- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- It doesn't matter how many times David Stern squares his feet and starts launching his go-to denials.
It doesn't matter how often the NBA's commissioner sternly assures us that the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI soon will reveal findings that show Tim Donaghy, without doubt, is the "only one here that's guilty of criminal activity."
It probably won't even matter now if The Rogue Ref, as Stern famously dubbed him, is proven conclusively to be just what The Commish says he is.
"The reality is that he's a singing, cooperating witness who is trying to get as light a sentence as he can," Stern insisted, attempting to discredit the most damaging round of allegations yet from the disgraced Donaghy, as he arrived at Staples Center for Game 3 of what was supposed to be his NBA Finals fantasy.
"We said it in July," Stern continued, "and we'll say it again on the first anniversary: There's one criminal here."
The reality is that the NBA's credibility issues aren't going away even if Stern's proclamations all are true. Not when so many folks out there are convinced that Stern's office has a scripting department and that the Donaghy saga confirms it.
The reality for Stern and his league is considerably more complicated and uncomfortable than Easy Dave makes it sound, no matter how many holes are in the documents emanating from Donaghy's accusations (no names yet, for starters) and no matter how much backing pro basketball eventually gets from those heavyweight government agencies. The nightmarish reality that hangs over what was supposed to be Stern's dream Finals is that public confidence in NBA officiating is maybe even lower now than it was when Donaghy's betting on games and association with known gamblers were first revealed last summer.
With no clear-cut way to raise it.
After the Lakers lost Game 2 of these Finals in Boston, shooting only 10 free throws to the Celtics' 38? After the Lakers took a must-win Game 3 at home to slice the series deficit to 2-1 and save their season, shooting 20 of the evening's first 24 free throws and with Kobe Bryant going to the line 18 times?
After Team Donaghy, in between those games, let it be known that he has accused two former fellow referees of fixing the outcome of the Lakers' unforgettably controversial Game 6 win over the Kings in the 2002 Western Conference finals?
Good luck trying to convince disgruntled fans on both coasts that Donaghy's claims that league officials direct their referees "to manipulate games" to "boost ticket sales and television ratings" have no merit.
"Baseless" was the word Stern used to describe the allegations. But it's getting harder to find folks who who don't think there's at least something to what Donaghy's lawyer has been saying. It's not just the fans, either. Distrust in certain refs only grows every year among players, coaches and team executives.
Two examples from Texas: All of San Antonio is convinced that the Spurs have no shot at a W if Joey Crawford is in the building, just as anyone in Dallas can tell you that the Mark Cuban-era Mavs have a 2-14 record when Danny Crawford has a whistle.
Good ideas for how the NBA goes about improving the quality of its officiating and restoring some of that trust are, shall we say, scarce.
This is the only sports league in America in which it's a routine reaction by folks on the inside as well as the outside to respond to bitter defeat with charges of biased refereeing or outright game-rigging. It's a massive problem magnified by the fact that no one I've encountered in 15 years of covering the league is overflowing with suggestions for how to stop such perceptions from mushrooming any further, let alone for how to put a halt to them.
Would congressional hearings do it? Would it appease the masses if the NBA submitted to an open examination of its referees on Capitol Hill, as baseball did with steroids? Or are such hearings more about politicians looking for positive press than finding the truth?
Hearings? Investigation by an independent commission? Or could some radical in-game changes make a difference? Like, say, giving each coach video challenges, as they do in the NFL?
Long known as the league's loudest critic of Stern's referees, Cuban has been calling for years for an independent head of officiating to be hired from the real world to find, evaluate and manage referees. Cuban gained an unexpected ally when Lakers coach Phil Jackson announced during his pregame address Tuesday that he'd like to see NBA refs employed and managed as "a separate entity [from] the NBA entirely."
But even Jackson seemed to understand that Stern's having no control over the referees doesn't quite make sense, either, quickly adding: "I don't think that's going to happen."
That's the state of NBA reffing today. So many layers, so few answers. No obvious path to make things better.
As my esteemed ESPN colleague Michael Wilbon recently wrote in The Washington Post: "The larger point here is that nobody has ever known what is and what isn't a foul in professional basketball. It's as subjective as anything in sports, calling a foul. You can't get a consensus from people who've been in and around the game for 100 years."
Satisfying the skeptical media and public when it comes to NBA officiating is tougher still. Another example: There were numerous calls throughout the season for the league to be more transparent on officiating matters, as Stern promised the league would be when the Donaghy scandal broke. So what happened when the league responded to a few reporters' inquiries during the Western Conference finals by admitting its refs missed a foul on L.A.'s Derek Fisher on the last play of Game 4 in San Antonio? The league office was subjected to widespread criticism for acknowledging the mistake and thus undermining those refs.
Yet it's likewise true that the NBA can (and must) figure out how to do a lot more than it did this season, which amazingly generated so little Donaghy chatter. I fully expected to be hearing and talking about this scandal all year. Unappetizing as it was for Stern to have to deal with it on this stage -- courtesy of some timing from Donaghy's legal team, which certainly wasn't accidental -- the league is amazingly lucky the story was dormant for such long stretches during the past nine months.
Stern shouldn't have expected his luck to continue. Drastic, public, proactive steps have to be taken if this league ever wants to chip away at the notion that its stars get calls that role players don't ... and that games are called differently in the fourth quarter compared to the first quarter ... and that playoff officiating is nothing like regular-season refereeing.
And now Donaghy, through a Brooklyn court filing, has ignited the issue like never before by publicly alleging what so many suspected and suggested at the time, saying that two former colleagues he called "company men" conspired to ensure the 2002 West finals would reach a seventh game.
To hear such a claim come from a former ref -- even one with dubious credibility who didn't even work that game -- prompted Cuban to throw some support behind his longtime nemesis, telling ESPN.com via e-mail: "There's no way on God's green Earth that David Stern has ever done anything to influence the outcome of a game."
I believe it, too. Stern is too smart and too fair and has way too much to lose to even think of orchestrating anything. The Commish has said it a zillion times and it's a pretty powerful counter claim: You're accusing him of a felony if you call him a fixer.
But, again, perceptions are reality for a lot of us. So Stern has no choice but to concede that an ever-growing NBA legion of skeptics wants to believe that these Donaghy allegations -- as well as his previous charges that relationships between referees, coaches and players have "prevented games from being played on a level playing field'' -- are true. Which means Stern must respond with big changes.
Stern maintains that the details forthcoming from the FBI's investigation and the NBA's own internal review, presumably to be released after Donaghy's mid-July sentencing, will fill in several blanks, start easing concerns and lead to a clearer picture of what the league intends to do better, ref-wise. Let's hope.
Let's hope so because the mountains of evidence in recent hoop history that completely undermine the very notion of conspiracies -- such as small-market San Antonio's winning four championships and two draft lotteries, and the Knicks' sliding all the way into laughingstock territory just a few miles from the NBA's offices -- don't stop ESPN.com readers from flooding my mailbag with countless cries that NBA outcomes are being orchestrated.
Nor did they stop a man as respected as the nine-ringed Jackson from making one of the more inflammatory statements of a newsy Tuesday night.
Asked for his recollections about that Lakers-Kings Game 6 that Donaghy says was fixed, in which L.A. shot 27 free throws to Sacramento's nine in the fourth quarter, Jackson asked, "Was that after the fifth game [that] we had the game stolen away from us after a bad call out of bounds and gave the ball back to Sacramento and they made a 3-point shot? There's a lot of things going on in these games and they're suspicious, but I don't want to throw it back to there."
That's just one more allegation that must make Stern envy Bud Selig some days.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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