Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A David Stern Tour de Force

Tuesday, July 24, 2007 will one day be recognized as one of the most important and eventful days in David Stern’s career as NBA commissioner. Facing a national media audience that included the three major national cable news networks, national and regional sports networks from the United States and Canada, national sports radio networks – Stern’s Tour de Force resembled more of a Presidential Press Conference than a typical David Stern media conference.

Typically a David Stern press conference has Stern sitting at a table, looking relaxed, smiling in front of a microphone, kibitzing with the media. One of the more effective communication skills David Stern has is his ability to make those around him feel comfortable. Meeting someone like David Stern can be intimidating at the best of times, but David Stern works at making those around him feel important (with those meeting Stern realizing how important a person David Stern is). The David Stern who entered venue was anything but the David Stern the media has come to appreciate. Led into the room by a plefera of handlers, Stern was the last person to enter the room. For the first time in recent memory David Stern spoke from a podium, clearly this was going to be a very different David Stern – Stern wasted little time getting to the heart of the matter, former NBA referee Tim Donaghy and the damage he has brought to the NBA’s reputation.

“The first thing that I would like to say is that our rules are crystal clear; that referees may not either gamble on our games; or, provide information to anyone about those games. We, you know, have a rule that says you're subject to discipline, which would most likely be expulsion from the league and the job. We educate our referees intensely. We have training camp presentations, we have brochures we distribute work rules , they are visited by security, and we give them copies of compliance plans and the like that make it clear that not only aren't they permitted to either gamble or provide information to people; they may not even provide other than to their immediate family the details of their travel schedules or the games they are going to work.

“We take these rules seriously. We have a security department that is large. It's headed by Bernie Tolbert, the senior vice president of security, former FBI, head of the Buffalo office second in command at Philadelphia who has a background in undercover work. We have in house representatives that are from Secret Service, U.S. Army, New York Police Department, and New York State Police Investigation.

“We, in addition, have a security network that includes a security representative with respect to every NBA team. Those security representatives are routinely judged and either changed as appropriate, and instructed on the ground to be listening to what goes on, what they hear, what they see, what they can observe. And those security representatives are for the most part either FBI retired, local police, in some cases DEA. And we are permitted by work rules; some of them are actually functioning in their regular capacity for local PD and working for us at the team level.

“In addition to the constant communication with our security represents of what goes on in the cities, we are in continuous conversation with DEA, the FBI section on organized crime which deals with sports betting, and with the Homeland Security Department. Our security department operates rather extensively, and has actually been beefed up more recently with respect to its activities in connection with Homeland Security, which occupies since 9/11 a more substantial time, a more substantial amount of its time.

“We do subject our referees to extensive security checks, to the limit provided by the law. That is to say, with their authorization each year for the past two years, we have conducted personal background checks that cover credit, bank account, litigation, civil and criminal, assets including real property, debt, you name it; if it's legal to have it, we do it. The agency that we use for that is the Arkin Group, and under the guidance of the former head of worldwide operations for the CIA.”

All that is great, but as is clearly spelled out in “Bad Bet: Understanding the N.B.A.’s Anti-Gambling Rules,” a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. The document makes it clear -- officials are barred from visiting or attending “any racetrack, off-track betting establishment, casino or gambling establishment of any kind.” Violating the rules subjects the referee “to discipline by the N.B.A., including termination of his or her employment.” Stern made it clear NBA officials weren’t permitted to ever enter a casino in Las Vegas, Atlantic City or anywhere else. Donaghy reportedly has been seen in Bogota an Atlantic City casino.

Unnamed sources told The Philadelphia Inquirer Donaghy had been spotted at Bogota, which if proven to be true would have been a direct violation of Donaghy’s contract and if the NBA knew could have led to Donaghy’ dismissal. David Stern was quick to point out the credentials of his security force. While David Stern defended his security staff if Stern’s security staff either missed an indiscression they shouldn’t have missed or knew Donaghy had been in the wrong place and did nothing about it. Those allegations have yet to be proven and if they are someone will be answering to David Stern, but one point Stern made clear if the allegations that Donaghy worked with illegal sports bookmakers there is little if anything the NBA could have done to prevent that from happening, a bitter pill Stern admitted he had to swallow.

