- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2001

"The key to the whole case is through the looking glass. Black is white and white is black. I don't want to be cryptic, but that's the way it is."
New Orleans DA Jim Garrison,
on the JFK assassination

The key to the Washington Wizards walking away with the top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft?
Judging from the reactions on one of the team's Internet message boards, the answer is, indeed, through the looking glass.
Way, way through the looking glass.
Minutes after the Wizards hit the jackpot in the league's annual draft lottery, feverish fan posts flooded ESPN.com like outtakes from an Oliver Stone acid trip, one more paranoid than the next:
"Of course it was rigged."
"NBA Fixed."
"MJ Owns NBA!"
And, our personal favorite: "Stern = MJ's Pimp."
For the uninitiated, the underlying theory goes something like this: The lottery was jimmied to spur a Michael Jordan comeback, in turn fueling interest in the sport, better ratings for NBC and a bigger payday for the league, which only happens to be negotiating a new multibillion-dollar television deal this summer.
In other words, it's just an average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, massive connect-the-dots plot. One involving Jordan, Doug Collins, Charles Barkley, David Stern, Ahmad Rashad, the NBA, NBC, the Wizards, the accounting firm of Ernst and Young (which oversees the lottery), the CIA, the Mafia and the Freemasons.
And possibly Elvis.
"When I opened the envelope, it hit me: Michael [Jordan] won the lottery," league deputy commissioner Russ Granik said. "And when [Wizards assistant general manager] Rod [Higgins] came up, I said, 'Well, we're going to hear from the conspiracy theorists.' "
It wouldn't be the first time. At least not in the NBA, where alleged conspiracies and suspected skulduggery lurk behind every backboard, the roundball equivalent of shadowy gunmen and grassy knolls.
The lottery is fixed. The playoffs are rigged. And we won't even mention David Falk.
"I don't think the [conspiracy] talk will ever go away," Granik said with a sigh.

Foul play?

Start with the league's answer to Roswell, the draft lottery. Created to discourage teams from tanking and thus securing the No. 1 pick the lottery has raised eyebrows since its introduction in 1985:
In the lottery's inaugural year, New York finished with the league's fourth-worst record but beat out six other teams to win, conveniently placing the best center prospect in a decade, Patrick Ewing, in the league's biggest media market.
In 1993, Orlando entered the lottery with a one-in-66 chance of winning. The Magic promptly captured the top pick, pairing prime prospect Penny Hardaway with 1992 No. 1 Shaquille O'Neal and becoming a national attraction.
In 1999, bad-but-not-worst Chicago claimed the top selection just one season after the breakup of its Jordan-led dynasty; conspiracy theorists speculated that the pick was fixed in order to speed the recovery of one of the NBA's most popular franchises.
"That first one with Patrick [Ewing], that perpetrated a whole wave [of theories]," Granik said.
Then there are the playoffs, where insinuations of network and league foul play make "JFK" look like the Disney Sunday Night Movie.
Small market teams whine that NBC and the NBA want them to lose, the better to boost ratings. Large market teams complain that NBC and the NBA want them to lose just enough, the better to create drama (and boost ratings). And everyone blames the Men in Black otherwise known as the officials.
The Milwaukee Bucks moaned incessantly about the officiating during the Eastern Conference finals, particularly after a Game 5 in which they were charged with a trio of fouls one technical, two flagrant that helped Philadelphia eke out a one-point victory.
"Nine times out of 10 when you have a referee you know there's no biases," Bucks guard Ray Allen said. "But in the back of everybody's minds it's like Philadelphia and the MVP [Allen Iverson] needs to play in the finals."
Milwaukee even compiled a Zapruder-esque videotape of calls it considered questionable, a tape it forwarded to the league office.
"I used to always think the series were fixed when I was in high school, then when I got to the NBA I said there's no way they could be fixed," Allen said. "But even last year against Indiana in Game 5 [of Milwaukee's first-round series] it seemed like everything went against us."
Sure enough, none of this is new. In 1999, Indiana fans pointed to a series-turning, phantom four-point play by New York forward Larry Johnson in the Eastern finals as evidence that the league wanted to duck the ratings disaster of a finals matching two small market clubs, the Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs.
Indiana guard Reggie Miller sounded a similar note after the Pacers suffered a controversial loss to the Knicks last season. In that game, referees allowed a game-winning Johnson 3-pointer to stand, even though the ball had been touched by Ewing.
"They cheated us before, and they are cheating us now," Miller said. "I don't know if it's being a small-market team, but we'll never get the benefit of the doubt like the big-market teams like New York and Los Angeles. That's just the league being the league."
Likewise, the Miami Heat blasted the officiating following their loss to New York in last season's Eastern semifinals. Jamal Mashburn said the Knicks "had three officials in their pockets," and Tim Hardaway called referee Dick Bavetta "Knick" Bavetta.
On the opposite coast, Los Angeles Lakers forward Rick Fox was a bit more diplomatic but no less accusatory after Portland triumphed in Game 5 of the Western finals, dodging elimination and pulling to 3-2 in a best-of-7 series eventually won by the Lakers.
"If I open my mouth and say anything about the officials, that would be making an excuse," Fox told reporters. "… [But] you can't have the NBA on NBC when it's 4-1."
For his part, Sixers coach Larry Brown sees an upside to all of the conspiracy talk.
"If there's a conspiracy to put us in the NBA Finals, I'm all for it," Brown said last week.

