On Friday afternoon in southern California, you could hear the cacophony of frustrated screenwriters pounding their desks in disgust. The Tim Donaghy scandal doubled as the easiest movie pitch ever.
Imagine how simple it would have been to sell that script. A white NBA referee with a gambling problem (Matt Damon) loses too much money to a bookie (Timothy Olyphant) who’s connected with a dangerous family of mobsters (led by head boss Alec Baldwin). One of their muscle guys (Turtle from “Entourage”) threatens to beat up the ref unless he gives them inside information. Which he does. Now they have him. They tell him to start throwing a couple of games or they’ll go after his wife (Evangeline Lilly) and daughter (the little girl from “Little Miss Sunshine”). He agrees to affect the over/under of games by whistling more fouls than usual, which should drive the scores above the over/under because everyone will be shooting more free throws. For a couple of games, it works. Eventually, they want more. Fearing for his life, he crosses the line and helps fix a few outcomes without realizing the mobsters will never say, “All right, we’re good. Nice working with you.”
Meanwhile, a renegade FBI agent (Ryan Gosling) overhears the ref discussing one of the games on a tapped phone line, then gets tipped off by a mob informant (Joe Pantoliano) that they turned an NBA referee. They track the weasel for a solid year, gather all the evidence they need, then break the news to the NBA commissioner (Ron Silver) and his staff that their league has been compromised. It’s too late. Too much damage has been done. The referee resigns, the feds swoop in and that’s that. The movie ends with a sobbing Damon going to jail, Gosling getting promoted and Silver glumly watching the tape of a pivotal playoff game from the previous spring, a horribly officiated game that could have potentially affected the championship … and the sight of that same compromised referee jogging down the court, ready to blow the whistle at a key moment.
That should have been a movie. Now, it allegedly looks to have happened in real life. If true, it’s the rarest of sports scandals, a shocker that shocked absolutely nobody but might end up becoming more significant than anyone imagines. After the most damaging NBA season in three decades, after a series of deep-rooted problems — almost entirely self-inflicted — that already had everyone concerned about the league’s immediate future, we reached the tipping point with Tim Donaghy.
Guilty or innocent, we will never watch an NBA game the same way. He’s going to hang over everything — every referee, every shaky outcome, every bad call — in ways the average fan doesn’t fully realize yet. Maybe they’ll throw Donaghy in jail, maybe they won’t, but he’ll linger over every court like a black cloud. You’ll hear his name more than you think. You and your buddies will make “that guy looks like he’s pulling a Donaghy!” jokes every time a referee is making calls against your favorite team. Hecklers will gleefully play the Donaghy card after every bad call against the home team. For honest referees still working games, it doesn’t matter what happens from this point on — their collective integrity will always be questioned, their collective track record won’t matter, and that will be that.
THE ZAPRUDER FILM
Follow-up note: A few hours after this column was posted on Sunday morning, an NBA fan posted “highlights” from Game 3 on YouTube that reveal Donaghy making a number of questionable calls during that Spurs-Suns game, including the three-seconds-too-late call on Ginobili that I mentioned in my column (and two months ago as well).
After the call is made, play-by-play announcer Mike Breen calls it a “late whistle” three different times, then a replay of the play shows that there was no contact, followed by Breen saying “doesn’t look like there was much there” and partner Jon Barry adding, “I don’t know what he saw!”
Collectively, it’s a damning collection of anti-Phoenix calls, although not all of them were made by Donaghy. Expect the highlights of this game to eventually become the Zapruder Film of the Donaghy Scandal. Sorry, Phoenix fans.
So that’s one problem. The second problem is more complex. When news of the scandal broke on Friday, as J.A. Adande pointed out in his column on ESPN.com that day, every diehard NBA fan had the same reaction. They weren’t thinking, “I can’t believe it!” or “Oh my God, how could this happen?” They were thinking, “Which one was it?” This was like finding out that your grandfather who smoked three packs a day for 50 years just came down with lung cancer. It was sad but inevitable. It was only a matter of time. These guys never made enough money (as we learned from the airplane ticket scandal) and struggled at their jobs consistently enough that there was no way to tell the difference between blowing a call and intentionally blowing a call.
