In a way, Charles Barkley has to be happy that all he suffered for refusing to pay $400,000 in gambling debts was a little public embarrassment. There was once a time in Las Vegas where stiffing a casino might have meant a one-way ride into the desert.
Things have gotten corporate on the Vegas Strip, and the old ways are mostly a thing of the past. Today, lawyers handle debt collection, and gamblers who take one casino loan too many are persuaded to settle up in court instead of the back of an automobile.
Barkley finally paid up this week, but not before drawing a rebuke from casino mogul Steve Wynn, who told the Las Vegas Sun that the former NBA star turned television personality "has to pay attention to his business like the rest of us in this world."
No doubt NBA commissioner David Stern wished Barkley had done just that. His penchant for big stakes gambling was already well known -- Barkley himself estimated at one time that he had lost $10 million over the years -- but the timing of the latest revelation had to make Stern wince.
Just when the NBA is enjoying a renaissance of sorts with TV ratings up and everything still on track for an LA-Boston matchup in the finals that everyone outside of San Antonio and Detroit desperately wants, Barkley's gambling problems are more than just an annoyance Stern can brush off as little more than a bad hobby gone really bad.
At a time the NBA already has gambling issues it just looks bad that the most outspoken and listened to commentator on the cable network carrying the Lakers and San Antonio Spurs conference championship bets huge amounts of money on everything from the turn of a card at the blackjack table to the bounce of a ball on a field.
Barkley has admitted to making hundreds of thousands of dollars in Super Bowl bets -- supposedly losing $100,000 this year on the game -- so it wouldn't be outlandish to think he bets on other sports, too. Basketball isn't supposed to be one of them, but degenerate gamblers are degenerate gamblers and inside information is inside information.
The combination is a tough one to resist, and Stern doesn't have to look far for an example of that. Tim Donaghy knew a sure thing when he saw it, too, and for at least four seasons he was not only making large bets on games he refereed, but was collecting money for passing along tips to other degenerate gamblers.
Donaghy remains a problem for the NBA, as seen this week when his attorney filed a letter in federal court alleging that relationships among officials, coaches and players "affected the outcome of games." The letter also suggested that Donaghy told investigators about the gambling activities of other NBA officials and about a referee who passed confidential information to a coach.
Even worse, the attorney suggested the NBA might have pressured the government "into shutting down this prosecution to avoid the disclosure of information unrelated to Tim's conduct."
The NBA responded by calling the letter an assortment of lies and unfounded allegations, saying it was "the desperate act of a convicted felon who is hoping to avoid prison time." But in a league that has always so feared being tainted by a gambling scandal that it refused to allow a team in Las Vegas, the mere suggestion that others might have been involved in fixing games shouldn't be discounted so quickly.
Stern has already admitted other NBA officials broke league rules by gambling in casinos, though throwing the dice and throwing a game are two different things altogether. He says that was the extent of any wrongdoing the league knows about, though in his next breath he also says he would like to talk to Donaghy after he is sentenced in July for his misdeeds.
Against this backdrop comes Barkley's disturbing failure to be held accountable for the losses he ran up at the Wynn resort last October that for some reason he decided not to pay. Whether Barkley was just being stubborn or whether the limits of his salary with the TNT network have caught up with his prodigious gambling habits may be known only to him.
What is known is Stern has said nothing publicly about it, perhaps reasoning that Barkley is not an employee of the league nor is he involved in games on the court. But Barkley is talking about the league almost every night before a national audience, and TNT does pay the NBA millions of dollars for the rights to show its games.
Both the NBA's eagerness to put the Donaghy affair behind it even while new questions are raised and its silence on Barkley are troubling, especially since a lot of casual fans already suspect when the home team wins almost every playoff game funny things are going on.
The possibility of the Lakers and the Celtics playing in the NBA Finals is exciting stuff. But Stern surely understands that keeping the public trust in the integrity of the game is far more important.