Sports Round-Up: Referee Scandal Hits NBA

A referee betting scandal that threatens to overshadow the NBA finals. Plus, Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 600th home run this week. And can Tiger Woods bounce back? For more, NPR's Tony Cox talks with New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now we've got an update on hot topics in sports with our own Tony Cox. Hey, Tony.

TONY COX: Hey, Farai. You know, we have the NBA finals, of course, and to go along with that, an NBA scandal. We have Tiger back on the prowl and the big 600 for the little Griffey, Jr. that could. Here to help us break it all down is New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden, who is actually here in studio with me for the first time. Hey, bro.

Mr. WILLIAM RHODEN (Sports Columnist, The New York Times "): With the great Tony Cox.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: It's so nice to hear and see you all at the same time. So let's get right into this scandal talk. Here's the quick background. Former referee Tim Donaghy was disgraced after he admitted to betting on games, even some that he officiated, and he's about to be sentenced next month. Now, he filed a letter in federal court claiming that unnamed league officials plotted with other referees to favor teams that got the biggest TV ratings, of course, the L.A. Lakers during the Shaq and Kobe days. Now, one of the examples Donaghy cited was the 2002 playoffs between the Lakers and the Kings, Sacramento Kings, a game in which the Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter and went on to win in seven games, a game that still leaves a very bitter taste in the mouths of Kings fans. So reaction to this latest charge by this referee has been - well, let's start with you. What has been the reaction from your standpoint?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, you know, Tony, I think within the NBA and the NBA circle, it's been denial. Denial. Oh no, it can't happen. But the reality is that this is something that's been - that people have been talking about for - my wife - for, like, years. Well, you know, it's going go seven games. But it's almost become almost as - not that anybody's angry. They just - it's kind of an accepted thing. And the worst thing about this scandal, from the NBA's point of view, because the NBA deals with image and the perception. And you know, the perception is worse than the reality. And David Stern, who's the commissioner of the NBA, is - normally, just kind of blows this off and that kind of stuff. And this is going to stick.

COX: You think it's going to stick?

Mr. RHODEN: Oh, sure.

COX: You know what I'm reminded of? And I want to get your thought on this. Remember in the steroid controversy in baseball, when Jose Canseco wrote the book and everybody was like, Canseco's crazy, he's this, he's that, he's this.

Mr. RHODEN: Sure.

COX: And now Donaghy, even though he's going - maybe going to jail for what he did, people are saying, well, he's a felon, you know. We can't - how can you believe...

Mr. RHODEN: Felons can't tell the truth?

COX: Right. How can you believe a convicted felon?

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: And yet, this thing's not going away.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, and you're right. Canseco wrote the book, and he said, yeah, I may be slimy, but that's why I know who was down there with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODEN: You know, so you're not going to be able to laugh this off, because you know, where there's smoke there's fire. What the NBA has got to do is - the first thing they've got to do is move the NBA referees out of the NBA office.

COX: Well, you know, Commissioner Stern, yesterday said - because Phil Jackson was the one who suggested that.

Mr. RHODEN: Sure. Right.

COX: He said he's crazy.

Mr. RHODEN: Who's crazy?

COX: The commissioner said the idea was crazy.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, I know, but I'm just saying, commissioner, who's crazy? You're the one with the problem. And if you keep them there, if you keep - you know what it's going to be like? It's going to be like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Nationals. You know how the Globetrotters carried their own opponents with them just so they could get the show? Well, that's just what this is going to be like. We're going to carry our own official, so whenever we need to make some adjustments, we'll have, you know, we'll have him right there in our office. And listen, I think we can't call so many fouls this years. Let's...

COX: All right, let me play devil's advocate, last question on NBA before we move on. The idea is to make money in ratings for the league. Which the league is doing, game three, this dream match up, conspiracy, or not, between the Lakers and the Celtics, game three, highest rated game since 2004.

