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NBA’s latest scandal disturbing

Mike Lopresti Gannett News Service

For a professional sports league, it is hard to imagine darker news than this.

Not a blizzard of positive steroid test results.

Not a full tank down at the jail of players facing DUI charges.

Not lousy television ratings that fall below The Food Network, or rats in the luxury suites.

No brawl could ever leave such a stain. Ron Artest’s worst day was never this bad. David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, might have a nightmare scenario on his desk.

Reports have surfaced that the FBI is investigating an NBA referee – identified by CBS Sportsline and ESPN as 13-year veteran Tim Donaghy – possibly betting on games the past two seasons, including several contests he officiated himself.

It gets worse.

Part of the FBI investigation, according to the New York Post, is looking into the possibility the official made calls that helped fix the final spreads.

It gets worse.

The motive behind the scam, according to reports, was that the referee had suffered heavy gambling losses with mob-related bookies, which is how organized crime got its hooks into him.

Now appearing on the Game of the Week … the San Antonio Spurs … the Phoenix Suns … and the Mafia.

Betting and point-shaving scandals are not new. But there has never been a story like that in a major American sport involving an official. Never. It would be the mother of all bombshells.

If true, it is the textbook case of why the powers of sport are so terrified by the first whiff of gambling by their employees. Why it is not being alarmist or overzealous to be so intolerant of the Pete Roses of the world.

It is not the act of wagering – Rose always bet on his Reds teams to win – but where that might so quickly lead. How long could it take a man to go from a bettor to a loser? Then, to pay the past due bills when there is no money left to borrow or beg or steal and ominous collectors are knocking at the door, how long to go from a loser to a co-conspirator?

NBA games are fragile. Not hard to see the mechanics of how a dirty deed could be done. The average winning margin for 25 of the 30 teams last season was less than five points. For 15 of the 30, less than three points.

It would not take much to alter the score. A handful of extra free throws would do the job nicely.

And given the nightly mayhem of any NBA game, who would know? Certainly not the saps that lost. It is a world where big men are constantly in collision with one another, and it often seems impossible to sort out the bashing that means a foul from the bashing that doesn’t.

A couple of borderline calls would hardly be noticed. It is fertile ground for a rogue with a whistle. As far as anyone knows, none have ever come along.

The question rattling the windows of the NBA office like a sonic boom is if one has come along now.

This must be sorted out to the last molecule. In the end, there can be no questions, no doubts, no ifs, buts or maybes. A commissioner’s job is never so vital than when the integrity of his game is threatened.

A few months ago, one study called into question whether NBA officials made some of their calls based on the race of the players. Many dismissed it. But that was a pebble in the water compared to this.

Honesty might not have been a matter of black and white. For one trusted guardian of the game, it might have been a matter of green.

“The fix was in and a referee helped.”

Envision a more disturbing headline for a sport.

You can’t.

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