“You know, that's a question that I've asked myself in the pendency of this investigation. And I guess, yes, I'm surprised; but I think no more surprised than the head of the FBI, the head of the CIA, that rogue employees turn on their country in criminal activity despite the best investigative procedures you can possibly imagine; or when judges turn out to be corrupt despite their oath and the processes that are used to monitor them. But that's small consolation to us.

“What I always do is turn it inward and say, what else could we have done and what else can we do. And if I can unburden myself in that area, I want to call in the best minds that I can have around me with respect to criminal activity, gambling detection, and determine what is legally possible.

“You know, we were advised at least as sort of an investigatory matter, the two things that would be usable would be wiretapping, which is available to the FBI and illegal by a private employer check and a 24 hour surveillance on a 24/7 basis of every employee which, you know, not something that we do.”

There was a classic “David Stern” moment during the press conference. When asked how he’s been and how it’s been around the NBA offices over the last few days (since the news first broke Friday) the ‘fatherly’ Stern offered this: “Well, actually after this press conference I’ll be going to the NBA family picnic to assure a bunch of employees, their families and kids that the sun is definitely going to rise tomorrow.

“But really, our what we wanted to do, most importantly and have been chomping at the bit to do, is figure out a way between what we could say and what we couldn't say, to get me here as fast as possible, and that's what we've been spending our time doing and ruminating about how we will spend significant parts of the summer and fall seeking expert guidance with respect to what else we can do.

“We've been comparing our procedures to see whether there are other leagues that we want to, you know, despite our competitive spirit, that actually do it better than we do; whether there's things we can adapt, etc., because we take our covenant very seriously. And that's it.

“It really had to do with getting everything out. We had hoped when this broke on Friday, we spent Sunday preparing for a press conference yesterday. But in light of various conversations that we were having, we thought it better to schedule the press conference for today or tomorrow. But then those conversations allowed us to go forward with today, and so we scheduled it for the earliest possible time with some concern for our friends on the West Coast, so they wouldn't have to get up before 8 a.m.”

As was to be expected Stern did his very best to distance the NBA from what appear to be the actions of one person.

“We understand that the relevant time period being investigated is the past two seasons; that is, 2005 2006, and 2006 2007. I can tell you that during that period of time, Mr. Donaghy refereed 139 regular season games, eight playoff games, and four preseason games.

“I also understand that Mr. Donaghy is the only referee who is alleged to have bet on NBA games and disclosed confidential information to others with respect to NBA games that would enable them to place wagers with an advantage. I'll say it again; I understand that this is an isolated case involving an NBA referee who engaged not only in a violation of our rules, but in criminal conduct.”

David Stern is too smart a commissioner to have not made the above statement without knowing full well the facts the FBI have are along similar lines. It remains to be seen how much damage Tim Donaghy may have managed to accomplish but it a pretty safe ‘bet’ Tim Donaghy has acted alone – not that it makes it any easier for the NBA to deal with.

“I feel betrayed by what happened on behalf of the sport regardless of how protective I've been. This is not something that is anything other than an act of betrayal of what we know in sports as a sacred trust.”

For those who have followed David Stern’s remarkable career David Stern has always acted decisively – never someone who is known for sitting on the fence. At least in the interim, David Stern seems prepared to let the FBI work out whatever they need to take care before the NBA steps in and conducts their own investigation.

“I'm going to come back to the fact that I'm going to wait for this investigation to run it's course, because we think we have here a rogue, isolated criminal. And I think we want people to understand our system, and I think I still have to be protective of my officials, including those who likely have been and will continue to be unfailingly besmirched in the allegations that have been made against Mr. Donaghy.

