Wednesday June 11th, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- The afterlife of Tim Donaghy flowers. It takes bloom in the spring of pro basketball's revival, even as Kobe Bryant is scoring a Greco-Roman 36 points to create hope of an extended NBA Finals.

Is the story the Celtics' ability to stay close while Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are 8-for-35 from the floor? But that would mean ignoring this freshly worded statement from the NBA executive VP and General Counsel Richard Buchanan: "All of his allegations ... are clearly being disclosed now as part of his desperate attempt to lighten the sentence that will be imposed for his criminal conduct ... The only criminal activity uncovered is Mr. Donaghy's.''

As I retyped that statement in the first quarter of the Lakers' 87-81 win Tuesday in Game 3, the fans were booing a foul assessed to Vladimir Radmanovic even as he held the inside rebounding position against Boston center Kendrick Perkins. This being Radmanovic's second foul, he moped toward the Lakers' bench expecting to be subbed out seven minutes into the game; as he noticed teammate Lamar Odom walking past him to the bench instead, Radmanovic tried to do a Walter Matthau shuffle in a big relaxed loop of the floor as if he had just been stretching his legs all along.

Basketball is inherently transparent: It exposes the sullen body language of Radmanovic as well as the bemusement of Bryant and P.J. Brown later in the half when each was called for traveling in the frontcourt. Yet there is so much that we don't see, and the idea Donaghy is exploiting now is that the unseen is more important than everything on display before us.

In court papers filed Tuesday by his lawyer, Donaghy alleged that two referees fixed a playoff series in 2002 in order to extend it to a climactic seventh game. Those two officials were "'company men,' always acting in the interest of the NBA,'' wrote Donaghy's lawyer, "and that night, it was in the NBA's best interest to add another game to the series.'' Sacramento centers Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard fouled out of that game as L.A.'s Shaquille O'Neal was awarded 17 free throws.

"The allegation was that they were extending the series?'' said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, answering questions about Donaghy less than two hours before the biggest night of his season. "Was that after the fifth game, after we had the game stolen away from us after a bad call out of bounds and gave the ball back to Sacramento and they made a three-point shot? There's a lot of things going on in these games and they're suspicious, but I don't want to throw it back to there.''

This accusation is no surprise. From the first days of last summer's revelation that Donaghy had wagered on games he officiated, I've been saying that the real damage would come when he started to implicate -- sincerely or cynically -- other referees. "We said it in July and we'll say it again on the first anniversary,'' NBA commissioner David Stern said Tuesday. "There's one criminal here.''

I never understood how Stern could make such a firm statement last July, because at that time he was also admitting how surprised he had been by Donaghy's behavior. The NBA had given Donaghy assignments befitting one of the league's better referees. So how could they claim to have learned their lessons so quickly after being fooled so completely the first time?

That was, by many accounts, a poorly officiated game in 2002. There have always been muttered claims by NBA coaches that certain referees are house men who know when and how to help certain teams stay alive in the playoffs.

"We all think that referees should be under a separate entity than the NBA entirely,'' said Jackson, speaking on behalf of the coaches. "I mean, that's what we'd like to see in the NBA: [administration of the refereeing] would just be separate and apart from [the NBA]. But I don't think that's going to happen.''

Stern said his league has been transparent. Does that mean we know everything that he knows about this scandal? Of course not. I have yet to see a pro sports league that believes transparency to be in its best interests. Our whole system of checks-and-balances in government is based on the founding fathers' understanding that no group can be trusted to police itself.

Some will make the misplaced argument that the griping of Jackson and other coaches creates an environment that makes referees vulnerable to claims like Donaghy's. But that's the wrong fight to be picking.

The fact that the league is now changing its oversight of the referees serves as proof that they were inattentive to begin with.

"We welcome scrutiny here,'' said Stern. "This is something that should be scrutinized, and we're in the process of formulating our own assuredness, if we possibly can, that nothing like Donaghy will happen again. But if it does, it won't be because we fell short in our efforts to make sure it didn't.''

Of course this isn't the end of it. Donaghy is trying to earn a reduced sentence, and there may be more allegations. There may be a book, a documentary, and over the years ahead there may be other referees coming forth with allegations or complaints of their own. Over the past year I've been struck less by what Donaghy did than by the absence of reaction from the public. Has it been a bad sign for the NBA that more fans weren't wounded by this scandal? Did they love the league too much to care, or did they not care deeply enough to be bothered?

"The only concern I have,'' said Stern, "is that when a letter gets filed on behalf of a convicted felon, my concern is that news media run with it as a major blockbuster series of allegations, when, in fact, this guy is dancing as fast as he can to throw as much against the wall so his sentence won't be as hard. But then everyone runs around and says, 'What about the newest allegations?' But pretty much he's a singing, cooperating witness who's trying to get as light a sentence as he can. He turned on basically all of his colleagues in an attempt to demonstrate that he was not the only one who engaged in criminal activity.''

As the Celtics pushed the Lakers to the end while both sides tried to manipulate the referees, I didn't find myself questioning every call or wondering if the game was fixed. But neither was I assuming that the NBA is in excellent health. Scrutiny is good because, in sports, the scrutinizers care. The league is not entitled to, nor should it seek, false assumptions that the frailties Donaghy has been exploiting -- then and today -- have been resolved. For those who care about basketball, the worst thing now is to ignore the awful truth.

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