- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Let's do the very last thing I want to do as an NBA observer. As an NBA lover, really.
Let's assume for a moment, much as I wish we could all finally drop this conspiracy fixation, that there really is a sinister plot in the league office favoring one team over the other in the Dallas-Houston series.
Do you really think it would favor Dallas?
Do you really think the commissioner, or anyone who works for him, wants to make it tougher for Yao Ming to advance as deep in the playoffs as he possibly can?
Do you really think the commissioner wants to keep one of the most treasured marketing properties in the history of the sport from competing on the grand stage of the NBA Finals?
Do you really think the commissioner is telling his referees to call more fouls on Yao because the owner who has challenged and annoyed him more than any other owner has asked for special treatment?
The answer, sadly, is affirmative for some of you. Judging by the e-mails that have been flooding in since Jeff Van Gundy was fined $100,000 on Monday, there are lots of folks out there who believe Van Gundy was punished so harshly by Stern because he is the first guy who has the proof to back up years and years of conspiracy theories.
If any of the above describes you or your thinking, I feel for you. Because I can't help you and probably no one can. If you really believe the Rockets are one loss away from sending their coach to Investigation Season because the league wants Yao in foul trouble every night, chances are you're not going to listen to reason.
For those of you interested in the answers to 10 legit questions surrounding Van Gundy Gate, read on.
Q: What is any different about the criticisms Van Gundy levied and the usual public protests lodged by coaches in the playoffs?
A: Van Gundy didn't merely complain about the treatment of his player from referees. Intentionally or not, Van Gundy questioned the integrity of the league by suggesting referees are cracking down on Yao because Mavs owner Mark Cuban specifically requested a crackdown. That inevitably rankled Stern far more than the (also expensive) norm of coaches' blaming a loss on the refs or naming specific refs they don't like.
Van Gundy likewise introduced the notion his secret source a referee he has "known forever" and who's not working in these playoffs called him to tell him the league office has given playoff referees a directive to be "looking at Yao harder because of Mark's complaints." Make an allegation that strong and you better be able to prove it, and Van Gundy declined when the league asked him to prove it.
Stern says Van Gundy can't prove it because there is no proof, and he's determined to keep applying pressure until Van Gundy recants. Stern obviously sees this as an opportunity to send the trend of players and coaches' raising conspiracy theories which has reached "a new low," in Stern's words in the other direction, so it starts happening less rather than more.
Q: How can we be so sure Van Gundy doesn't have proof?
A: If Van Gundy or anyone else could corroborate his claim Yao is being specifically targeted, lots of us would owe him an engraved apology ... and, of far greater importance, the NBA's credibility would suffer immeasurably from one of its biggest scandals ever.
But it's not going to come to that, and here's why.
The pregame "Points of Emphasis" memos from referee supervisors to officiating crews which were the initial source of Van Gundy's exasperation here are not player specific, according to sources familiar with the content of such memos.
These memos never include instructions in the following form: "Watch Yao for moving screens." An e-mailed directive, sources say, would put referees on alert to watch for moving screens from both teams. The closest link to individual players are the video clips referees are asked to watch from previous games that spotlight missed calls.
Besides, it's far more important to note that what the Mavericks have complained about (moving screens) and what Van Gundy is upset about (the amount of punishment his big man takes) really have nothing to do with each other.
The Mavericks have been open about the fact they've called the league to complain about moving screens by Yao and Dikembe Mutombo. Such calls are a standard practice for every team in the league. But moving screens are not why Yao has been in foul trouble in this series. Trying to take charges against smaller drivers has been a much bigger problem for Yao. Of his 24 fouls in this series through five games, I can remember Yao being whistled for two moving screens, one each in Game 4 and Game 5.
Q: So why, then, would Van Gundy make such a controversial claim?
A: I do have a theory.
Van Gundy admitted Monday, after getting hit with the six-figure fine, it's not one or two games in this series that sent him over the edge. He plainly says, "This is how I feel," after coaching Yao for two seasons, just as his brother Stan and every other coach Shaquille O'Neal has had feels Shaq absorbs more physical abuse than he deserves because he's so much bigger than everyone else.
The Van Gundys, in essence, feel their centers are victims of their own size, are expected to take extra punishment because they're so huge, and are punished too harshly, conversely, for the contact they make at the defensive end.
