Even Stern uncertain about latest NBA crisis

Originally Published: July 24, 2007
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- On damage control, I'll say David Stern did OK. He wasn't great. He wasn't bad. He did what he had to do, and for the most part he was humble, earnest and contrite.

But he came up short of taking control of the situation as we've seen him do on so many occasions during past times of crisis, this situation being too big, too messy and too soon into the process for even Stern to get it under wraps.

Having seen Stern untangle so many different types of knots in the past, it was striking to see him so limited in his ability to be a fixer.

David Stern
AP Photo/Bebeto MatthewsThe Donaghy problem seems too big for even Stern to get under control.
Yes, he clarified that the NBA was not alerted to Donaghy's alleged improprieties until June 20, which answered one major question. But no, he did not adequately explain how all the safeguards that were supposedly in place failed to set off the alarm bells. To hear Stern tell it, Donaghy was so sly he outfoxed the league's cadre of ex-FBI and ex-CIA officials. According to the commissioner, it was like a spy agency finding a traitor in its midst despite having an entire department devoted to counterespionage.

"I've been involved with the NBA for 40 years in some shape or form, and I can tell you that this is the most serious situation and worst situation that I have ever experienced, either as a fan of the NBA, a lawyer for the NBA or as a commissioner of the NBA," Stern said.

Of course, there was only so much Stern could do during a 70-minute news conference inside a jam-packed Manhattan hotel ballroom to gain control of the problem -- or the story. He has his worst nightmare on his hands, a crisis he probably never even imagined was possible just a couple of months ago, and forces larger than even him are going to keep this story fresh through the summer and into the fall.

Never mind how the NBA is going to amend its policies, or who will take the blame and the eventual public fall for this fiasco. That'll all be important, but it will not sear itself into the public's consciousness like other facets of the story that lie ahead.

Tim Donaghy's surrender, arrest and arraignment are expected to be coming in a matter of days, and a complaint or indictment will be filed, presumably listing the specific games that he is accused of compromising (Stern did not discuss the exact games on which Donaghy is alleged to have wagered).

We'll be able to go to the videotapes of those games (at least the ones that Donaghy worked, since Stern implied that Donaghy also might have bet on games he did not officiate) and quickly scrutinize them for monkey business. And whatever questionable calls were made by Donaghy quickly will be strung together in a montage and posted on YouTube, instantly becoming the Zapruder film for NBA conspiracy theorists.

And who knows where else this story will turn? Even Stern would not definitively say he's certain the corruption began and ended with Donaghy. Several times he used the words "isolated" and "rogue individual," but he always qualified himself with a caveat, leaving himself an escape in the event this case gets even larger and the corruption runs even deeper.

In fact, the only time Stern snapped -- often a common occurrence at one of his news conferences, depending on his mood swings -- was when a reporter innocently asked him how certain he could be that this was an isolated incident and that the problem wasn't more pervasive.

"I think I was just asked when I stopped beating my wife," Stern replied testily, before saying, "We kind of welcome the most extensive investigation by the FBI and Justice Department, because they can do things I can't do legally. And so whether we like it or not, we are in the process of being vetted in a very thorough way, and I can tell you that's something we've welcomed."

In other words, the FBI is going to turn the NBA upside down looking to see if there was a bigger conspiracy or more widespread corruption, and Stern seemed to be at peace with the idea that an outside jurisdiction is going to weigh in on exactly how corrupt the NBA was or was not. Stern has been insisting for years that his league was not corrupt and the integrity of his games had not been compromised, going so far as to ridicule anyone who brought up the notion that everything going on every night in the NBA might not be completely above board.

He was dead wrong on that count, and he seemed genuinely shocked that he could have been so wrong.

Stern was ashen-faced as he stood onstage at a podium with only a blue curtain as a backdrop, the first time I can remember him speaking at such a formal event without an NBA logo of some sort draped behind him. Many times he seemed at a loss for precisely the right words, something you seldom see from him. There was even a sigh -- a long, breathy sigh -- as he was finishing up his opening remarks, the likes of which I've rarely seen from him at the dozens of public functions and news conferences at which I've seen him speak.

The body language and the leveraged denials of greater wrongdoing showed how much he's got his hands full on this one, and let's face it, the damage might never completely be undone. His league has taken a credibility hit from which it might not be possible to recover fully anytime soon, and he clearly realizes it.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.