No such thing as a bad theory

Astronaut

THE AGENT TO both Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan isn't saying he believes it. David Falk isn't telling me that on the day of the first-ever NBA draft lottery, in 1985, then-commissioner David Stern really froze the No. 1 envelope -- rigging the drawing to deliver Ewing to a sputtering league's biggest market. "I don't adhere to it," Falk tells me. "I'm not saying it happened." Then comes a pause that seems to drag on forever.

"But," he offers, "that theory is plausible."

For 92 minutes on a Sunday afternoon, I've listened to the formerly most powerful representative in the game explain the difference between truth and plausibility, between reality and perception. And like many around the league, it turns out, Falk does not think every alleged conspiracy is created equal. He laughs off the notion that Stern strong-armed Jordan into a gambling-addiction-induced retirement in '93. "That's a silly one," Falk says. "Michael called me at home, on a Saturday, and said, 'I'm going to retire.' Did Michael's leaving help the NBA? No!"

But with Ewing to New York, Falk allows, there was a motive ("Good business reasons"). There was a mechanism ("Whether David Stern used dry ice or infrared glasses or gamma rays, I was thrilled"). The theory was plausible enough, anyway, to find purchase inside bars and concourses, infecting discourse, triggering a contagion of conspiracy charges over the three decades since.

Such a singular roll call -- which includes but is not limited to: the Frozen Envelope; Jordan's Pseudo-Retirement; the Lakers' 27 Free Throws in the Fourth Quarter of Game 6 Against the Kings; the Existence of Tim Donaghy; Dwyane Wade's Shooting as Many Free Throws as Dallas in Game 5 of the '06 Finals; "Basketball Reasons" (the Vetoed Chris Paul Trade); Cleveland's Getting the '03 No. 1 Pick Because a Hometown Kid Was the No. 1 Prospect; Chicago's Getting the '08 No. 1 Pick Because a Hometown Kid Was the No. 1 Prospect; Washington's Getting the 2010 No. 1 Pick With the Widow of the Team's Recently Deceased Owner Watching; Cleveland's Getting the 2011 No. 1 Pick With the Owner's 14-Year-Old Son (Who Suffers From Neurofibromatosis) Watching; and New Orleans' Getting the 2012 No. 1 Pick Because the League Owned It -- was why I was calling folks like Falk in the first place.

My assignment? Uncover why the Association inspires more conspiracy theories, in volume and salience, than any other U.S. sport. Ask sources around the league to rationalize the irrationality behind the 125,000 YouTube videos that appear when you search "NBA + rigged" -- nearly three times as many as the NFL (27,500), MLB (8,910) and the NHL (5,880) combined. Determine what makes the perception of the game unique, even to those inside it.

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