Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Things That Make You Go Hmmm... (NBA Edition)

* Disgraced former NBA ref Tim Donaghy has written in book while in prison for the last year. After Triumph Books (an imprint of Random House) apparently bought the rights to the book last year, it is alleged that pressure from the NBA made them re-think, and ultimately decided not to go forward with the project. Deadspin has excerpts (also, in fairness, the source for the NBA-is-killing-the-book rumor) from the book, some of which are explosive (i.e., that refs regularly bet on games, or on events within the game that they had control over, like who would be the first to call a technical foul.)

The excerpts on fellow NBA referees are more damaging than any allegation of betting on NBA games. Here's what he has to say about Dick Bavetta:

Studying under Dick Bavetta for 13 years was like pursuing a graduate degree in advanced game manipulation. He knew how to marshal the tempo and tone of a game better than any referee in the league, by far. He also knew how to take subtle — and not so subtle — cues from the NBA front office and extend a playoff series or, worse yet, change the complexion of that series.

The 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings presents a stunning example of game and series manipulation at its ugliest. As the teams prepared for Game 6 at the Staples Center, Sacramento had a 3–2 lead in the series. The referees assigned to work Game 6 were Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney, and Ted Bernhardt. As soon as the referees for the game were chosen, the rest of us knew immediately that there would be a Game 7. A prolonged series was good for the league, good for the networks, and good for the game. Oh, and one more thing: it was great for the big-market, star-studded Los Angeles Lakers.

In the pregame meeting prior to Game 6, the league office sent down word that certain calls — calls that would have benefitted the Lakers — were being missed by the referees. This was the type of not-so-subtle information that I and other referees were left to interpret. After receiving the dispatch, Bavetta openly talked about the fact that the league wanted a Game 7.

"If we give the benefit of the calls to the team that's down in the series, nobody's going to complain. The series will be even at three apiece, and then the better team can win Game 7," Bavetta stated.

As history shows, Sacramento lost Game 6 in a wild come-from-behind thriller that saw the Lakers repeatedly sent to the foul line by the referees. For other NBA referees watching the game on television, it was a shameful performance by Bavetta's crew, one of the most poorly officiated games of all time.

* While anyone who's ever watched an NBA game closely will tell you that particular refs can influence the flow of a game. Refs certainly have a role in other sports, as well, although their effect is rarely so pronounced -- or so discussed. Even when a baseball umpire misses a call (or two), it is seen as just that: a missed call. Not part of an orchestrated plan emanating from the Commissioner's office. (Indeed, the missed calls in this year's ALCS resulted in umpiring changes for the World Series. Missed calls in the NBA are treated with the transparency and openness of a failed Five Year Plan in the old Soviet Union.)

* Donaghy has creditability problems, no doubt. But Bill Simmons is a favorite of the league; his new book (The Book of Basketball) on the history of the NBA(*) is number one on the New York Times best-seller list, and his calls are taken by NBA Commissioner David Stern (see BOB, page 137, footnote 89)(**)

(*) - More to come on the BOB.

(**) - Referencing that Stern believes that the advent of cable TV had a bigger impact on 'saving' the NBA than the arrival of Bird and Magic; both events occurred around 1980] "How do I know this? I called the commish and asked him. We talked for 35 minutes."

* Simmons himself has written extensively on the problem with NBA referees, including during the playoffs last spring:

We still don't know why certain referees get assigned to certain games, why Bennett Salvatore always seems to be involved when a home team needs a win to change the momentum of a series, why Joey Crawford keeps getting assigned to Spurs games, why Danny Crawford keeps getting assigned to Mavericks games, why Bill Kennedy would get assigned to a big Celtics game only six weeks after an argument cost Doc Rivers money. We are told that referees don't matter, but that's the thing: They do...

One other thing to chart: Does the NBA "control" the outcomes of certain games by assigning referees with certain call patterns? For instance, the 2008-09 Celtics were the most physical team in the league. Let's say they were leading a series 3-2 and the NBA wanted a Game 7. Would it assign some of its most whistle-happy refs to that game? Or let's say the NBA needed Utah to pull out a must-win game at home. If it had one or two refs with a history of being intimidated by tough crowds, would it feed them to the wolves in Utah? So let's see this stuff on paper. We have hundreds of stat-obsessed lunatics tracking Derek Jeter's defensive range or unearthing new ways to rip off VORP; we couldn't find a few of them to pick apart officials and assignments?

* And in the BOB (page 131), here's Simmons on the 1977-78 season:

The bad luck extended beyond Walton going down: the league barely missed out on a Sixers-Nuggets Finals in '78 ("Thompson versus the Doctor!") and a thoroughly entertaining Spurs-Suns Finals in '79 ("Davis and Westphal take on the Iceman!") If Stern had been running the league in '78 or '79, you might have seen that decade's equivalent of Dick Bavetta or Bennett Salvatore reffing a few of those pivotal Spurs-Bullets, Sixers-Bullets, and Nuggest-Sonics games. And you know it's true.(FN 79)

(FN 79)- Four perfect candidates: Seattle at Denver, '78 (Game 5, series tied at 2); Philly at Washington, '78 (Game 6, Bullets leading 3-2); Seattle at Phoenix, '79 (Game 6, Phoenix leading 3-2); Washington at San Antonio, '79 (Game 6, Spurs leading 3-2). The less sexy team won all 4 of those games. Um, this never happens anymore. Not sure if you've noticed.

* Bavetta himself told the Orland Sentinel that he may retire at the end of the year.

* Unexpected retirements are an NBA tradition in the Stern era.

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