Thursday, June 7, 2012

Conspiracy or Coincidence?

By Stephen Kerr

Commissioner David Stern sends a memo announcing a mandatory meeting of his staff, including the league's Board of Governors and the head of officiating. "This is highly confidential," the memo stated. "No cameras, no media. Everyone please be prompt."

"We have two very important things to discuss," he says once everyone is assembled. "The outcome of the postseason, and the draft lottery."

Puzzled looks are exchanged around the room. The playoffs were still going on, so how could the outcome be determined until the Championship Series was over? And please, not another change to the lottery, a system that already has fans and teams alike complaining year after year.

"I cannot stress this enough," Stern continues. "Everything that is discussed here today must not leave this room. This means no talking to the media, players, coaches, team executives … no one, period. Are we clear on this?"

Nods and murmurs of assent come from everyone present. It was obvious the Commish had something big on his mind, not just because of what he was saying, but by the serious, determined look on his face as he addressed the group.

"We made it through the lockout and the compressed regular season without too much damage," Stern says. "The postseason is going along pretty well. But we need something better to completely erase the bad taste the fans have from the lockout. We need to create a buzz, something that will keep them glued to their TV sets until the last game of the Finals is played, and last into the offseason."

He pauses for effect. We've got to find a way to ensure the Miami Heat win the title. They're the New York Yankees of the league these days — you may love them, you may hate them, but you'll watch them either way. Sure, the Celtics are still tough, and have that long-standing tradition. But Miami is our drawing card right now."

He turns to look at the head of officials. "This is where your crew comes in," Stern tells him. "I want your refs to do whatever they can to aid the Heat, without being too obvious about it. Try to get Miami more free throw opportunities than Boston. One night, it can be a difference of 20 free throws, another night five or 10. If Boston starts whining, or getting frustrated, give them technicals. Half a dozen one game, two or three another."

A low murmur of surprise can be heard in the room. "Are you saying you want us to fix the series?" the head of officials asks incredulously. "Have you forgotten Tim Donaghy?"

"No, I haven't forgotten Tim Donaghy," Stern says, referring to the NBA referee who was charged with betting on games over a period of seasons and was sent to prison. "He was careless, plus we're not making bets or deals with any players. Just have your refs show a little favor now and then to the Heat. Don't do it every game, just when it looks like Boston is taking control of the series. Even if people start to wonder, it won't be that cut and dry. Assign one of your lower-grade officials to work a game or two for effect."

"I don't know," the head of officials says dubiously. "Seems mighty risky to me. What if fans and the media smell a fix?"

"If there's no proof, it's all speculation, and that's not a bad thing," Stern says. "Remember, we're looking for buzz, something to get people to keep talking about us even after the games are played. The NFL has been eating our lunch lately with the Saints bounty thing, concussions, Brett Favre, Michael Vick, their own lockout. We need to get more of that spotlight for ourselves. More attention leads to higher TV ratings, more ticket sales, more overall revenue."

A few nods and even a smile or two could be seen among the gathering. "Chew on it for a bit, and we'll discuss it some more before we leave," Stern advises. "Meanwhile, let's turn our attention to the lottery, which is coming up soon."

The Board of Governors shift uncomfortably in their seats, wondering what bombshell was about to drop on them.

"As you probably know, (New Orleans Saints Owner) Tom Benson is close to buying the Hornets," Stern says. "A deal hasn't been finalized yet, but we're getting there. We need to sweeten the pot to ensure he's the one who buys the team."

"You mean financially?" one of the Governors asks.

"No, not financially. Through the lottery," Stern explains. "We need to make sure those lottery balls bounce in favor of the Hornets getting that top pick. When they do, Benson will be swept up in the excitement, with cameras and everything. The Hornets will have some momentum going into next season, Benson agrees to buy the team, the deal will be officially finalized, and everyone will benefit."

"You mean you want Benson to be present at the lottery?" another member of the Board asks.

"Exactly," Stern says with a smile. "Sure, it will turn some heads, but again, where there is no real proof, there's only speculation. The media feeds on speculation. Controversy sells. All the buzz, combined with an exciting postseason, will help us both in the short term and going into next season. Now let's break for lunch and come back in an hour for final discussion. Remember, not a word to anyone about all this."

Did such an encounter really take place? Who knows? Who cares? If controversy and speculation are what Stern was looking for to meet his objective, it's certainly working. Conspiracy theorists are everywhere. In the Celtics' Game 2 loss to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James went to the free throw line 24 times, while the entire Boston team took 29 shots from the charity stripe. Three Celtics fouled out. The Celtics' Rajon Rondo received a Dwyane Wade arm in the face late in overtime with the score tied. No call.

As for the lottery, the Hornets did indeed end up with the top pick, while the pitiful Charlotte Bobcats, owned by none other than Michael Jordan, had to be satisfied with the second pick. Tom Benson was present, as if he knew he was about to hit the jackpot, while Jordan was a conspicuous no-show.

Conspiracy, or coincidence? Well, until there is solid proof either way, it's up to you to decide.

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