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‘Fam, I Saw Netflix’: Players Believe NBA Games Are Fixed
The lesson of Andre Iguodala, Evan Turner and Gilbert Arenas’ ref allegations
Two weeks ago, I launched The Finder with a post that laid out my skittishness about the NBA’s head-first dive into gambling. Players think that referees are crooked. Coaches, general managers and owners are fined for speaking out about officiating. They can’t be blamed for voicing their suspicions: many current NBA players and staffers were around for the Tim Donaghy betting scandal in 2007.
Iguodala is one of those guys. A week ago, joining Gilbert Arenas’ podcast, Iguodala kicked off a 10-minute segment that demonstrated in no uncertain terms how pervasive and deep the players’ belief that NBA games are still being rigged by referees.
Iguodala revealed that he was ejected from a game this past season for uttering four words to a referee: “Fam, I saw Netflix.” Here’s what Iguodala was getting at: in November, Netflix released their Tim Donaghy documentary called, “Untold: Operation Flagrant Foul” detailing the 2007 gambling scandal involving a former NBA referee that was implicated in a betting scheme picked up by the Gambino crime family. LeBron James in particular was so upset by the documentary, he couldn’t bring himself to finish it.
It’s notable that Iguodala is revealing this story because it’s Andre Iguodala.
This is a studied man who has already published his memoirs and has earned a certain credibility from the C-Suite suits of the NBA. The 39-year-old vet served on the player’s union executive board for about a decade, headlined Bloomberg business conferences and currently operates in the circles of NBA owners in VC world and San Francisco’s Silicon Valley.
As a savvy businessman with 19 years of experience and nearly $200 million in total salary in the league, Iguodala fully understands what alleging referee conspiracy could mean for the NBA’s bottom line. And yet he’s still speaking out.
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One story in particular went viral on social media. Iguodala alluded to referees fixing Game 7s to help the NBA’s business. He spun the yarn with wink-wink, nudge-nudge flair, pounding his hands together for effect.
“I tell people all the time: Listen, the closeout game is the hardest game of your life,” Iguodala said. “And they will be like, ‘Why?’ And I can’t say it. I … can’t … say it. I’m like, ‘But no, fam, listen: This is the hardest game you’ll ever play in your life.”
Turner sensed Iguodala’s reticence and blurted out, “shit, I’ll tell it” – “it” being their story about Elton Brand, the elder statesman of that Sixers team. Turner said that ahead of a Game 7 against Boston in 2012, Brand — a former No. 1 overall pick on the back-nine of his NBA career — pulled Turner aside and warned him about referees rigging the outcome:
“You know we’re going to have to win by 15 just to win by 1. If we (win) this game, you know how much the NBA is going to lose? … Bro, this is the NBA. It’s entertainment. LeBron and the Heat are waiting. Would you rather watch the Celtics or the Sixers play the Heat? I’m going to be honest with you … I’m on the team and I wouldn't even want to watch the Sixers play the Heat.
Let this marinate for a second. Here is a two-time All-Star giving a pep talk to a young, precocious player ahead of the kid’s first Game 7 and informing him that the referees are spotting fourteen points to the opponent. It matters that the messenger, Brand, aka “EB” as he’s known around the league, carries a certain gravitas. He earned one of the more sterling reputations in the game, studying as a sociology major at Duke University and worked his way up to his current esteemed post, the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. The warning doesn’t land if it’s delivered by some rookie who can’t tie his own shoes.
At one point, Turner said Brand told him to “take M’s and M’s from this.” Take what? “Millions and memories. Because this is entertainment. As long as you know that, don’t act like the O.G. ain’t tell you.” In other words: Brand stopped juuuust short of calling the NBA the WWE.
Iguodala corroborated the story saying that Brand would often warn him about such things. I should say here that this is Turner and Iguodala’s version of events, not Brand’s. It’s entirely possible that Turner and Iguodala have some details mixed up.
But it doesn’t really matter. The larger point is that star players are convinced that the deck is stacked, and someone of credibility let them in on it. And if they believe it, then surely just about every player believes it. These are the generals of the army. What they say in the trenches goes … and goes and goes. Turner said he passed the message down to younger players like family lore. Later in his career, Turner would be the veteran on the Indiana Pacers and the Portland Trailblazers. Before a game, he says he’d pull the young guys aside, with a warning: “Remember, we have to win by 15 just to win by one.”
I rewatched the Sixers-Celtics Game 7, and let me tell you: I didn’t see any red flags. The Celtics ended up winning 85-75, just a few ticks better than Vegas expected (the Celtics were favored by 5.5). It just seemed like a No. 8 seed losing to a really good Celtics team with their championship core intact. The game wasn’t marred by lopsided box-score columns like the free throws in the Take That For Data game I surfaced. If the referees were truly in the tank for the Celtics, it’s hard to imagine why they would ever foul out Paul Pierce, Boston’s best scorer, with 4:16 left in the game.
It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that Iguodala chose to be so candid in this particular environment. To his left is Turner, one of his closest friends from the Philadelphia 76ers and current media partner. (Iguodala and Turner host the Point Forward podcast on Meadowlark Media, which makes us colleagues – though, truth be told, I can’t say I’ve spoken to Andre outside the locker room.) Filling out the rest of the set is 3-time All-Star Arenas, former NBA player Rashad McCants and Josiah Johnson, whom John Legend called “the king of sports comedy” and the son of NBA legend Marques Johnson.
In other words: this is an NBA locker room outfitted with microphones. And they’re telling the world about referees, leveraging podcasts and social media to directly share their unfiltered views to the masses. These powerful outlets simply weren’t available to players that had something to say in the time of Donaghy. Can you imagine if Chris Webber and Mike Bibby had their own podcast during the infamous Kings-Lakers series of 2002? Nowadays, if the NBA players sense something’s up, they don’t need to rely on a local reporter to decide what’s fit for print. They can just hit Record.
Also, it shouldn’t be lost on you that Iguodala, Turner and Arenas alleged that referees corrupt the integrity of the game on a podcast sponsored by Underdogs Sports, a betting/fantasy company that is currently launching sportsbooks around the country. It’s almost impossible to find sports brands that aren’t partnered with gambling outfits, whether it’s ESPN, Yahoo!, the Washington Wizards or my own Basketball Illuminati podcast. To be honest, I don’t quite know what to make of this, just noting that this is the current state of doing business in sports.
It’s very much a problem that players are convinced that games are fixed, even if they’re not. Integrity is essential for everyone to feel like they’re playing, watching or handicapping a fair game. If players continue to lose that trust and loaf through games with a cynical detachment, the whole thing falls apart.
Or at least I thought so. For all the accusations levied in the segment, the most revelatory moment for me had little to do with the officiating. After airing their referee grievances, Iguodala and Turner came to an understanding that, as long as salaries and franchise values keep skyrocketing, everybody has a financial incentive to hush up and keep it moving.
It was pointed out on the show that Iguodala could speak freely now that he’s not under contract. Like LeBron and the Netflix doc, it’s much easier to consider the darker side of the game while lounging on a faraway beach in retirement. I can’t help but wonder: if someone inside had real evidence games were truly rigged, would they rock the boat? It’s not encouraging when players have already accepted the perception that games are fixed and everyone keeps rowing in the same direction, taking their millions and memories with them. Maybe Iguodala put it best: “You’ve got to play along, you’ve got to play the game.”