The Conspiracy Theory of Game 6, 2002

I am not a conspiracy guy. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, I think Elvis is dead, and Paul McCartney is not. I don’t believe Colombian drug lords took the lives of Nicole Simpson and Ron Brown, and I don’t believe that the American Government had any involvement in the terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/2001, but I do believe that the officiating in game six of the Western Conference Finals, in 2002, was either so incompetent, or so biased, that it invited the ‘C’ word into the conversation.

I’ve been a conspiracy guy before, suggesting that there might be one in certain situations (not the ones listed above), and I know that “C’mon” smile people give conspiracy guys. That “C’mon” smile asks you if you know the totality of what you’re suggesting, and it asks you if you know how many people would have to be involved. I try to avoid that smile at all costs, but if I’m ever going to “get over” the idea that a conspiracy prevented the Sacramento Kings from advancing to the NBA final in 2002, someone is going to have tell me how two of the NBA’s top officials made so many bad calls that led to twenty-seven Lakers’ free throws in the fourth quarter, on May 31, 2002, for the purpose of getting one more game out of this heated, popular series. I don’t want to believe the conspiracy, if there was one, reached into the upper echelon of the NBA or NBC, or that these two NBA officials had any money on the game. I do think, however, that these officials had a bias towards the Lakers, reflected in the numerous bad calls they made, that ended up affecting this game, and I think that latter point is near irrefutable. I also think it’s plausible that the officials may have been trying to make up for the “bad, or missed,” calls that some complain happened to favor the Sacramento Kings in game five of the series. Whatever the case is, the officials of this particular game, made a number of calls in game six that provided an insurmountable advantage to the Los Angeles Lakers.

It can be very enticing to be that guy who defaults to conspiracy theory any time his team loses. Doing so prevents a fan from having to deal with the fact that their team may not have been as skilled, as clutch, or as lucky as the other team in those decisive moments when their team lost.

Poor officiating is poor officiating, and most rabid sports fans need to take a deep breath of fresh air to reboot. Most sport fans need to accept the idea that until we load these games up with computer sensors, or mobile robots, there are going to be bad calls, and missed calls that cost one team a game. It’s the human element of the game that results in the fact that game officials –even in the age of instant replays– are going to make bad calls.

I’ve dropped the ‘C’ word in the past. It’s what die-hard fans do in the heat-of-the-moment, but at some point, we all realize that more often than not, our team is going to lose. It’s hard to be rational in the heat-of-the-moment and realize that even though the bad call happened to be a bad call, it was nothing more than a bad call. Age and experience have taught me that more often than not, the ’C’ word is often better left in the hands of the screaming drunk at the end of the bar, watching his team get annihilated.

There is one conspiracy charge, however that I may never be able to shake. If I live for another forty years, and I become twice as rational as I am now, I may still be decrying the unfairness that occurred in Game 6, 2002 of the Western Conference Finals. To say that I’m not alone with these concerns would be an understatement, as this game has become one of the most popular games cited by those conspiracy theorists who claim that the NBA will do “whatever it takes” to get its most popular teams in the championship.

To attempt to put all of these Game 6, 2002 conspiracy theories to rest, Roland Beech, of, provided an in-depth analysis of the game. After this exhaustive review, Beech found that the:

“Officiating hurt the King’s chances at victory.” He also declared, “No nefarious scheme on the part of the refs determined the outcome.”

Sheldon Hirsch from Real Clear Sports expounded on Beech’s findings, commenting that the Kings:

“Were clearly unlucky, (but) that’s not the same thing as being cheated.”

After reading, and rereading Beech’s analysis, I’ve found Beech’s findings to be thorough, meticulous, and objective. These findings, however, have done little to quell my irrational condemnation of two of the three referees who handled Game 6, 2002, and a Game 6, 2002 cloud has loomed over every NBA game I’ve watched since, and it will continue to be there in any NBA games I might watch in the future.

Corroborating Evidence?

When former NBA referee Tim Donaghy received a conviction for betting on games in 2007, my first thought went to Game 6, 2002. He was not an official in that game, it turns out, but he did submit a letter, and later a book, that suggested a collusive effort on the part of two of the three referees to affect that game’s outcome. This letter does not mention the teams involved in Game 6, 2002, but the Kings v. Lakers series was the lone playoff series to go seven games in 2002.

