NBA's petty game with rogue ref backfires

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo! Sports

LOS ANGELES – As David Stern stood surrounded near a loading dock at the Staples Center, with all the beautiful people waiting courtside, with the return of a glamour NBA Finals, the commissioner had to consider the possibility that he had delivered an invitation for Tim Donaghy to embarrass the NBA again, to usurp its starry stage.

“He picks his spots,” Stern grumbled. “This guy is dancing as fast as he can to throw as much against the wall so his sentence won’t be as hard.”

There’s a chance Donaghy’s attorney, John Lauro, had long ago chosen to release wild stories of league corruption during the Finals, but there’s a possibility, too, that the league needlessly provoked it. The NBA wanted this Donaghy circus on Tuesday night about as much they wanted the San Antonio Spurs back in the Finals.

Within the past week, the NBA filed a letter with federal probation officials calling for Donaghy to pay restitution of $1 million, a sum that the league says it invested in investigating the rogue ref. When the government asked the NBA – considered the victim of Donaghy’s crimes – for a figure on its damages, the league should’ve shown restraint and taken a pass.

Donaghy is no sympathetic figure. He’s a bad guy, but he is also a broken man who has lost his family and his career. Whatever his prison sentence, his life is in ruins. He deserves everything he gets, but make no mistake: The blood money is beneath the NBA.

Let it go. Just let it go.

So, Donaghy had one dart left for Stern before the felon’s sentencing in July, and empowered with the feds requesting the judge grant Donaghy probation over prison because of his cooperation in the prosecution of his co-conspirators, Lauro fired on the commissioner who has trashed his client’s credibility for months. What’s more, Lauro tried to provide the judge details of disclosures that the feds didn’t include in the recommendation letter.

Nevertheless, the timing seems more about exacting revenge on Stern and his league than leveraging the judge for a shorter sentence. The lawyer waited until there were suspicions of strange officiating in Game 2, until the series had moved to Los Angeles for Game 3, and let loose these sordid stories of NBA corruption, compromises and fixes.

Still, Stern is right when he says – so far, anyway – that, “Mr. Donaghy is the only one here that’s guilty of criminal activity.”

Did the league and referees conspire to get the Lakers past the Sacramento Kings and into the 2002 NBA Finals? Did Yao Ming get unfairly targeted in the 2005 playoffs at the behest of the league? Were NBA referees punished for throwing superstars out of games? Do relationships among team officials, coaches and players with refs compromise calls on the floor?

There’s a chance there’s some chards of truth on the smaller ones, but the biggies? Do you truly think league executives would expose themselves to criminal prosecution for better television ratings, better matchups?

Enough with the conspiracies, enough.

Within the NBA, there’s a belief that Donaghy was always planning to file these papers in New York on Tuesday, but the recent timing of the league's demand of $1 million restitution makes it look like Lauro and Donaghy were furious and struck back.

For the league, the money isn’t the issue. It can find that million between the cushions of couches in its midtown Manhattan tower. For the NBA, this was a self-defeating exercise, useless. And yes, Donaghy is responsible for his felony acts, for betting on games, providing gamblers inside information and, as Stern said, “a convicted felon who really violated probably the most sacred trust in sports.” Nevertheless, Donaghy had been an employee with a pattern of disturbing behavior, whose acts should have invited a more probing league investigation into his double life.

Who has paid the price in the NBA? Who lost their job over Donaghy? Perhaps the NBA wouldn’t have had to pay $1 million for this investigation – if it did spend that much – had it gone deeper in its original probes.

From the beginning, Stern engaged in a relentless campaign to isolate the corruption to Donaghy. He cast doubts on Donaghy's credibility with constant refrains that he’s a “convicted felon.” Stern started in the summer, calling him a “rouge, isolated official.” All along, his instincts were right: As long as the scandal was contained to this creep, the sport could survive the scandal.

As it turned out, the story never had the legs that the NBA feared. The league was still moving quietly toward Donaghy’s sentencing in mid-July, when it looks like it took a foolish risk.

Stern doesn’t need restitution out of Donaghy. He needs him out of the news, out of his life. And how many millions of dollars would the NBA have paid for that crook to be out of sight, out of mind, on a night the starry Hollywood stage at Staples should’ve belonged to Kobe Bryant?