More than any other professional league, an NBA referee can directly affect the outcome of every game. We’ve seen it happen time and time again, only we always assumed that the refs in question were working for the best interests of the league, that they were following orders like Luca Brasi (even if there was no definitive proof) — like the guys who worked Game 6 of the Kings-Lakers series in 2002, or Game 7 of the Suns-Sonics series in 1993, or the infamous Hubert Davis Game in 1994. After Dwyane Wade and Miami received some Vince McMahon-level assistance in Games 3 and 4 of the 2006 Finals, I wrote an angry column about the “officiating crisis” (my words) that prompted Mavs owner Mark Cuban (tired of being fined) to post the link on his blog along with the sentence, “I never have to say a word again.” After Dallas squandered that series, Cuban was so traumatized by the officiating that he nearly sold the Mavericks before family and friends talked him out of it.
For anyone who loves the NBA, the officiating has always been the proverbial “elephant in the room.” No league has endured more jokes along the lines of “I’m not sure where the NBA ends and the WWE begins.” Whether it’s because of bad luck, poor training, measly pay or the thanklessness of the profession itself — maybe it’s all of those things — the NBA employs a handful of good referees and an astonishing number of bad ones. In the playoffs, there never seems to be enough quality officials to go around. If that wasn’t bad enough, the league displayed a nasty “habit” (note: I’m using quotation marks because you could never prove anything more than a series of coincidences) of assigning better referees if they needed road teams to prevail (like a marquee team trailing 2-1 and playing Game 4 on the road) and weaker referees if they needed home teams to prevail (because weak referees are more likely to have their calls prejudiced by a raucous home crowd). This “habit” was miraculously cured this past spring, one year after the fallout of the 2006 Finals, when the officiating assignments became noticeably more haphazard and we ended up with just one Game 7 in four rounds. Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe not.
And that’s before factoring in the public’s perception (well-earned, by the way) that superstars receive more favorable calls than nonsuperstars. It’s like Chris Rock’s bit about dad getting the biggest chicken leg at the dinner table — once you reach a certain level in the NBA, the whistles will come. This perpetual leeway allows gifted athletes like Wade, Gilbert Arenas and LeBron James to drive recklessly into traffic in crunch time, knowing they can either score or draw a foul. (Even when Michael Jordan won the ’98 Finals on what everyone believed was his final shot ever, he famously shoved Utah’s Bryon Russell to the ground before launching that jumper. No whistle.) If anything, LeBron’s pre-2007 game depended on this leeway so much that he was completely ineffective in the 2006 World Championships; he kept bowling his way into the paint and waiting for calls that never came. The international refs almost seemed amused by him. The NBA refs would have been bailing him out.
So when news of the Donaghy scandal broke, everyone’s reaction was the same: “Which one?”
That’s why I had one group of friends frantically organizing a “Who was the crooked ref?” office pool on Friday morning instead of wondering, “How could this happen?” That’s why Stern ignored the FBI’s advice and used such harsh language in his official statement on Friday; nobody understands the gravity of this crisis more than someone who grew up in New York in the ’50s during CCNY’s famous point-shaving scandal. This was his worst nightmare, worse than a repeat of the Artest Melee, worse than a repeat of Kermit Washington’s punch, worse than anything except a terrorist act during an NBA game. Over everything else, David Stern always wanted his fans to feel completely safe when they’re attending games, and he always wanted them to believe that the integrity of the game was intact. Now, they don’t feel that way. At all.
