- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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I knew NBA fans were passionate. I just didn't know they were gullible.
NBA fans are happily entertaining the ridiculous musings of disgraced ex-NBA referee and convicted felon Tim Donaghy, who in their eyes is Jose Canseco 2.0.
Donaghy's book, "Personal Foul," was published last week, and Donaghy has been making the rounds in the national media since then peddling allegations that, if remotely true, would completely destroy the NBA's credibility.
It's a desperate attempt by a man who really has no other way to make money other than to light a fire under a fan base that has always treated conspiracy theories as facts. It's not that I have a problem believing in conspiracy theories by people with no credibility -- because oftentimes the seedy ones are the only ones willing to be truthful -- it's just that Donaghy's claims, when boiled down, are about as titillating as driving 5 mph in a Ferrari.
According to Donaghy, the outcomes of games were manipulated depending on an official's personal biases or what would best benefit the league. Released last month after serving 15 months in federal prison for federal wire fraud charges, Donaghy wrote that certain players, including Allen Iverson, Ron Artest and Rasheed Wallace, were discriminated against by referees. He also portrayed Dick Bavetta, one of the most experienced and well-known NBA officials, as a company man who would do anything to help fatten the league's wallet and said Bavetta bragged openly about having such a treasured role. As a topper, Donaghy claims he never fixed games because he didn't need to. That's how predictably corrupt the league's officials were.
The purpose of Donaghy's book is to make the NBA look like the WWE. The problem is that choosing to believe anything that comes out of Donaghy's mouth means surrendering your common sense.
ESPN's Henry Abbott did a thorough analysis of Donaghy's claims that certain officials loved or hated certain players, which proved that although Donaghy's book is highly entertaining, the majority of it was pure bunk.
Even beyond that, I'm wondering why no one else -- other than players who have their own issues with the officials -- has ever stepped forward on Donaghy's behalf. Charles Barkley, arguably the most honest athlete in America, called bull on Donaghy. So did Spurs coach Gregg Poppovich, who said he wouldn't even be in the league if he truly felt officials behaved dishonestly.
Others corroborated Canseco's stories. Congress held hearings on steroids in Major League Baseball a month after his book was released, and it quickly became apparent Canseco was being truthful. Five months after those hearings, Rafael Palmeiro, whom Canseco fingered as a steroids abuser in his book, was suspended 10 days for testing positive for steroids.
Canseco's book is now looked upon as the tipping point for the steroid scandal in baseball, but since Donaghy became of interest to the authorities, there have been no similar incidents involving NBA officials. If NBA officiating is as tainted as Donaghy said, wouldn't something have happened by now?
If you sort through Donaghy's allegations, none is as earth-shattering as dog bites man, and some of the officiating practices he highlights as proof of a leaguewide conspiracy are no different from what we see in the NFL.
I buy Donaghy's assertions that some refs targeted specific players because of their reputations and rude behavior toward officials, and that superstar players are given more leeway. But is that really news? And, on some level, doesn't this happen in other sports?
Basketball, by its nature, ensures a closer, sometimes contentious, relationship between players and officials. And because we're talking about human beings, it shouldn't be astonishing that grudges arise.
In the NFL, there are plenty of examples of game-changing and star-driven calls, scandals, and questionable officiating. Although there is some griping initially, rarely do those issues linger the way they do in the NBA.
When the New England Patriots were reprimanded for "Spygate," it was considered an isolated incident by an organization. I talked to a few football coaches then who privately admitted that although they didn't go as far as Bill Belichick, stealing plays from the opponent's sideline was a routine practice. But only the Patriots' integrity was questioned, not the entire league's.
The NFL strengthened the rules on quarterback hits to protect the star position. And although that's been criticized -- mostly by defensive players -- no one is derisively referring to the NFL as a "superstar league."
The "tuck rule" game that sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl was just as suspicious as the 2002 Western Conference Finals between L.A. and Sacramento, but although Raiders fans might still hold a grudge, that game wasn't used to indict the whole league.
In the NBA, a bad game from an official -- or in Donaghy's case a tainted referee -- is used as a measuring stick of the entire league's credibility, and that's not fair.
The NBA has a perception problem, not a reality problem. The reality is that most games are officiated just fine and Donaghy is a dirty official who has taken advantage of the situation. It doesn't help that coaches and players talk about how a player won't get certain calls because he's a rookie. It doesn't help that NBA fans frequently promote the idea the league is fixed.
Ask any NBA fan about the Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol trades and you're likely to hear that the NBA orchestrated those deals because it needed two of its most sacred franchises to compete for championships to increase the league's bottom line.
NBA fans believe LeBron James will wind up in New York not because he loves the city and wants to be there but because the league needs a major superstar in the biggest media market in the world. During the NBA playoffs last season, Orlando fans were convinced the NBA brass was conspiring to get LeBron to the Finals, creating a dream matchup against Kobe Bryant. (Even though Nike conceived the puppet commercials independently, it was perceived as a message that the league wanted Kobe vs. LeBron.)
Given that so many NBA fans think this way, it's impossible to reason with them and convince them Donaghy's words aren't written on stone tablets.
If the league were as fixed as everyone believes, would the Knicks have been this bad for nearly a decade? Would the San Antonio-Cleveland Finals ever have happened?
What gets lost is the fact that commissioner David Stern has investigated Donaghy's accusations several times and each time the conclusion was reached that Donaghy was indeed the lone gunman. But that won't stop fans from believing Donaghy, who claims in his book that another prisoner was sent by the mob to break his kneecaps. Sounds like an episode of "The Sopranos."
When it comes to basketball, everyone is an expert and officiating is so subjective that no matter what the box score says, you just can't convince people that the game is being called evenly and there is no bigger agenda being served.
All Donaghy's book proved is that, like most successful bettors, he studied trends and tendencies. He also committed the sports version of "insider trading."
Donaghy wants us to believe there's a grassy knoll, and he's right. It just exists in our heads.
Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.
1hEthan Sherwood Strauss