- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

LOS ANGELES

No one needs the self-serving singing of the rat named Tim Donaghy to know the 2002 playoff series involving the Lakers and Kings had a Blue Plains-like odor about it.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, in a letter dated June 4 of that year to David Stern, implored the NBA to investigate the officiating in Game 6 that resulted in the Lakers shooting 27 free throws in the fourth quarter en route to a 106-102 victory.

It was not only Nader who smelled something funny in the air. A number of longtime NBA observers deplored the officiating in Game 6. And to be fair, Game 6 covered only part of the questionable officiating, and not all of it favored the Lakers.

Shaquille O’Neal had the hardest time staying out of foul trouble in several games because of Vlade Divac’s tendency to fall down whenever O’Neal had the temerity to make a slight move to the basket.

At times it seemed as if a third party was manipulating each of the games and not because it necessarily wanted to see the Lakers in the NBA Finals but because it wanted the Lakers-Kings series to go seven games.

Nader focused on the fourth quarter of Game 6 because of the statistical improbability of a team earning 27 free throw attempts in 12 minutes and several phantom foul calls that went against the Kings.

Stern, of course, did not respond to the outcry, and eventually the furor subsided, only to be supplanted by suspicious officiating in the seasons ahead.

To be fair to any three referees who oversee a typical NBA game, it is nearly impossible to have a mistake-free game. The athletes are too large, too quick and fast and too crafty for the human eye.

Replays are forever showing how a referee missed a call, none more obvious than the no-call after Derek Fisher ran into Brent Barry in the final seconds of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.

League officials subsequently conceded the no-call was made in error in an unprecedented act of admission, perhaps because of the Donaghy fallout and the scrutiny the scandal has provoked.

It is easy to second-guess what Stern and the NBA have done these past few seasons in response to the charge that the playoffs sometimes have a World Wrestling Entertainment feel about them. And it is easy to take up with the conspiracy theorists who gravitate to the NBA because of the subjective nature of officiating.

Yet in reality, sometimes a play goes down that is actually too close to call even with the help of replay.

This is not to suggest the NBA is as pure as a newborn. No institution involving humans ever is, which is why trial lawyers have the best racket in America, as I have written a number of times.

And referees are hardly the stoic, unbiased creatures they sometimes are made out to be. They can be as petty and vindictive as the next-door neighbor who has a fit if you cut back a tree from his yard that is overtaking your yard.

Referee Joey Crawford demonstrated what a dunce he is with his absurd challenge to fight Tim Duncan late in the regular season last year. You also routinely see evidence of referees who hold grievances against coaches and players.

Stern, of course, has the simple solution of opening the inner sanctum of the referees to the media and public or removing the referees from the NBA domain.

In either case, Stern and the NBA would benefit from an approach that removes the hint of the league being involved in ratings-motivated shenanigans.

One other thing: stop fining coaches and players who speak out after a poor call. It is un-American.

I happen to believe in the NBA. If Stern truly were in the business of manipulating outcomes, I can think of a ratings-killing team in San Antonio that would not have four championships in the last 10 seasons.

But that is just me.

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