The blame game

Why the suspicious whispers? The insistence that behind the NBA's Oz-like curtain of wealth and fame hides a sinister array of dark forces and little green men, most of whom work for the league office?
In most instances, it's simply a matter of sour grapes. When four Knicks were suspended for leaving the New York bench during a Charlie Ward-P.J. Brown scuffle during the 1997 playoffs, it was easier for Gotham to rail against commissioner David Stern than to admit that bounding off the bench was, in retrospect, pretty dumb.
Similarly, Miami's moaning in the wake of its playoff loss to New York last season had less to do with bad officiating than with a refusal to accept that the Knicks who knocked the Heat out of the playoffs for the third consecutive year were probably the better team.
"The best thing to do in that situation is not to say anything," said Wizards broadcaster Phil Chenier, a former All-Star. "But that's not always easy to do, especially with the passion and commitment you put into those games.
"Once it's over, you start scratching your head, start thinking about calls that went against you. And you place the blame somewhere else, instead of saying, 'Hey, we got beat.' "
According to Granik, the alleged plots ignore an important fact: NBA playoff ratings depend on much more than the size of a particular team's local television market.
"Historically, our ratings aren't related to market size as much as the makeup of teams and which ones get people excited," he said. "When Michael [Jordan] was playing baseball, our highest-rated team was Orlando, with Shaq and Penny. And that's one of our smallest markets."
That said, the conspiracy talk continues, largely for the same reason that the supposed plots to kill Kennedy, MLK and even Tupac refuse to die there's just enough bizarre evidence out there to make the ridiculous seem plausible. Consider:
Though the league scoffs at allegations that it cares more about image than integrity, it once airbrushed Iverson's tattoos for a photo in its official magazine.
New York really does seem to get the calls most memorably in 1994, when a egregiously false foul on Scottie Pippen helped the Knicks advance past the Bulls.
Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference finals between Phoenix and Seattle saw the Suns shoot 64 of the game's 100 free throws while three Sonics fouled out; conspiracy buffs claim the league wanted a Suns-Bulls final matching Jordan and Barkley.
"Here was the scenario: A Barkley-Jordan final and Barkley did a commercial for NBC three weeks before the finals and he told me about it," said Bucks coach George Karl, who coached the Sonics in that game. "And then they shoot 67 [sic] free throws in the final game.
"So there's a little paranoia there… . The board room is behind closed doors in New York City, so no one's ever going to know."
All of which brings us back to the draft lottery. Since its inception in 1985, the team with the worst record has only scored the top pick twice. Meanwhile, less-than-deserving teams like Charlotte (1991, 10.6 percent chance of winning), Orlando (1993, 1.5 percent), Golden State (1995, 9.4 percent) and New Jersey (2000, 4.4 percent) have all sauntered off with the grand prize.
The odds of Washington winning this year's No. 1 selection? A whopping 15.7 percent.
"The way I look at it for this year, it's about time," Chenier said with a laugh. "As many years as we've been in there, it's our turn. If people want to go with a conspiracy theory, fine. The selection is still ours."
In other words, black is white. White is black. And maybe, just maybe, the Wizards had something more than luck on their side at the lottery.
Hey, we're not trying to be cryptic. In the NBA, that's just the way it is.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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