So that’s two significant problems. Problem No. 1 will fade away over time, although it will never completely disappear. Problem No. 2 can be fixed, although it will take some major work. But Problem No. 3 can’t be fixed. If the allegations are true, Tim Donaghy didn’t just violate the integrity of the league and rig some games. There’s a good chance he altered the course of the 2007 championship. Only three teams had a chance last year: Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio. When Dallas choked against Golden State in the opening round, the NBA’s refusal to fix a broken playoff system came back to haunt it in Round 2, thanks to a Spurs-Suns matchup that suddenly doubled as the NBA Finals. In Game 1, San Antonio stole home-court advantage with a convincing win that everyone remembers because Steve Nash busted his nose open. The Suns rallied back with a blowout win in Game 2. Here’s what I wrote after the third game — the Spurs were favored by four, with an over/under of 200.5 — after San Antonio prevailed, 108-101, thanks to Amare Stoudemire playing just 21 minutes because of foul trouble:
- Congratulations to Greg Willard, Tim Donaghy and Eddie F. Rush for giving us the most atrociously officiated game of the playoffs so far: Game 3 of the Suns-Spurs series. Bennett Salvatore, Tom Washington and Violet Palmer must have been outraged that they weren’t involved in this mess. Good golly. Most of the calls favored the Spurs, but I don’t even think the refs were biased — they were so incompetent that there was no rhyme or reason to anything that was happening. Other than the latest call in NBA history (a shooting foul for Manu Ginobili whistled three seconds after the play, when everyone was already running in the other direction), my favorite moment happened near the end, when the game was already over and they called a cheap bump on Bruce Bowen against Nash, so the cameras caught Mike D’Antoni (the most entertaining coach in the league if he’s not getting calls) screaming sarcastically, “Why start now? Why bother?” What a travesty. Not since the cocaine era from 1978-1986 has the league faced a bigger ongoing issue than crappy officiating.
FIXING THE NBA
Bill Simmons has worried about the NBA more than once over the past six years. Here were some of those columns:
• Time to fix the NBA playoffs (June 13, 2007)
• Common sense vs. the NBA rulebook (May 16, 2007)
• Solving NBA tanking (April 11, 2007)
• The No Balls Association (February 23, 2007)
• A crisis of officiating and style (June 20, 2006)
• The Nightmare Team (August 4, 2004)
• New School vs. Old School (February 25, 2003)
Before the Donaghy scandal broke, if you told me there was a compromised official working a 2007 playoff game and made me guess the game, I would have selected Game 3 of the Spurs-Suns series. There were some jaw-dropping calls throughout, specifically, the aforementioned Ginobili call and Bowen hacking Nash on a no-call drive that ABC replayed from its basket camera (leading to a technical from D’Antoni). Both times, Mike Breen felt obligated to break the unwritten code that play-by-play announcers — don’t challenge calls and openly questioned what had happened. The whole game was strange. Something seemed off about it.
At the time, I assumed the league had given us another “coincidence” where three subpar refs (and calling that crew “subpar” is being kind) were assigned to a Game 3 in which, for the interest of a long series, everyone was better off having the home team prevail … just like I anticipated another “coincidence” in which one of the best referees would work Game 4 to give Phoenix a fair shake in a game that, statistically, they were more likely to win. After all, it’s easier to win Game 4 on the road than Game 3, when the fans are pumped up and the home team is happy to be home. (Which is exactly how it played out. Steve Javie worked Game 4, a guy who Jeff Van Gundy deemed “the best ref in the league” during the Finals. Hmmmm.) Look, this could have been an elaborate series of connected flukes. I’m just telling you that none of it surprised me. Which is part of the problem.
But here’s what I didn’t expect: That a potentially crooked ref was working that game.
Imagine being a Suns fan right now. You just spent the past two months believing that your team got screwed by the Stoudemire/Diaw suspensions, that you would have won Game 1 if Nash didn’t get hurt, that you would have taken Game 3 if you hadn’t been screwed by the officials, that you would have cruised in Game 5 if two of your best guys weren’t suspended for running toward their best player as he lay in a crumpled heap. Now it looks like an allegedly compromised referee worked Game 3.
