If you are not an NBA fan, you can skip this — but I think something weird is afoot in sports media.
The topic is imprisoned, ex-NBA referee Tom Donaghy. Donaghy is shopping a book with some explosive allegations about NBA refs and the way the NBA works. Some of those were aired on Deadspin, the slightly out-of-bounds Web site which prides itself on covering sports without “access, favor, or discretion.” Remember the access bit. The Deadspin excerpts caused Uptown NBA beat writer Rick Bonnell to pen 10 graphs waving everyone off from Donaghy’s claims.
The NBA has already made noises that it would sue anyone who published the book and it seems self-evident that the reading public would not swallow whole the claims of a crooked ref looking for a payday. Why bother to step out and say “hey, don’t believe that guy” like Bonnell and a couple other newspaper scribes have?
Well, in Bonnell’s case I believe it is because of one of the Donaghy excerpts mentions one of his long-time league sources. I’ve long thought that Sixer exec Billy King was a Bonnell source — don’t know that, can’t prove it. Just a hunch. Donaghy has King complaining to the league office about Allen Iverson’s treatment at the hands of ref Steve Javie:
And then there was the ongoing feud between Javie and 76ers superstar Allen Iverson. The rift was so bad that Philadelphia general manager Billy King often called the league office to complain about Javie’s treatment of Iverson during a game.
Iverson was eventually traded to Denver, and in his first game against his former team, he was tossed after two technicals. Afterward, Iverson implied Javie had a grudge against him, saying, “I thought I got fouled on that play, and I said I thought that he was calling the game personal, and he threw me out. His fuse is real short anyway, and I should have known that I couldn’t say anything anyway. It’s been something personal with me and him since I got in the league. This was just the perfect game for him to try and make me look bad.” The league fined Iverson $25,000 for his comments, but most of the league referees thought the punishment was too lenient and were upset he wasn’t suspended. As a result, we collectively decided to dispense a little justice of our own, sticking it to Iverson whenever we could.
Shortly after the Javie-Iverson incident, I worked a Jazz-Nuggets contest in Denver on January 6, 2007. During the pregame meeting, my fellow referees Bernie Fryer and Gary Zielinski agreed that we were going to strictly enforce the palming rule against Iverson. Palming the ball was something Iverson loved to do, but if he so much as came close to a palm, we were going to blow the whistle. Obviously, our actions were in direct retaliation for Iverson’s rant against Javie. True to form, I immediately excused myself and made an important phone call.
Sticking to our pregame pledge, each of us whistled Iverson for palming in the first quarter — we all wanted in on the fun. The violations seemed to affect Iverson’s rhythm and he played terribly that night, shooting 5-for-19 with five turnovers. After getting repeatedly whistled all night long, Iverson approached me in an act of submission.
“How long am I going to be punished for Javie?” he quietly inquired.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about, Allen,” I responded.
Pretty interesting, huh? At least to any long-time NBA fan. Even more interesting — and something Bonnell does not mention at all — is Donaghy’s claim that current Charotte Bobcat Raja Bell was targeted by the league office for playing defense too well against the league’s offensive superstars like Kobe Bryant. More Donaghy:
Relationships between NBA players and referees were generally all over the board — love, hate, and everything in-between. Some players, even very good ones, were targeted by referees and the league because they were too talented for their own good. Raja Bell, formerly of the Phoenix Suns and now a member of the Charlotte Bobcats, was one of those players. A defensive specialist throughout his career, Bell had a reputation for being a “star stopper.” His defensive skills were so razor sharp that he could shut down a superstar, or at least make him work for his points. Kobe Bryant was often frustrated by Bell’s tenacity on defense. Let’s face it, no one completely shuts down a player of Kobe’s caliber, but Bell could frustrate Kobe, take him out of his game, and interrupt his rhythm.
You would think that the NBA would love a guy who plays such great defense. Think again! Star stoppers hurt the promotion of marquee players. Fans don’t pay high prices to see players like Raja Bell — they pay to see superstars like Kobe Bryant score 40 points. Basketball purists like to see good defense, but the NBA wants the big names to score big points.
If a player of Kobe’s stature collides with the likes of Raja Bell, the call will almost always go for Kobe and against Bell. As part of our ongoing training and game preparation, NBA referees regularly receive game-action video tape from the league office. Over the years, I have reviewed many recorded hours of video involving Raja Bell. The footage I analyzed usually illustrated fouls being called against Bell, rarely for him. The message was subtle but clear — call fouls against the star stopper because he’s hurting the game.
Now that is a fascinating, specific claim by a guy who was in a position to know. The same can be said for many of Donaghy’s other claims — very specific, with names, dates, and places and comporting with any basketball realist’s observations of the game over the past 10 or 15 years. Yet anyone who pays attention to them is an unsophisticated rube according to officially sanctioned NBA reporters like Bonnell. Hmmm.
It is almost like those dependent on NBA access and favor are closing ranks around the league, helping to kill and discount Donaghy’s claims. Crazy? Check out Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy downgrading to “parlor games” Donaghy’s claim that NBA refs would refuse to call obvious fouls in games in order to win side bets with each other. And Shaughnessy seems staggeringly unfamiliar with the specifics of Donaghy’s allegations as he trots out this access-generated quote:
I asked [Ray] Allen if he ever felt an official “had it in for you?’’
“Yes,” he said quickly. “For sure. Sometimes we may be paranoid, you might think a guy doesn’t like you.”
Danny Ainge had the same reaction to the question.
“I felt Earl Strom had it in for me when I played,” said Ainge. “One time I went up to him and asked him how much longer I was going to have to pay for something I’d done and he looked at me like he didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Boy, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
In the larger scheme of things, shady NBA refs is pretty small. The league is — as David Stern never tires of pointing out — in the entertainment business. So what if it trends closer to the WWE than anyone had possibly imagined? We’ll never be able to prove or disprove Donaghy’s claims — there are no samples to be tested, no wiretaps on record. However, if none of the refs named by Donaghy file suit against the guy, you’d have to wonder why not. Still, not war or peace.
What kills me though is that here again we have another example of the Fourth Estate broadly — and the Uptown paper very specifically — preemptively deciding what is and is not news. And it certainly looks like that decision is driven mostly by a desire to protect status quo relationships with powerful parties and interests.