Ref investigation only adds to bad perception of NBA

Originally Published: July 19, 2007
By J.A. Adande | Special to ESPN.com

The worst news for the NBA was not on the cover of Friday's New York Post, where the words "Fixed!" and "NBA Ref" and "Mob Betting Scandal" jumped off the page in typical Post apocalyptic font size. The worst news was in your head. It was the question you asked.

Not, "Is this possible?"

More like, "Which ref was it?"

If any fan base is predisposed to believing games could be fixed, that an official with dubious motives could manipulate the outcome, it's the NBA's. There have been too many questionable calls over the years, too many swallowed whistles at critical times, mixed with too few repercussions from the league offices.

So instead of, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" we had, "I knew it."

And even when we had a name -- Tim Donaghy -- we still didn't have a conviction, an indictment or even a charge. Just an investigation.

For the NBA, that's all it takes. Fair or not, it's operating with the least benefit of the doubt and the smallest margin for error. How many times have you heard someone say they've had it with the NBA because of the officiating? You don't hear college football fans abandoning the sport because of its inane method of determining a champion. But the league can't get past this notion that its games are not on the up-and-up.

It used to be easy to pose a counter-argument to the conspiracy theorists. There's no way the referees could have it in for each of the 30 teams. If the league did have an agenda, it could not have been to get the ratings-killing San Antonio Spurs to the NBA Finals every other year. Would David Stern really punish nemesis Mark Cuban for the benefit of the Miami Heat's Micky Arison, whom he once fined for tampering with Pat Riley while Riley was coaching the Knicks, then smacked with the unprecedented voiding of Juwan Howard's contract?

This time it's too difficult to explain away. We saw officials implicated in a huge soccer match-fixing case in Italy last year, so we know these things happen. We have seen NBA officials succumb to the temptation of extra money during the airline tickets scandal, so we know they can be lured by money.

Next time you see a suspect call, is there any barrier to you believing there's something else to it?

But while many fans might be turned off, Ken White, the chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Sports Consultants oddsmaking group, doesn't think this game-fixing accusation will kill action on NBA games.

"There's been many point-shaving schemes in sports, professional and college, and it has not affected sports wagering," White said.

Even with the Dwyane Wade free-throw exhibition that was the 2006s NBA Finals, White said, "Vegas had a record year last year, our biggest year ever, and the NBA was a great year for the sports books."

People tend to tell different stories with their checkbooks than they do with their mouths. We moan about the Enrons and MCIs lying about their earnings, but we still put money in the stock market. We've been hearing about BALCO for four years now, but we keep buying tickets to baseball games. We haven't let a string of player arrests stop us from watching NFL games.

(And speaking of the NFL, if I were Roger Goodell my Friday would have consisted of sending a thank-you note to David Stern, then hitting the golf course. Goodell just got a one-week reprieve from the spotlight).

We'll see how this plays out for the NBA. White predicts, "Wagering will continue to increase. There's no one here in Nevada that bets the NBA on a regular basis that's going to stop betting."

One thing that had to take a hit, though: the odds of Las Vegas getting an NBA franchise. This week's bad timing award goes to the developers of a proposed Las Vegas arena who were scheduled to meet with NBA officials Friday. Whoops. Stern couldn't spend all that time worrying about gambling and his league, have this Donaghy story dropped on him, then announce, "We're going to Vegas, baby!"

White points out that this game-fixing story is coming out of New York, not Las Vegas. And the NBA already has cozied up to Vegas more than ever this year, with the All-Star Game, a fully-stocked summer league and the U.S. national team training camp and Tournament of the Americas all producing Las Vegas datelines.

But from here on out, the NBA will have to distance itself from the Strip. In a league that lives on perception more than any other sport, the integrity of the games just took a major hit.

It's like "The Sopranos" episode when Tony tried to convince Christopher that there was nothing going on between him and Christopher's girlfriend Adriana when they were involved in a late-night, lonely-road car wreck.

"I guess I believe you," Christopher said. "It doesn't matter, though. It's what everybody thinks."

J.A. Adande has worked for several publications, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He is also a panelist for ESPN's Around the Horn.