“Referees A, F and G [Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney, and Ted Bernhardt] were officiating a playoff series between Teams 5 [Kings] and 6 [Lakers] in May of 2002. It was the sixth game of a seven-game series, and a Team 5 [Kings] victory that night would have ended the series. However, Tim [Donaghy] learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. Tim knew referees A and F to be ‘company men,’ always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA’s interest to add another game to the series. Referees A and F favored Team 6 [Lakers]. Personal fouls [resulting in injured players] were ignored even when they occurred in full view of the referees. Conversely, the referees called made-up fouls on Team 5 in order to give additional free throw opportunities for Team 6. Their foul-calling also led to the ejection of two Team 5 players. The referees’ favoring of Team 6 led to that team’s victory that night, and Team 6 came back from behind to win that series.”

Then-NBA Commissioner David Stern denied the allegations Donaghy made in this letter, stating that they were made by a desperate, convicted felon. Stern said Donaghy was a “singing, cooperating witness”, and Stern has since referred to any, and all, Donaghy allegations as those coming from a convicted felon.

It is true that Donaghy is a convicted felon. He received a conviction for betting on games he officiated. Does that mean everything he wrote in this particular letter is false? How many times has a convicted felon provided evidence that others later corroborated? At this point, however, there are no corroborations for Donaghy’s allegations, and a cynical outsider could say that Donaghy picked this particular, controversial game to serve up as a sort of plea bargain either to the FBI, or to the society that holds him as the lone, proven corrupt official of the NBA. Some have also said that Donaghy’s explosive allegations were made soon after the NBA required Donaghy pay them $1 million dollars in restitution.

It’s oh-so-tempting for scorned Kings’ fans to believe everything Donaghy wrote, and deny everything the former lawyer Stern said to protect his product, but it is difficult to deny the “desperate act” characterization Stern uses when referencing Donaghy’s allegations. Especially when we put ourselves in Donaghy’s shoes and we imagine how desperate he had to be in his efforts to salvage his reputation after being the lone NBA official convicted of throwing games.

Corroborating Outrage!

In the absence of corroborating evidence, outraged Kings’ fans can find solace in the corroborated outrage that resulted from the game by consumer activist Ralph Nader, the announcer of the game Bill Walton, and the numerous, prominent sportswriters who watched the game. Bill Walton called Game 6, 2002 one of the poorest officiated important games in the history of the NBA, and that characterization is almost unanimous.

At the conclusion of the game, consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote an email to then-NBA Commissioner David Stern:

“You and your league have a large and growing credibility problem, Referees are human and make mistakes, but there comes a point that goes beyond any random display of poor performance. That point was reached in Game 6 which took away the Sacramento Kings Western Conference victory.” [My emphasis.]

As evidence of his charge, Nader cited Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon who wrote that too many of the calls in the fourth quarter (when the Lakers received 27 foul shots to the King’s nine) were “stunningly incorrect,” all against Sacramento.

After noting that the three referees involved in Game 6, 2002 “are three of the best in the game”, Wilbon wrote:

“I have never seen officiating in a game of consequence as bad as that in Game 6 … When [Scott] Pollard, on his sixth and final foul, didn’t as much as touch Shaq [Shaquille O’Neal]. Didn’t touch any part of him. You could see it on TV, see it at court side. It wasn’t a foul in any league in the world. And [Vlade] Divac, on his fifth foul, didn’t foul Shaq. [These fouls] weren’t subjective or borderline or debatable. And these fouls didn’t just result in free throws, they helped disqualify Sacramento’s two low-post defenders. And one might add, in a 106-102 Lakers’ victory, this officiating took away what would have been a Sacramento series victory in 6 games.

“I wrote down in my notebook six calls that were stunningly incorrect,” Michael Wilbon continued, “all against Sacramento, all in the fourth quarter when the Lakers made five baskets and 21 foul shots to hold on to their championship.” 

Wilbon discounted any conspiracy theories about an NBA-NBC desire for Game 7 etc., but he later wrote that:

“I still consider [Game 6] the single worst-officiated game in the 28 years I’ve been covering professional basketball. It was egregiously, embarrassingly bad … Stern and the NBA had better deal with it quickly, lest they appear completely unaware of a condition that will threaten the credibility of the league.”

“It’s the only time, I think, I’ve ever written an entire column about refereeing for the purpose of being critical.” 

In his letter to Stern, Nader also cited the basketball writer for USA Today, David Dupree, who wrote:

“I’ve been covering the NBA for 30 years, and it’s the poorest officiating in an important game I’ve ever seen.”

Grant Napear, the Kings’ radio and TV play-by-play man the last two decades, still labels Game 6:

“Arguably the worst officiated playoff game in NBA history.”

When LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke asked Commissioner David Stern about Game 6, 2002, in person, during the NBA Finals that year, Plaschke states that Stern turned defensive:

“[Stern] looked at me,” Plaschke wrote, “pointed his finger, and said, ‘If you’re going to write that there is a conspiracy theory, then you better understand that you’re accusing us of committing a felony. If you put that in the paper, you better have your facts straight,” Plaschke wrote, quoting Stern. Plaschke alluded to the fact that he [Plaschke] didn’t have any facts, and as a result he did back off, but that he had just wanted to ask Stern about aspects of Game 6, 2002, that Plaschke had witnessed. 

Bill Simmons, of ESPN, called the game:

“The most one-sided game of the past decade, from an officiating standpoint.”

Nader concluded his letter to Stern:

“There is no guarantee that this tyrannical status quo will remain stable over time, should you refuse to bend to reason and the reality of what occurred. A review that satisfies the fans’ sense of fairness and deters future recurrences would be a salutary contribution to the public trust that the NBA badly needs.”

The point to which Nader and Wilbon alluded is that there has long been a conspiracy theory among NBA fans that the NBA wants the Lakers to win. The Lakers are showtime. They are West and Chamberlain, Magic and Kareem, and Kobe and Shaq, and the reasons that the NBA might favor a Lakers team in the championship begins with the word money and ends with a whole lot of exclamation points. This point is not debatable among conspiracy theorists, and non-conspiracy-minded fans, but how much the NBA would do to make that happen has been the core of conspiracy theories for as long as I’ve been alive.

Conspiracy theories exists in all sports, of course, but they are more prominent in the NBA, because most officiated calls in the NBA are so close, and so subjective, that they invite more scrutiny, more interpretation, and more conspiracy theories than any other sport.

What was Stern’s reaction to Nader’s letter?

“He spoke like the head of a giant corporate dictatorship,” Nader said.

The Point Beyond the Random

Some might see it as a populist play for a consumer advocate and presidential candidate, like Nader, to cover a sporting event in such a manner. I do believe, however, that Nader was right to warn Stern that public sentiment could turn away from his product, when it reaches a point where the normal conspiratorial whispers crank up to screams of indignation. I know that those whispers gained more prominence for me, after Game 6, 2002, and in every game I watched thereafter.

“There comes a point that goes beyond any random,” Nader wrote.

There comes a point that no fan can pinpoint when disappointment becomes outrage, and outrage progresses into conspiracy theory, and conspiracy theory becomes an outright lack of trust. There comes a point when those who still believe in a fair NBA where outcomes are not predetermined, and victories are granted based on merit, are laughed off, in the same manner WCW fans are laughed at for still believing in the integrity of their sport.

“The Kings could’ve won that game,” is the usual response to charges that the officials decided the game, “and if they secured a couple more rebounds, made a couple more field goals, and free throws, they would’ve. The Kings had numerous opportunities to win that game, no matter how many free throws the Lakers were awarded in the fourth quarter (27) of game six. And … and, if the Kings won game seven, at home to boot, this whole matter would be moot. They didn’t, and the rest is history, Lakers’ history!”  

This response often quells further talk of bias and conspiracy theories, because it is true. It’s also true that the two teams in the 2002 Western Conference Finals series were so evenly matched that that the series went seven games, and of those seven games, one game was decided by more than seven points, and the two games that preceded Game 6, 2002, were both decided by a single point, and the final game of the series couldn’t be determined until overtime. It’s also true that when two teams are so evenly matched, anything can provide a tipping point … including officiating.

As I wrote, the “C’mon” smile often follows this line of thought, and what follows that is a statement like: “Your team’s job is to make it so the refs cannot determine the outcome.” Again, this is all true, but outraged Kings’ fans would admit that their 2002 team wasn’t that much better than the 2002 Lakers, and if they were better, it was by a smidgen, and that smidgen was wiped out in game six by the Lakers having twenty-seven free throws in one quarter –the fourth quarter–after averaging 22 free throws throughout the first five games.

Author Brian Tuohy adds an interesting asterisk to this discussion:

“The Sports Bribery Act was passed in 1964 and that [law] specifically states you cannot bribe (my emphasis) a player, coach, or referee to alter the outcome of a sporting event,” Tuohy says. “Well, if the NBA says to its referees, ‘Hey, we want you to do this, that, or the other thing out on the court,’ they’re not bribing them to do it. That’s an employer telling the employee how to do their job. And if this is how they want the job done, they’ll go out and do what their employer asks. There’s no law that prevents the NBA from fixing the outcome of one of its own games.”

