Basketball

As this is written the Celtics brink on an inevitable championship sure to trigger another giddy display of that charming, in-your-face, sporting nationalism that the Athens of America has lately perfected.

“Enjoy,” says I. And when it happens, it should be duly noted that these are the first champion Celts that were not produced by the rich imagination and runaway genius of Arnold Auerbach. That ought to be this team’s proudest distinction.

Still, swell as the “Restoration” was it might not be what history will most recall when the climax of the 2008 basketball season is remembered. Because the NBA’s lusty championship round has been like your basic good news/bad news equation.

The good news being that the league after a hiatus of a generation once again got the final of its dreams, matching the game’s gold dust twins and allowing David Stern to believe he’d died and gone to heaven.

The bad news being that in the end the heavenly match-up “could” prove to have been the bitter occasion of the game’s effective ruin, realizing for Czar Stern a virtual descent into a veritable hell.

Emphasis is on that word “could.” An end result that is utterly dire remains just a “possibility” at the moment. It will take weeks -- maybe many, many of them -- for it all to play out and by then the echoes of the epic Celtics-Lakers struggle will have long faded.

But if what the rogue referee Tim Donaghy has alleged survives refutation, then this game -- or more precisely, this league -- is in very deep trouble. In that worst case scenario even the most diehard yahoos of the winning cause will have a memory that’s little more than hollow and sour. Sorry Celtic fans but your guys may have picked the wrong year to come roaring back to the heights of their historical eminence.

Actually, grave damage has already been done to the NBA. Even if none of Donaghy’s more egregious claims is verified the league is smeared. The question concerns how much and for how long. Or, as the New York Times’ Howard Beck has noted what alone remains unclear is “the line between temporary crisis and long-term scandal.” And it is at best a very thin line. One suspects that underneath the cover of his haughty and supremely righteous manner, Mr. Commissioner Stern recognizes all of this and is scared witless. It probably accounts for his rather bizarre behavior.

The great unmentionables are out in the open and squarely on the table. In a perverse twist, the burden of proof is on the NBA, which in the end must prove that the craven Donaghy is also a bloody liar and that won’t be easy. That is not their burden in the court of law, of course. But it is their supreme burden where it most counts which is in the court of public opinion because if the smart money concludes there is doubt about the NBA’s authenticity the league instantly becomes as relevant as professional wrestling.

And by “smart money,” we are talking about the big bucks that it takes to fill the NBA houses from October through June, and the big bucks that prop up the broadcasting rights and fund those colossal salaries, and most of all the big bucks that ride on NBA action night after night from the back pocket of your neighborhood bookie to the gambling parlors of Las Vegas. Pull the plug on all of that, mate, and the NBA becomes about as relevant as roller derby.

How much damage has already been inflicted on the league? Regarding one of the key issues lately raised by Donaghy -- the alleged “manipulation” by the refs of the now infamous game six of the 2002 Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Kings which suddenly everyone who was there now seems to insist was deeply “tainted” -- consider this. A couple of public opinion polls have already been conducted. In one, run by a Los Angles newspaper, 91 percent of the respondents said they believe Donaghy is telling the truth. That’s remarkable considering the Lakers were the huge beneficiaries of that alleged “manipulation.” Having been spared elimination by Sacramento in the “tainted” game, they went on to win the NBA title. In the other, a national poll conducted by ESPN, 74 percent of the respondents said they believe Donaghy is telling the truth. Yes, I agree that polls can be suspect and trite. Yet I still find these results chilling.

And by the way, let there be no quibbling about the fact that when they talk about “manipulation,” what they really mean is “fix.” And that is the greatest of the great unmentionables, the sporting term that’s engraved in scarlet letters. That too you should find chilling.

Stern, a cocky and rather Napoleonic character, has led the NBA to dizzy heights of financial success while also presiding over the league’s rather vague drift the last decade or so. Everyone agrees he is plenty smart and he’s no slouch in the back-alleys of the business either. When necessary, he can play hardball. He knows his sport and loves it, which well he should because if I recall correctly he gets something like $14 million a year to preside over a mere game with degrees of pomp and leverage and autonomy that Caesar himself might envy. As commissioners go, Stern is plenty effective. But he’s botched the Donaghy crisis, which will prove to be -- far and away -- the gravest of his long stewardship.

A certain arrogance and too righteous indignation has characterized Stern’s bitter and angry defense. But he really blundered when -- in what now seems to have been a deplorable tantrum -- he had the league sue Donaghy for a million-dollar restitution claim. He despises the crooked ref and has trouble controlling his contempt and wants to bury him and that’s understandable. Donaghy threatens Stern and his beloved game with total destruction. But engaging Donaghy in more complicated legal twists and turns only hurts the NBA, which needs to get this mess over with, not Donaghy, who has been totally ruined and could never pay the damages even if he loses the case. It was dumb. A million large is tip money in the NBA.

It was in response to this suit that Donaghy dropped the bombshell about that “tainted” playoff game in 2002 and also at last admitted he’d bet on games that he officiated which suggests the possibility that every game he called might also have been fixed. You might say that the cesspool is only just beginning to be opened.

Stern further argues that no one in his right mind should believe the “desperate” ravings of a “disgraced felon.” Seems to me this was the same argument Roger Clemens used against his old whistle-blowing, trainer-buddy. It didn’t work for Clemens. Should it now work for Stern? If the government didn’t rely on the testimony of “desperate people” there would be mighty few hoodlums in the pen. It could also be argued, “what has Donaghy to gain by lying?” If he is, it’s going to have to be proven well beyond the shadow of doubt.

I’m telling you, it’s a bloody mess; one that’s been blithely overlooked and minimized hereabouts in the euphoria over the Celtics dramatic resurrection. Nor is that unreasonable.

But I keep wondering what might result should such a scandal beset another game like hockey, football, or baseball. Can you even imagine the fallout if a baseball umpire were to step forth and confess that his officiating buddies had ‘‘manipulated’’ game six of a Red Sox-Yankees playoff which determined which of the demonic foes ended up in the World Series. Hell hath no fury like such a prospect.

Yet, we seem to be relatively unmoved by what is happening in basketball. Is it because we are so enamored of the Celtics’ story, which is admittedly beguiling? Maybe! Or is it because we hold basketball, which has a sordid history of wretched ethical blunders, to a lower standard?

That is more likely.

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