Thursday, June 12, 2008

I think this one is a lot more than 800lbs

I realize a lot of my readers have no idea of the context of this cartoon; not being sports fans, or particularly not being basketball fans.

Lemme 'splain... no, is too long; lemme sum up:

Last year, an NBA referee name Tim Donaghy was ratted out to the FBI, by his own mod connected bookie, for gambling on games he himself was officiating.

Now, this in and of itself is a felony, as well as a major no-no in all professional sports (at least in the U.S.). While some sports allow players to bet, officials must always remain impartial and dis-interested in the outcome of a game.

Now, this in itself would have been a huge scandal... but then Tim Donaghy did something. He opened his mouth REAL WIDE, and started talking about not only himself, but other refs, and the league itself.

Specifically, he alleges that perhaps HALF of all NBA refs place illegal bets on a regular basis (disallowed by their contracts, as well as just being illegal); and that he personally knew of at least 27 that were betting on NBA games, including games they had officiated.

Now, in case you thought that was bad enough, there's more.

Donaghy also alleges, with a great deal of supporting detail, that the league itself has refs deliberately manipulate games, in order to produce results that will attract more fans and viewers; such as favoring, or disfavoring particular players with foul calls.

Ok, that's bad, but everyone knew that was happening. We all know that certain players get extra scrutiny, or extra leeway, on the court, based on referees perceptions; we just didn't know the league itself was doing it explicitly.

But wait, there's more...

Donaghy also claims, again with specific detail, that the league makes a practice of briefing refs to use those calls to shade games, to produce closer results; because blowouts (excepting EXTREME blowouts) are bad for ratings.

Well... I think most people have noticed games seem to be a lot closer than they used to; but mostly we just assumed it was the effect of free agency.

But wait, there's more...

Worst of all, Donaghy claims that the league has been deliberately fixing games in certain teams favor; to extend highly rated playoff series that looked like they would end in less than 7 games for example, or to put teams that draw greater TV viewers higher in the standings, and deeper into the playoffs.

According to Donaghy, the NBA western conference finals in 2002 and 2005 were both deliberately extended by officials, to make the full 7 games; specifically to enhance TV ratings and revenues.

Of course the league is denying everything; rightly saying that Donaghy is a convicted felon, desperate to both reduce his sentence, and to spread the blame around, and discredit the league.

Yep, they're right... The problem is, a LOT of people think he's telling the truth... including a lot of coaches and players; though they'll never say so, because the league would fine the hell out of them (they've fined owners, coaches, and players, hundreds of thousands of dollars before for suggesting that games might have been fixed by officials).

Worse, independent analysis of the callmaking in those series supports Donaghys claim. It appears that a consistent pattern of improper foul calling (both calling fouls that were borderline, and not calling fouls - including some very blatant ones) from more officials than just Donaghy, may have changed the outcome of several different playoff series over the past 10 years.


No, seriously, wow.

The NBA is a multi-billion dollar industry, with tens of thousands of people employed directly in the business; and hundreds of thousands directly impacted by the business. The entire thing is built on a foundation of assumed honesty in officiating. You just can't have a league that fixes games; unless you want to fall to the status of professional wrestling.

This is potentially the biggest scandal in American professional sports since the 1918 world series. In terms of the real effects, this is FAR more severe than any steroid scandal.

... and the NBAs response is... "Ummm.... he's a liar"

I'll be honest with you, I used to love basketball. I was born and raised in Boston, home of the greatest basketball team of all time, the Boston Celtics (yes, objectively if you looks at the numbers, the Celtics are the best, the Lakers are second). Basketball was a strange combination of courtesy, sportsmanship, and if not gentlmen, than gentlemanly behavior on and off the court; with rough and tumble, elbow throwing, charging, in your face agression.

Then something changed... The gentlemen all retired. The coaches and the managers stopped caring about their players behavior, as long as the numbers were there. The players themselves stopped caring about their teams performance, so long as their own numbers were there.

Basketball stopped being about the game, and started being about the stars.

Oh sure, Bird, and Magic, and Kareem and Dr. J. and Wilt were all stars before the era of Jordan; but it was always understood that they were a part of the whole. The story was about the Celtics or the Lakers, it wasn't about Bird or Magic.

In the late 80s though, as revenues increased, and players salaries increased even faster... It all fell down.

I call it the "thugification" of the NBA.

It started first in the colleges actually; when teams, despreate for a share of the HUGE NCAA revenues, started recruiting, and allowing to stay in school and play; playuers who couldn't have even finished high school, never mind attended (or graduated) college. They accepted a standard of behavior that would otherwise have ended these "student athletes" in jail many times over.

