Czar Stern’s tangled NBA nets

The NBA gambling crisis featuring a malcontent referee gone haywire is already the biggest and most important sports story of the year and it is only just beginning to unravel.

Forget about the interminable Barry Bonds sideshow. It’s an asterisk, relatively speaking. The baseball steroid inquiry is huge but it’s all about ethics and concerns cheating. The basketball calamity is about crime and it features criminals. People are going to go to jail. It all springs from a major investigation by the FBI of the Gambino crime family, the Corleones of our times. It is about the scorning of the most fundamental laws of our beloved games. It is seismic.

In this light it has been interesting watching the NBA’s poobahs -- media apologists included -- nervously dissemble their way through the early rounds of the Tim Donaghy fiasco. Czar David Stern was only too eager to pronounce Donaghy “a rogue” and an “isolated criminal” well before he had any way of knowing if that’s true. Not that you can blame the beleaguered Stern for flopping about like a trained seal in a desperate attempt to minimize this mess.

But it won’t work. The government chose to back off from the more explosive “sports bribery” charge, preferring to stick with the safer and much easier to prove raps of wire fraud and interstate transfer of gambling dope. A bribery indictment would have required the Feds to prove Donaghy actually fixed games; very, very tough to do.

Needless to say Stern and company doubtless dropped to their knees in thanksgiving when the government opted for the less dramatic option although it’s hardly a break for Donaghy who could still get up to 25 years for his guilty plea. But if this is legally and technically an easier course for federal prosecutors to run, it won’t wash with the public which wants very much to have the ‘‘fix question’’ addressed.

To the great, unwashed fans of sport in general and basketball in particular that is the central issue; indeed, the only real issue. Did Tim Donaghy alter the outcome of games to get off the hook with his crooked gambling connections to whom he was fiercely indebted? If that question does not get answered in satisfactory detail, the effects of this nightmare scenario will not only linger, but explode. Even if the craven Donaghy does not succeed in implicating upward to 20 of his NBA refereeing buddies, as he is now suggesting he just might do.

Stern’s main goal is to keep the lid on this festering cesspool. Donaghy’s guilty plea gave him the glimmer of hope that effective damage control is possible. He’s deluding himself. His nightmare has only just begun. But given the gravity of the issue it’s a bit surprising it hasn’t skyrocketed in the media.

You get the feeling only diehard hoop junkies are really into it. This too is a mistake. The tentacles of this thing could yet extend well beyond basketball. Can you just imagine what the reaction would have been had the game in question been baseball? Can you begin to fathom the fallout from any such suspicion being linked with an umpire? But then there are two sets of standards in American sport. One is for baseball. The other is for all the other games. Guess which one is substantially higher?

In the short term how does the NBA, only some two months removed from another season, begin to function in a spirit of “business as usual”? If -- as is widely expected -- Donaghy does trash roughly 20 more of the league’s officials in a shoddy effort to reduce his jail time, that would mean one third of the NBA’s total stable of whistle blowers has been to some degree “compromised.” How do they shake that off?

It’s not expected that Donaghy has bombs to toss. “Bombs” would obviously include the ultimate knock-out blow of a “Fix,” or -- to a lesser degree -- point shaving charges, or even the implicating of some of his ex-colleagues in his own chicanery. As of the writing there is no reason to expect any of that.

But it is expected that Donaghy will reveal that some of his brethren have been guilty of what may politely be termed “indiscretions.” The list is said to probably include the placing of stray, small wagers on other sports, visiting the odd casino on the road, hanging out with dubious characters, accepting favors from folks both dubious and otherwise, picking up perks on the sly, or even living the high life or otherwise disporting ones’ self “indiscreetly” None of them are high crimes or even misdemeanors in the eyes of civil law let alone the FBI. But they are serious violations of the NBA rules that Stern maintains his league takes seriously and polices assiduously. Hold the laughter, please!

There is, however, one issue above all that has the biggest bombshell potential and it has to do with the misty, murky, difficult to define and even more impossible to prove matter of “bias.” It is already on the table and it’s not only the issue that must scare Stern witless, it has to have officials of every other major game under the sun shaking in their boots as well.

Donaghy’s guilty plea keeps some of the juicier details of his transgressions and the government’s case against him under wraps for the moment. But enough of it has already seeped out and more is sure to come bubbling to the surface soon enough. And among the established facts specified in the court papers is the explosive assertion that Donaghy provided gamblers with insights about the attitudes of officials and how various of them “interact” (the court’s word) with players.

This has to do with who they like and who they don’t like. Who they might therefore be tougher or easier on when calling fouls. Who might have a bit of a racial hang-up, or some other such prejudice. Who has a grudge against whom. He also offered tips on which officials would be calling certain games, which is top secret stuff. You should understand all this precious information is so much gold in the hands of seasoned wise guys trying to pick the winner of a game that has a point spread of maybe only a single basket or foul shot. For this intelligence, Donaghy pocketed five grand a game when his “tips” proved “useful.” Let’s just say this operation was bigger than “Bingo.”

Officials in all the games are only human. It is impossible for them to restrain every subjective impulse from invading upon their necessary objectivity. But for an established official of a major sporting league to effectively affirm that unrestrained subjectivity -- i.e. ‘‘Bias’’ -- can be a notable factor in the officiating of some of our games is no less than a bombshell. Let much more of this get out and you will never trust a zebra or a man in blue again. At what point then do the games become irrelevant?

Stern, long the teflon czar who has always been smoother and more glib than any of his confreres in the other games, has made one huge mistake. Early on in this crisis he characterized Donaghy as a “typical” NBA official. That was the word he used; “typical.” He said that’s why Donaghy was so hard to nail, why he glided safely under the radar for so long.

For four years this rascal worked his deceits and felonies with some major league wise guys smack in the middle of the NBA’s daily hurly-burly and yet he appeared to be no different than any of the other guys who tote whistles for the NBA.

That is what David Stern effectively said. Think about that for a minute.