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NBA Referee...By Nelson Lardner

The New York Post scooped the world in Friday's editions, as their front-page headline blared "Fixed!", when it became public knowledge that an investigation into the alleged activities of one particular veteran NBA official was underway.

The hounds having been released, it didn't take long for multiple sources to come up with the same name, the primary subject of the FBI's probings - Villanova grad Tim Donaghy, an ex-Wildcat baseballer with a reputation for enthusiastic gambling and at least a modest measure of anger-management issues.

Well, gee whiz. Rack one up for the cynics. Most people who follow the NBA closely have long observed certain style tendencies of league refs who have been around long enough to be profiled, and knowing what referees might be working a particular game can be most useful information, in conjunction with knowledge of such tendencies. As Sunday's Post observed:

"When a mobster wannabe learned of the referee's improprieties, he threatened to expose the official unless he gave away inside knowledge such as which referees were going to officiate a game, sources said."

We are all keen to learn of Donaghy's eventual pending level of cooperation with the Feds - if any. We shouldn't have long to wait.'s Henry Abbott, who pounds out quantities of enlightening copy under the TrueHoop banner for the World Wide Leader's site, turned out this paragraph for his May 17 "Thursday Bullets":

"Spurs fans present video evidence that the Suns are the dirty team. I would put it to you that, after a while, TALKING ABOUT REFEREES IS BORING (caps ours)."

I beg to differ with Mr. Abbott - individual referees and their quirks have always been relevant to the flavor of NBA matchups . . . a notion further legitimized today, since a nightmare league problem has come home to roost.

NBA ref Steve Javie - clearly not a fan of one of Adolph Rupp's most-successful Runts - was reported as having said to coach Pat Riley, back in 2001: "It's giving us absolute delight to watch you and your team die." Another league zebra, Derrick Stafford, was overheard saying to Riley: "It's not about you. Go on TV crying."

These extracurricular activities cost Javie a mere G-note, and Stafford a two-game suspension. As has been amply demonstrated over the years, Riley often works officials beyond the outer boarders of propriety, but so long as Javie and Stafford remain employed, there's no way on God's green earth either should be working any Heat games this coming season . . . though at this point, you'd think the league office might have to ask for volunteers.

There was also no way that Hue Hollins should have been working Game Five of the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Knicks, given his evident, sustained, long-term distaste for the Bulls' chief second banana, Scottie Pippen. Even with the Knicks enjoying overall homecourt advantage in a series tied at two games apiece, it was clearcut that Game Five was crucial to the New Yorkers.

With a mere 2.1 seconds remaining, with the Bulls leading by one, Pippen cleanly (yes, there is indisputable photographic evidence) foiled a Hubert Davis field-goal attempt.

But noooooooooooooooo! Hollins calls a foul on Da Pip, Davis sinks his charity tosses, the Knicks skulk away with a 87-86 win which (given that the Knicks had a Game Seven date in the Garden in the hole) virtually assured their success in the series.

Peter Vescey recalls that ex-referee Darrell Garretson (NBA Supervisor of Officials at the time) was standing behind the scorer's table following the final buzzer, saying to all within earshot that the call never should have been made.

And if the commissioner's office had any sense of fair play and propriety with regards to the referee assignments, Hue Hollins should not have been anywhere near the Garden when that Game Five was played, especially in a game between a Bulls team without the then-retired Michael Jordan and a Knicks team representing the league's biggest media market. Like Caesar's wife, sports leagues must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. David Stern must be aware of that.

But no matter what - the NBA will endure. You might conceivably see more unpleasant news come out about specific players and/or officials -- and the league would still go on. It endured the true hard times, prior to the ascension of Red Auerbach's Celtic dynasty -- and it got through the dark ages prior to the twin presences of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and it will get through this post-Michael Jordan era.

But we're seeing plenty of smoke. Accordingly, it's difficult to believe there's no fire. We find jumping the gun distasteful (remember the lesson the recent Duke lacrosse brouhaha taught all of us?), and won't. But there are subtle degrees of potential involvement, here. Tipping gamblers about specific refereeing assignments is one thing. Bringing legal charges against a referee for following a personal agenda when calling/not calling fouls, making rulings on balls tipped out of bounds, et al is another kettle of fish.

You can already see the bare outlines of a "They made me do it!" defense. But if it's clearly established that any official had bets riding on a game he worked, and along the way made calls to aid his own cause, there'll be the devil to pay.

You're free to make certain judgments by accessing current resources. Go to YouTube for . . . yeah, Game Three of this year's Spurs/Suns series, announced by Mike and Mike (Breen and Fratello), with "highlights" excerpted for your edification. Donaghy worked that game. The Spurs covered as the chalk, winning by seven. You'll again be treated to rewindable views of plausable reasons for why that result landed.

And while we're attenting to the current mess, we must again ask: Is the NBA finally willing to absorb yet another lesson about not assigning league officials with axes to grind, to games featuring coaches and/or players with whom said officials might find it a strain to play fair?

Let's get it ALL done, the right way, in one fell swoop, shall we, Mr. Commissioner?

Personally, I don't find all this boring . . . not in the least . . .

Nelson Lardner

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