Now this isn't to say that athletes weren't always given special treatment, or that they were Rhodes scholars and choir boys'; far from it. But when Bill Russell went to San Francisco state, you can be sure he wasn't assaulting other students, raping anyone, or in fact spending his time doing anything other than making sure his game improved, and making sure he stayed in school (at least until he was eligible for the draft). Now remember, Russell was well known as one of the roughest men in basketball; very sensitive to any perceived (and real; he WAS a black man form Louisiana playing in a "white" sport in the 1950s) offense.

The biggest "thug" in the NBA up 'til the late 80's was Bill Laimbeer, who wouldnt hesitate to knock you on your ass, or throw an elbow in your teeth; but he never choked anyone, or got caught beating up his girlfriend in the parking lot.

Soon of course, this thugification spread into the NBA. It was slow at first, because the old schoolers, both players, and coaches (and owners), were still around; and there's no way that Walton, or Lambier, or Bird, or Riley, or Russell, or Auerbach; were going to let you get away with that sort of streetball, no class, no respect bull. Certainly, your behavior off court would have an impact on your status on court; and if you wanted to play, you kept clean and out of trouble (at least in public).

Then the old school team players, and teamwork coaches, all started to retire. And the money got bigger. And people got greedier.

Then Bird, and Magic, and Mchale, and Laimbeer, and Walton, and Kareem, and... well everyone who grew up in the old era of basketball; they all retired.

What broke the camels back for me, was Latrell Sprewell.

In 1997 Latrell Sprewell choked his coach on court, at a practice. Here's what wikipedia has to say on the incident:
"Sprewell's career has been permanently overshadowed by an incident on December 1, 1997, in which he attacked head coach P. J. Carlesimo during a Warriors practice.

When Carlesimo yelled at Sprewell to make crisper passes (specifically asking him to "put a little mustard" on a pass[1]), Sprewell responded that he was not in the mood for criticism and told the coach to keep his distance. When Carlesimo approached, Sprewell threatened to kill him and dragged him to the ground by his throat, choking him for 10-15 seconds before his teammates pulled Sprewell off his coach. Sprewell returned about 20 minutes later and landed a glancing blow at Carlesimo before being dragged away again."

Rightly, the Golden State Warriors voided Sprewells contract, and the league suspended him for the rest of the season; but the players union force his contract to be reinstated, and the suspension to be reduced to 68 games.

The Warriors did the right thing; and though the union forced them to carry Sprewells contract, they did not allow him to play. He was eventually traded to the Knicks, during their desperate 1999 season; after the player lockout, and several failing seasons under first Don Nelson, and then Jeff Van Gundy.

As far as I'm concerned, the NBA ceased to be a worthwhile entity on the day Latrell Sprewell stepped back onto the court.

... and then there was Ron Artest... I wont go into detail here, just look at his wikipedia page, and the page on the Pacers-Pistons brawl.

The thing is though, I mention Artest specifically because he was involved in a very public incident; but he is by no means exceptional in todays NBA. Right now, there are players on the court who have either admitted to, or been proven to have beaten their wives, girlfriends, or complete strangers. There are those who have raped, and those who have had sex with underage girls. There are those who have shot people other than in self defense. Tattoos proclaiming "thug life forever", and gang symbols are common.

Now, if you want to call me racist for this, go ahead I don't care. I know what I am and what I am not. It's not about race, it's about CLASS, or the lack thereof; RESPECT, or the lack thereof; DECENCY, or the lack thereof.

In 2004, the league realized that they had a HUGE image problem and massive behavior problems with players; and they started really cracking down on bad behavior on and off the court. Of course it took a stadium clearing brawl, a number of very public and messy trials; and most important to the NBA, a MASSIVE drop in ratings and attendance; to have any impact... but at least it was something.

This cleanup effort seems to have had a very positive impact the last few seasons; and combined with revised free agency and contract policies, and a realignment of competitive teams and markets; the NBA has been climbing out of the hole it dug itself in the late 80s.

I actually found myself interested in the NBA season this year; even before the playoffs... of course that might be because my beloved Celtics are clearly the best TEAM in the NBA today (There are individual players better, but no other TEAM is better as a whole. Take away Kobe, or maybe Kobe and Gasol; and the Lakers are out of the playoffs. Crittenden, Brown, Fisher, and Odom don't - and didn't, thus the trade - get you to the playoffs. Take away KG, or even KG and Pierce; and you've still got Allen, Rondo, Posey, and Davis putting the Celtics in the playoffs); but honestly in the last couple of seasons, I've been impressed with the quality of team play, and the emphasis on full court play, passing, and game management; instead of just the flashy, ratings grabbing, "look at me, I'm a superstar" style of play favored throughout the '90s.

The NBA has really been turning around, at least in my eyes.

Until today that is.

I'll be honest with you here. If Donaghy is proven true, or if even a whiff of credible evidence, or a credible witness, can be found to support what he's saying...

That's it, game over.