For so long, David Stern let too much go. These problems had been festering, begging to be resolved, but part arrogance, part denial, left the commissioner chasing the cosmetic over the substantive. He had a dirty official in a personal freefall, but he hammered ballplayers on dress codes. He had a broken system of referee evaluation, but his people were tsk-tsking Tim Duncan for listening to an inconspicuous iPod in warmups.
In so many ways, Tim Donaghy did the NBA a favor: He forced Stern to re-examine everything about how the league’s officials are taught, evaluated and monitored. Donaghy turned Stern’s gaze from conquering the world, to immersing himself in salvaging the credibility and core of his game.
Before a regular season game is played, it’s clear: The NBA will suffer little beyond embarrassment over Donaghy. The fear refs wouldn't be able to walk onto the floor without a besiegement of volatile references to Donaghy appears unfounded. It isn't so much the strength of the league that pushes the sport past this creep, but a public that has become numbed to cheating. From steroids to hidden cameras to fat-cat boosters, this is a society that has been conditioned to consider corruption business as usual.
Donaghy hasn't destroyed the NBA, but fortified it. Stern has stripped VP Stu Jackson of his duties overseeing referees and promises the league will be forthcoming in publicly acknowledging officiating mistakes. They'll conduct deeper and more detailed background checks with a beefed up security staff, and the league will hire experts to closely study how statistical patterns in NBA games mesh with betting lines. Referees are told to be more accommodating to talking with coaches and players on the floor, and the names of game officials will be released on the mornings prior to tip-off to eliminate the prospect of insider information for bettors.
And maybe most interesting of all, Stern stopped the charade of a referee's gambling policy that Stern himself confessed to never enforcing. More than half of his officials confessed to violating rules against casino gambling, and there wasn't one of the 56 who bothered to deny wagers on golf, and tournament pools and snagging a lottery ticket. Stern made the rules, never enforced them and decided that this was time to separate serious gambling and a casual dalliance.
The NBA wishes it could tell everyone that the Donaghy fallout is finished, but until his sentencing in late January, Stern doesn't know the complete extent of the feds' investigation. Why was the court date pushed back from early November? Has Donaghy ratted out more referees on gambling and sent the feds out to corroborate his tales? Nobody knows. So far, there's no evidence to suggest that's the case, but Stern can't close the league's internal review until the feds investigation is done. Only then will the feds tell the NBA the extent of their findings.
"It's all on the basis of sort of what we know at the present time," Stern said.
What's more, the NBA didn't need a scandal to know many of its executives and coaches believed that Jackson was responsible for far too much in his office. Under Jackson's watch, there had been a widening gulf between referees and those charged with overseeing and grading them.
Instead of a partnership, too much of an "Us vs. Them," mentality had grown. More and more, referees were dubious of those charged with evaluating their work.
Now, Stern will hire a new executive to oversee the officiating operation, and that should go a long way toward soothing the nasty dynamic that developed between the league office and refs. Strangely in the end, only Donaghy's devious act could bring everything back together.
The more you listened to Stern on Thursday, the more it sounded as if the rogue ref had forced the commish to deal with mundane housekeeping that seemed much less exotic than growing his game around the globe.
"I think that there's always an opportunity when you're forced to review things like this," Stern said. "Over the years we've been relatively resilient in terms of looking at issues, whether it's Magic Johnson or issues of race or drugs …"
So far, the sport has survived a mob-connected criminal calling basketball games. In the landscape of sports corruption, Tim Donaghy comes and goes because almost nothing has staying power in a news cycle that moves quickly to the next boogeyman. Who would've thought that the league's worst nightmare could go such a long way toward keeping the NBA, and its wanderlust commissioner, honest?