Not Even Near The Bottom Of The Barrel

If David Stern had his way, the sentencing of referee Tim Donaghy to 15 months in prison today would be the end of the talk surrounding suspicion of every NBA official for damn near the better part of the regular season and all of the playoffs.

Trouble is, that ain’t happening.

From the calls Donaghy admitted making to another referee to the discussion that everyone assumed was about the fifth game of the Lakers-Kings series from 2002, there has been more grist boiling under the surface than Stern (or anyone at ESPN or any other telecast partner) would particularly care to acknowledge. It doesn’t solve the problem of a lack of faith in fair officiating in the NBA — especially after the Spurs-Lakers series. And while that had nothing to with Donaghy, it has everything to do with the lack of public transparency the NBA has regarding its officiating.

It has to do with officiating form the likes of Joe Crawford — someone who got in a tiff with Spurs forward Tim Duncan for what appeared to be no apparent reason, and tossed him out the game, got suspended, and was then allowed to come back and officiate that Lakers-Spurs game. (I actually defended that crucial no-call on the shot Brent Barry took, or at least said that if a foul was called on Derek Fisher, it should have been a two-shot foul, not a three-shot one.)

Donaghy’s sentencing doesn’t solve those problems. Maybe he is a rogue actor, ast he league claims, but even if he is, it doesn’t mean the Associations officiating image is clean. If people are evaluating how refs call games for home and away teams regularly to see how that tips the scales, it’s a major issue.

Donaghy may be out of jail in a year. The NBA’s zebra issues will last long after he’s out of the clink and faded out of the public eye.

Photo: AP/Louis Lanzano

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Rolling The Tape To Find Signs Flashing

The NFL appears to be very, very concerned about a mostly-media-manufactured image problem (the common figure of athletes actually being arrested is 2.2%) among its athletes, and has taken a step that I’m not sure most of us were made aware of when Lord Roger Goodell’s regime started cracking down: they are now reviewing game tape for celebrations by players that might involve gang signs as hand gestures.

Oddly enough, the hiring of gang experts to go through tapes was not inspired by any particular athlete in its league, but the Boston Celtics’ Paul Pierce, who got fined $25K last year by David Stern for making what the NBA called “menacing gestures.”

Partly because of that episode, the NFL decided to make the identification of gang signs a point of emphasis this season, and has called on the resources of local and national authorities to learn more about gang culture.

“We were always suspicious that [gang-related hand signals] might be happening,” said Mike Pereira, the NFL’s vice president of officiating. “But the Paul Pierce thing is what brought it to light. When he was fined . . . that’s when we said we need to take a look at it and see if we need to be aware of it.”

NFL game officials will not be responsible for identifying gang signals but will alert league headquarters of anything unusual or suspicious they see. League executives declined to outline what action might be taken against offenders, but Pereira said, “it will be dealt with harshly. The commissioner is not going to stand for gang signals on the field.”

But how can you tell what the difference is between what could be perceived as a gang sign and what’s a signal? As Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Dennis Northcutt pointed out, there are many gangs, each with their own symbols, and people can have hand signs for anything and everything (not that it’s terribly common.)

A league’s image is everything, but there’s something to be said for waiting to fix a problem when it actually exists. I’m not sure this is actually one of the biggest things in terms of off-field matters that the NFL ought to worry about, despite the seemingly good intentions behind it.

Concerned about gang signs, NFL reviews tapes [Los Angeles Times]

A Disgusting Display Comes To An Ignominious End

So Clay Bennett, for $45 million now and possibly another $30 million down the road, gets to move his NBA team to the relative backwater that is Oklahoma City next season, thanks to a settlement agreed upon with Seattle mayor Greg Nickels just before the judge’s decision in the legal battle between the sides was supposed to be handed down.

