Monday, July 23, 2007

Tim Donaghy -- Who would have ever linked the NBA and the WWE?

In a body blow to the image of the National Basketball Association thanks to disgraced former NBA official Tim Donaghy the NBA will forever be linked to the murky world of professional wrestling (at least when it comes to Donaghy). In what is surely to be the biggest challenge in David Stern’s brilliant 23-year career as NBA commissioner, Stern this week is going to be forced to deal with the NBA credibility after reports the FBI will indict Donaghy on charges that he willingly participated in a scheme to fix NBA games. And the link to professional wrestling – anyone who has followed the squared circle knows all too well the referees are part of the entertainment, never to be believed – as fake as the talent. Being able to say David Stern and Vincent K. McMahon in the same breath – unimaginable, but believable thanks to the ill advised lifestyle of Tim Donaghy.

N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern issued a statement Friday that said, “We would like to assure our fans that no amount of effort, time or personnel is being spared to assist in this investigation, to bring to justice an individual who has betrayed the most sacred trust in professional sports, and to take the necessary steps to protect against this ever happening again.”

Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials, told the Los Angeles Times, "If this is true, it is a tragedy of enormous proportion, not just for himself and his family but for our industry. It cannot be understated what a terrible thing this could end up being."

NBA games typically generate 10% to 15% of all sports betting in Las Vegas according to a Los Angeles Times report. Overall legal sports betting in Nevada hit $2.25 billion in 2005, but that figure was dwarfed by some $380 billion in illegal sports wagers, according to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission.

Where this story is headed is anyone’s guess and where it ends is impossible to guess, but the NBA is in serious trouble on every possible level. And five weeks from now (at the end of August) the latest version of the Dream Team will compete along with 11 other counties in the most important pre-Olympic basketball qualifying event before next summer’s Beijing Olympics. The Tournament of the America’s – in the heart of Sin City, Las Vegas, the only American city where sports betting is legal. To date there hasn’t been anyone linking the allegations against Donaghy to Las Vegas but the optics of any sports betting and NBA players is a nightmare scenario for Stern and the NBA. And the Tournament of the America’s isn’t a weekend affair; it will be a ten-day basketball event where more than 1,000 sports media will descend on Las Vegas.

One person who may has incredible Chutzpah – Viva Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. David Stern has made it clear he isn’t interested in putting an NBA team in Las Vegas but told Goodman when during the February 16-18 All-Star Weekend he was free to offer the NBA a proposal within 30-days as to how Goodman could make an NBA franchise work in Sin City – one that was free of any links to sports betting. Five months later Goodman has presented anything to the NBA, but comments Goodman made after Friday’s sensational news linking an NBA official to sports betting offered Goodman the platform he was looking for.

"I think that there's going to be a public recognition that Las Vegas does monitor this kind of alleged activity," Goodman said Friday.

"I don't want anyone's bad fortune to cause us good fortune, but I think it will cause people to look at Las Vegas in a light perhaps differently than they do, because we do in fact regulate this kind of activity."

One issue Stern has made clear to Goodman – Vegas has a snowballs chance in Hell of becoming home to an NBA franchise as long as the city’s legal sports books take “action” on NBA games. Vegas does a great job of monitoring the state’s legal sports books but after Friday events Mayor Oscar better start focusing any hopes of Las Vegas becoming home to an NBA team to the National Hockey League. One of the “victims” of the allegations against Donaghy will unfortunately be Las Vegas, through no fault of their own.

"We're the only regulatory agency in the world that really looks at unusual activity as far as the movement of the line and that type of conduct," Goodman told the Associated Press. "That's why whenever red herrings are thrown up that somehow Las Vegas is a bad place because we have sports betting, I look at it just as a reverse. I think it's a good thing that Las Vegas has the type of regulation that makes sure that bad things don't happen."

