NBA Season Is Set to Tip Off
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The marathon known as the NBA season begins tonight with the defending champion San Antonio Spurs playing the Portland Trailblazers and the Los Angeles Lakers taking on the Houston Rockets.
Unfortunately for the league, the focus, at least early, won't be on the players but on the referees.
Commentator John Feinstein joins us now. Good morning.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Well, we should start, of course, with one referee in particular who's likely to go to jail for fixing games.
FEINSTEIN: Right. Tim Donaghy, Refereegate as they call it in the NBA, came out in August that he was involved with gamblers, that he had taken money to give them inside information. There were at least two games in which it appeared he's going to be convicted of making calls to change the outcome of the game. He'll be sentenced in January.
David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, has said adamantly that this was one rogue referee. But the problem is, Renee, I'm not sure everybody believes that. There have always been people who had suspicions about the way games were officiated, particularly in the playoffs, to protect stars, to get certain TV matchups, and this is just going to exacerbate all of those suspicions.
MONTAGNE: Is it going to be difficult for the league to get past this?
FEINSTEIN: I think it's going to take a while, for sure. They are - they've taken some serious steps now. They used to be very secretive about who is officiating games because they didn't want gamblers to get advantages knowing how certain guys reffed; now they're going to post the names of the refs for every game on their Web site. They figure everybody should know.
The NCAA college basketball's been super-secretive about that. They used to sneak referees into the Final Four under cover of darkness in the old days. So they're going to go the opposite way with that. The referees now have to undergo much more thorough background checks because of this. But people are still going to talk, and the first time there's a crazy call at the end of a game, people are going to go a-ha, this guy's the next Tim Donaghy.
MONTAGNE: Huh. Well, let's move on to the game. Can the Spurs win the title again?
FEINSTEIN: Yes, they can. They've got everybody back from last year. And Tim Duncan is one of the most underrated players in the history of the NBA. He's a dominant player. They've got great guards in Manny Ginobili and Tony Park. The only problem is people think the only thing that matters about the Spurs is that Eva Longoria is married to Tony Parker. Other than that, nobody seems to care about them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Well, what was the biggest off-season story?
FEINSTEIN: No question it was the Celtics acquiring Kevin Garnett. The Celtics - one of the great franchises, of course, in NBA history; they still have more titles than anybody - 16 - but they haven't won since 1986. They haven't won anything since Len Bias died right after he was drafted. It's been a 21-year drought. Acquiring Kevin Garnett, one of the three or four best players in the league, makes them a competitive team again. And if they were to win the Eastern Conference and get to the finals, it would be a great story for basketball and a great thing for the NBA.
MONTAGNE: And the Western Conference?
FEINSTEIN: Is still dominant. I mean, in addition to the Spurs, you have the Lakers with Kobe Bryant, you have the Phoenix Suns, who many people thought were a better team other than a strange call in a playoff game last year. Many people thought they were better than the Spurs. And out west in particular, where the Portland Trailblazers and Seattle Sonics had the two number one picks - Greg Oden and Kevin Durant - there should be improvement, except that Greg Oden, the number one pick in the league, is out for the entire season.
MONTAGNE: Okay. So NBA season begins tonight?
FEINSTEIN: It does. And it will end about three or four years from now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: John, thanks very much.
FEINSTEIN: Thanks, Renee.
MONTAGNE: The comments of John Feinstein. His latest book is "Cover-up: Mystery at the Super Bowl."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.