Seattle gets to keep the Sonics’ name and history in the hope that a replacement team will be created or become available, but that seems dependent upon the Washington state legislature approving millions of dollars for Key Arena renovations in a horrible slump of an economy. So, my guess is, that is the last of professional basketball that Seattle will see for at least a decade, if not more. Bennett can take his lying ass back to his hometown, but this disgusting end to a franchise in a major American city with basketball history — this epic failure of decency — belongs on the head of David Stern. Sure, part of it should be on the head of Starbucks founder and past owner Howard Schultz (who is still suing Bennett for violating the “good faith” agreement of trying to keep the team in the Emerald City), but the ball of failure, as it stands right now, is all Stern’s.

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Tim Donaghy Is Back Again

The former referee that David Stern would prefer be labeled a “rogue official” is back once again, and this time slinging a few accusations that the NBA was playing favorites in playoff series over the years, lending even more credence to every conspiracy theory and belief in home cooking-style officiating.

As deduced by ESPN, the series in question would be the 2002 Kings-Lakers conference finals (the Game 6 that had Kings fans up in arms) and a 2006 playoff series between the Rockets and the Mavs (the one where Jeff Van Gundy got out of sorts over targeting of Yao Ming.) Thankfully, the Four Letter links to the PDF files of the letter written by Donaghy’s lawyer as well as the NBA’s claim for $1 million dollars in restitution, which I presume is what spurred this letter.

Stern ought to, no, HAS to reveal every single bit of the NBA’s investigation into this matter right now. This is paramount to the sanctity of the league. Any and all accusations of coordination between the league and officials would be the equivalent of 10,000 Malices at the Palace if discovered to have a grain of truth to them. This perception becomes ten times as dangerous if it is actually rooted in reality, and that’s not something we ought to have in one of the big professional sports leagues.

As for the implications regarding Donaghy’s credibility: I understand and acknowledge them freely, but what always gets me in these situations of “singing” witnesses is the basic question of why someone would risk further punishment of perjury if what he or she tells federal authorities turns out to be complete bunk. Donaghy may well be slinging mud, but the NBA needs to be able to answer forcefully with proof that it does not manipulate outcomes.

So, regardless of whether Donaghy’s legal team wins its request to open the NBA’s investigation into the rogue official, it ought to release all of it — freely, on its own, to the media, and for all to judge.

There is really no other choice that can save face.

Raising The Age Limit Again?

(Yes, I’m wildly speculating that Michael Beasley has played his last college basketball game already. But it’s fairly safe speculation.)

Yahoo’s Kelly Dwyer has written a column backing David Stern’s probability of proposing the age minimum in the NBA be raised to 20 when the next collective bargaining agreement comes up — even though the current rule of waiting a year is fairly distateful to many fans of both the college and pro games; myself included. Yes, as Dwyer notes, the basketball at the college level has been better with the one-and-done crew (Kevin Durant and Greg Oden last year; presumably, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, and Kevin Love this year), but it’s done absolutely nothing for the mentality that college basketball players at the elite levels of Division I are nothing close to student-athletes. If anything, it’s turned that into stark relief.

The NBA is private, it can do what it pleases so long as it bargains for it in this case. But Stern’s proposal would be just a reinforcing of the latest mentality to control the product and the people involved in it to an extreme level — please see the dress code, lists of places not to go, stricter rules about calling technicals, etc. The reason there were flame-outs that made the jump from high school had less to do with the player being ready than the front office being enamored with bad product. Stern should not be saving teams from themselves; that’s not his job. But there is something so questionable about essentially forcing aspiring ballers to go to college (Dwyer’s suggestion of playing in Europe is laughable; they may forget you exist if you head over there for a year). It’s not like there aren’t plenty of pro busts who played four years of college and managed to turn it into a pro contract that they never lived up to.

I’m sure I’d like a rule with an age minimum of 20. The quality of the league might be better. But it’s a sign of a league heading further in a direction to appease the naysayers who can only muster enough about the Association to say it’s either full of “thugs” or players who “have no understanding of fundamentals.”

All I’m saying is that someone was dumb enough (that someone being arguably the best player to ever pick up a basketball) to draft Kwame Brown out of high school and sign him to a ridiculous amount of money. Stop protecting hte teams from their own fuck-ups, and let the kids who want no part of Div. I schooling play in the Association.

Photo: AP/Dave Weaver