The NBA has to beat the odds

Dave Zirin is the author of "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports."

In 1950, the preeminent college basketball power in the country wasn’t UCLA, Kentucky or Duke. It was City College of New York, the winner that year of the top two college championships. Then it all came tumbling down. In February 1951, three players were arrested as the program became enmeshed in a devastating point-shaving scandal. Basketball at CCNY -- and in the city as a whole -- has never truly recovered.

As the late New York Post sportswriter Maury Allen wrote: “That was the last time I really believed in pure idealism. For these guys to sell out their school and themselves and their careers for $800, for $1,000, for $1,500 was just such an emotional blow

It is a wound in your psyche that lasts all your life.”

No one can empathize with Allen’s angst more than a man who came of age in Teaneck, N.J., as the scandal unfolded -- David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Assn. Today, he confronts a betting scandal in the NBA that could make the CCNY nightmare seem tame.


The FBI is investigating allegations that NBA referee Tim Donaghy bet on games that he officiated to pay off large gambling debts to organized crime. He recently resigned after 13 seasons in the league.

Last week, Stern called the Donaghy allegations “the worst situation” of his 40-year tenure. He is absolutely right.

Much has been made of the off-court behavior of some NBA players: confrontations with police, arrests at strip clubs or firearms violations. While proving tough public relations challenges, such misconduct didn’t really hurt the NBA’s image, in part because it promoted players, such as Allen Iverson, who personified the antihero. More recently, Stern has fulminated against the “hip-hop gangsta” image perceived as common among many players.

But an NBA referee possibly betting with real gangsters is something entirely different and more ominous for the multibillion-dollar league, because it directly threatens the integrity of the sport. No sport is more affected by officials than basketball. By virtue of their calls, referees are effectively the game’s puppeteers, setting the pace and even the style of play, especially in the final minutes of close games.

For years, many NBA fans, as well as some teams, have suspected referees of calling games to favor big-media-market teams or extend playoff series to enrich the league. Team stars expect different treatment than role players from officials, and fans assume the same. In the most famous shot of his career, one that won the 1998 NBA championship for the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan pushed off Utah Jazz forward Byron Russell but was not called for a foul.

The possibility that an NBA referee may have called games to win bets feeds and reinforces such conspiracy thinking, making every future game that swings on a “bad” call look fixed. As Bill Simmons of wrote, “Guilty or innocent, we will never watch an NBA game the same way.”

Unfortunately for honest referees working games, it won’t matter what happens to Donaghy -- their collective integrity will be doubted. An officiating track record that many fans and sportswriters believe veers from the competent to the comical won’t help matters.

If Stern is to prevent the NBA from being re-categorized in the eyes of fans as “sports entertainment,” like professional wrestling, he will have to take some bold measures independent of the government probe of Donaghy.

But it’s not a good sign that Stern relied on the “bad apple” public relations strategy at his news conference last week, calling Donaghy a “a rogue, isolated criminal.” This isn’t the way to go.

Instead, the commissioner should publicly admit that the league’s entire officiating system needs to become much more transparent. As recently as 2003, he boasted that the NBA’s 59 referees were “the most statistically analyzed and mentored group of any company in any place in the world.” If that’s so, then the accusations against Donaghy raise serious questions about who has been “analyzing” and “mentoring.”

The NBA gave Donaghy an above-average evaluation last year, according to sources close to the referee. “The league was extremely pleased with his progress,” one source told the New York Daily News. “They thought it was his best year.”

The problem is that no one outside the backrooms of the NBA’s executive offices know what this means. The referee system is shrouded in secrecy. Salaries, internal rankings and evaluations all remain in the dark. How referees are assigned to games is a mystery.

Stern needs to drag the NBA’s sclerotic officiating system into the light -- or risk the implosion of a tremendously successful sports league.

If the NBA’s ruin seems unrealistic, ask David Stern what happened to “the beautiful game” at a place called City College.