Sternly put: there is no conspiracy in the NBA

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The possibilities for the series between the Pacers and Pistons that begins Monday night in Detroit are so delicious, you might think somebody dreamed this stuff up.

Oops. My bad. Plenty of you already think the NBA does.

It's a shame to cover the same ground over and over, especially this late in an already eventful season. But way too many people are still wasting too much time arguing about referees, trying to decipher their calls and fantasizing about who is in whose pocket.

At every moment, it seems somebody in the NBA is getting preferential treatment. Shaq gets away with murder. Yao can't get away with anything. Tim Duncan travels. Allen Iverson palms the ball.

The other night, Boston's Paul Pierce walked into a postgame news conference with an elastic bandage wrapped around his head. He was mocking the official who slapped him with a second technical foul (and an ejection) for throwing a retaliatory forearm at Jamaal Tinsley that dropped the Indiana guard, suspiciously, like a sack of french fries.

The names of the teams, coaches and players change, but everybody has their own pet conspiracy theory. According to most, the trail of evidence winds back to league headquarters, where commissioner David Stern is secreted behind a curtain wearing a cape and funny hat, pushing and pulling levers like some Fifth Avenue-version of the Wizard of Oz. It's nonsense.

Not because the officiating isn't maddeningly inconsistent; it is. Stars get the calls in every sport and the NBA is the most star-driven sport going. But it might also be the toughest to officiate.

It's faster and it's the only one where the players have outgrown the playing surface. I don't know whether the guys in the NBA are, on average, taller than they've ever been, but I can guarantee they've never been bulkier. Between disgruntled veterans and an influx of youngsters, there's an abundance of bad attitude and a lack of fundamental skills. It adds up to confusion, but hardly dishonesty.

So in the interests of public sanity, we're going to provide the following disclaimer in capital letters to make it easy to print out and tape to the wall above a TV set:

THERE IS NO CONSPIRACY IN THE NBA.

Stern is so tired of hearing the word that he whacked Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy with a $100,000 fine -- and that might just be his opening move -- for breathing life into the issue.

And contrary to prevailing opinion, the commissioner does have a sense of humor. But you only had to hear him speak privately about such talk -- "We'd be felons!" Stern has said with scorn more than once -- to remember that he began his career a lawyer.

Besides, if Stern was half as powerful as some people think, Team USA would have brought back gold from the Olympics last summer. And even if his clout didn't extend beyond North America, the Pacers still never would have made it back to the scene of the crime for the playoffs.

Instead, that's the No. 1 story line as Detroit and Indiana square off at The Palace of Auburn Hills almost six months after a basketbrawl and Stern's frontier justice was supposed to cost the Pacers any chance.

"I think it's in everyone's minds, with guys going into the stands and guys fighting on the floor," Antonio McDyess of the Pistons said.

"I just hope that the players and fans realize that's over, let's learn from it and move on," added Larry Brown, his coach. "But the way people are, I don't think that's going to be the case. People are going to show that ugly stuff on TV."

And therein lies Stern's genuine concern.

The debacle in Athens aside, several rule changes and stylistic improvements in recent years have definitely made the product more appealing this season. There is more movement and less standing around. There are still plenty of highlight-reel dunks, but more and more, they're the exclamation point on incisive passes or clever steals. In that sense, the Pistons were already ahead of the curve.

Under Brown's tutelage, they've learned to share the ball, spread the floor, knock down mid-range jumpers and play tough, disciplined defense. Above all, they've learned to play together. They made that point against the Lakers in last year's Finals and have only improved since.

The Pacers aren't quite there yet, in part because of the lengthy suspensions handed to Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson and because Ron Artest remains in Stern's doghouse. But Indiana has regrouped admirably and rallied around Reggie Miller, trying to make his farewell tour half as memorable as the rest of his career.

The revenge factor is what will draw all the extra eyeballs into the best-of-seven series. But anybody who sticks around and remembers that the guys with whistles will be lucky just to control the game -- let alone script it -- might be rewarded with some very entertaining basketball.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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