LOS ANGELES -- In the aftermath of a gambling scandal involving one of its officials, the National Basketball Association virtually prayed for a sensational 2007-08 season, one which would culminate with a perfectly scripted, epic NBA Finals reunion of the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. The league got just what it wanted.
And still, all of this has been rendered practically meaningless.
It's meaningless because rogue referee Tim Donaghy is back in the news, accusing his officiating contemporaries of wrongdoing. Again. What's more, Donaghy has accused the NBA itself of playing a role of its own in the scandal. Donaghy did so in a letter sent to the sentencing court, a letter dispatched not only in an effort to garner leniency, but also in a clear effort to undermine the image of the league.
As things appear right now, one wonders if Donaghy will be able to pull it off.
His timing couldn't be worse for the NBA. As the Lakers entered the Staples Center down 2-0 in this best-of-seven series, still reeling from a 38-10 discrepancy in free throws in Boston's favor in Game 2, Donaghy's legal team seized the moment to publicly outline new allegations of altered games, including a pair of specific examples: a 2005 playoff series between the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks, and the infamous Game 6 of the Western Conference finals in 2002.
That game happened to involve the Sacramento Kings and the Lakers, right here at the Staples Center. The Lakers trailed 3-2 in the series, were granted 27 free throws in the fourth quarter and won the game, causing a wave of raised eyebrows -- plus a written request for a league investigation by former presidential candidate and noted consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
So, needless to say, the league had some explaining to do prior to Game 3 last night.
"According to Mr. Donaghy, all of his allegations have previously been made to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney," Richard Buchanan, an executive vice president and general counsel for the NBA, said in a public statement released yesterday afternoon. "They are clearly being disclosed now as part of his desperate attempt to lighten the sentence that will be imposed for his criminal conduct.
"The NBA remains vigilant in protecting the integrity of our game and has fully cooperated with the government at every stage of its investigation. The only criminal activity uncovered is Mr. Donaghy's."
Commissioner David Stern, in attendance for Game 3, was a bit more pointed in his pregame remarks. He called Donaghy a "convicted felon" or "criminal" at least five times, claiming, "He's dancing as fast as he can. ... He's a singing, cooperating witness who's trying to get as light a sentence as he can."
Nevertheless, that doesn't negate the dire circumstances Donaghy has both created and exacerbated.
As the cynics around the league would say, there's a reason every team, and every player, has one particular referee they simply can't stand. Bias and prejudice are human qualities that can be found in anyone ... including, on occasion, officials.
One occasion, it's Joey Crawford ejecting Tim Duncan for laughing. Another time, it's Ron Garretson ejecting Rasheed Wallace for staring. In 2005, Jeff Van Gundy, the former Houston coach, had issues and spoke out, saying an NBA official had told him Rockets center Yao Ming was being scrutinized by referees.
"At the time, I felt I was absolutely correct," Van Gundy said at halftime during ABC's telecast of Game 3. "But I said 'an NBA official.' I never said 'a referee.' And I don't want to give any credence to [Donaghy], who's proven himself to be wrong."
The thing is, Donaghy, in an emphatic response to the NBA's assertion that he must pay $1 million in restitution to cover the cost of the league's private investigation, has essentially answered the call by saying, "Don't act like it's just me, fellas! There's a whole bunch of referees in the NBA violating league policy."
Donaghy's legal team alleges everything from team executives having conspired with the league to keep stars out of foul trouble to officials carrying on "relationships" with team executives, coaches and players. According to Donaghy, those relationships compromised other refs, just as Donaghy compromised himself in betting on games.
As far as the NBA is concerned, its request for $1 million restitution is simply, as deputy commissioner Adam Silver put it, "Par for the course."
Silver continued, "The government approaches the victims -- which we clearly are in this case -- and asks us to assess our damages. We informed them there's no way to accurately calculate the damages to our league, basically, outside of the resources we used for the investigation. We told them what it cost us, and that's that. It's very common."
Sounds perfectly reasonable.
But in light of what transpired earlier this season at Madison Square Garden -- right down the block from the league's offices -- where the New York Knicks and chairman James Dolan refused to quietly settle a sexual harassment lawsuit and were ultimately found liable for $11.5 million, why didn't the NBA, a multibillion-dollar business, shrug off the $1 million and just go quietly into that good night?
Clearly, Donaghy isn't about to do so. He has taken a shot at the league's very foundation, and he appears to be hinting at having even more shrapnel to hurl.
There's no doubt Stern will be watching closely when Donaghy is sentenced July 14 on felony charges, hoping for the type of punishment befitting Donaghy's damaging actions.
Too little, too late? Who knows?
But this Finals series doesn't look nearly as good as it looked a week ago. We know that much for sure.
Stephen A. Smith is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.