Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Use the Stern button, David!

(Photo from SLAM Online)
The end of tonight's Spurs-Lakers clash featured a use of the Stern Button (credit for which goes to the brilliant Matt McHale of Basketbawful) if I've ever seen one. The Spurs were down by two with a couple seconds left, grabbed the ball under their own basket and quickly called timeout, giving them possession in Lakers' territory. Robert Horry inbounds the ball to Brent Barry, who is in excellent position for a three, but can't get it off cleanly while receiving a flying elbow to the head from one Derek Fisher of the Lakers. He still chucks it up at the buzzer, expecting the foul, but then turns in disbelief to see the officials with their whistles already returned to their jewel-encrusted cases in preparation for the trip to L.A. for Game Five, perhaps subtly prompted by a couple shocks from the Stern Button. Now, instead of a 2-2 series where anything could happen, the Lakers have an almost insurmountable 3-1 lead, and Emperor Palpatine, er, Stern, will sleep easy at night knowing half of his dream final is almost in place. His battle station is almost fully operational. I'm not entirely convinced that the whole playoffs is rigged, but it's calls like this one that really make me wonder if there is a big conspiracy to drive towards a high-ratings finals. I'm not a Spurs fan: in fact, I hate the franchise for knocking off my Suns two years in a row, and I admit that they play seriously boring basketball (plus they flop way too much), but they should have won this game. The fact that they didn't means questions need to be answered. The truth is out there, and sometimes even crazy ideas are partly right.

Pieces to ponder:

- John Walters of NBCSports.com last Wednesday: "Spurs-Lakers. This is the series we all wanted. The defending NBA champs versus the league's Most Valuable Player and its best team (you heard me, Boston). As well as its most glamorous. A few years ago, NBA commissioner David Stern was asked to name his dream championship match-up. He replied without hesitation, "Lakers vs. Lakers."" (emphasis mine)

: Lakers vs. Lakers, eh David? Bet you'd sure hate to have those pesky, boring Spurs in the finals. Now, that could never impact a call or non-call, could it? After all, NBA referees are known for their honesty and incorruptibility.

- The L.A. Times' T.J. Simers in an opinion piece after Game Six of the Lakers-Jazz series:
"NBA Commissioner David Stern stopped by the press room before the game and said he had just met with the referees, I presume to remind them how excited he is about the upcoming Boston-L.A. Finals.
For some reason when this game started, the refs called four fouls on Utah, none on the Lakers, and then tagged Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan with a technical foul.
No need to make it so obvious, guys.
If Stern is worried about a Lakers-Celtics matchup, he ought to be spending most of his time with Boston." ...
"Utah shot the ball well early, but once the referees got into the game, it began to tip toward the Lakers. No doubt Tim Donaghy would have bet as much.
Stern's crew took Utah's best player, Carlos Boozer, out of the game with a pair of first-quarter fouls, and then added another 19 seconds after he returned to start the second quarter. Boozer finished the half with no points, the refs doing the best job of defense on Boozer in the NBA this season.
Bryant also picked up two fouls, but his second came with the Lakers up by 15 with less than 30 seconds left in the first quarter and Bryant probably headed to the bench anyway for a rest.
Final first-half stats, the Lakers making 15 of 19 free throws, the Jazz going four for six from the line and Stern being treated to a 14-point Lakers advantage.
The Lakers had 27 free-throw attempts, Utah eight after three quarters, and the Jazz still managed to keep it close. But that's the NBA for you, every game seemingly arranged so it will somehow remain close going into the final two minutes -- like that really happens.
The Lakers won, Bryant got his Podoloff, and all in all, a good night for Stern and the NBA."
(emphases mine).

: Some interesting stuff to consider here. First, Simers is a member of the mainstream media, usually slow to jump on such conspiracy theories. Second, he's a Los Angeles columnist, so it's tough to accuse him of anti-Lakers bias. A provocative piece. Also, a question it raises: if things were so unfair in Lakers-Jazz, where there's still a lot of interest in the other team, what are they going to be like in Lakers-Spurs, where the opposition is likely one of the most hated basketball teams on the planet?

- Jon Friedman of MarketWatch in a May 21 piece:
"NBA Commissioner David Stern flashed the tiniest of smiles when I asked him if he looked forward to the possibility of a championship series consisting of those time-honored rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics.
"Never think of it," Stern said. "Never think of it."
Yeah, right, Commish.
A few minutes later, I told an executive of one of the league's franchises what Stern had said. The official didn't even try to play it straight.
"He doesn't 'think' about it -- he dreams about it," the executive said good-naturedly, underscoring one of the topics of conversation at the annual NBA lottery on Tuesday night in Secaucus, N.J.
So do the executives of ABC, which will be televising the NBA finals this year." ... "That faint sound you hear right now is ABC executives collectively drooling at the prospect of Boston playing Los Angeles in a final series. ... The NBA is a glittering marketing machine. The lottery party was a shining example of how hard the league tries to put on a show for the media and the fans watching at home on TV. ... [T]hese days the stars burn brightest in Boston and Los Angeles.
(emphases mine)

: Hmm... an all-powerful commissioner dreaming of a matchup involving two massive metropolitan areas, two giant fanbases and a chance to rekindle the showpiece rivalry of the NBA? ABC executives "collectively drooling" at a Lakers-Celtics Finals? The "glittering marketing machine" of the NBA? Nothing but good can come from these ingredients!

