LOS ANGELES -- Was Game 3 of the 2008 NBA Finals held at the scene of a crime?
Disgraced ex-referee Tim Donaghy alleged as much Tuesday in a filing made by his attorney in U.S. District Court in New York, saying the highly controversial Game 6 of the Lakers-Kings playoff series in 2002 was impacted by the actions of two of the three referees who worked the game.
NBA commissioner David Stern vehemently denied the allegations, saying they are the desperate act of a convicted felon. He also disclosed that the league has already briefed members of the U.S. Congress on certain facets of the Donaghy investigation.
"We welcome scrutiny here. This is something that should be scrutinized," said Stern, who called Donaghy a "singing, cooperating witness" and repeatedly referred to him as a felon as he spoke with reporters for more than eight minutes near the loading dock of the Staples Center as he arrived for Game 3 of the Finals.
The allegations are some of the strongest ever made against the NBA, coming at a time when the officiating of this year's Finals between the Celtics and Lakers has come under heavy scrutiny.
In the letter submitted by Donaghy's attorney, the following "manipulation" is alleged:
"Referees A, F and G were officiating a playoff series between Teams 5 and 6 in May of 2002. It was the sixth game of a seven-game series, and a Team 5 victory that night would have ended the series. However, Tim learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. Tim knew referees A and F to be "company men," always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA's interest to add another game to the series. Referees A and F heavily favored Team 6. Personal fouls [resulting in obviously injured players] were ignored even when they occurred in full view of the referees. Conversely, the referees called made-up fouls on Team 5 in order to give additional free throw opportunities for Team 6. Their foul-calling also led to the ejection of two Team 5 players. The referees' favoring of Team 6 led to that team's victory that night, and Team 6 came back from behind to win that series."
Although no teams are specifically named, it is not hard to deduce the game in question. The Lakers-Kings series was the only one that postseason that went seven games, and the officiating in Game 6 was so questionable that consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader called for a formal investigation.
The Lakers attempted 40 free throws to the Kings' 25 in that game, and Los Angeles made 21-of-27 from the line while Sacramento converted 7-of-9 in the fourth quarter alone.
In addition, a foul was called against Mike Bibby of the Kings after he was shoved and elbowed by Kobe Bryant, denying the Kings an opportunity to try for a tying basket. Also in that game, Kings centers Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard fouled out, and Kings coach Rick Adelman was highly critical of the officiating afterward.
"My first thought [upon hearing Donaghy's allegation] was: I knew it," Pollard said Tuesday night. "I'm not going to say there was a conspiracy. I just think something wasn't right. It was unfair. We didn't have a chance to win that game."
The Lakers went on to win the 2002 NBA championship.
The letter apparently comes in response to the NBA's claim that Donaghy pay $1 million in restitution to cover the cost of the league's private investigation. Donaghy's legal team is trying to demonstrate his cooperation with a federal government investigation before he is sentenced on July 14 on felony charges of taking cash payoffs from gamblers and betting on games himself.
The document referenced other alleged improprieties that Donaghy disclosed to federal law enforcement officials. Among them:
• "Tim gave information on how top executives of the NBA sought to manipulate games using referees to boost ticket sales and television ratings," the letter reads. "He also described how nepotism played a far greater role than qualifications in a number of referee hirings."
• "Tim explained the league officials would tell referees that they should withhold calling technical fouls on certain star players because doing so would hurt ticket sales and television ratings," the letter adds. "As an example, Tim explained how there were times when a referee supervisor would tell referees that NBA Executive X did not want them to call technical fouls on star players or remove them from the game. In January 2000, Referee D went against these instructions and elected a star player in the first quarter of the game. Referee D later was privately reprimanded by the league for that ejection."
• In addition to game-altering allegations, Donaghy's letter claims that many officials carry on "relationships" with team executives, coaches and players that violate their NBA contracts. For example, it said, referees broke NBA rules by hitting up players for autographs, socializing with coaches and accepting meals and merchandise from teams.
"Tim described one referee's use of a team's practice facility to exercise and another's frequent tennis matches with a team's coach," the letter says.
• The letter also alleges that during a 2005 Rockets-Mavericks playoff series, "Team 3 lost the first two games in the series and Team 3's Owner complained to NBA officials. Team 3's Owner alleged that referees were letting a Team 4 player get away with illegal screens. NBA Executive Y told Referee Supervisor Z that the referees for that game were to enforce the screening rules strictly against that Team 4 player. Referee Supervisor Z informed the referees about his instructions. As an alternate referee for that game, Tim also received these instructions."
Mavs owner Mark Cuban did in fact complain after his team lost the first two games of the series, and Dallas went on to beat Houston in seven games. Jeff Van Gundy, then the coach of the Rockets, said that an NBA official had told him about the league's plan to closely monitor moving screens by Yao Ming, and Van Gundy was ultimately fined $100,000 for his comments regarding the situation. Van Gundy later backed off his comments.
During halftime of the Lakers-Celtics game on Tuesday, Van Gundy, a commentator for the game, said that while he still thinks Yao was unfairly targeted, he does not lend any credibility to what Donaghy has to say.
Stern said he had not yet read the letter filed on Donaghy's behalf, but that portions of it had been read to him.
"My reaction to Donaghy's lawyer are that clearly as the date of sentencing gets closer, and the things that he's thrown against the wall haven't stuck, he's rehashing a variety of things that have been given to the U.S. Attorney and the FBI, fully investigated, and are baseless," Stern said. "We have been asked to cooperate for the last year by providing people and answering questions, and we've done that. And our understanding is that the investigation is just about wrapped up waiting for the sentencing of Mr. Donaghy, and as he continues desperately to somehow get out of the fact that he is subject to a longer sentence possibly than his co-conspirators, there are this continuing flow of allegations from, don't forget, an admitted felon. So they're baseless."
Also Tuesday, Lakers coach Phil Jackson was asked about the allegations regarding Game 6 of the 2002 series against Sacramento.
"Was that after the fifth game, after we had the game stolen away from us after a bad call out of bounds and gave the ball back to Sacramento and they made a 3-point shot?" he said. "There's a lot of things going on in these games and they're suspicious, but I don't want to throw it back to there."
Jackson also was asked if he agreed with the notion that there were officials that were "NBA company men" who were doing this for the sake of ratings.
"Only us basketball coaches think that," Jackson said. "Nobody else can go to that extreme. They referee what they see in front of them. You know, a lot of things have happened in the course of the Tim Donaghy disposition. I think we have to weigh it as it comes out, and we all think that probably referees should be under a separate entity than the NBA entirely. I mean, that's what we'd like to see probably in the NBA. It would just be separate and apart from it. But I don't think that's going to happen."
Lamell McMorris, head of the NBA referees union, also issued a statement:
"Tim Donaghy has had honesty and credibility issues from the get-go," the statement reads. "He is a convicted felon who has not yet been sentenced for the criminal conduct he has already admitted to. He may be willing to say anything to help his cause and he may believe these most recent allegations will help his agenda. I'm not aware of any improper conduct by any current NBA referee in the playoffs six years ago or any conspiracy by the NBA to affect the outcome of any game then or now. Frankly we're tired of Tim Donaghy's cat and mouse games."
Donaghy's letter said that in the first of several meetings with prosecutors and the FBI in New York in 2007, he named names. He faces up to 33 months in prison.
Donaghy's attorney and federal prosecutors declined to comment to The Associated Press on Tuesday.