Ex-Referee Says 2002 NBA Playoff Was Rigged

A former referee at the center of a gambling scandal has alleged that NBA referees rigged a 2002 playoff series to force it to seven games. Tim Donaghy also says the NBA routinely encouraged referees to ring up bogus fouls to manipulate results but ignore calls against star players.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in Los Angeles tonight, it's Game Four of the NBA Finals. The Boston Celtics lead the L.A. Lakers two games to one. This match-up between the league's two greatest rivals is a dream for the NBA, though for the past couple of days, the dream has been interrupted by a recent referee-cheating scandal that just won't go away. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: For a while, the Tim Donaghy scandal actually did go away, after the former NBA referee pleaded guilty last year to betting on games and taking payoffs from gamblers. But the Donaghy saga came back with a vengeance this week. Papers filed in court contain damning allegations by Donaghy that a 2002 playoff series was rigged by referees and that league officials encouraged refs to affect the outcome of games by calling fouls or, in other situations, not calling on fouls on star players.

The news certainly had a captive audience in Los Angeles. Hundreds of reporters are here for the finals, and many of them descended on two players at yesterday's media sessions. L.A.'s Derek Fisher and Boston's Scot Pollard played in the 2002 playoff game between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings, the game Tim Donaghy says was rigged by two referees in favor of the Lakers.

Mr. DEREK FISHER (Basketball Player, Los Angeles Lakers): And I remember we won the game, but I don't remember at any moment during the night, their helping us out here.

GOLDMAN: But Derek Fisher and his Laker teammates certainly benefited from the referee's calls. In the final quarter of their 106 to 102 victory, L.A. shot 27 free throws to Sacramento's nine. The officiating seemed so uneven, it prompted consumer advocate Ralph Nader to call for an investigation. Fisher says it's a big leap, though, to say the game was rigged.

Mr. FISHER: Games are called differently every night. You know, one team will shoot 30 free throws one game, and the next game, the other team will shoot 30 free throws. And it depends on the refereeing crew. It depends on the way the players are playing the game.

GOLDMAN: Scot Pollard played for Sacramento in the 2002 game. He fouled out, committing six personal fouls in only 11 minutes of play. When he heard about Donaghy's allegations this week, Pollard was quoted as saying: I knew it. It was unfair. We didn't have a chance to win that game.

Mr. SCOT POLLARD (Basketball Player, Formerly with the Sacramento Kings): Yeah, I felt that way during the game and after the game.

GOLDMAN: But yesterday, Pollard's comments were measured. He kidded with reporters that men in black visited him and forced him to change his story. In fact, he says the NBA did not contact him. He says he simply thought about the situation a little more and doesn't believe in an NBA referee conspiracy, in large part because the allegations are coming from just one man, Tim Donaghy, who didn't even referee the controversial game.

Mr. POLLARD: You'd think one other referee that maybe didn't have so much against him, the world against him, like Tim Donaghy does right now, would maybe mention that at some other time. And that's never happened, and that's a really big secret to keep if that was true.

GOLDMAN: The Lakers went on to win the 2002 NBA title. Derek Fisher joked yesterday: Regardless of the allegations, he's not giving back his championship ring. Donaghy's lawyer isn't commenting. It's believed this week's allegations are a way to show Donaghy is being cooperative with investigators. His sentencing is scheduled for next month.

For now, the NBA hopes fans can focus on Celtics versus Lakers. But part of being an NBA fan is questioning the refs, who make dozens of difficult, subjective calls that often change the course of a game. So chances are good many fans also will focus on the moments in these finals when the whistle blows and wonder if it's an honest call by an honest ref. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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