That said the list of those who will be victimized in the coming days, weeks and months by Donaghy’s actions will be Donaghy’s former peers, NBA officials. The abuse NBA officials are going to take over the first few months of the NBA season from basketball fans will at times be unbearable. But those will be basketball fans, being basketball fans. It won’t make the comments right, but most NBA officials will have the intestinal fortitude to accept sports and basketball fans acting as fans.

What will be next to impossible for NBA players – the incredible scrutiny each and every decision they’re going to make from NBA players, coaches and officials. The good news, none of the examination of how they handle themselves on a basketball court will be their fault but human nature being what it is; every call NBA officials make will be looked at under a microscope.

In what has to be considered a made-for-the-media opportunity Friday’s breaking news regarding Tim Donaghy was also the first day 17 of the NBA’s biggest names began a tryout camp in Las Vegas – hoping to be back in Las Vegas in five weeks for the Tournament of the America’s. While Stern and most NBA front office types remained tight-lipped in regard to Donaghy, some of the NBA’s biggest names weren’t bound by the same unofficial Stern mandated gag order.

"I was surprised like everybody else," said Detroit Pistons guard Chauncey Billups, one of 17 NBA players who began training Friday for the Olympic qualifying tournament next month in a USA Today report. "Everybody probably had the same reaction whether you played in the league or are a regular citizen."

"It's a shame," said Los Angeles Lakers All-Star Kobe Bryant, who led the league in NBA scoring. "It's unfortunate and I'm sure the league is on top of it and will handle the situation accordingly. I'm very surprised that this would come up.

"The NBA hasn't really had any scandals on gambling that I can remember."

Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James said any discussion about perhaps the league's most serious crisis was "sensitive conversation."

"The NBA is taking every precaution and going over everything that might be going on with the allegation," James said. "The commissioner (David Stern) is going to do everything he can to try to make it right and as I player, all I can do is sit back and wait to see what happens. But as a competitor, as hard as I play, it is very disappointing."

Jerry Colangelo, former Phoenix Suns owner and now managing director of the USA Basketball Senior National team, told it as it should be – nothing good whatsoever can come of the news.

"Obviously we were all taken back when we heard the story like everyone else in the game would be," he said. "Now it's up to the league and the FBI to do their thing. Everything goes without saying. When something like this happens, there is never anything good to say."

One NBA coach told The Post about the betting scandal: "Our officials are so scrutinized and evaluated; I'm shocked something like this could happen. I mean, even the evaluators are evaluated."

But others believe that if any of the allegations are proven true, it could deal pro basketball an irreversible blow.

"What will happen is every time there is an arguable call at the end of games, fans are going to say, 'See? Told you. It's crooked,' " said an NBA team executive, who asked not to be identified.

In May at a press conference attended by among others Joel Litvin and Stu Jackson the NBA talked about their much ballyhooed official monitoring system and how effective a program it was.

“We literally observe every single call that is made by our referees during every game,” said Joel Litvin, the N.B.A.’s president for basketball operations, said at the time. “An observer who works for the N.B.A. sits in the arena, watches the game and watches the game again on tape, and he breaks it down as to every call and every missed call by official and who the call was made on, the player. He puts it into a database which, as you can imagine, is quite rich in terms of the ability to slice and dice the data and to train our officials.”

Stu Jackson, the league’s executive vice president who oversees officials, said at the time that the database was “very valuable as a tool for identifying play-calling trends of an individual official, play-calling of the officiating staff as a whole, and it’s been extremely valuable in identifying trends that we can use to better develop the officiating staff in various refereeing areas.”

Comments NBA Players Association chief Billy Hunter offered The New York Times Sunday evening suggest NBA players are going to have some serious issues with how Stern and the NBA handle the Tom Donaghy affair in the coming days, weeks and months.

“When we talk about image,” Hunter said, “the focus has always been on the players, because we have a league that is predominately black, so a lot of other things probably tend to go unscrutinized.

“If anything, this demonstrates that they weren’t fully focused,” Hunter added, referring to the N.B.A., “that they were focusing more on the game in terms of player conduct as opposed to reviewing whether or not the game itself was in jeopardy, in terms of conduct by referees.

