C’mon, Eddie! Nobody Believes Anymore
June 4, 2012 by Bob Ekstrom • Print Story •
If you happened to be in shouting distance of Boston after the Celtics' Game 2 loss to the Heat last Wednesday night, you would have noticed unbridled confidence exuding from fans and talk show hosts as they awaited the weekend arrival of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Hub. This was no "we-can-beat-those-Brits-once-we-toss-their-tea-into-the-harbor" gut feeling, but rather the kind of fait accompli knowledge usually experienced by only pro wrestlers or the party incumbents during North Korea's parliamentary elections.
Such prevailing certainty belies the product Coach Doc Rivers has put on the court this postseason: three aging veterans with all manner of physical ailments, a point guard whose most consistent quality is his petulance, and a rotating cast of journeymen who are as reluctant to stand up in the wake of Avery Bradley's season-ending shoulder surgery as the impostors on an old episode of To Tell the Truth.
Upon closer examination, there was little at work here in the way of Celtic Pride or faith that The Big Three could summon some bottled youth to dig their way out of an 0-2 hole and make one last Finals appearance. Rather, this was a certainty rooted more in the perception of NBA front office corruption. Bostonians accept that the Heat are the Chosen Ones for this year's Finals, but equally believe David Stern would not deem it in the best interests of the league for these teams to take the primetime stage Sunday night in a 3-0 series. It would kill ratings.
Skepticism and downright disbelief now seem to permeate every chink in the once impenetrable honor of the NBA of my youth. From Patrick Ewing earmarked for the Knicks in the first-ever lottery in 1985 and LeBron James for the hometown Cavaliers in 2003, from the Phantom Foul on Bill Laimbeer to every one of Magic Johnson's three-step odysseys to the basket, every bounce of the ping-pong ball or blow of the whistle seems scripted. And not just to Bostonians.
In an ongoing USA Today poll, 54% of the 8,800 respondents to date believe the NBA lottery is fixed, while only 18% dismiss the thought out of hand. The Sacramento Bee places more trust in the word of the Mafia than the results of the lottery. Ebony certified it as "officially and classifiably rigged."
Doubts circulate from within as well. Last May, GM David Khan called it "a pretty incredible story line" when his Timberwolves, with the highest probability of getting the top pick, watched the Cavaliers take that honor less than a year after Lebron fled to South Beach. This spring, Yahoo! Sports reports several unnamed team executives opining that the award of the top pick to the league-owned Hornets was a joke. Of course, it didn't help Stern's cause when Anthony Davis was seen wearing a Hornets cap before the lottery.
In my formative years, a coin flip settled the draft order. It could have been a two-headed coin for all I knew, but only the two most deserving teams had a chance. And it didn't seem to affect any other facet of the game. Once the ball was tossed up, there was integrity in the outcome. Nobody got more than one pivot step. Stars could foul out, even in playoff games. And technical fouls were more scarce than hair strands on the crown of Manu Ginobili's head. The league stayed off the court, and small markets with a paucity of stars that today would not be in Stern's best interests – Portland, Baltimore/Washington, Seattle – won championships.
Then came Bird and Magic and Jordan and Bryant. The Association got its crack fix. Superstars were drawing all the attention and they were aligned with winners. Teams with one of these four pioneers of the new NBA have won 19 of the 32 championships since 1979, when the first of them came into the league. Ratings rose, and 645 Fifth Avenue took notice, defending its coveted with vigor.
Now, when the occasional Insurrection arises, things get barbaric. Take the 2002 Western Finals. In what is surely the Worst Game Ever Called, the dissident Sacramento Kings pushed the favorite-son Lakers to the brink of elimination, but Stern's minions went all Tiananmen Square on them in Game 6. Although officials couldn't put the ball in the basket for the Lakers with any more competence than Bryant and his supporting cast that night, they could call fouls and get Los Angeles to the line, which they did for an astonishing 27 free throw attempts in just the fourth quarter. The Lakers ultimately prevailed in a contest so egregiously officiated that consumer advocate Ralph Nader was prompted to call for an investigation. The Kings' revolt had been suppressed, as was all my faith in NBA officiating.
Which brings us to this past weekend, and my acceptance of the prevailing sentiment sweeping the NBA.
Ousted former ref Tim Donaghy appeared on one of Boston's two major sports radio stations during the past week, telling fans "the referees know what's good for the league, and what's good for them." What's good for the league is an extended series. What's good for them is a paycheck through June.
Donaghy, of course, was relieved of his whistle back in 2007, but has become the prosecution's key witness against Stern & Co., citing numerous instances of the league managing game outcomes through their officials. But he is also the personification of league corruption, and there is unrest over the four technical fouls called against Boston in Game 1 — one given to Rivers by Ed Murray after the Celtics coach complained, "C'mon, Eddie!" and one to Ray Allen for a "No!" he exclaimed as he walked away — all part of the 26-5 advantage in techs Miami enjoys over its opponents this spring. This was exacerbated in Game 2 by the Sacramento-like 31-18 imbalance of fouls called against Boston. The Heat got 18 extra free throw attempts en route to an overtime victory, prompting the other sports station to pan for attendees of Game 3 to wear Tim Donaghy masks in protest.
On Boston airwaves, refs for Celtics games are discussed in more depth than starting pitchers for Red Sox games. That's because there is a genuine belief that refs have more control over an NBA game outcome than do starting pitchers over a MLB game. They're not alone. Here's the line on tonight's game from one of several websites where refs are handicapped like any other game factor. Another website offers up-to-the-minute stats on referee tendencies.
Friday's crew was cause for celebration. Rodney Mott leads the league in home team favorability, while Scott Foster is a Donaghy disciple who cavorted with the game-throwing master several times a week for a six-month period after the latter's dismissal, and could be counted on to tow the company line. Foster on the mound was as good as Cy Young himself to Bostonians on Friday night. In the end, Boston won, due more to their 58 points in the paint than any turning of the tables through hometown calls. Which is part of this crime.
The NBA is far and away the least credible of the four major professional sports leagues, yet it continues to fan these flames. The Heat were winning Game 1 with or without the aid of 4 ticky-tack techs. They are a far more youthful, energetic, and talented team, so why demean that by calling such a disparity of fouls in Game 2, further playing into public mistrust? Boston did what was in the best interests of the league in Games 3 and 4, but you can bet — no really, you should have taken the C's and given the points — there were plenty of safety nets in place this weekend to ensure it. One may have ensnared James when he fouled out during the overtime period of last night's Game 4, which helped the C's to even the series.
The game I fell in love with as a boy is gone. Today's NBA has become more an acronym for Nobody Believes Anymore. If you want entertainment with tamper-proof results, Season 12 of American Idol starts in January. At least, that's the message I get when the auditor from Telescope brings out the official results in a sealed envelope every May. In the meantime, the only way I'll believe any NBA final score is if Ryan Seacrest himself dims the lights and announces the winner to me.