Friday June 13th, 2008

Tim Donaghy wants a piece of Dick Bavetta. The NBA is determined not to let him have it.

Donaghy -- who alleged in a letter from his lawyer on Tuesday that NBA officials were instructed to call a Game 6 in the 2002 playoffs in favor of the team down 3-2, in order to ensure a potentially profitable seventh game -- has apparently led federal investigators to believe that Bavetta, who was part of the crew that officiated the controversial Game 6 between Sacramento and Los Angeles in '02, is the NBA's resident hatchet man. Two former NBA referees who were interviewed by federal investigators reportedly were quizzed extensively about Bavetta's calls, questions that could only have stemmed from information Donaghy provided to the FBI.

On Thursday, the NBA struck back.

"We knew that something had been said by Mr. Donaghy and that the FBI was investigating a variety of claims," said NBA commissioner David Stern. "That's what happens. Someone comes in, makes a variety of allegations as they speak to demonstrate their cooperativeness with respect to reducing a sentence, and then you identify people ... I don't know [how many questions were about Bavetta], but I do know there were questions about him."

When pressed as to whether he had any concerns about Bavetta, Stern was succinct.

"No," he said.

That Donaghy has turned the attention toward Bavetta has to be particularly troubling for the NBA. Bavetta is the de facto face of NBA officials. A referee since 1975, Bavetta broke the NBA-record for games officiated when he refereed his 2,135th in 2006. Despite being the NBA's second-oldest official, Bavetta, 68, is commonly referred to as the grandfather of NBA officials because of his well-aged features. He's had some infamous moments -- like getting decked in the locker room by Earl Strom in the 1970's after overruling Strom's call late in a game. He has also been celebrated for officiating a game by himself in the 1980's after his partner broke his leg and, last February, racing (and losing to) Charles Barkley in a charity footrace at the 2007 All-Star Game. He has battled players (former Miami guard Tim Hardaway referred to Bavetta as "Knick Bavetta," following the Heat's Game 7 loss in the 2000 playoffs); clashed with fellow officials (veteran ref Joey Crawford wrote in an email to officials last year that it would be "a travesty in itself [Bavetta] even being in the finals") and frequently found himself on the floor during many of the NBA's most controversial moments.

None of them, however, would be more controversial than this.

The spotlight is now squarely on Bavetta and the NBA had better hope Grandpa Dick is clean. No one is questioning whether the Kings-Lakers game was poorly officiated -- "my memory is that it was not one of the best refereed games," said Stern -- but the gap between bad and dirty is the size of the Grand Canyon. If Bavetta -- or either of the other two officials, for that matter -- had been influenced by the NBA front office, you can kiss the NBA, as we know it, goodbye. A league that once prided itself on its integrity would become as credible as track and field. Attendance would plummet and networks would drop the league faster than Kimbo Slice. In America, no person or entity is unredeemable -- witness Mike Tyson and Major League Baseball -- but the NBA would need a total and complete housecleaning, from the commissioner to the PR staff, before they can even think about walking that road back.

Hopefully it won't come to that. Hopefully, Stern is right that Donaghy is just throwing the proverbial dung against the wall in the hopes of lightening his sentence. He probably is. But if there is even one shred of truth to his allegations, there won't be anything in the world that can help the NBA.

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