Instinct, then, suggests Van Gundy used the very public knowledge about Cuban's protests as a means to make his case even more dramatic. Van Gundy has been admittedly frustrated by his attempts to lobby on Yao's behalf through the proper channels, such as sending tapes to the league for review or making his case to Ronnie Nunn, the league's referee chief. "Yao all year," Van Gundy insisted Sunday, "has had a target on his back for whatever reason."
It was the Mavs, in fact, who volunteered the news they called in to protest the screens set by Yao and Mutombo, just as they never denied calling the league in previous years to argue that Chris Webber was shuffling his feet illegally, for instance, and that Shaq was crossing the line as he shot free throws.
So Van Gundy went for the dramatic here and realizes now he went too far. The worst part? He probably would have escaped with just a hefty fine while still bringing plenty of national attention to his cause had he simply avoided mention of his secret source.
"If I had one do-over," Van Gundy said Wednesday, "I would not have spoken with great emotion and brought [the referee] into it."
Q: What is the "Article 24" that Van Gundy says he violated?
A: Article 24 is a lengthy section in the league's constitution that details the powers of the commissioner, powers that are best summed up in one word: absolute.
One element of Article 24 is a mandate stating any coach, player or team official must cooperate fully in a league investigation. Van Gundy himself conceded Wednesday he now faces the choice "between two rights the right of helping the commissioner with his investigation, which I wasn't aware I was bound to do, and the right of being a man of my word."
Q: So how will the investigation play out once the season ends?
A: As laid out in this cyberspace Monday, sources indicate Van Gundy is facing one of three outcomes from here:
1. Van Gundy goes against his convictions and reveals the name of the referee who allegedly told him of a league directive to its playoff referees to be stricter when assessing Yao's movements. That's probably the only way Van Gundy can avoid further punishment, which would obviously get his source fired.
2. Van Gundy tells league officials he made up the story. There is considerable suspicion in NBA circles that's really what happened, even though Van Gundy has a sterling reputation leaguewide for integrity. If he were to choose this course, Van Gundy would still earn a suspension of some severity to start next season. Having long since exhausted his patience shooting down conspiracy theories, Stern is unsurprisingly fuming at the idea that one of his most high-profile coaches who earns nearly $5 million annually working in this league would claim to have detailed knowledge of a conspiracy.
3. Van Gundy maintains his refusal to tell Stern's investigators anything, which is his preference. He joked before Monday's tip-off he "felt like I was in Watergate or something" when pressed to reveal his sources, but you can be sure the penalty stemming from this scenario won't generate any laughter from the Rockets.
Q: Why did Stern postpone the investigation until after the Rockets' season ends?
A: By levying the $100,000 fine, Stern hoped to send the sternest possible message to make his statement ... but also to allow the focus to shift back to the actual playoffs. Problem is, the threat of additional serious punishment for Van Gundy once the season ends and Stern's even stronger warnings when asked to explain his position ensures the focus will remain squarely on Van Gundy Gate. At least for as long as the Dallas series lasts.
Q: Yao and even Rockets super fan Jim McIngvale have offered to pay part or all of the fine. Can they?
A: Not directly. League rules state that official payment of the fine has to come from Van Gundy, typically taken out of a standard paycheck. Outsiders can offer to help Van Gundy recoup his lost wages but, knowing Jeff, he'd never accept such offers anyway.
Q: How does the league communicate with its officials?
A: NBA referees have to file reports to their supervisors after every game and then read an online review of their performance (with video clips) from each game. The video clips obviously feature individual players, but directives from Nunn's office or Nunn's boss (NBA vice president Stu Jackson) are not player-specific.
Q: Is Van Gundy an employee of the Rockets or an employee of the NBA?
A: Both. Which means, just as for players, Stern has jurisdiction in disciplinary matters for coaches. Arbitration would likely be Van Gundy's only recourse if any to appeal any further punishment.
Q: Has Stern simply gotten carried away with power?
A: Not in my view. As a fan, I'd rather have the strong commish who makes it clear he has the ability (and willingness) to police every team as opposed to the weak commish (Bud Selig) whose league seems to have just as many image problems, if not more.
It's no secret Stern, starting with the penalties he assessed after the Indiana-Detroit melee in November, has been swinging his hammer harder than ever. But I'm fine with it. I've long believed two of my favorite sporting enterprises England's soccer Premiership and the world of tennis need a Stern type to keep order.
Not that I expect the good folks of Clutch City to agree with me at the moment.
Marc Stein writes the $100,000 fine David Stern levied on Jeff Van Gundy might be just the beginning.