LAS VEGAS – David Stern was dying for someone to ask him about those angry old officials – just dying. He had come to praise his NBA stars for spending a summer with Team USA, but make no mistake: In wake of the Tim Donaghy scandal, the commissioner had come to rip Mike Mathis and Hue Hollins.
"Messrs. Mathis and Hollins at the end of their careers were not model referees," Stern said Thursday at the Thomas and Mack Center, site of the FIBA Americas tournament. "And it comes with ill grace for them to spend their time battering their former colleagues and the quality of them as a staff.
"The quality is a lot better than when Mr. Hollins and Mr. Mathis were roaming the floor, certainly perhaps near the end of their otherwise distinguished careers. I am very protective of our existing officials and our staff and their development. I doubt very much our existing staff would do to their younger colleagues what Mathis and Hollins (are now doing).
"So when you talk about officials, make the point that those are disgruntled former officials."
Mathis and Hollins have been critical of the way the NBA trains and evaluates its officials, and those it uses to do so. Stern tried to isolate the criticisms of his staff, including vice president Stu Jackson and supervisor of officials Ronnie Nunn, as coming only from Mathis and Hollins. However, several NBA officials, talking anonymously to protect against league retribution, have expressed frustration with the system and supervisors used to judge them.
"It's in a state of degradation," Hollins told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It's changed, and not for the better. There's a lack of training, and the people who try and do the training have no experience. Zero. Some are referees who were fired, but came back as supervisors and observers. There's no prerequisite for group supervisors; they hire anyone. They have hired anyone."
Recently, Stern chose federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz to conduct a review of the league's officials and gambling policies. One report maintained that Donaghy could provide gambling information on upward of 20 NBA officials, although much, if not all, was expected to be of a non-criminal nature.
"There has been no release of any information, there have been leaked news reports about what Mr. Donaghy might have said," Stern said. "We think the fairest way to deal with this is to allow the referees to tell us what the facts are, and our referees are very anxious to tell us what the facts are and then we'll know. And the speculation is hard for them, but we're very much on the same page as we seek to move forward.
"Many people have been happy to condemn them on the basis of either disgruntled former officials or press reports about what Mr. Donaghy is alleged to have said, and that's not fair."
Here are few more of Stern's thoughts from an impromptu news conference before the United States' 91-76 victory over Argentina on Thursday night.
• Asked about the possibility that NBA officials violated the league's rules on gambling, Stern said:
"Some of them might have actually bought a lottery ticket, or played bingo in a church, two forms of gambling that I'm sure everyone is very familiar with. I don't want to prejudge it, but I think there are some things that would perhaps cause me to pause more than others.
"And I think that's the problem here, that everyone (says) 'Oh my God, I saw him play, I don't know what you call it, $5 Nassau on the golf course.' That's why rather than speculate about what they did or what would happen if they did it, we agree that the best way to do it is find out what they did and then understand it all."
• About the possibility that Donaghy could provide information to authorities that suggested personal biases of referees could determine the outcomes of games, Stern, a New Jersey native, said:
"I'm from Missouri and I need to be shown that. It's not a revelation that certain coaches and certain referees have issues. If I was an interested party, I would know that when Don Nelson and Joey Crawford get together there's always a big party.
"I think knowledgeable people about our sport know a lot of what we're talking about."
• Asked whether he had a desire to eventually meet with Donaghy, Stern said:
"Yes. I do. The timing is an issue, but I would expect that's a possibility."