Sunday, July 22, 2007

Union Chief Wonders if N.B.A. Was Focused

By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
Sports of The Times
July 23, 2007

Last week, Bill Hunter, the executive director of the N.B.A. Players Association, received what, at the time, seemed to be an unusual e-mail attachment from the N.B.A. office.

The document was a questionnaire requesting detailed background information and disclosures from N.B.A. officials. “I was wondering why they sent to me a questionnaire seeking all this background information,” Hunter said during a telephone conversation from Italy on Sunday.

Now it all makes sense.

Last Friday, the league acknowledged that the F.B.I. was investigating Tim Donaghy, a veteran N.B.A. official, on the suspicion that he bet on games, including ones in which he officiated.

Hunter said that after he received the inadvertent e-mail message, he called his secretary, who told him that the N.B.A. said the document had been sent to Hunter by mistake; it was intended to go to the referees.

“So I guess they’re now doing this huge background check on every referee,” Hunter said, “asking for their history, credit rating, everything.”

According to law enforcement officials, authorities are examining whether Donaghy made calls to affect the point spread in games on which he or associates had wagered over the last two seasons.

For Hunter, the allegations raised issues of where the league spends its energy and resources in marketing, and monitoring, itself. In recent seasons, the league has made a concerted effort to control player behavior on and off the court. Now, in the wake of the F.B.I.’s investigation, the N.B.A. may have a major blind spot.

“When we talk about image,” Hunter said, “the focus has always been on the players, because we have a league that is predominately black, so a lot of other things probably tend to go unscrutinized.

“If anything, this demonstrates that they weren’t fully focused,” Hunter added, referring to the N.B.A., “that they were focusing more on the game in terms of player conduct as opposed to reviewing whether or not the game itself was in jeopardy, in terms of conduct by referees.”

A determination of guilt or innocence has yet to be made, but the mere fact that the F.B.I. is conducting its inquiry forces a league to look at the men and women who enforce games and help determine their outcome.

One of the critical but unanswered aspects of the F.B.I. investigation is how long the N.B.A. and Commissioner David Stern knew that a referee was under investigation.

Yesterday, two people briefed on the investigation said the league did not know of it until after the season.

“I don’t know what Stern knew or what he didn’t know,” Hunter said. “He didn’t disclose anything to me. All I know is that David pays people to keep him informed. He makes every effort to know everything there is to know.”



Perhaps the F.B.I. informed Stern of the investigation but asked him to refrain from making any moves until it made sure it had a solid case, Hunter said.

Hunter pointed out that Bernie Colbert, formerly a special agent in charge of the Buffalo division of the F.B.I., is now the N.B.A.’s chief of security.

“David pays for information,” Hunter said, referring to the league’s willingness to devote resources to a security staff. “He doesn’t like to be embarrassed. Maybe in this instance he was. All I know is that his chief of security is a former F.B.I. agent.”

Hunter said that none of the players had expressed any knowledge about an investigation, although some players, Rasheed Wallace in particular, had expressed concerns about Donaghy. In 2003, the N.B.A. suspended Wallace, then with Portland, for seven games after he confronted Donaghy on the loading dock of the Rose Garden arena. Donaghy had called a technical foul on Wallace during a game against Memphis.

Hunter said the players union challenged the fines levied against Wallace. “We got most of his money back because we just thought this guy was way out of line when he confronted Rasheed when it was all about the calls that he had made during the course of the game,” Hunter said.

We have yet to hear Donaghy’s side of the story and the F.B.I. has yet to make any arrests. But at a time of plummeting television ratings, the N.B.A. can ill afford a scandal that violates the essence of what the public loves about games: honest and fair competition.



“It affects us because it affects the image, sanctity and the integrity of the game,” Hunter said. “If in fact that’s going on, I know that Stern has to be extremely concerned.”

Stern, who did not respond to a request for comment last night, said in a statement last week that the investigation was focused on a single referee.

The league can only hope that Donaghy was acting alone among officials and not in a network.

“We’ve got a serious problem as it is,” Hunter said. “But if it penetrates beyond that” — and involves others in the league — “then we’ve got grave problems.” Stern knows how to market. In 2003, in a typical lecture about the importance of preserving the image of the N.B.A., he said that what fans “want to see is basketball, and we’re anxious to show our game.”

Stern has presided over expansion, globalization, lockouts and brawls. But in the wake of a potential scandal, maintaining the public’s trust could be the commissioner’s toughest sell yet.

E-mail: wcr@nytimes.com

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