If the headlines after Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals were any indication, no one should really be surprised by Tim Donaghy's claim that the Lakers' 106-102 win over the Kings was fixed.
"Officiating In West Finals More Out of Whack Than Bibby's Nose," read the Arizona Republic headline over a column by Paula Bovin, who wrote, "The officiating has been downright offensive, so inconsistent that talk of bad calls has dominated discussion instead of strategy and matchups. Are you listening, David Stern? We haven't seen this much unpopular whistle-blowing since Jeffrey Wigand took on the tobacco industry."
"Ugh, What's That Smell? It's the Officiating," read the Philadelphia Enquirer over a column by Stephen A. Smith, who devoted much of a 1,040-word piece to a possible conspiracy theory, going so far in 2002 as to point to the ratings Game 7 would generate.
"If there was ever a time for conspiracy theories to be given new life, that time is now," he wrote. Later adding, "it's difficult to ignore the Kings' claim that NBC does not want [the Lakers] in the finals. Because of this, many things will be said if the Kings fall [in Game 7]. NBC will be a culprit, as will the NBA. Both will be accused of going Hollywood, which is hard to argue with right now."
"Talk About Foul! Game 6 Was A Real Stinker," was the headline in the Washington Post for a column Michael Wilbon wrote about the officiating. While prefacing that "Hardly ever in 12 years of writing commentary have I devoted an entire column to the issue of refereeing," Wilbon went on to devote an 1,147-word column on just that, arguing that "to ignore the role officiating played in Game 6 of the NBA's showcase playoff series would essentially be to ignore the primary story line in the Lakers' 106-102 victory."
"If you care about basketball, Friday night's Game 6 of the Western Conference finals was a rip-off," he wrote. "The Kings and Lakers didn't decide this series would be extended until Sunday; three referees did. Statistical evidence is usually circumstantial, but consider this anyway: the Lakers had shot an average of 22 foul shots through the first five games of this series, but on Friday night here at home they shot 27 -- in the fourth quarter."
One of the more poignant headlines came from the Los Angeles Daily News which wrote, "Officially, Series Run By (Striped) Suits," over a witty column by Kevin Modesti, who wrote, "In this wonderfully exciting, relentlessly intense, impossibly close Lakers-Sacramento Kings series, there is only one thing for fans to complain about. The players keep getting in the way of our enjoyment of the referees."
"Who do these players think they are? Do they actually think fans buy tickets to go and watch Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Chris Webber play basketball at its best? Don't they realize people flock to arenas to watch guys named Dick Bavetta, Bennett Salvatore and Eddie F. Rush try to keep those big guys in line by enforcing their interpretation of the basketball rule book?"
Modesti, now the sports editor of the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, which oversees nine newspapers, including the Daily News in Southern California, looked back at the way he and the Daily News covered the game after Donaghy's allegations came to light in his blog, "From The Sports Desk," where he interacts with readers on how the newspaper is covering the big stories of the day.
"I wondered, looking back, if we would feel good about how we covered it, feel like we saw that if something wasn't at least wrong going on then something at least unusual was happening or would we be embarrassed and find that we wrote a dozen stories and none of them mentioned refereeing," said Modesti, as he sat in the press room at the Staples Center before Game 4. "Well, of course, anyone who remembers that series, you couldn't watch those games without commenting on the officiating. I went back and looked at the 10 stories we wrote after Game 6 and four of them went heavily into the foul disparity and officiating."
Vincent Bonsignore, who was assigned to cover the Sacramento Kings for the Daily News during the series, wrote that "the Kings never were meant to win Game 6. This had nothing to do with the Lakers or Kings, [Vlade] Divac and his teammates stressed, and everything to do with how the officials called the game."
Throughout the story, he had quotes from Kings players blaming the officials for the loss. "Why don't they just let us know in advance?" said Divac, half-jokingly suggesting the officials knew who would win beforehand. "We didn't have a chance to win." Chris Webber said, "We didn't have a chance tonight ... I'm not going to say what I really feel. I'll get fined. I'll keep my opinions to myself." While Bobby Jackson added, "We hope the officials don't dictate the outcome of the game ."
While Bonsignore hadn't looked back at his story since it ran, he vividly remembered the scene in Kings locker room after Game 6 because, as he said, he had never covered a game or a series dominated by talk of officiating as much. "You don't want to be suspicious because you want to believe things are on the up and up," he said. "But the fact that [allegations] have come up now, how can it really be a surprise when everyone was really talking about it back then? To a man, every Kings player felt that [Game 6] had been decided before they even took the floor. It wasn't a question in any of their minds that they got robbed and looking back at it now, maybe they did."
Many of the writers who had covered Game 6 at the Staples Center said they didn't remember the game or the stories they wrote well enough to comment on it six years later, as they prepared to cover Game 4 of the NBA Finals, joking as Daily News columnist Steve Dilbeck did, that they barely remembered what they wrote yesterday.
The question, however, intrigued Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke enough that he went to the media room, opened up his computer and looked back at the column he wrote after the game, reading passages aloud after he had found it.
"By then, it was simply a matter of the Lakers taking advantage of the sort of liberal officiating that made one wonder: Were the referees attempting to make up for a poorly called Game 5 with a worse job in Game 6?" he read from his computer. "The Kings will talk forever about how the Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter, while the Kings shot nine. Viewers everywhere will wonder how basketball's two most exciting teams could be ground to a halt by officials who were decidedly not going to let the players play."
Looking back at the column, Plaschke has a bittersweet feeling. While he says, "thank God I wrote about the officiating," he regrets that it was only a small part of a column headlined, "They Refuse To Lose The Look Of A Champion," which mainly focused on the Lakers keeping alive their bid for a Three-Peat going into Game 7.
"That was the worse game I've ever seen called before or since, but I still didn't want to believe there could ever be a conspiracy. I think maybe I was naïve," said Plaschke. "As bad as the game was officiated, at that time in my career, and even until a couple days ago, I thought it all evens out. You could tell I didn't want to believe it. I wrote about it, but I didn't want to take that next step to say that it's rigged. But I remember we all talked about and the next day I remember thinking, 'Did I blow it? Should I have been tougher?' But I always thought the calls even out."
Plaschke recalls bringing up the game and the calls the Lakers got in the series to commissioner Stern during the NBA Finals that year.
"He looked at me, pointed his finger and said, 'If you're going to write that there's a conspiracy theory, then you better understand that you're accusing us of committing a felony and if you put that in the paper you better have your facts straight,'" he said. "So I just backed off, I didn't have any facts, just what I saw, but he got very upset at me."
So knowing what he and other writers know now, how would he handle a similarly officiated game in the future?
"It's totally changed, I gave everyone the out back then," he said. "Everyone says its just Tim Donaghy, a shamed ref. Well, Jose Canseco is a shamed baseball player, and everything he said was right. I don't know what to believe now. Honest to god, I don't know what to believe, watching these games, I just don't know what to believe anymore."