by Michael Adams
CLEVELAND, OH-After being down 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors through four games in the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by two otherworldly performances from LeBron James, have rebounded to force a Game 7. If they manage to pull off this unprecedented upset, against a team with the best regular-season record in the history of the NBA, they will be the first Cleveland-based franchise to secure a major championship in more than 50 years. Currently one win away from doing just that, and with the momentum of the series unquestionably on their side, their chances look pretty good.
Predictably, the outcome of the last two games, in which Warriors stars Draymond Green and Steph Curry were suspended and ejected respectively, have not sat well with everybody. Following Game 6, Ayesha Curry, wife of the reigning two-time MVP, sent out a tweet that has once again sparked a debate older than time itself: is the NBA rigged?
Ayesha Curry Tweeting Her Theory Following the Warriors Game 6 Loss, Source: Twitter
Draymond Green’s suspension from Game 5, more than deserved when factoring in the numerous dirty plays he has catalyzed single-handedly, has raised a handful of curious eyebrows. Disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who has made a habit out of clawing his way into the news every time the playoffs come around like some gutless Prometheus, has added the 2016 Finals to his list of series he claims the league tipped for better ratings. Green, according to Donaghy, was suspended not because he nearly rendered the best player in the game infertile, but as part of a calculated effort to prolong the series for—what else—more money.
Donaghy’s most popular claim, that NBA officials are instructed to call fouls more or less often against certain teams, seems to be categorically refuted by the NBA’s new policy of releasing reviews of all the fouls committed in the last two minutes of every game. This move towards transparency has brought officials under greater scrutiny for missing calls, and understandably has the Referee’s Union a little irked. This is a positive trend though, it shows the league is serious about proving it isn’t rigged, if for nothing else but shutting up skin rashes like Donaghy….Or does it? What if this is just a red herring? What if the NBA just gets all of the rigging out before the two-minute mark? Can we ever trust anything again? Do we start wearing lead underwear? How long do we have before all levels of government and society are but a meek façade for shape shifting lizard people? Twelve-million people can’t be wrong, can they?
Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists eager to grasp at whatever straws they can find (this being one of their more popular subjects), the answer is almost certainly “no.” There have been more than a few incidents over the past thirty-odd years, however, that give even the most reasonable fan some pause. This article will explore some of those moments, mainly because the last week or so of news has been depressing, and we could probably all use the break:
The 1985 Draft: Patrick Ewing and the Infamous Envelope
The most famous of all the NBA conspiracy theories is also the one most likely to be true. While the end of the 1980s proved to be a renaissance for the sport, basketball was seriously hurting in the first part of the decade. Plagued by a widespread drug problem, declining attendance, the threat of contraction, and a broken draft system that encouraged teams to tank so much that Clippers owner Donald Sterling famously quipped “we can win by losing,” the induction of Patrick Ewing to the league offered a real chance at revival for several franchises. Easily the most hyped player to come out of college in the past couple decades, having catapulted himself into legend for the Georgetown Hoyas, drafting Ewing would mean instant marketability, and maybe even a playoff berth, for whoever was lucky enough to grab him. Newly appointed commissioner David Stern instituted the first ever Draft Lottery that year in an attempt to stop owners like Sterling from profiting off of mediocrity; all seven teams would have a 14.3% chance of winning the first overall pick. Future Hall of Famers like Joe Dumars, Chris Mullin, and Karl Malone were nowhere near the surefire fate-changers coming out of school that Ewing would be, the only thing that remained to be determined was to whom that first pick would belong.
The Kings had just moved from Kansas City to Sacramento, they could certainly use a transcendent talent to get their franchise going. The Warriors, who had gained early fame as the team of Wilt Chamberlain, had steadily sunk into obscurity ever since Rick Barry’s championship season ten years prior. The Atlanta Hawks had Dominique Wilkins, but had floundered, missing the playoffs, not quite yet reaching their final form. Out of all the teams vying for Ewing though, none needed him quite as badly as The New York Knicks.
The team of David Stern’s hometown, in the biggest market in the country, had an abysmal campaign in the 1984-85 season. Twelve years removed from their last championship, with their star Bernard King missing more than a quarter of the season, the Knickerbockers finished with their worst record in twenty years. This season kicked off a tire fire of basketball incompetence that continued until the end of the decade, and had only been interrupted post-championship by four solid campaigns interspaced in what is generally accepted as one of the darkest of all periods for the tenants of Madison Square Garden. The Garden itself was conspicuously lacking of fans that year, and if the league truly wanted to regain some measure of a good standing, it would have to prop up their team in the media capital of the world.
The images are burned into the memory of any basketball devotee. The transparent globe, the spinning envelopes, the hand of the commissioner rifling through the slips of paper, all unforgettable characteristics of one of the most influential moments in league history. The Knicks were the chosen ones, and ever since then the rumor mill has turned and turned and ground every possible lead into millet. A frozen envelope? A creased envelope? Lizard people? It does sort of look like David Stern was searching for a particular envelope when he stuck his hand in the plastic drum, but barring any deathbed confessions, this is one mystery the world may never know the answer to.
The frozen envelope theory is pretty tame compared to some of the grander schemes that have been proposed by pundits throughout the years, but it still falls apart at virtually any thorough investigation. The 1985 Draft Lottery was televised, a first for the event, and with an unprecedented level of media attention, this year more than any year prior would have been the least likely to be marred by conspiracy.
