While it’s certainly nice to see the esteemed Howard Bryant of ESPN agreeing with what I wrote about in my post “Why we should all be rooting for the Boston Celtics to win the NBA Championship,” I wanted to address something else after last night’s debacle in Orlando. Many people have dismissed the claims of disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy that NBA referees are part of a conspiracy to fix NBA playoff games. I put myself largely in that category, as Donaghy has an obvious reason to lie and a history of dishonesty. Yet, when I see things like what happened last night in Orlando, Donaghy’s claims nag at me.
Let me add that I generally hate the blame the referee mentality that we often see in modern sports. Referees are human and fallible, and most of the time, I’m willing to chalk a bad call up to that. Where I start to wonder if Donaghy’s claims don’t hold some legitimacy is when it becomes quite clear that the refs are blatantly favoring one side or another, “missing” obvious calls, or calling one thing a foul when committed by one team and ignoring the same exact thing when the other team does it. I saw all three of these things last night in spades, and it leads me to believe that the refs were trying to make sure that the series between the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics goes to six games. David Stern, let me be the next (I’m hardly the first) to tell you that your league now has a very serious image problem when it comes to officiating.
Before I get into the disturbing events of last evening, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to the pivotal game 6 in the 2002 Western Conference Finals between Stern’s precious darlings the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings. I remember watching the game at the time in complete disbelief at how much the referees did everything in their power to help the Lakers win the game and avoid being bounced from the playoffs by the smaller market Kings. I sat in stunned silence after the game ended, unable to believe what I had seen. The Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, and I remember Kobe Bryant blatantly getting away with one of the most vicious and egregious hatchet jobs in the history of sports as he shoved and elbowed Mike Bibby, committing a clear foul directly in front of a ref who pretended he saw nothing. Worse, the refs then had the audacity to call Bibby for a foul on Bryant. The officiating of that game was so atrocious, that consumer advocate Ralph Nader called for an investigation. This game was at the heart of Donaghy’s argument about the NBA fixing games, and give the man credit where it is due, he picked the right game to point to. To this day, I feel that the Sacramento Kings were jobbed out of a chance to go to the Finals and I don’t consider the Lakers 2002 Championship legitimate. I don’t know how anyone but a Lakers fan could.
With that history noted, it brings me to last night’s game between the Celtics and the Magic. I had a very bad feeling when early on the referees ignored the text book example of an offensive foul when Dwight Howard led with his elbow as he bowled over a planted Paul Pierce. Elbows and Dwight Howard have become a theme, but the NBA doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge it. The night only got worse for the Celtics from there. Any time Kendrick Perkins or Rasheed Wallace so much as brushed Dwight Howard gently, they were called for fouls, while Howard’s flailing elbows never seemed a problem, not even when he knocked Glen “Big Baby” Davis into a concussed state. Then of course there was the matter of the two ridiculous Technical Foul calls on Kendrick Perkins by referee Ed F. Rush that got the Celtics center ejected. The league has since rescinded one of them, although even the ESPN announcers agreed that both were illegitimate.
The saddest part of all of this is that the Orlando Magic may well have won the game without all of the blatant favoritism from the referees. They shot the ball incredibly well from 3-point range and generally played a solid game. I’d prefer to be able to give the Magic the credit they deserve for persevering, but it is awful hard to do that when the officials are overshadowing the play on the court.
The NBA has an image problem with it’s officiating, and unless and until they take real steps to address it, that will continue. Sweeping it under the rug by fining anyone who dares say anything will never solve the problem. The bedrock of good officiating is being impartial, and it’s pretty hard after a game like last night to really buy the idea that NBA referees are particularly impartial. I really wish I could.