By Jim Litke
Nobody will look at an NBA game the same way for some time.
That's as true for casual fans as it is for the federal investigators even now poring over videotape of every game of ex-referee Tim Donaghy, accused of betting on games over the last two seasons.
The question of whether Donaghy manipulated games is best left to the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn. How he might have done it is a different matter.
"There's three groups that gamblers can work with to get what they want - players, coaches and officials," said Mike Mathis, who refereed for 26 years in the NBA before retiring in 2001. "And the one that needs the least amount of help by far, is the official.
"Common sense tells you those guys in Vegas are awfully good at setting the point spread, so in most games, at the end, they're right in the hunt."
The foul call that inspires the loudest howls of protests late in any game comes when a player drives to the basket and draws contact, requiring the ref to decide whether to whistle charging or blocking. The NBA has tried to narrow the interpretation of the rule by carving out a portion of the lane for defenders. It's been part of a larger effort by the league to quell on-court dissent by players and coaches, and quiet complaints by fans about incompetent officiating, let alone conspiracy theorists.
But the evidence suggests that taking away some of the refs' discretionary powers and making the review process less transparent has had just the opposite effect. Many observers would argue - and ESPN.com's Bill Simmons has been downright prescient on the issue for two seasons now - the quality of the NBA's officiating crews is at an all-time low.
And as anybody who watched Dwyane Wade shoot 25 free throws in Game 5 of the 2006 finals - as many as the entire Dallas Mavericks team - will recall, the charging-blocking continuum remains as confusing as ever. Besides, there are easier and less detectable ways to manipulate games.
Trying to help one team win, or even adjusting the margin of victory - the point spread - are way too risky; either tactic likely would have produced patterns that the league's supervisory officiating crews or the Vegas bookmakers who set the point spreads would have been quick to spot. Much tougher to catch would be a ref focused on manipulating the over-under line.
An over-under bet, one of several "proposition" bets available at sports books, requires picking whether the two teams playing will score more or less than the combined number of points predicted. Find a game where the over-under bet is around 190 points and an astute ref has a number of tools to influence the outcome either way.
Say Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett picks up a quick foul early in a game - legitimately. All a crooked ref has to do next is tack on a second soon after, then sit back.
Everybody in the building knows what's next," Mathis said. "The coach pulls the guy. And if a team that has a tough enough time scoring with a superstar has to play long stretches without him well ..."
In an up-and-down game where points flow freely in the first half, a ref subtly begins accelerating the pace of the foul calls early at the outset of the third quarter, spreads those calls around so no one is in danger of fouling out, and gets both teams into the bonus situation by early in the fourth.
Mathis said he never even considered how a ref might work the over-under scenario, but he did point out that the more calls a ref has to make, the more he risks raising the suspicions of not just players, coaches and officials, but the other two members of the officiating crew. But he contends even that obstacle can be overcome.
"Now that I'm retired, I get calls all the time from coaches, assistants and GMs who want me to explain what they're seeing. Or I watch a game, see a guy three feet from the play get whistled and hear the announcer say, 'I guess the ref saw something we didn't.'
"And my answer," Mathis said, "is, 'No he didn't.' That means one of three things went on. The ref guessed. He's incompetent. Or there's funny stuff going on."