Another point against the theory, it seems to claim that Stern and the NBA tried to bend over backwards to help the Knicks, who are god-awful, and have always been god-awful. The Knicks, who used to be the Chicago Cubs of basketball, but since the Cubs actually got decent, can only be compared to themselves. Besides Patrick Ewing literally willing the team to two NBA Finals and a great, unconsummated run in the 90s, the Knicks have been characterized by drek at every possible level, on, off, and above the court.
If the NBA was really rigged to help the Knicks, David Stern would have thrown James Dolan into the Sarlacc pit long ago, case closed.
Dikembe Mutombo and the Illuminati
Dikembe Mutombo, the Congolese swatter of the rock, who played something like a million seasons for two million different teams, got himself embroiled in the latest Draft Lottery controversy a little over a month ago. Mutombo sent out a tweet congratulating the Philadelphia 76ers, one of his many, many former teams, on receiving the #1 overall pick in the 2016 Draft. They did, the only problem? The man of finger-wagging, “Who Wants to Sex Mutombo?” legend sent out his congratulations before it was actually revealed that the Sixers had the pick:
Mutombo’s Infamous Congratulatory Tweet, Since Deleted, Source: SB Nation
Mutombo later deleted the tweet and tried to douse the flames before they spread, claiming he simply got ahead of himself. It’s almost like these guys think deleting the tweet actually accomplishes something; in our brave new world it’s just an exercise in futility, and that decision hit the conspiracy rumors like an atom bomb rather than a wet blanket.
— Dikembe Mutombo (@officialmutombo) May 17, 2016
It’s not wholly improbable, in the current incarnation of the lottery the 76ers had a 25% chance of winning the pick—which will certainly be used on LSU-prodigy Ben Simmons—and had been long overdue for a stroke of luck in the draft. Philadelphia, playing their part, has denied any cabal was working in the shadows to influence the outcome of the draft they won, for whatever convincing that will do.
The best components of this controversy are the fact that it’s fresh out of the oven and the fact that it involves Mutombo. Writing about Mutombo is a joy, he’s a philanthropist, he oozes niceness. Animals probably flock to him in the forest. The idea that his personality is all just a front, that one of Geico’s twenty-thousand spokespeople is really an arbiter in the NBA illuminati, is just too good to leave the big guns in storage.
But alas, simple math dictates this latest kerfuffle of Mutombo’s was probably just a fluke, the consequence of a lucky guess or bad timing. Disenchanted fans have cried foul at nearly every NBA Draft ever, and no matter what patterns may or may not appear to emerge, the selection process is random. Here, it’s important to remember that true randomness oftentimes doesn’t seem to be random to an observer.
On the other hand, how could he have done that? Rejoice conspiracy theorists! Just watch out for chemtrails.
Undeniable Foul-Calling Favoritism
This one probably doesn’t even count as a conspiracy theory, how could it be if everybody thinks it’s true? The problem with this theory—that certain players receive too many foul calls or not enough foul calls, is that nobody can agree on who gets which. For every article that says LeBron never gets foul calls he deserves, there’s another that says nobody ever calls his fouls. Steve Kerr thinks half the fouls called against Steph Curry in Game 6 were “ridiculous,” a take certainly worthy of mouth guard throwing.
These controversies aren’t only reserved for the stars of the league. Jeremy Lin has nearly gotten his head knocked off more than a few times without any flagrant calls, sparking a grassroots movement to get the man some respect on the court. There is a general feeling that smaller players, while often getting away with move their larger counterparts get whistled for, also get banged around more with impunity. At the other end of the spectrum is the infamous Hack-a-Shaq strategy, where teams intentionally foul big men late in games in the hope that they will miss a larger number of their free throws than other players. This issue has gotten so out of hand that the league is looking into ways to prevent it from continuing, lest the game devolve into a cacophony of sputtering rims.
The NBA goes to great lengths to try to snuff out bias among its referees. No official is allowed to call more than nine games for any one team, or call games twice within the same city over a two-week period. Despite these efforts, biases do emerge. Studies have shown that referees tend to call less fouls on both the home team and white players, and more fouls in larger crowds, but even these biases rarely show up in any large quantities, and the difference in foul percentages is often kept to single-digits.
The perception of bias among the referees by observers usually corresponds to whatever team they happen to be rooting for. While Warriors fans cry folly at Draymond Green’s suspension, and claim LeBron receives an unfair advantage, Cavaliers fans can respond by saying if officials called every game perfectly, Draymond Green would have been set adrift on an iceberg sometime in the last round. As it stands, this issue is just waiting for somebody completely unbiased to take a crack with a supercomputer, and we’ll all twiddle our thumbs away biding our time until that happens.
The most popular league of the world’s fastest growing sport is a minefield for controversy, mainly coming from the sort of people who wear tinfoil hats and whine about GMOs. While believing the NBA rigged the 1985 draft is by no means an outsider position, and the idea of referees favoring star players is just about universally accepted, the NBA is not the WWE of major North American sports that Ayesha Curry would have you believe. Rest assured, we can all sleep easy knowing that Game 7 of the NBA Finals, no matter how we might have gotten there, will be a fair and impartial contest between two teams with a lot to prove. The NBA is almost certainly not rigged.
…….that Knick Bavetta business was pretty fishy though.
Featured Image: LeBron James Taking a Jumpshot, Source: Wikipedia, Keith Allison