So, when Stern attempted to intimidate Plaschke out of making an accusation, by saying that Plaschke was implicitly accusing the NBA of a felony, did Stern do so with the knowledge that it’s only a felony if the NBA paid the referees to make it happen? My interpretation of Tuohy’s comments, based on what he said about the NBA Draft Lottery is, “It’s their league. They can do with it what they will.” In other words, if the NBA were to fix a game that action might break the social contract of fair play with the fans, but as far as the law is concerned, Brian Tuohy states, “[T]hey have total control and can do whatever they want with these games [to] feed into their entertainment industry, which is professional basketball. There’s nothing out there that stops them from doing it, so if they want to, they could.” 

Anytime we hear conspiracy theories, our first impulse is to dismiss them. The best way to dismiss a conspiracy theory is to call it a conspiracy theory. How many foolish notions have just enough juice to be interesting? There are so many that when someone dismisses another one as nothing more than another conspiracy theorist, most of us join them in dismissing it on that basis, and we don’t listen to another word the conspiracy theorist has to say. The next easy dismissal is to suggest that in order for a true conspiracy theory to work, there would have to be so many players involved. There would have to be various people at various levels who knew about it and have remained silent about it all these years. “How come there have never been any leaks regarding game 6?” is something they might ask. As we’ve written throughout this piece, there is no substantial and corroborated evidence to suggest that the NBA, or its officials, decided this game. At best, we have a boatload of circumstantial evidence that we think would convince a jury to award Sacramento a Larry O’Brien. On the specific topic of the number of people involved, however, we think it could be as minimal to three to four people. It could involve nothing more than a simple call from David Stern to the referees who worked this game to do whatever they have to do make this wildly popular series between two evenly matched teams last one more game. As Tuohy suggests, Stern might have viewed it as good business.

On the topic of dismissing a conspiracy theory on the basis of being a conspiracy theory, Brian Tuohy adds: 

“If you look outside the United States right now, today, we know soccer matches are being fixed. We know tennis matches are being fixed. Cricket matches are being fixed. Rugby matches are being fixed. People are being arrested and convicted of fixing those sports. So it’s amazing that in the United States, none of this happens. What other crime happens worldwide that doesn’t happen in the United States? Apparently, game-fixing is it, which I don’t understand. How is it happening everywhere else but despite billions of dollars being gambled on American sports nobody’s fixing a game? Well, I don’t believe it. It’s only considered a conspiracy theory because people don’t want to believe it potentially could be true.”    

Those of us who prefer to be on the other side of this argument often inform our conspiracy theorist friends that there isn’t more than meets the eye. Most of the time, the truth is the truth, the facts are the facts, and scoreboard is scoreboard, but facts are stubborn things, and they’re also pretty boring. It’s boring, and anti-climactic to say that one common, ordinary man could take down a president. There’s little-to-no literary value in the suggestion that a bunch of ragtag losers could take down one of America’s greatest monuments to commerce without conspiratorial assistance, and it does nothing to ease our pain to admit that a team beat our team based on superior athletic talent alone. Raised in a pop culture that feeds into our idea that there has to be more than meets the eye, we end up believing that there is, as we stare at those zeroes on the scoreboard, and we watch the other team celebrate, and we listen to the post-game interviews with a lump in our throat. This dream season can’t just be over, we think. There has to be more to it, but most of them time there isn’t. Most of the time one team loses and another wins, and the conspiracy theorist becomes more ridiculous every time they attempt to say that there has to be something more to it.

Having said all that, those of us who try to avoid the ‘C’ word as often as we can, ask those who offer bemused smiles to our conspiracy theories if it’s just as ridiculous to suggest that such moments never happen? Especially when, as Brian Tuohy suggests, they happen all the time, all over the world. “I’m not going to say it’s never happened,” the rational reply, “but it didn’t happen here.”

If it didn’t happen here, even the most objective analysis would find that two of the three officials involved in Game 6, 2002, made an inordinate amount of calls in favor of the Lakers, and because these two teams were so evenly matched, those calls provided an insurmountable advantage for the 2002 Lakers. We’ll never know whether or not these “best officials in the game” were just incompetent for one game in their careers, or if they were acting in a nefarious manner, but those of us who watched every second of the May 31, 2002 game –and slammed the “off” button as hard as we’ve ever slammed an “off” button before, or since– believe that it was a point beyond the random that damaged the social contract we had with the NBA, and its integrity, in a manner that is irrevocable.


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