the game, against the Sixers, featuring the MVP who's also the most discussed figure in the league.
Iverson will never be able to get rid of all those tattoos, which will always remind his detractors of his thuggish past. That's unfortunate, because he has otherwise made every effort to resist blowing on himself by saying the right things and acknowledging the right people. He plays hard and hurt and can even be said to be a team player when he hits six of 30, because it's only the threat of his scoring that illuminates the marginal talents with which he's surrounded.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have effected a remarkable transformation since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant were openly bickering in January. Now they're playing together and patting each other on the back.
The Lakers haven't lost a game in two months, and longtime observers are saying they're playing better than the teams that featured Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain 30 years ago or Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbbar 15 years ago. That's rather extravagant praise, and it's pretty hard to confute.
Among the showcases in these finals is two coaches, Phil Jackson and Larry Brown, who have demonstrated just what an achievement it is to win with great talent. In Brown's case, he's pulled maximum grit out of his role players, who are walking wounded, while reversing his once contentious relationship with Iverson. It's been no small feat to win over Iverson, which has clearly been the key to Philadelphia's success.
Jackson appears to be on his way to winning his eighth NBA championship, but he's not a paragon of humility and a lot of people, frankly, are sick of seeing him win. In some ways, he's comparable with Sparky Anderson, even if the comparison is strained by Anderson's lack of a zen vocabulary. But both have been hammered for winning with talent, as if it's not a coach's prerogative to surround himself with guys who can play.
The problem with talent, though, is that talent knows it's talented, which isn't the same as talent being committed to winning. Anderson and Jackson both have fought that battle adroitly, basically by letting players settle their own conflicts. Both know what many professional coaches forget, that the players are the team. If the players happen to be pretty good, you don't have to say Anderson and Jackson have done their jobs well, so long as you don't forget to give them their rings.
Neither Jackson nor Anderson have been the type to sit quietly in the background, especially when speaking out can deflect pressure and criticism from the players. Sometime early in this finals series, if it doesn't break right for the Lakers, Jackson is sure to make some remarks about the officiating -- but he'll stop short of declaring a fix.
At this point, the NBA doesn't need the criticism. It already has the series it wants.
Just thought it might be interesting.
Bucks think Sixers are getting all the calls
MILWAUKEE -- Stopping just short of alleging an outright anti-Bucks conspiracy, Ray Allen said Thursday that the NBA would prefer to see the Philadelphia 76ers face the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals.
"I think there's no question about that. The league, as a marketing machine, the bottom line is about making money," Allen said. "It behooves everybody for the league to make more money, and the league knows that Philadelphia is going to make more money with L.A. than we would with L.A." Coming off a crushing one-point Game 5 loss in which two flagrant fouls and a technical foul cost the Bucks dearly, Milwaukee now faces a must-win situation in Game 6 Friday night. The best-of-seven series is tied 3-3, with the winner of Sunday's finale in Philadelphia moving on to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals beginning next Wednesday. The Bucks have complained about the officiating since Game 4, when they felt Glenn Robinson was fouled on a crucial possession late in the fourth quarter that turned into a breakaway layup for the 76ers. In Game 5, Sam Cassell's technical foul and flagrant fouls on Robinson and Tim Thomas resulted in a five-point possession and two four-point possessions for Philadelphia, and the Bucks admitted that those three mistakes cost them the game.
