Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lakers-Kings '02 Revisited

I just have to make a quick post on this really quick because it's been bugging me not only all day, but for six years.

The 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals between the L.A. Lakers and Sacramento Kings was the most nail-biting, exciting NBA playoff series I've ever seen. I'm not a huge NBA fan, but for a few years I really took to that Sacramento team that was so much fun to watch, with their run 'n' gun, fast-breaking style, and stifling defense.

It is probably my all-time favorite NBA team. Chris Webber. Mike Bibby. Bobby Jackson. Doug Christie. Vlade Divac. Scot Pollard. Peja Stojakovich. They were a versatile, well-oiled team, who could beat you inside and outside. Webber brought experience, Jackson brought energy, Christie brought defense, Divac -- though aging -- could still post up inside. And Bibby. Oh Bibby. He was an assassin that season, hitting clutch shots left and right.

The most dramatic moment in the series happened in Game 4 when Robert Horry nailed a three-pointer at the buzzer off a tip by Divac. It was deflating, but Sacramento came right back in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead, only one win away from dethroning the two-time defending champions.

The game everyone who watched that epic series remembers is the infamous Game 6. I will never forget it. I was in Maryland (of all places) for someone's birthday. While most people hung out and drank outside on a lovely summer night, I was camped out in the basement watching this game, which I had hoped would finally send the Lakers packing and Sacramento to the finals for the first time ever.

What I saw was one of the worst-officiated games I've ever seen. I know it's fashionable to blame the refs after a loss (even when it's warranted, like Super Bowl XL) but this was a travesty. Bibby got called for a foul after ostensibly head-butting Kobe Bryant's elbow. The Lakers shot 40 -- FORTY -- free throws. It was a terribly-officiated game. And for those of us who wanted to see a team other than the Lakers go to the Finals that year, we knew that the Game 6 loss was just a prelude to an inevitable Game 7 Lakers win.

There have been rumors for years about the NBA manipulating games to find the glamour matchups. Not that the league itself has had some kind of mandate, but maybe an unspoken understanding. And since the officials have been accused of being suspect in the first place, it isn't much of a leap to think that maybe there was some sort of subliminal agenda by some of the refs.

People have suspected referee Dick Bavetta (or as Tim Hardaway used to call him, "Knick Bavetta") of being a home-job ref for years. But when Tim Donaghy was found to have been betting on games that he himself was officiating, all the spectres of corruption went from a conspiracy theory to actual fact.

And just the other day, Donaghy dropped a bombshell, saying that the 2002 Lakers-Kings series was extended by two of the three referees in question, so that the Lakers would be secured a spot in the finals. Everyone who had been watching that series probably had a small feeling in the pit of their stomach at the time that there was an infintesimal chance that the fix was on. The officiating was just that bad.

Now, I'm not going to take Donaghy's word on anything. He's a felon, he's a liar, he's a cheat, and he was a fucking terrible referee. I hardly take him at his word. And it's easy for someone to take a much-disputed game and retroactively question the integrity of other officials. But still, the fact that it's even out there -- in FBI documents, no less -- gives it a whiff of credibility.

One note: the NBA has been shielding their terrible officials for years, instead of actually improving the product. For that I blame the Commish David Stern, and Stern alone. He had to know that the officiating product in the NBA was garbage, and yet he myopically defended the officiating against any and all criticism. He should have been addressing it when the first allegations of corrupt officiating came about in the old Heat-Knicks series of the early 1990s. David Stern can fine as many coaches or players as he wants when they badmouth the refs, but his heretofore staunch defense of the officiating in the league now sounds very hollow.

What is most disappointing to me about this series is that it reminds me of what could have been. A team I really connected with getting beat by a less-interesting, less-likeable team with (alleged!) help from the officals. That Game 6 completely deflated me as a sports fan, and it was a symptom of the tiresome dynastic nature of sports in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Yankees, Patriots, Lakers, Red Wings). Notably, it was also the last Lakers championship.

If information ever does come out that the fix was in, I don't know how it could be rectified. Do you give the Kings rings? Do you take down the banners at the Staples Center? Does David Stern retire in disgrace? And what role did Bill Belichick play in all this?

I can only hope that the poor fans of that charming "cow town" of Sacramento do end up getting a title one of these days, because I know that the city has a connection to that team like few others do. The Lakers didn't "need" that third title in a row; it could have changed the whole psyche of the entire Sacramento fan base, all while showing no real damage to the Shaq/Kobe/Zen Bastard Lakers. Those are the moments that can change a sports fan's world.

And if a few people came together to decide to take that away from the fans of Sacramento ... well, there is an engraved invitation to an exclusive part of Hell for all those awful men.


Willie Moe said...

Oh, Billy if only you had watched that game the way it was meant to be seen, on a big screen at Change of Pace, with a belligerent Scooter yelling about Danny Ferry.

Bojangles said...

Willie Moe is right. I watched it at the COP and I barely have any memories at all of the game! Listen to my hooves!