Conspiracy theory hits NBA refs

Times Staff Writer

NBA referees manipulated Game 6 of a 2002 playoff series to favor the Lakers and bring about a seventh game against the Sacramento Kings, disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy alleged in court papers filed Tuesday.

Describing two former referee peers as “company men,” Donaghy claims in a letter filed by his lawyer that “it was in the NBA’s interest to add another game to the series.”

Without naming the teams involved, the letter to U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon in Brooklyn describes a playoff series in 2002 that went seven games. The Lakers trailed Sacramento in the Western Conference finals, three games to two, before winning Games 6 and 7 -- the only series that year that lasted seven games.


In Game 6, Sacramento’s Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard fouled out trying to guard Los Angeles’ Shaquille O’Neal, and the Lakers shot 40 free throws -- 15 more than the Kings -- including 27 in the final quarter.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader and the group League of Fans had asked Stern in 2002 to investigate the officiating in the Lakers-Kings series, citing harsh criticism of the referees in news coverage.

Donaghy’s letter includes other allegations of misconduct by NBA executives and referees. NBA Commissioner David Stern called the allegations “baseless.”

Donaghy, awaiting July 14 sentencing on his guilty plea to felony charges of taking cash payoffs from gamblers and betting on games himself, provided the letter to elaborate on the extent of his cooperation with federal agents and seek a reduction in sentence.

Donaghy told federal agents in September 2007 that he was told about the alleged manipulation by a referee who had worked the game, according to the letter from Donaghy attorney John Lauro. Donaghy alleged that this referee and another working the game ignored fouls committed by “Team 6,” an apparent reference to the Lakers, and called “made-up fouls” against “Team 5" -- the Kings.

“My reaction to Donaghy’s lawyer are that clearly as the date of sentencing gets closer, and the things he’s thrown against the wall haven’t stuck, he’s rehashing a variety of things that have been given to the U.S. attorney and the FBI, fully investigated, and are baseless,” Stern told ESPN before Tuesday night’s Game 3 of the NBA Finals at Staples Center between the Lakers and Boston Celtics.

Similarly, Lamell McMorris, head of the NBA referees union, issued a statement that said, “I’m not aware of any improper conduct by any current NBA referee in the playoffs six years ago or any conspiracy by the NBA to affect the outcome of any game then or now. Frankly, we’re tired of Tim Donaghy’s cat-and-mouse games.”

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said Tuesday the calls of Game 6 in 2002 followed a bad call that contributed to the Lakers’ defeat in Game 5. Smiling, he said, “Only us basketball coaches think that” some league referees are “company men” who consider television ratings in their judgment calls.

“A lot of things have happened in the course of the Tim Donaghy” deposition, said Jackson, who contends league referees should operate as a “separate entity” from the league. “We have to weigh it as it comes out.”

On the night in question, The Times’ Mark Heisler described then-Sacramento Coach Rick Adelman as “steaming.”

“Our big guys get 20 fouls tonight and Shaq gets four. You tell me how the game went. It’s just how it is,” Adelman said. “They obviously got the game called the way they wanted to get it called.”

Pollard, now with Boston, said Tuesday night, “If it was proven that it was . . . that would hurt. That would hurt the league, it would hurt my feelings, it would hurt everybody. That’s ugly. . . . I don’t want it to be found out that that was true. I would much rather live with human error than human interference.”

Donaghy, 41, a former 13-year NBA official, pleaded guilty in August to gambling-related charges that leave him facing a sentence ranging from probation, which his attorney has requested, to 33 months in prison. Amon will make the final decision.

Katherine Darmer, a law professor at Chapman University, said she expects Donaghy’s letter to further postpone sentencing, with the judge likely to press prosecutors about their investigation into his claims.

“It’s really hard to proceed on a case based on the word of one guy who’s already a criminal,” Darmer said. “He has every reason to overstate what he knows because he faces the threat of jail.

“I would suspect the information he provided probably didn’t pan out with corroboration. Or they may not have enough information yet.”

In the four-page letter, it was also revealed Donaghy claimed to agents that an anonymous owner, believed to be Dallas’ Mark Cuban, influenced a referee supervisor through complaints to instruct referees, including alternate Donaghy, to be more stringent in the calling of illegal screens by Houston Rockets center Yao Ming in a 2005 playoff series.

The Mavericks rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win the series, “resulting in more tickets sold and more televised games,” Lauro wrote.

Donaghy also said one league referee was friends with a league general manager who was not identified. The referee, also anonymous, favored his friend’s team by calling more fouls on the opponent in one game.

A referee supervisor also informed his staff that a league executive frowned on technical fouls or ejections of star players, Donaghy said, and one referee was reprimanded in January 2000 for doing so.

Longtime Kings season-ticket holder Stevan Allen said Donaghy’s allegation supports long-held suspicions voiced by Sacramento fans over the bitter defeat.

“You don’t want to buy into the grassy knoll, but it would confirm our worst fears,” Allen said. “All Kings fans would just as soon forget that night. If this is true, it’s a huge body blow to the league and the community. . . . It makes it worse. It’s more salt in an old wound.”

But former Lakers forward Rick Fox said the controversy was overblown, noting that Sacramento “still had a Game 7 on their court. At the end of the day, they had all the opportunities to win and they didn’t.”

And a smiling Lakers guard Derek Fisher wisecracked, “My 2002 championship ring is in a safety-deposit box. They can take it back. I don’t want it.”


Times staff writers Jonathan Abrams, Mike Bresnahan and Steve Springer in Los Angeles and Eric Bailey in Sacramento contributed to this report.