Well, how much did Donaghy affect the game? How many calls did he whistle on Stoudemire? How many of Bowen’s potential fouls did he not call? Was he the seemingly incompetent schmuck who made that three-seconds-too-late call on Ginobili? Did Tim Donaghy cost you that game?
If David Stern wants to do right by the fans, then he should order NBA TV to rerun the tape of Game 3. We need answers. We need to know for sure. Hell, they can start a series called “NBA Hardwood Classics: The Tim Donaghy Collection” and we’ll spend the rest of the summer combing through games and figuring out how many Donaghy could have fixed. Like Game 6 of the Raptors-Nets series, which New Jersey won by a point in the final seconds. Did he swing that one? What about Game 2 of the Orlando-Detroit series, when the Magic rallied for a late cover in the final seconds with Donaghy jogging around? What about the Heat-Knicks game from last February in which the Knicks were given a 39-8 free-throw advantage and covered a 4.5-point spread by 1.5 points? Did Donaghy call those two technical fouls on the Miami coaches? Is there footage of Pat Riley screaming at him?
Stern promised us that “we would like to assure our fans that no amount of effort, time or personnel is being spared to assist in this investigation.” And really, that’s great. Thank you. But I’d rather see tapes of those games. I want to see all five playoff games that Donaghy worked last spring, as well as that Heat-Knicks game and any other contest that’s relevant. Before we worry about justice, let’s get some answers. Especially for Game 3 of the Spurs-Suns series. I left that series believing that the Spurs were better, that their offensive execution was unparalleled, that Tim Duncan was the best player on the court, that they would have figured out a way to win that series whether the suspensions happened or not. Now? I’m not so sure. What if an allegedly crooked referee hadn’t been working Game 3? What if the Suns won that game? What then?
If you’re a diehard Suns fan, this now becomes the toughest playoff loss in NBA history. You have a legitimate case that you were screwed.
If you’re a diehard NBA fan, you’re horrified but strangely hopeful, because we needed a tipping point to change a stagnant league that was headed in the wrong direction … and maybe this was it.
Look, we already knew the officiating needed to be improved. We knew the NBA needed to solve the problem of nonplayoff teams tanking down the stretch and shelving stars who could have played (and yet continuing to charge fans full price for these games). We knew the NBA needed to solve a lottery system that hasn’t quite worked for 20 years. We knew the NBA needed to solve a screwed-up playoff system that only works when the conferences are perfectly balanced, and more importantly, we knew the league needed to start taking some chances. This is a league that hasn’t swung for the fences with a major change since 1979, when it brought in the 3-point line from the old ABA. For nearly three decades, it has been making cosmetic changes here and there — the draft lottery, zone defenses, hand-checks, the charging semicircle, improved rating systems for officials, flagrant fouls, the leaving-the-bench rule, the dress code — while continually ignoring the bigger picture.
What’s the big picture? Well, the regular season is effectively meaningless. Contenders can only improve to a point because of the luxury tax, so everyone searches for that same half-assed “we want to contend for a title, but we don’t want to lose $20 million this season” competitive zone that leads to deals like Kurt Thomas and two first-round picks for a second-round pick, and another 2006 trade deadline in which the biggest move involved Anthony Johnson. Fan interest peaks at three points — at the start of the season, at the start of the first round of the playoffs, and right before the draft — and dips at every other point. For seven of the past 10 seasons, the best two teams in the league played before the Finals — which seems so incredibly shortsighted, I can’t even begin to fathom how it’s allowed to continue. And worst of all, when an NBA official was accused of fixing games, the prevailing reaction was “Which one?”
So yeah, they could make a movie about Tim Donaghy’s story. And they probably will. Let’s just hope we’re not watching a documentary about the death of the NBA some day, because we’re headed that way. Wake up, fellas. Rome is burning.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.