By Steve Aschburner
May 26, 2009

Dear Orlando Magic fans,

I feel your paranoia.

I know what it is to watch your team of choice's Eastern Conference championship series with that uneasy feeling that something, at some point, is going to go awry -- and it's not going to occur merely by happenstance. Or as a result of talent or effort. It is going to be some sleight of hand, a pocket-picking that takes place right out in the open, under the bright lights, cameras rolling and, yeah, witnesses all around.

I'm ready to feel your pain, too.

Like you, I watch the Magic as they push the Cavaliers to the brink, game after game, with a nagging suspicion each night that something really regrettable is about to happen. It thumps away like a telltale heart, faint at tip-off, growing ever louder over the next two-and-a-half hours. In the NBA, we know, that can be any of a hundred little things: a foul called or uncalled, a taunt noticed or unnoticed, one guy cutting through a jump-ball circle and getting away with it, another guy sliding his pivot foot and getting caught.

But then, you didn't need me to tell you that. Others already have, like the guy in the crowd at Amway Arena on Sunday night who articulated this uncomfortable feeling in a succinct, block-lettered fashion that makes this redundant and even Twitter seem long-winded. "Magic's 6th Man: The Fans," this fellow's sign read. "Cavs' Sixth Man: The Refs."

Well there, it's out in the open. It does come down to the referees, doesn't it? They are the points of contact. They are the decision-makers. They are the ones who can turn a drive into the lane by LeBron James, met near the rim by a straight up-and-down Dwight Howard, into an "and one" and Howard's sixth personal foul with 25.6 seconds left in the nail-biter that was Game 1.

They are the ones -- all three of them -- in an arena of 20,000 who can fail to see Mo Williams fling the ball at Howard with his back turned, right there under the basket after a play where, oh, 20,000 people were watching. They are the ones who can stand inches from James' increasingly brawny, Jim Brown-like rushes through a line of scrimmage and, as if flipping coins for the block/charge calls, come off looking like Ed Hochuli on a bad Sunday.

They are the ones who can watch Howard execute an unorthodox block of James' running jumper -- from behind, reaching out more like Plastic Man than Superman, for the sort of chase-down swat James himself has made routine -- and, rather than stunning athletic ability, see just another disqualifying foul for Howard. Unusual angle? OK. But if the hand is part of the ball, as they tell us, and Howard got all ball, why was there a problem?

Actually, you don't need this letter from flyover country to guess at the answer to that, any more than you need semaphore code or a message in a bottle. You've got the "D-12" blog, who laid out the problem plain as day Monday.

"I told y'all the other day that we find it really disrespectful that everybody seems to be pulling for LeBron and Kobe [Bryant] to get to the Finals," Howard posted Memorial Day morning. "Every time I look at TV, it seems like that's all anybody is talking about. It's like nobody is even giving us a shot at winning this series and we've used it as motivation.

"We're up 2-to-1 and we have a long way to go vs. the Cavs, but hopefully we can mess up those plans of getting Cleveland and L.A. in the Finals. If the lil' ol' Magic make it, what will they say then? ... Nobody out there on ESPN thinks that we can do it, but we think we have everything that it takes right now to bring that 'ship back to O-town. Aiiight, y'all I guess I gotta go watch another one of these LeBron and Kobe commercials on TV. Naw, just kiddin'."

Me, I'm just askin'. Do I think the NBA sends out marching orders to its officiating crews to steer such-and-such outcomes of preliminary rounds into safe harbor? No. Do I think black-suited thugs of the sort so readily available on shows like 24 get dispatched to the residences of Steve Javie, BennettSalvatore, Mark Wunderlich and the rest of the refs to plant themselves on sofas in the most intimidating ways while the men are working and the rest of the families are at home? Nah.

I don't believe the league actively orchestrates its playoff bracket and, even if it wanted to, I don't believe most referees would cooperate regardless of the terms -- and all it would take is one whistle-blower blowing his cleaner-than-the-others' whistle. I always have felt, and often have told various refs, that sportswriters have some kinship with them because we are in the tiny minority at any game that truly doesn't (or shouldn't) care who wins. Besides, I'm not looking to push David Stern into his default DEFCON 1 response that this notion is akin to alleging "some kind of criminal conspiracy."