" It behooves everybody for the league to make more money, and the league knows that Philadelphia is going to make more money with L.A. than we would with L.A. "
-- Ray Allen
But aside from what they felt was the questionable nature of those calls, the Bucks also had a problem with several other whistles -- touch fouls on Cassell and Ervin Johnson early in the game and a moving screen call on Jason Caffey late in the fourth quarter. Cassell's complaining began in the first quarter when he pump-faked Allen Iverson off his feet and Iverson whacked him hard on the arm. No foul was called, even though the play happened directly in front of referee Ronnie Nunn. "Nine times out of 10 when you have a referee you know there's no biases," Allen said. "But in the back of everybody's minds it's like Philadelphia and the MVP needs to play in the finals. "I used to always think the series were fixed when I was in high school, then when I got to the NBA I said there's no way they could be fixed. But even last year against Indiana in Game 5 (of Milwaukee's first-round series) it seemed like everything went against us," Allen said. The NBA assigns its veteran referees to work playoff games based upon merit. Different teams have complained throughout the years that superstars receive preferential treatment from the officials, and the Bucks are merely the latest upstarts to learn that playoff games at the end of May are often called differently than regular-season games. Complaining about specific calls is one thing; alleging a conspiracy is another. And though nobody on the Bucks came right out and said it, all the questions about a conspiracy theory found a welcoming audience. Allen said members of his family had told him that they were sitting across from NBA commissioner David Stern on Sunday and noticed him stand up to watch a replay after it appeared Allen got away with committing a foul against Iverson that wasn't called. "He jumped up real mad like he was cheering for Philly," Allen said. Bucks coach George Karl said conspiracy theories were "summer talk," although he claimed three other NBA coaches had called him after Game 5 to raise that very issue. "Sam Cassell said that Kevin Garnett and Rod Strickland had called him, so it's out there," Karl said. The NBA has always laughed off the charge, but conspiracy theorists often point to Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference finals in making their case -- saying Phoenix got an inordinate number of calls against Seattle because the league wanted to see a Suns-Chicago Bulls final. "Here was the scenario: A Barkley-Jordan final, and Barkley did a commercial for NBC three weeks before the finals -- and he told me about it. And then they shoot 67 free throws in the final game," said Karl, who coached the SuperSonics in that game. There were 100 foul shots taken in that game, 64 by the Suns. Seattle was called for 38 personal fouls and had three players disqualified; Phoenix was whistled for 27 fouls and had no one foul out. "So there's a little paranoia there, but tomorrow night that means nothing," Karl said. "The board room is behind closed doors in New York City, so no one's ever going to know. NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre said the league had no comment on the Bucks' remarks. Supervisor of officials Ed Rush did not return a phone call to his Phoenix office. In the history of the NBA playoffs, teams that have taken a 3-2 lead in Game 5 have gone on to win the series 83 percent of the time. One of the exceptions was this year's Bucks, who dropped three straight games to the Charlotte Hornets in the second round before coming back and winning Games 6 and 7. The Bucks continue to defiantly insist they are the better team, and they believe they will win Games 6 and 7 if they continue to hold Iverson in check. Iverson has shot just 33-for-120 (27 percent) from the field during the series as the Bucks have hugely overplayed him to his right, forcing Iverson to go to his left. "In the Toronto series everybody said you had to double-team him, but have you seen him go left and score?" Allen asked. "That's all he wants to do is go right, and if he goes left he's going to jump back to the right. "So he can't score going to his left unless he passes the ball, but if he goes right he's the biggest scoring threat in the world." Only Game 6 will tell if that strategy will continue to work -- and whether people will continue to believe that an anti-Bucks conspiracy exists. "I'm not alleging a conspiracy, I'm not getting caught up in anything that I think the league has going on or what they might want," Allen said. "I'm just saying if we control what we can control, we'll be in L.A. playing the Lakers. "If we play like we're capable of playing and not let the referees have a hand in the outcome of the game, then we'll have nothing to worry about."
Perception more harmful to NBA than reality
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The NBA has a problem.
The problem is not that there is a conspiracy to put the Lakers (or, in their day, the Bulls) in the Finals, or that playoff games are fixed.
The problem is that so many otherwise rational people think there is a conspiracy to put the Lakers (or, in their day, the Bulls) in the Finals, and that playoff games are fixed. The problem is that the very teams who compete now state openly that they expect to get screwed in important games.
For 15 years, I've listened to crackpots tell me how the league is no different than pro wrestling, that I should be ashamed to cover a sport where the results have been determined in advance by a cabal of power-mad men (the list is never the same but frequently includes David Stern, NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol, the heads of various Fortune 500 companies, and once -- only once -- Suzanne Somers). I laugh to myself, for there is nothing I can do to help these people.
And then comes a game like Friday's Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. There is nothing I can say that will explain 27 free throws for the Lakers in the fourth quarter -- an amount staggering in its volume and impact on the game. It gave me pause. How can you explain it? How can you explain a game where Scot Pollard fouls out when he's two feet from Shaquille O'Neal, or that Doug Christie is called for a ridiculous touch foul just as Chris Webber spikes Kobe Bryant's drive to the hoop, or that Mike Bibby is called for a foul deep in the fourth quarter after Bryant pops him in the nose with an elbow? Regardless of whether the fouls were called correctly or not, they put a black mark on what has been as compelling, dramatic and well-played of a series as I can recall in recent years.
What gives one pause, though, is not that these fouls were called against the Kings in this one game. The pause comes because these fouls were called against the Kings in Los Angeles two days after O'Neal fouled out of Game 5 in Sacramento -- the same game in which Bryant was saddled with five fouls. How can consecutive games be called so diametrically opposite -- with such dramatic differences in the impact on the respective teams?
This is my problem: the 180-degree turns from day to day in the playoffs. One day, Shaq is allowed to drop his shoulder and knock any defender senseless. The very next day, if Shaq looks at Bibby, he gets the foul. How can it be the exact opposite of what it was the game before? And I think people pick up on that, and think something is not right.
