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If league indeed is rigged, it’s not doing it very well

Where insanity happens.

Trying to judge the impact of last summer’s Tim Donaghy scandal, I recently called around to assess the reaction of the congenitally suspicious core audience . . . the gamblers.

It turned out there was no impact.

The Donaghy blockbuster, the latest story that seemed to presage The Death of the NBA, quickly faded away in what turned out to be a great season for the league.

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“My gut feeling,” says Bruce Marshall, associate editor of the Gold Sheet, “is it didn’t change NBA betting one way or the other.”

In other words, it looks as if gamblers accepted the notion that Donaghy was what the league insisted he was, a rogue.

However, there was one wrinkle that was pure NBA.

One local bookmaker, asking to remain anonymous since bookmaking is illegal, said a lot of NBA bettors grumble about conspiracies -- while continuing to bet on NBA games.

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“They’re betting on games they think may be fixed?” I asked.

“They’re trying to figure out which way the league is fixing it,” the guy said, laughing.

This just confirms what I’ve always known:

Everyone connected with the NBA from the league office to the owners, coaches, players, entourages, mascots, fans and, of course, press people, is out of his gourd.

Just how this ongoing conspiracy theory attaches itself specifically to the NBA -- and only the NBA -- has never been explained.

NFL officials are part-timers who can call holding on any play. Baseball umpires have personal strike zones. College basketball is almost as hard to officiate as the NBA game and, as its history of point-shaving scandals shows, easier to corrupt.

All have ongoing conflict with officials . . . but only in the NBA is it perceived as part of a wider conspiracy.

Every baseball team has umpiring crews it hates. Managers kick the ground, remove the bases and get ejected, but the next day everyone starts over without any talk of a plot.

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The skepticism with which the NBA is perceived stems from the league’s image as a perennial mutt.

In the ‘50s it was derided as a “YMCA league,” in the ‘60s as “bush.”

In the ‘70s, it was the league that was obliged to try to market predominantly African American players to white fans.

Then after race declined as an issue in the NBA’s golden age with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the ‘80s and its zenith with Michael Jordan in the ‘90s, along came hip-hop, the Internet and worldwide tabloid journalism.

The assumption is always that the NBA is endangered and has to get the best matchup.

Worse, it’s assumed by all participants, coaches, players, etc., who never stop working the referees . . . even as they insist, as Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and Celtics Coach Doc Rivers did Wednesday, the system is totally honest.

Actually, the NBA has long been on solid footing, now getting $925 million in annual rights fees from its network partners to baseball’s $670 million.

The most famous urban myth is the “frozen envelope” in the first NBA lottery in 1985, supposedly enabling Commissioner David Stern to deliver Patrick Ewing to the hometown New York Knicks.

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Amid annual speculation that young stars would be sent to glamour teams, David Robinson then went to San Antonio, Shaquille O’Neal to Orlando, Tim Duncan to San Antonio, Yao Ming to Houston, LeBron James to Cleveland and Greg Oden to Portland.

The Knicks, the league’s tattered flagship franchise, never again drew a pick higher than No. 5.

The NBA actually bends over backward to avoid even the appearance of doing anything wrong . . . amid ever-increasing accusations it’s fixing everything.

Let’s put it this way: If it is fixing anything, it’s doing a really lousy job.

Small-market teams from San Antonio, Utah and Indiana have appeared in seven of the last 12 Finals along with crowd-pleasers such as the Detroit Pistons (twice), New Jersey Nets (twice) and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Meanwhile, the league was proving its impartiality by taking draconian action against glamour teams.

In 1997 with the Knicks leading their second-round series with Miami, 3-2, Stern suspended so many of them after the Heat’s P.J. Brown tackled Charlie Ward, they had to sit out in shifts to have enough players for Games 6 and 7.

Four Knicks -- Ewing, Allen Houston, John Starks and Larry Johnson -- were suspended just for leaving the bench.

The Knicks lost.

Not to suggest the learning curve isn’t all you could hope for, all around, but it just happened again last spring.

The Phoenix Suns, who had just won in San Antonio to tie their second-round series, 2-2, saw Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw suspended for leaving the bench during a “fight” that was actually just players milling around after the Spurs’ Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table.

The high-scoring Suns, the most entertaining team in the NBA, then lost Game 5 at home, got their players back and lost Game 6 in San Antonio.

It’s hard for me to imagine the league rigging a matchup. On the other hand, I’m not in the business of assuming what can happen but of trying to learn what did.

What I can’t believe is that the NBA could fix something like that and get away with it. Legal whizzes that these guys are, they’re not that slick.

We hear a lot about what goes on in the office . . . like it wasn’t Stern who suspended Stoudemire and Diaw but NBA vice president Stu Jackson, after which Stern noted that people were always telling him not to micromanage everything and look what happened.

Or that second-guessing of the referees after Game 4 of the Lakers-Spurs series this season came from Stern, not Jackson, part of the new “transparency.”

Now we’re in the throes of the usual lemmings rush into the sea after Donaghy’s latest allegations of referees manipulating Game 6 of the 2002 Lakers-Kings playoffs series in the Lakers’ favor, or as ESPN.com headlines had it, “Season Shaken . . . Finals Shadow . . . League is inviting suspicion.”

Of course, if Donaghy doesn’t have something more tangible than a Lakers-Sacramento box score from 2002 and a directive to watch moving screens in the Dallas-San Antonio series in 2005, this could go away as fast as it did last summer.

I still love this game, even if it’s hard to watch while waiting for the sky to fall.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com


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