History of NBA Conspiracy theories – 2002 Western Conference finals LA Lakers vs Sacramento
Kings Game 6
Did the NBA really fixed Lakers-Kings Series back in 2002?
The most notorious series of recent history is the 2002 Western Conference finals, when the
two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers staved off elimination by defeating the
Sacramento Kings. Tim Donaghy alleged that two referees (understood to be Dick Bavetta and
Bob Delaney) fixed the series in particular game 6.
Donaghy was convicted of betting on games as his tenure as a referee in the NBA so he may
not seem a reliable source, but many considered him an insider with very reliable information.
And he wasn’t the only one who found something amiss in Game 6. Announcer Bill Walton
(throughout the game), prominent sportswriters, 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. Donaghy’s allegations seem true. He claimed that the NBA hierarchy instigated the fix in
2002 – that the referees received an approved message to manipulate Game 6 in the perceived
best interests of the league. Game 6 in 2002 remains the most likely possibility of a game in which the NBA participated in a fix. Was Game 6 fixed?
The motive, of course, was money for the owners. This would 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 made questionable calls. The most important part of Donaghy’s story involved the purported instigators, the unnamed high-level
NBA representatives or owners.
We will assume, for the sake of argument, that the NBA has unfavored officials or owners
capable of fixing games for money, and referees who would follow their bosses for unspecified
benefits. (No one alleged direct bribes.) The “Lakers-Finals-Television Ratings-More Money” motive makes sense. However, the NBA is a hugely complex sporting and huge enterprise with many competing interests. Television
contracts are important to the owners but are hardly their only interest, and not necessarily their
Many owners crave championships. To begin with, they want the 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 and lust.
Championships promote profit for the winning team. They have great 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 younger fans.
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 favoring them
would obviously decrease the chances for all other teams. Owners motivated by winning would
never sign on to or favor 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.
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. 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 years later there remains no evidence that
such a scheme manifested in Game 6 between the Lakers and Kings.
Most of the disputed calls in favor of the Lakers could reasonably have gone either way. For
example, Walton went crazy when Sacramento’s Chris Webber was called for charging into
Robert Horry. However, this was a standard charge versus block play. It occurs in every NBA
game and no matter what the referee decides, many observers seem as it was a bad call.
Several disputed calls involved contact defending Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal in the post,
something that plagued referees during Shaq’s entire career. For example, on one Shaq shot,
Scott Pollard seemed to have his arms nearly upright, but he clearly moved his lower body into
Shaq, and there was contact above and below. Was it enough to warrant a foul call? Walton
and play-by-play man Steve Jones disagreed.
Kings center Vlade Divac’s sixth foul received criticism. This occurred when Horry fell to the
floor retrieving a loose ball and Divac pounced on him. Referees often allow scrums like this to
proceed until they can reasonably call a jump ball or grant a timeout. When Divac was called for
a foul, Walton described the forlorn Kings coach Rick Adelman as “beyond belief here.” But
Divac did not reach for the ball in the usual fashion and tie Horry up – he jumped on Horry and
the contact helped knock the ball loose to another Kings player. At worst, this was another call
that could have gone either way.
The play generally considered the most rigged came when Bryant elbowed Mike Bibby in the
face and no foul was called. But Bibby grabbed Bryant at the same time, perhaps just before
Bryant’s elbow hit. Bryant’s contact was much more flagrant, but it might have been the second
foul. More importantly, with 12 seconds left and the contact involving off-the-ball movement on
an out-of-bounds play, the referee signaled to play on, to let the players decide the game, a
common (and often praised) decision in that circumstance.
Game 6 had enough obviously bad calls to be considered a poorly officiated game. But those
calls went against both teams and were not the reason the officiating errors seemed so
egregious. That perception came from the much larger number of debatable calls, including the
examples above, that favored the Lakers.
In other words, lopsided officiating occurs in situations like this.
The Kings were clearly unlucky. That’s not the same thing as being cheated.
Check back tomorrow for Volume 2!