Did NBA Really Fix Lakers-Kings Game?

Ex-NBA referee Tim Donaghy recently accused the NBA of coercing referees to help the Brooklyn Nets defeat the less glamorous Toronto Raptors in their first round playoff series. This echoes previous claims by Donaghy about the NBA manipulating games. The most notorious example is Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, when the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers staved off elimination by defeating the Sacramento Kings. Donaghy alleged that two referees (understood to be Dick Bavetta and Bob Delaney) fixed the game.

Donaghy was convicted of betting on games so he may not seem a reliable accuser, but many considered him an insider with privileged information. And he wasn’t the only one who found something amiss in Game 6. Announcer Bill Walton (throughout the game), prominent sportswriters, and consumer advocate Ralph Nader all ripped the referees for poor calls favoring the Lakers. Many critics noted that the Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter, and the Kings only nine.

An NBA game could, of course, be fixed. That’s why the NBA maintains an extensive security department. Its concern is largely about addicted, vengeful or mentally ill players, referees, and even owners, perhaps in association with gamblers. History includes several examples of rogues rigging sporting events.

But Donaghy’s allegations are more spectacular. He claimed that the NBA hierarchy instigated the fix in 2002 - that the referees received an NBA-approved message to manipulate Game 6 in the perceived best interests of the league - and that the NBA persists in this odious practice. 

Game 6 in 2002 remains the most likely possibility of a game in which the NBA hierarchy participated in a fix. Was Game 6 fixed?

The alleged motive, of course, was money for the owners. This would derive from ensuring a seventh game, and even more so if the Lakers reached the Finals and boosted television ratings. The real payoff would come if nationally prominent teams routinely reached the Finals, translating into more lucrative television contracts.

Bavetta has attracted much attention, but the referees (all three made questionable calls) were just worker bees. The most important part of Donaghy’s story involved the purported instigators, the unnamed high-level NBA representatives and/or owners.

We will assume, for the sake of argument, that the NBA has unsavory officials or owners capable of endorsing fixed games for money, and referees who would follow the lead of their bosses for unspecified benefits. (No one alleged direct bribes.) 

Out of context, the “Lakers-Finals-Television Ratings-More Money” motive makes sense. However, the NBA is a hugely complex sporting and business enterprise with many competing interests. Television contracts are important to NBA owners but are hardly their only interest, and not necessarily their dominant interest. 

Many owners crave championships. To begin with, they relish publicity and prestige, which dramatically increase with a title. In addition, owners like Mark Cuban are competitive sportsmen who seek winning for its own sake.

Championships also promote profit for the winning team. They yield immediate economic benefits via increased attendance, merchandise sales, advertising revenue and local television ratings/contracts. More importantly, recent studies indicate that every title generates life-long fans, especially among youngsters - a cash cow that keeps on giving for decades.

The desire of individual owners to win titles conflicts with the “Lakers-Finals-Television Ratings-More Money” theme. Only a few NBA teams have national appeal and a policy favoring them would obviously diminish the chances for all other teams. Owners motivated by winning would never sign on to or tolerate any such policy.

In addition, the owners’ individual interests in winning championships have likely contributed to all the major sports leagues adopting policies favoring competitive balance. These measures include impediments to free agent movement (which is generally from small markets to large), such as compensating draft picks or other advantages given to the player’s original team. The leagues also feature some combination of revenue sharing, salary caps, and luxury taxes. Player drafts proceed in inverse order of success. The NFL weights the schedule to help losing teams and make it harder for winning teams to repeat. 

In 2011, the interests of competitive balance trumped the value of prominent teams succeeding when the NBA nixed the Lakers’ acquisition of Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets. With a backcourt of Paul and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers seemed poised for greatness. However, then-commissioner David Stern, reportedly encouraged by owners, vetoed the trade, going to unusual lengths to protect the relatively obscure Hornets at the expense of the glamorous Lakers.

We cannot quantify the overall value owners give to the success of prominent teams versus their own chances for championships and, more broadly, competitive balance. However, we can assume that with a heterogeneous group of owners, the relative priorities placed on these competing interests will vary. At a minimum, the situation is much more complicated than a single narrative revolving around television money. In fact, the persistent efforts to enhance competitive balance, and the nixed Paul trade, argue strongly against the idea that favoring prominent teams is a paramount interest.

An NBA sponsored fix would have to proceed with only very carefully chosen private conversations, as a single dissenting owner could be calamitous for the plotters. A fix constrained like that might be conceivable if there was obviously one overriding objective of all owners. But with strong competing interests, and without direct means of confirmation available, NBA officials would be hard-pressed to conclude that any single interest compelled the owners to the point of fixing a game.

Of course, even without a consensus of owners, an individual or small group of owners could try to fix a game (the historical “rogue model”). Yet even 12 years later there remains no evidence that such a scheme manifested in Game 6 between the Lakers and Kings. 

Ralph Nader wrote of Game 6, “Referees are human and make mistakes but there comes a point that goes beyond any random display of poor performance”. This is the only specific basis for believing Game 6 was fixed - the refereeing was so bad that there is no other plausible explanation.

But there is.

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Sheldon Hirsch is the co-author of "The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball."

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