Todd Pinnell, a native of Sacramento, remembers watching the 2002 NBA semi finals between the Lakers and Kings with a sense of disbelief. The Kings led the series 3-2, and most Kings fans felt like this was their year; the Kings would win this game and head to the finals.
But strange things were afoot in L.A.
Star Vlade Divac fouled out in 31 minutes. Scott Pollard picked up six fouls in 11 minutes. Mike Bibby was clocked by Kobe Bryant’s elbow and Bibby was called for a foul while he lay bleeding on the floor. The Lakers had a stunning 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, and ended up outscoring the Kings at the foul line 34-18.
The Kings lost, the Lakers went on to beat the Nets in the finals, and Kings fans were left with nothing but conspiracy theories and anger.
Yesterday, the members of that Kings team and their fans got a small sense of vindication when court paper revealed that disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy blew the whistle on the other refs in that game.
While the game is never specifically noted as that one, the papers – submitted by Donaghy’s lawyer – refer to a “game six of a seven game series” in 2002, and the Lakers/Kings series was the only one that went seven games.
The letter states:
“Referees A, F and G were officiating a playoff series between Teams 5 and 6 in May of 2002. It was the sixth game of a seven-game series, and a Team 5 victory that night would have ended the series. However, Tim 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 heavily favored Team 6. Personal fouls [resulting in obviously 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.”
The NBA, of course, is denying Donaghy’s allegations, saying that he is just grasping at straws in an attempt for leniency when he is sentenced for his NBA related crimes.
NBA Commissioner David Stern said yesterday about Donaghy, “He turned on basically all of his colleagues in an attempt to demonstrate that he is not the only one who engaged in criminal activity. The US Attorney’s office, the FBI, have fully investigated it, and Mr. Donaghy is the only one who is guilty of a crime. And he will be sentenced for that crime regardless of the desperate attempts to implicate as many people as he can.”
But Kings fans aren’t buying that. The allegations are just adding fuel to the fire that has been burning since 2002.
“It was so obvious watching the game that something weird was going on,” said Pinnell, who has never let up on his theory that the game was fixed. “Everyone knew it, even the announcers were talking about how many fouls were being called against the Kings.”
During that night’s network telecast, announcers Marv Albert, Steve Jones and Bill Walton repeatedly referenced the questionable officiating. Jones noted that the Kings were “going to have to work through tough officiating,” and at one point early in the fourth, after Pollard had been called for consecutive fouls — one for an alleged moving screen, the other for breathing on Shaquille O’Neal as the Lakers center spun into the lane — an exasperated Walton blurted, “That’s not a foul, I’m sorry.”
The fans and announcers weren’t the only ones who noticed. Shortly after the game, Ralph Nader wrote a letter to Stern asking for a review of the officiating.
While Donaghy’s revelation may bring some relief to Kings fans who now have some backing for their fixed game theory, it also has renewed the anger they felt in 2002. This wasn’t just some game in the middle of the season; it was a game that meant the world to the Kings and their fans, a realized dream of a trip to the NBA finals and a chance at basketball glory.
Kings fan Reggie Boon recalls what he felt as he watched the game unfold. “It was like the NBA was telling all the smaller markets to go to hell, that all the NBA wanted to see was dollar signs and Sacramento just didn’t have enough.”
For the Kings, this is their job, their profession. Imagine if you were up for a promotion at work and the day you walk into your boss’s office with the anticipation of being handed the promotion, you find out that some guy who did half the work you did, who is clearly not as capable as you, was handed the job. Why? Because he’s better looking. Or wears nicer ties. Looks better for the company. I’m sure that’s the same sense of frustration the Kings felt that night.
Any sports fan (though perhaps not a 2002 Lakers fan) can sympathize with the angry Kings fans. Imagine being that close to celebrating a victory only to have the rug pulled out from under you – not by lousy playing or even bad bounces, but by the people who run the game and the sport. The chance to win or lose is not even in the hands of the players, nothing they can do will change the outcome of the game. It’s frustrating, to say the least.
Like most Kings fans who witnessed that game, Pinnell never let go of that residual anger toward the NBA. He’ll bring it up with other Kings fans a few times every basketball season. They all wonder how a win for the Kings that night would have changed where the Kings are now.
Even if the allegations prove to be untrue, they will certainly leave people wondering, especially since this is not the NBA’s first experience with phantom fouls. Blogger Rick Moran writes about the Bulls/Knicks series that had rumors circulating:
Little or no contact with the shooter would draw a whistle and send the player to the free throw line. I can recall several games in this series where players and coaches were beside themselves as a result of a foul called for some ticky tacky contact or worse, no contact at all.
But Moran is wary of Donaghy’s claim of refs running afoul in the Kings series:
Donaghy put the pro game under a cloud with his gambling. His shocking allegations could bring the NBA crashing down – if they were true. But even if they haven’t been investigated, Donaghy’s lack of proof in making these spectacular charges only reinforces the idea that he is just another con looking for a break from prosecutors.
Despite the protestations of the NBA and some observers, most Kings fans will go on believing Donaghy’s version of the event. The vindication they feel doesn’t make up for what they believe was an NBA sanctioned loss, but it’s a small pleasure they can take in a time when their team isn’t offering them much to cheer about.
Says Pinnell, “It’s not like we can say for sure whether the Kings would have won the championship and go on to better things if they won that game. But they weren’t even given the opportunity to try.”