So I'll just note and keep an eye on the math that says Howard has committed 66 fouls (4.4 per game) so far in the playoffs to James' mere 18 (1.6 per game). I'll point out that Orlando's 51 free throws in Game 3, 19 for Howard, were part of the Cavs' expressed strategy, not a random tilt of calls in the Magic's direction. And that, while they were at it, James shot 24.

C'mon, we all learn that in matters of ethics and integrity, there are problems and then there are perceptions that there are problems, and the latter can be just as troublesome as the former.

You folks, of course, are supposed to care -- that's the bedrock of triple-digit ticket prices -- and so you're expected to wonder if everything is on the level. You are required to view an officiating crew's work with skepticism lapsing into cynicism. It's your job, basically, to fear the worst, to trade in the conspiracy theories and to obsess over a call that went thisaway when the third replay angle clearly showed that it should have gone thataway. A fan who doesn't root for his team through us-versus-them colored glasses cannot truly be trusted any more than a restaurant that doesn't keep the ketchup right there on the table.

But here I am sitting in Minneapolis, 1,300 miles away from Orlando and, in NBA terms, about as far removed emotionally and geographically as one can get from these conference finals, and I'm curious. Nervous and a little uncomfortable, too. Because the whole world, as the Magic center suggests in cyberspace, wants a LeBron-Kobe Finals and neither of them happens to play for Orlando.

The NBA wants LeBron-Kobe because it would mean fat ratings for its game telecasts and an easy boost in jersey sales and global popularity, which actually might be the same thing. ABC and ESPN want it because those ratings points can translate into advertising dollars. Sponsors want it because the money they spend on commercial time (and big endorsement fees to those two players in particular) more likely will be returned to them, plus, in sales of sneakers and vitamin-laced bottled water.

Pro basketball fans want LeBron-Kobe because it is a natural extension of the playful debate -- who's better? -- that has raged for a while now. Casual fans want it because it makes the NBA accessible to them, reducing to a simple best-of-seven series between one first-name guy and another first-name guy after about eight months and more than 1,300 regular- and postseason games. You folks in O-Town know all about the marketing value of above-the-marquee types, from Shaq and Penny to Mickey and Donald.

The national media want it even if professional decorum demands we should not. Just to avoid looking, y'know, wrong. Almost all of us in April picked the Lakers to face the Cavs in June and we'd rather feel smart than dumb for as long as we can. Milking out a mea culpa column at the back end might eat up another day's deadline but it's never fun. Then there are those to whom professional decorum does not apply; they're the ones in studios who start 53 percent of their sentences these days with "LeBron," "Kobe" or some variation of "No. 23 versus No. 24." Even when they're talking about the Belmont Stakes.

For all of the above reasons, the subversive, underdog part of me wants to see Orlando face Denver in the Finals. I admire the Cavs and Lakers, I marvel at the on-court magnificence of James and Bryant and I want those teams and fans to have a fair (but no better than fair) chance of realizing their dreams, too. Like a lot of you, I especially feel for sports fans in Cleveland. In fact, I sent an almost identical letter to Cavs fans during the Bulls' run of Eastern Conference dominance, sharing their frustrations when their club was running smack into Michael Jordan and his vastly superior marketability year after year. Of course, they never got it; the flight carrying that letter went through O'Hare.

Still, when something feels too pat -- and this sure does, just like those videotaped conversations between Kevin Garnett and Bill Russell last spring that aired during earlier rounds, well before Boston qualified for the Finals -- it can start to seem less than legitimate. When someone wants something too much, it's only natural to look hard at the motives. The NBA has only its networks and its announcers to thank for this, for jumping the gun and pushing an outcome that isn't close to being decided.

You people who cheer for and suffer with the Magic have a right to be rankled by that. When those of us who are way outside looking in start to feel that paranoia, though, and watch replays of pivotal plays with a jeweler's glass pressed against our big-screens, it's more than just fan stuff. It's annoying and already a problem.

Good luck,


P.S.: Please forward this when you've finished reading it to the people rooting for the underdogs in the Western Conference series. Zip code, I believe, is 80204.

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