Repairing image no slam dunk for league

The Baltimore Sun

The good news is that in a span of three hours Thursday night - from the time David Stern tried again to spin his league's growing officiating controversy to the climax of the greatest comeback in Finals history - the national conversation about the NBA took a refreshing turn toward the positive.

The bad news is that the Boston Celtics' epic rally past the Los Angeles Lakers all but assured that the good news would end tonight at Staples Center. After that, or whenever the Celtics wrap up the title, Stern and the NBA not only have to go back to spinning the Tim Donaghy problem, but also have to repair the greatest damage ever inflicted to their image - not their version of Steroidgate, but of the Black Sox scandal.

Bet they all yearn for the good ol' days, when all they had to worry about were tattoos, fights in the stands and baggy jeans.

Of course the great irony of what has exploded since the middle of last week - when Donaghy and the lawyer for the disgraced former official accused the NBA of leaning on refs to manipulate playoff games to engineer the best possible scenarios - is that the league's brain trust had been hypersensitive for years about public complaints about the image the players projected. They couldn't pander fast enough to the vocal minority that incessantly blabbed about the NBA being full of "thugs."

Yet when it came to the integrity of the games being compromised by real thugs - a ref being in the pocket of organized crime - the NBA had a blind spot.

It might end up being a fatal blind spot, with what has now been alleged by Donaghy as he cooperates with investigators to reduce his game-fixing sentence.

The NBA has defended its refs to the public far more aggressively, almost obsessively, than it has its players. It still does, as disingenuous as it sounds now to hear it proclaim, "We're just as clean as before - except this one guy." Yet from the moment the reports came out, most observers tended to give Donaghy more of the benefit of the doubt.

It was only an extension of what those dismissed as "conspiracy theorists" had been howling about since at least the days Michael Jordan was making the NBA and NBC rich. In these very Finals, just before the latest Donaghy bombshell, free-throw disparity in Game 2 became a contentious issue.

Then came the spotlight thrown by Donaghy's allegations back onto 2002, onto Game 6 of those Western Conference finals - the Lakers against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center.

In defense of the NBA, it is possible that Donaghy, while trying to get off the hook, picked the easiest possible target. That doesn't change how easy a target that game was, because anybody who saw it was, at best, perplexed by how it was called.

I covered that game, and at the time I didn't think the officiating was particularly egregious. It just seemed slightly worse than the other games of that series, in which the team that got the whistles, the calls and non-calls, the players benefiting or left in foul trouble all night, correlated directly with who was at home.

That, I believed (and wrote, for the San Francisco Chronicle), was the problem. And I attributed it not to fixes, string-pulling by the NBA or criminal influences, but to blatant incompetence, the worst officiating in all of big-time sports.

Now? I am not so sure. I am sure that the debate over that game among colleagues began during the game and continued well into the night. The idea that someone, somewhere, had it in for the Kings was put out there right away, not in hindsight.

Even while unequivocally stating Thursday that the accusations aren't true, Stern admitted about that game, "My memory recalls that that was not one of my best-refereed games."

Since the original Donaghy indictment last summer, Stern has promised transparency in officiating matters. In this case, it comes six years too late. More transparency would be helpful now, because the NBA admitted it knew last fall about these accusations they're only debunking now.

Then again, with the NBA's reputation having regressed from merely "thuggish" to "fixed," it might be too late for transparency, and every other strategy. Only the public can answer this: What will it take for NBA to regain your complete trust?

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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