“I don’t know what Stern knew or what he didn’t know,” Hunter said. “He didn’t disclose anything to me. All I know is that David pays people to keep him informed. He makes every effort to know everything there is to know.

“David pays for information,” Hunter told The New York Times, referring to the league’s willingness to devote resources to a security staff. “He doesn’t like to be embarrassed. Maybe in this instance he was. All I know is that his chief of security is a former F.B.I. agent.”

But in an era of instant communications and unnamed sources being acceptable forum of reporting – a New York Daily News report suggesting the NBA was aware Tim Donaghy’s officiating was becoming an issue is problematic for the NBA.

“The NBA referee suspected of betting on - and even fixing - games was previously confronted by league officials who feared he had a gambling problem, sources said yesterday.

“Tim Donaghy was ordered to the league's offices in New York - but he was allowed to continue officiating games because NBA honchos did not suspect he was gambling on games or fixing the contests, the sources said.” – that from Saturday’s New York Daily News

There is no reason to suspect the unnamed sources aren’t credible but if in fact the report is accurate and the NBA did in fact call Donaghy ‘on the carpet’ suspecting he had a gambling issue and was betting on games – the body blow to the NBA might be terminal. Certainly if the report is proven to be true, whoever participated in the meeting with Donaghy sat the NBA’s Park Avenue offices and knew of the meeting better start dusting off their resume – they’ll be looking for a new job in the not too distant future.

"It's a major, major crisis," said Ronn Torossian, president of New York-based 5W Public Relations in a Los Angeles Time report. "The NFL's problems have all been off the field and can be blamed on individuals. This is the institution rather than the individual. People aren't going to remember Tim Donaghy's name in a few days. People are going to remember the brand of the NBA, and that's what David Stern should be concerned about."

"People are going to ask, 'Which games were [Donaghy] involved with?' " Torossian said. "People are going to look at the point spread and see what the score was. This is not going to go away any time soon. There are a lot of questions."

"The fans might lose, the NBA brand might lose, but casinos don't lose," Torossian told The Los Angeles Times. "They might lose in the short term, but not in the long term. They're always going to be a money-making operation."

Even Las Vegas sports book officials did their best to spin the story as far away from Sin City as they possibly could.

"It doesn't make the whole league corrupt if this comes out to be true facts, but over the last two years, we haven't seen anything and we haven't heard anything" about suspect NBA games, said Jay Kornegay, executive director of the sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton. "When we have suspicions, there are whispers around this town. We usually get wind of it. Either it was a very small party, if it happens to be true, or it happened illegally. It certainly didn't happen in this city."

"For the most part, the sports world has had a pretty good record with scandals compared to the corporate world [and] the political world," Kornegay said in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times.

Jimmy Vaccaro, the chief oddsmaker for American Wagering, which runs 60 sports books across Nevada, said that such performance would leave any gambler giddy.

“It’s too early to say anything definitive about this situation,” he said, “but if you win 7 out of 11, more than 60 percent, you’d be a billionaire in about a year.”

And when it came to pointing where Donaghy’s actions may have had the greatest impact, Vacarro’s suggestion to The New York Times offered Las Vegas sports books officials an opportunity they’ve likely been looking for, for a long time – the now illegal (at least in the United States, Internet sports betting sites).

“There was never anything brought up around here regarding any N.B.A. game. I’m guessing that the bets didn’t happen here — it probably happened with local bookmakers or offshore (there is the link to online sports betting). There would be a smell of something here and there would be talk about it.”
The next few days will offer a fascinating opportunity to see how great David Stern really is. In some circles (present company most defiantly included) David Stern not only is the strongest leader in sports but an example corporate America should always pay attention. Pay attention “boys and girls” it’s time for a Stern leadership test – David’s toughest ever.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The New York Times, USA Today, The New York Daily News and The New York Post.

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