- Will Brinson of FanHouse has an interesting commentary on Friedman's piece:
"David Stern is a funny and very sly gentleman. But if he wants people to stop yapping about conspiracies, he should probably not make snide grins when reporters ask him if he would enjoy a Celtics-Lakers matchup in the NBA Finals." ... "Oh yeah, and since the Spurs and Pistons are the other two teams currently alive, one would expect Stern is a touch nervous about seeing that ratings nightmare again. Of course, just the fact that the Spurs have won four rings in recent years should say something about the lack of conspiracy in the NBA. But Stern making sly grins about playoff matchups sure does not help anything."

Comments: Brinson has something here. Even if there isn't an actual conspiracy, Stern sure isn't doing much to dispel the widespread notion that there is. This is touched on more below.

- An ongoing survey by ESPN's Page 2 on the state of officiating in pro sports has some interesting results so far:
- 77.2 per cent of respondents think the NBA's officials "wrongly influence a game the most". The next-closest league is the NFL, with a mere 11.9 per cent of the vote.
- When asked "Given the Tim Donaghy scandal, how much trust do you have in the neutrality of officials?", 22.5 per cent chose "I have serious doubts that creep into every game I watch" and 57.4 per cent picked "I think there are other Donaghys out there, but it's isolated". Only 20.2 per cent chose "I have little doubt that the majority of officials are uncompromised."
- When asked "Do you believe a league office would ever influence its refs to affect the results in a desired way?", an astounding 66.4 per cent of respondents said "Yes."
- 70.3 per cent of respondents cited "Flopping in the NBA" as the tactic most in need of reform (other options were "Umps with differing strike zones in MLB", "Holding in the NFL" and "Fighting in the NHL").

Comments: This is the crux of the issue here. Even if the league isn't actually encouraging officials to influence the results in terms of what would make a better finals, 66.4 per cent of respondents to ESPN's poll think pro sports leagues are willing to stoop to that. Sure, those numbers aren't scientific, but given the huge differences in TV ratings and the resulting cash influx when negotiating new deals, it isn't hard to see why a lot of sports fans think that way. The NBA is also one of the most subjective leagues in terms of officiating: it's tough to differentiate a charge from a block (23.4 per cent), and there's often a wide range in what gets called: this is why Tim Donaghy's scam was so successful. The Donaghy cloud is still hanging over the league as well: that was just last summer after all. More about that below.

- A May 20 Associated Press piece on comments by Donaghy's attorney. Here's the highlights:
- "Donaghy told investigators about the gambling activities of other NBA officials and about a referee that passed 'confidential' information to an unidentified coach."
- "Disgraced basketball referee Tim Donaghy told investigators in the NBA betting probe that relationships among officials, coaches and players 'affected the outcome of games,' his attorney said."
- "The attorney, John F. Lauro, wrote that the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District agreed to plea agreements with other defendants in the case, even though his client told investigators about NBA matters outside of the government's initial investigation. Lauro said the disparity in treatment could not be fully explained because prosecutors have 'surrounded this case with a cone of silence.'"
- "In a footnote, the attorney suggested that the NBA might have "pressured" the attorney's office 'into shutting down this prosecution to avoid the disclosure of information unrelated to Tim's conduct'"

Comments: Now, granted, these comments must be taken with a grain of salt, as they are from Donaghy's lawyer. Still, that doesn't sound too much like an isolated case to me. The NBA spokesman issued just a standard "move along, nothing to see here" denial, which raises suspicions of if we've seen everything from this case. It again comes back to perception: even if Donaghy was a lone gunman, the NBA's portrayal of the case makes it look like they have something to hide, even if they don't.

- Finally, Henry Abbott from the excellent TrueHoop is rightfully incensed:
"OK, there, big ol' NBA, let's be honest: You were on notice. No funny business! We have had our referee scandal, we have been accused of fixing games, and we have promised that such things would never never never no not ever happen again.
You bounced back pretty nicely. But you promised transparency. You talked about a sacred trust.
And in that context, with everyone and their brother suspecting that the League would prefer to have the ratings monster Lakers in the Finals, and with a notorious anti-Spur referee assigned to the game, how can a key Western Conference final game end like this?" ... "That's a foul in my pickup game. That's a foul in high school. That's a foul in college. And, at just about every moment of NBA basketball that I have ever seen except this one, that's a foul in the NBA.That just simply must be called a foul, if nothing else to allay the fears that the League may be fixing up the Finals for big ratings." ... "I actually do not think that the NBA is rigged (if it was the shot clock would have been reset on the play before, when Derek Fisher's shot appeared to touch the rim). But a lot of people do, and that's a problem. The way to solve that problem is to be scrupulously fair, which this was not." ... "And then, do me one last little favor: Look us in the eye, and tell us just one more time that the sport we love is not rigged.

Comments: Henry nails this one. If the NBA isn't fixed, this is the kind of situation it absolutely has to get right. You have to call an obvious foul like that consistently, regardless of when in the game it takes place. Anything else only gives ammunition to the die-hard conspiracy theorists, and makes other, usually reasonable people like myself wonder if there isn't something to what they're suggesting.

And a photo of the Stern Button from Basketbawful:


  1. i was watching this with lakers fans and even they wanted the call.

  2. Yeah, it might have even been better for the Lakers if it was called... if Barry only goes 2 for 3, they're into OT and they have a chance to win without everyone complaining about it afterwards.