I am not speaking here of your garden variety fan who roots for his or her team passionately, sometimes nonsensically, and who will thus create boogeymen to explain his team's losses where none exist. Nor of the poor souls who have to assign the state of their own wretched lives to some unseen, omniscient force. Nor of the professional cranks and nutjobs who earn a living by finding gunmen in grassy knolls -- no, they fired from the bridge above! No, wait -- it was from the sewer below! But of ordinary folks who pay their taxes and hold themselves responsible for their lot in life.
After Game 6, I went out to dinner in L.A. with a couple of sportswriters and three or four other folks who aren't in the business. Each one of us at the table had a college degree. None of us had a dog in this Lakers-Kings fight. But us Sports Guys wanted to see if we were overreacting. So we asked the woman with the business degree who has season tickets to an NBA team (not the Lakers, not the Kings) what her immediate reaction was after watching Friday.
"They stole the game from the Kings," she said, matter of factly.
The next morning, I call for a bellman for help with the bags. The door is open five seconds when he says, and I'm paraphrasing here because I don't generally quote bellmen, "What was up with that game last night? I mean, I'm a Laker fan, so I appreciate the calls. But I don't want to win that way. It was like Chris Webber was saying, 'I can't win, so why should I play hard?' "
Which, if the bellman had been in the Kings' locker room on Friday, was exactly the demeanor he would have seen from Webber. His lip was literally quivering, he was so angry. He spoke in guarded tones about how "we're still the Sacramento Kings" and how he had been told it would be impossible to beat the Lakers Friday. "I was warned," he muttered. Twenty feet away, Vlade Divac was asked if he played O'Neal any differently than he had the first five games. "Of course," Divac smirked. "I thought 'Tonight, I will play him very aggressive and foul him every time.' "
You can dismiss this as sour grapes from the losing team. But this has gone on for so long in so many losing locker rooms over the years, it is now part of the postgame procedure: Winning coach compliments spirit of losing team, losing coach laments horrible officiating. It is so matter-of-fact as to be a cliche: We got the calls tonight; they'll get the calls tomorrow. Only in the NBA does a coach who's won eight championships whine more than a stuck engine valve about refs. You may hear Lou Pinella rant about the strike zone on Monday, but he's not still at it on Thursday. Officials blow calls every Sunday in the NFL, but that league makes sure you know about it on Tuesday, while the NBA still muzzles all discussion about its officials' performance.
So why do NBA coaches do it?
Because it appears to work.
When Phil Jackson gripes about the Knicks and Pistons not allowing flow and freedom in a game -- when he says that Dennis Rodman is being persecuted; when he says that Shaq isn't being allowed the same freedoms a man six inches shorter receives -- he's not talking to the guy or gal that asked him the question in the news conference, and he's not talking to you, dear reader. He's talking to the three people in the striped shirts who will call the next game.
Please understand: I think NBA refs have the hardest job officiating of all the major sports, and that includes the guys who do it on skates. Basketball -- and pro basketball in particular -- has more subjective calls in a half than you'll see in a season of football. Block or charge? Did he jump straight up, or come over the back? Is he hooking, or using leverage? And I think because the game is so subjective to call, no one knows what to expect night in and out.
The NBA also suffers because of the nature of the game. One dominant player out of five will necessarily have more impact than one out of nine in baseball (including the pitcher, who only plays once every four or five days) or one of 11 in football. So someone like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or Isiah Thomas -- or Shaq -- tends to win more often than in baseball or football. This tends to lead to the same teams winning championships -- which creates the impression that this is desired by the Commish, the networks and advertisers looking for common themes, one-name superstars and storylines to sell to the public.
(Of course, the public is as hypocritical on this as it is on so many things. The very people who say they're sick of seeing the same faces win year after year in the NBA are the same folks who stayed away in droves, and didn't watch, during the league's most democratic era -- the 1970s, when talented if nondescript teams like Golden State, Washington, Portland and Seattle won championships.)
I acknowledge I am at a loss about what to do. The Commish acknowledged last week that the game has gotten, in some ways, too quick for the refs, which is why he's now behind some form of instant replay. The Competition Committee will receive a proposal from the league for replay at its meeting this week. And here, the NBA can learn from the NFL, which is always perceived as tinkering with its game to improve officiating and make the game more pleasant for fans.
Of course, the NFL often does no such thing. But people think it does.
Perception is reality.
Likewise, Chicago forward Antonio Davis indirectly accused officials of fixing games. After the Bulls lost Game 3 of their series with Washington, Davis spoke of poor officiating and added, "I guess they were only doing what they were told to do."