LAS VEGAS – So the commissioner comes down out of his Olympic Tower office this week for a midtown Manhattan press conference where assuredly he'll purse his lips, raise his index finger and insist how he'll make sure this Tim Donaghy nightmare never, ever happens again to the National Basketball Association.
Only, the more that comes out on Donaghy's past, on his spiral into an FBI mafia sting, the more you wonder about the competence of the commissioner's league to police anything. Here's the thing: If the NBA once did bring Donaghy to New York with concerns about his gambling, as the ref's hometown Philadelphia Inquirer reported, then Stern and his staff were enablers in an apparent rogue ref becoming vulnerable to the mob. The Inquirer's unnamed source says that the league had no reason to believe he was betting on basketball games or point shaving, so they let him return to work.
To think that the league would give a pass to a referee immersed in gambling is beyond belief – never mind one with the violent and irrational behavior that is now surfacing about Donaghy. Even if the league's collective bargaining agreement protected his job under these circumstances, you'd have to believe the NBA would've gone on full alert to monitor Donaghy's activities.
And even if the league had no idea about any of this, if it never called him in, how could some friends and associates be so aware of his gambling problems but miss the tentacles of NBA security? Before Stern starts spinning his story, he needs to be prepared to tell everyone what the league knew about Donaghy's life, his activities, and when it knew it.
Sooner rather than later, Stern and his underlings need to be accountable for this scandal. Until the FBI makes its arrests, until the Feds lay out the case against Donaghy and his mob co-conspirators, no one can be sure that he wasn't blowing a dirty whistle in Game 3 of the Suns-Spurs series in the Western Conference semifinals. Go back to that game on May 12, see Donaghy's work and your stomach sinks. Perhaps the Feds know precisely which of the apparent 10 to 20 games were tainted across these past two seasons, or perhaps they're counting on Donaghy and the mob to give them up.
Until further notice, the de facto championship series between San Antonio and Phoenix is tantamount to tainted.
Donaghy made one of the worst calls of the playoffs (a phantom, delayed foul on Manu Ginobili in a key late third-quarter run that awarded the Spurs three free throws), and he was part of an officiating crew that sent Suns star Amare Stoudemire to the bench with foul trouble, leaving him available for only 21 minutes in the game. Beyond that, there were plenty of missed calls and dubious whistles. That game hangs over the league like an anvil now.
San Antonio was giving four points on the betting line and won 108-101. Those three Ginobili free throws pushed the Spurs to a six-point lead late in the third, and Phoenix never recovered. As it turns out, that is the last game Donaghy will officiate in the NBA.
Looking back, you wonder how that end didn't come sooner for Donaghy. But then again, the league always seemed to be cutting breaks to its refs, forever fostering a sense of entitlement. One of Michael Jordan's women targeted official Eddie Rush as the matchmaker who introduced her to him. Bob Delaney had real-life NBA stars appearing at his summer referees academy in Florida, a favor that you would think a player realistically would figure could curry him favor later.
So yes, when Donaghy saw that he could survive charges of terrorizing neighbors and chasing a mailman down the street in his car while making wild threats, he probably started out figuring that a few bets on the golf course with buddies and then a few on, say, football games couldn't come back to hurt him. Maybe the league called him on that gambling, and still, he survived again.
Listen, people aren't perfect. They're flawed. They make mistakes. No one is asking an official to live an unblemished existence. But is it too much to ask that they don't put themselves in positions where there could be the appearance of impropriety?
Perhaps the talent pool of quality officials made the league less likely to cast those considered competent aside. "If the NBA was charted on the refs it's bringing into the league, you'd see a bunch of two-star-rated recruits," an NBA coach told me last season. "I haven't seen many blue chippers coming through the door. If they were a college program, they'd get fired for bringing in all these bad classes."
For the longest time, the NBA had suffered crises of credibility with its officials. Much of the public, including people within the league, believed the games were controlled on some levels, that officials on the floor carried out agendas beyond making the right calls. The refs have been seen as league pawns so that big-market teams could stay alive in the playoffs for television purposes or that superstars could stay on the floor. There long have been conspiracy theories, and that's so much of the reason the NBA will struggle to overcome this scandal. Truth be told, everyone wanted to believe there was a Tim Donaghy out there.
And always, Stern delivered a smug dismissal, challenging you to bring him proof. Those are wild accusations, he would say. Bring me evidence. Now Stern has lost the moral authority to talk that way ever again. His arrogance about the league's officials always bothered people, and now it comes back to haunt him.
This isn't the time for defiance out of the commissioner, nor cocksure promises about the future that he can't keep anyway. For the good of the league now, and maybe for his own ultimate survival, he needs to deliver a humbled concession that the NBA could've done more to stop Tim Donaghy. He's the CEO, the emperor of the sport. Above all else, Stern needs to say that, "This one's on me."