Mr. RHODEN: Tony, you answered a question with the premise. The idea is, make money and ratings, and whenever you get money and ratings involved, anything can happen. Remember, we all grew up on a playground playing pickup basketball. I never played the game where there were officials. There's core honesty that's in competition among people who just want to play. It's when all this other stuff starts getting involved that you begin to compromise the spirit and the essence of the game. And if it's about ratings and money, then there's your game, commissioner.

COX: So are you enjoying covering Celtics and Lakers? I know that's why you're out here in L.A., you're going to the game.

Mr. RHODEN: I'm out here to be here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODEN: You didn't know? No, it's great drama. It's really, it's - this, to me, this is the highest form of competition, which is why this controversy has to be dealt with. This is the greatest series, two great rivals, and I think this may end up being a classic series, if we can get beyond this controversy. Because Tony, this is not going away.

COX: All right. Talking about ratings and things that happen, you know, just down the road from us, the U.S. Open kicked off today. And here's the interesting thing to me. I want to get your thoughts about it because paired together today, the number one player in the world, Tiger Woods, the number two player in the world, Phil Mickelson, the number three player in the world, Adam Scott, all playing together. Is this just for the TV ratings for golf? Does golf need that?

Mr. RHODEN: Yes. Yes. Yes. This is for rating. The problem is that Tiger is not right. I mean, Tiger is just coming off a surgery and in a way, this is kind of - the road is paved for Mickelson to win this. But the great - golf's greatest nightmare, the greatest nightmare is when Tiger Woods suddenly, for some reason, can't play or is not the great Tiger Woods, because once that happens, golf just becomes -

COX: What is was before he played.

Mr. RHODEN: Which is just golf. And then you're going to have this big click. The people who are going to watch it are who? The people who really like golf. But people who watch it now want to see Tiger be great.

COX: Can he do it, though? How serious was this injury? Because I understood that until yesterday, he hadn't walked. Of course -

Mr. RHODEN: If you've ever had - and I've had arthroscopic surgery just months ago.

COX: OK.

Mr. RHODEN: If you've had that kind of stuff, it takes you a while. It takes you a while, and everybody is gunning for him. We saw it down at Augusta. Everybody who's playing, all these golfers do is nothing but think golf are aiming at Tiger. And it's one thing when you're healthy and 100 percent. Now he's - I mean, he doesn't know how he's going to react, because this is the first time being under this kind of pressure, in a pressurized situation. Now they put him in this great threesome, so...

COX: Well, he's won twice down there, and now he's got Phil Mickelson, and that's his hometown course, so to speak.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, listen, if Tiger is as great as we all say he is, he's going to win, you know? But it's going to be very hard because he's been injured - he's never been injured like this before, so he doesn't know.

COX: Talking about greatness, let's end our segment with you. And it's so good - I can't get over just looking at you while we're talking. Ken Griffey, Jr., 600 home runs. Here's what his coach had to say about him, Dusty Baker. Quote, "There is no cloud of suspicion over his head. Should he be held in higher esteem than he is? Of course. And I'm sure he will be down the road." We got about 40 seconds. What do you think of that?

Mr. RHODEN: Griffey is a great guy. You know, just like Joe Frazier was - had to come along in Ali's era, you know, it's his misfortune, Griffey's misfortune, to come around in the Barry Bonds era. And also, he had the misfortune to just be hurt. If you total up all the games that he missed - he's missed almost about two seasons.

COX: Yeah, that's true.

Mr. RHODEN: And part of what we do is basically, you got to show up. You got to find a way to stay on the field. But great guy, great athlete. But I think that when we look at his career, it will be, darn, what could he have done?

COX: I can't believe he's actually been in major league baseball 20 years. Thirty-eight years old, little Kenny Griffey, Jr.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Bill Rhoden, it's great to have you here. Welcome to - you're welcome to come to L.A. anytime.

Mr. RHODEN: Hey, man, I love it. This is great. This is great.

COX: All right. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox, talking with New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden, who's fabulous and I'm excited to see. Rhoden is the author of "Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback."

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