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Top man hoping it ends here

As long as we're still in full Harry Potter mode, let's hope for David Stern's sake and the sake of the NBA that he doesn't receive a howler from the FBI any time soon, informing him that Tim Donaghy didn't act alone. L'Affaire Donaghy is bad enough already with the knowledge that it was only one rogue referee doing the bidding for the badfellas. (Although Donaghy has not been charged or arrested, Stern said the former referee is planning to cop a plea with the feds.) If it stays that way, the league will deal with it and, hopefully, decline the kind of ridiculous measures recommended yesterday by Len Elmore of the NBA Retired Players Association. He wants all the refs to submit to frequent, random polygraph tests.

Stern shouldn't go down that road and, if history is any guide, he won't. He may upset the players by taking away their bling and throwback jerseys on game nights, but he's not about to have his referees McCarthyized. In the few conversations I've had with officials since the news broke, they are every bit as furious as Stern, even more so, because they know that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch and that all eyes will be on them like never before.

They now understand that every foul late in a quarter that sends a player to the line will be seen in a different light. The late, great Earl Strom used to put the whistle in his pocket in the final two minutes of an eventual 121-92 game because, well, what's the point? You don't see that as much anymore, for, as one referee once scolded me, "a foul is a foul, whenever it is committed."

Come to think of it, it may have been Donaghy who told me that.

Stern did answer yesterday what everyone was wondering -- when did the NBA first learn of this? He said it wasn't during the season, as had been speculated, which might have cast a completely different light on this thing. It was June 20, well after Tony Parker and the Spurs had taken care of the overmatched Cavaliers. He said the NBA even postponed terminating Donaghy at the request of the feds. Donaghy subsequently "retired" July 9.

Yes, it's legitimate to ask how the NBA missed this, given that Donaghy's behavior already had come under scrutiny and the league, according to the commissioner, has abundant security resources at its disposal, including a guy in Las Vegas to monitor any potential weird things going on in the NBA betting books. Nothing.

The league investigated a charge that Donaghy was spotted at an Atlantic City casino, which is a no-no. Nothing. After a nasty legal battle with a neighbor went public, Donaghy was called in and told that any further wayward behavior would not be tolerated. That was more than two years ago. Stern said there were zero red flags since then, and that includes scouring the ref's bank accounts, credit history, and all kinds of things. Nothing.

Stern doesn't run a police state (although you might find some in his employ who'd disagree). As he said yesterday, he can't wiretap the referees and he's not about to hire investigators to tail these guys 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the season. He's not going to throw the baby out with the bath water. This has never happened before (at least among the referees), and while it would be naive to suggest it won't occur again, one renegade referee in 60-odd years of basketball pretty much defines "isolated incident."

That's why I think this will not be the NBA equivalent of Gavrilo Princip's takedown of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. It does not appear to be an elaborate conspiracy worthy of a Robert Ludlum novel. In one NBA locale where the home team is close to irrelevant (three guesses) it wasn't even a hot topic of conversation yesterday among the Fellowship of the Miserable. (But who bats fifth for the Red Sox on July 24? Now that's news!)

It appears to be what Stern said it was and what he sure hopes it remains: One act of monumental betrayal by a little-above-average referee who earned $260,000 last season and who, according to a gambling website, was perfect in delivering the big money to gamblers in the games he officiated. In the end, as Stern noted, it cost Donaghy not only his job, but quite possibly his freedom as well.

The commissioner is fervently hoping that's the extent of the damage. If it's not, to again bring in Harry Potter, it may well be Avada Kedavra for the commish.

Peter May can be reached at P_May@globe.com.

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