LOS ANGELES - You think David Stern liked the headline he saw on Page A1 of yesterday's Los Angeles Times?
CONSPIRACY THEORY HITS REFS
Or this one on the front page of the New York Post?
Tim Donaghy strikes again.
Stern had hoped that Donaghy would remain last summer's news, and that once the individual Stern had referred to as the "rogue official" was sentenced, the incident would fade from public memory. But Donaghy is not slinking off to prison quietly. He surfaced again Tuesday with written allegations that other unnamed NBA officials were guilty of everything from the contractual violation of fraternization with team players and executives to the disturbing act of manipulating a playoff game to ensure a specific outcome and thus a seven-game series.
Stern's response? He has chosen the "consider the source" defense. Stern's public view is that Donaghy is engaged in a desperate attempt to get a lighter sentence, although how implicating others in the commission of unconnected acts to his might inspire a judge to lighten his sentence is unclear.
"Pretty much he's a singing, cooperating witness who's trying to get as light a sentence as he can," Stern suggested. "He turned on basically all of his colleagues in an attempt to demonstrate that he was not the only one who engaged in criminal activity."
Stern went on to describe Donaghy as a "convicted felon who really violated the most sacred trust in sports."
But throw out the "convicted felon" part and that is precisely what Donaghy alleges certain referees had done in at least one recent playoff game: violate the "most sacred trust in sports." Namely, the idea that every NBA game is 100 percent honestly officiated so as not to favor one team at the expense of the other.
The circumstances Donaghy described left no doubt that the game in question was Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, a 106-102 Laker triumph over the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center.
This is the most controversial game of the decade, a game that left a distinctly negative impression on just about everyone who covered it, many of whom are here for the NBA Finals. It was even a topic of conversation before the Donaghy allegations.
As soon as Phil Jackson began complaining about the officiating following Game 2 of this series, many Western Conference observers began smirking, wondering if he had forgotten about the officiating largesse that handed his team that season-saving win against the Kings. In that game, the Lakers shot 27 free throws - in the fourth quarter. And that's not even the half of it.
There were obvious makeup calls and non-calls, such as a no-call elbow Kobe Bryant deposited to the nose of Sacramento guard Mike Bibby prior to receiving a pass, and subsequently being awarded two free throws late in the game. Bibby, gauze stuck in his nose to stem the bleeding, misfired on Sacramento's last shot.
The referees in question were Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney, and Ted Bernhardt, the first two considered to be elite officials and the last one pretty much just another guy. (Bavetta worked Game 1 of the Celtics-Lakers series, and Delaney will surely see action before its conclusion.)
Donaghy's allegations resonated, as you might suspect, in Sacramento, where yesterday's Page 1 headline of The Sacramento Bee was EX-REF: KINGS WERE ROBBED.
This game is hanging out there now, and David Stern cannot ignore it. He cannot fall back on his "consider the source" mantra any longer. He must do better than that. People need to hear him say something about the game in question. He's got to get on the record. He's acting much too smug and arrogant.
We who love the game of basketball realize there is no stickier topic than officiating. Referees are vital. They determine who will play and how the game will be played. They're in a position to hand points to one team or the other. People are resigned to incompetence, but the question of honesty must never be raised.
Conspiratorial thinkers abound. They may be gamblers, or they may simply be suspicious people who don't trust authority figures. Every basketball writer alive knows that when a game he or she has covered involves controversial officiating, at least one e-mail claiming that the fix is in will be received. People are reluctant to accept human frailty as a reason for a bad call.
It is far easier to assume something far more sinister.
The fourth-quarter officiating of this infamous 2002 Western Conference finals Game 6 was so extreme in its apparent favoritism toward the Lakers that it even attracted the attention of - I'm not making this up - Ralph Nader, who called for an investigation. So, call this game the Corvair of playoff games, if you like.
I have seen some weird games, for sure. Jackson himself was part of the most notable miscarriage of justice against the Celtics in my four decades of coverage, that being the celebrated 1973 Celtics-Knicks Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, when, with the Celtics leading by 16 entering the fourth quarter, Jack Madden and Jake O'Donnell might as well have put on Knicks uniforms as New York erased that deficit and eventually won in two overtimes to take control of that series. Being much younger and not quite as, ahem, seasoned (or reasoned) as I like to think I am now, I wondered aloud if the NBA wished for a New York victory. And I was surely not alone.
I stopped believing that a long time ago. I wound up attributing what we all saw to something I like to call "subconscious crowd orchestration," the willingness of an official to give the home crowd what it wants without even knowing it. Jackson alluded to something very much like that only yesterday when, in reference to the behavior of officials, he spoke of "all the things that go into making us human beings lemmings, which we are . . . "
We'll never get beyond that because we're talking about human beings. Even the best officials sometimes cannot stop themselves from orchestrating a home crowd.
So, what happened at Staples Center on the evening of May 31, 2002? How could that game have been adjudicated in such a bizarre manner? That's the question, and David Stern needs to stop beating up on Tim Donaghy and respond to the very serious allegations he has made about that game.
Look at those headlines. They are not advertisements for NBA basketball.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.