Stern's Game Can Be Called Misdirection
By SELENA ROBERTS
AS a lawyer with a sly mind in constant motion, David Stern understands the art of throwing suspicion in one direction to divert attention from the real culprit.
So it was not surprising to see Stern boldly scold a whistleblower instead of the men who blow the whistles.
In eye-catching fashion, Stern assailed the integrity of Houston Coach Jeff Van Gundy this week when Van Gundy refused to divulge the Deep Throat in officiating who had told him there was a league conspiracy against Yao Ming.
Stern beamed the attention on Van Gundy by smacking him with a record-breaking $100,000 fine, by vocally ratcheting the temperature on him, by shepherding a whisper campaign to portray Van Gundy as a fantasist.
All Van, all the time. Sound bites can certainly make for nice subterfuge. Remaining strategically unnoticed has been the untidy issue of referee credibility.
Much of Stern's focus was on how wrong Van Gundy was, but what if Van Gundy was right about the bias of officiating? Much of Stern's outrage has been directed at coaches who publicly lobby for calls, but they do it because they believe it works.
More than anyone, coaches view the frame-by-frame of every game and of every call. They can do the before-and-after of their postgame rants against the refs. Obviously, they see results.
Are referees this malleable? Does the league want to know?
The N.B.A. doesn't like to acknowledge the potential presence of a cheating gene in its midst. In the late 90's, more than 20 league officials were hit with tax-evasion charges when they exchanged their first-class tickets for coach seats and kept the change. Two years ago, in court documents filed by Karla Knafel, a former mistress of Michael Jordan's, the official Eddie F. Rush was described as the matchmaker who played cupid for the clandestine couple.
Tax cheating, wife cheating. It is not so difficult to assume that deceptive practices could transfer to the basketball court, but the league doesn't view it that way.
The N.B.A. reinstated a few of the tax evaders, and Rush was later promoted, even though he might have crossed an implied code against cozy conduct.
Believe it or not, there was not an official codification of fraternization rules until last year, when, as the N.B.A. spokesman Tim Andre said yesterday, it was inserted into the work rules during the 2004 collective-bargaining agreement between the referees and the N.B.A.
Maybe the league thought they had a problem. And maybe they do.
The ref who talked to Van Gundy and discussed the anti-Yao calls was in clear breach of the rules. But the rules are apparently pliable. On the official Web site for N.B.A. referees, there is a note that promotes Bob Delaney's Referee Development School at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla.
This is the same Delaney who has been officiating in the playoffs. For as much as $1,825 for a four-day session this summer, campers can sponge up Delaney's referee knowledge and even officiate scrimmage games with real-live N.B.A. players.
In the off-season, the IMG Academy is buzzing with hoop stars from Chauncey Billups to Erick Dampier. It is not far-fetched to wonder if a player who participates in Delaney's school believes he has done his favorite referee - wink, wink - a favor.
League officials said they had reviewed Delaney's school but found no reason to assume the worst. Andre said the league had waived its fraternization policy for Delaney.
Odd how the refs get the benefit of the doubt, but the coaching complaints do not.
For years, some coaches have privately wondered about referee ethics. On rare occasions, officials have been known to ask for extra tickets from teams and even request shoes from players.
If true, who is going to call out a code-of-conduct violator? Who is going to risk the wrath of referee backlash?
It is true that coaches are a paranoid bunch, and Van Gundy is not alone. But their suspicions about referees, about calls being orchestrated, about star treatment for certain players and teams, cannot be completely unfounded.
The league does not want to go there. It is much more comfortable with the image of Van Gundy being cast as a truth-averse schemer. Van Gundy is many things - a manipulator and a survivor - but he is not known to be a liar.
In fact, in his time, he has been candid to his own detriment. During his days as the Knicks' coach in the late 90's, he once called Michael Jordan "a con man" and Phil Jackson "Big Chief Triangle."
He wasn't smart, but he was right on both counts. Now, once again, Van Gundy has disclosed too much for his own good in what Stern described as a new low for coach-speak. Stern was happy to cast the information Van Gundy related as wicked gamesmanship - and it might have been - but Van Gundy may have been right, as well.
Stern barely wants to consider that possibility. He isn't running an investigation of Van Gundy's allegations to uncover an officiating conspiracy; Stern is beginning it as a scare tactic against the next coach who wants to speak out.
It is much cleaner to isolate this controversy to Van Gundy - and localize the N.B.A.'s image pain - than to consider an alternate culprit to the game's integrity.