“By and large, they get it right most of the time. They get it wrong sometimes. Sometimes they perhaps carry themselves in a way that is not as modest as we would prefer, but they do their darnedest to get the result right. And frankly, I'm more concerned, rather than chastising them, with reassuring them that I am committed to protecting them while at the same time making sure that we keep our covenant with our fans.

“With respect to transparency, you know, I'm going to wait for the summer to yield the results as a fan and the like. I think it's important that our referees who have a very difficult job, you know, 70 away games every year going into a place where there seems to be unanimity of agreement about their competency, not their integrity, but their competence. We've got people complaining about from both teams about the referees called a bad game against them.

“But we'll continue to work with our referees to get their accuracy level up. We'll continue to work I mean, to be transparent in the sense that our fans know how the system works. We will do that. We're not transparent enough. We will continue to recruit and improve our recruitment which is another ongoing issue. We will continue to bear the expense for both the Development League and the WNBA to work three person rotations so that our referees training can have the greatest array of competition and the like and anything else we can learn. I think transparency is a good thing.”

Donaghy worked five NBA playoff games. Every NBA playoff games plays a critical role in determining the fate of an NBA season and often the future of an NBA franchise, at least the short-term future. Pistons-Magic on April 23; Warriors-Mavs on April 27; Suns-Lakers on April 29; Nets-Raptors on May 4; and Spurs-Suns on May 12. It’s well worth remembering – Donaghy was part of the officiating crew that worked game six of the Nets – Raptors series played in New Jersey. The Nets won the game by one point to win the series in six games. Donaghy worked game three of the Dallas Mavericks – Golden State Warriors series. In the biggest upset in recent NBA playoff history, the Warriors won game three 109-91. Dallas who had the best regular season record during the 2006-07 season were shockingly upset by the Warriors in the first round.

But the game that has caught a great deal of attention from basketball fans everywhere was game three of the Western conference finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Phoenix Suns. After splitting the first two games in Phoenix, the teams traveled to San Antonio for games three and four. San Antonio won the hotly contested game three 108-101. That game will represent the last NBA (or basketball game) Tim Donaghy will ever officiated, little comfort to Phoenix Suns fans still upset with what they believe began in that game and ended in game five after an incident during game four of the series resulted in Suns star Amare Stoudemire, and his backup, Boris Diaw were both suspended for game five of the series after a melee broke out in game four. The Spurs won games five and six of the series to win the series. More than two months after their teams was eliminated most Suns fans are convinced the genesis of what went wrong for their team in the 2007 NBA playoffs began in game three when Tim Donaghy was at the center of an officiating storm.

“I would like to await the outcome of the criminal investigation so that we will both know before I answer that question, whether that was one of the games that was bet.

“With respect to the review of games, we are, as I said earlier, we didn't deploy all of the people that would be necessary to do that. He worked 150 games over the last two years, of course we did not want to sort of march people together and say, we are now going to investigate Tim Donaghy, I want you to look for this. But I can assure that you in the fullness of the summer and the autumn, we will have the opportunity to review Mr. Donaghy statistically and by video, and it will be done.”

What other message could David Stern offer Phoenix Suns fans? For that matter David Stern can’t conclusively say whether or not the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs the champions of the last two NBA seasons are paper or real champions. And that is where at least the true tragedy of this melodrama will play itself out.

The sense basketball fans, the potential for sports fans to have been cheated – and all because of one misguided man who stands accused of the most heinous crimes against the sports industry – taking the true competitive nature out of a sports event. Those who love sports, who live for that moment in time when our team wins that game, that playoff series and in a very special year, have a Championship Season. If the allegations against Tim Donaghy are proven to be true, shame on Tim Donaghy for tearing the fabric of the sports industry. But for David Stern – his lasting legacy could be determined by how his leadership skills help the NBA move forward through its greatest crisis in league history.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The New York Times

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