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Donaghy story reinforces NBA conspiracy theories

No matter how this Lakers-Celtics NBA finals turns out, the forensic investigation by NBA observers undoubtedly will concentrate on the officiating. Granted, it makes zero sense that anyone in a striped shirt would do anything but call an absolutely honest game at this point. But the public is still going to wonder and question.

And it doesn't matter that disgraced former NBA ref Tim Donaghy (right) has all the credibility of an oil company executive explaining how much his corporation is trying to hold down gasoline prizes. Ever since Wilt Chamberlain dipper-dunked his way through an NBA career without ever fouling out of a game, the NBA has been under fan suspicion for protecting its star players to protect the gate. More recently, those suspicions of the league have spread to favoring more popular teams and extending playoff series to boost TV ratings.

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As a result, Donaghy's contentions in court papers that a 2002 playoff game (presumed to be between the Sacramento Kings and the Lakers) was tanked by the refs at the behest of the NBA to help L.A. advance resonates with the public.

If you're in the conspiracy camp, you couldn't have asked for a better script than last night. Lakers down to the Celtics 2-games-to-none in the most attractive NBA finals since league fashion was tight silks. The officiating crew included two of the three refs -- Joey Crawford and Mark Wunderlich -- who were part of the crew in this year's Spurs-Lakers game in the Western Conference finals where there was a critical non-call on L.A.'s Derek Fisher against San Antonio's Brent Barry.  (You want a little more irony? Crawford went to the same high school as Donaghy, although at different times, and Wunderlich at one time lived in the area in suburban Philadelphia.)

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Last night, with the Lakers needing a victory to have the series stay a series -- and extend the TV exposure of this very important opportunity for the league -- L.A. got 34 chances at the foul line to Boston's 22. The net difference on the scoreboard was six points. The Lakers won, 87-81. Am I suggesting anything about the officiating? Not at all. What I AM saying is that that kind of statistic is the type of thing that gets the attention of a skeptical public which doesn't have to be convinced that Tim Donaghy is Honest Abe to be credible.

And NBA commissioner David Stern smiling and brushing aside the Donaghy allegations citing Donaghy's messy rep and reminding everyone that the guy is an admitted felon doesn't get it done in the court of public opinion.

There is a belief among many that the NBA finagles games to help its general economic health.  True or not -- and it doesn't matter how much the league opens itself to investigation -- too many fans see it that way. Stern has to realize that his league's perception problem is grave and getting worse regardless of what he contends is the reality. And there is something he can do about it -- put a firewall between the league and its officials. It's a suggestion being advanced by none other than Lakers coach Phil Jackson.

Here's what Jackson said last night: "You know, a lot of things have happened in the course of the Tim Donaghy disposition. I think we have to weigh it as it comes out, and we all think that probably referees should be under a separate entity than the NBA entirely. I mean, that's what we'd like to see probably in the NBA. It would just be separate and apart from it. But I don't think that's going to happen."

Photo: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

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