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The NBA Is Saying "Trust Us." Should We?
Gambling is a big revenue stream -- it's also a ticking time bomb.
Have you seen The MSG Sphere in Vegas yet? Brought to you by the folks who own the New York Knicks, it became a mesmerizing 250-foot tall hot-orange spinning basketball stamped with the NBA’s logo with 580,000 square feet of LED lights on the exterior. If you wanted to get the VR experience without the clumsy goggles, that’s The Sphere.
As luck would have it, MSG flicked on the light switch to the $3 billion stadium just as the NBA’s 30 teams and hundreds of media members descended upon the gambling capital of the world for NBA Summer League. As far as marketing gimmicks go, this was a jaw-dropping, Instagram-sticky slam dunk by the league.
Welcome to Planet NBA. I couldn’t help but notice the symbolism. It’s almost an unthinkable sight for long-time NBA observers – Planet NBA in the once-forbidden universe of Sin City.
“Over my dead body will Las Vegas ever get a team with legalized sports betting there,” longtime NBA Commissioner David Stern reportedly told Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman in 1999.
The NBA’s relationship with Vegas was combative well after that. As recently as 2012, the NBA vehemently argued that legalized sports betting would “irreparably harm” the league’s covenant with fans. Stern fought vigorously against New Jersey’s bid to create its own Las Vegas and legalize sports betting, writing to the court that, “the NBA cannot be compensated in damages for the harm that sports gambling poses to the fundamental bonds of loyalty and devotion between fans and teams.”
Today, Stern’s protests seem quaint. Las Vegas Summer League doesn’t just function as the NBA’s summer playground, and one of the league’s premiere marketing events. It represents a future.
The NBA pulled a u-turn over the past decade. In 2014, Adam Silver wrote the groundbreaking op-ed in the New York Times that called for the federal ban on sports gambling to be lifted. Noticing the changing winds, NBA franchise owners Michael Jordan, Mark Cuban and Ted Leonsis invested tens of millions in gambling-adjacent businesses. But it wasn’t until the Supreme Court lifted the federal prohibition in 2019, the NBA’s gold rush had begun in earnest.
The league quickly forged lucrative partnerships with just about every big-name sports gambling house in America (the MGM Resorts partnership alone reportedly fed more than $25 million into league coffers). Following the lead of Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals owner Leonsis, four NBA teams have opened sports books inside their arenas, allowing ticketed fans to live bet the games and sit within arm’s reach of the action.
A study by the American Gaming Association estimated that the NBA would make up to $585 million annually in sports betting revenues. With sports betting and a booming TV deal on the horizon, franchise values skyrocketed in 2014. The Charlotte Hornets, which Jordan bought for $275 million in 2010, was sold for a reported $3 billion. Wall Street’s sharpest minds would dream of a 10x return during a period in which the S&P 500 rose by 5x.
This is how we get from "over my dead body" to "step right up and place your bets!" Billions of dollars have seemingly washed away Stern’s early concerns. Whatever potential there was for malfeasance a decade ago has miraculously evaporated. The NBA’s big bet is that by bringing illegal sports gambling into a regulated marketplace, the bad actors will scatter like cockroaches in a newly-lit room.
From where I sit, the potential for corruption and interference by dark forces hasn’t been eradicated simply because everyone’s swimming in money. Referee operations rife with cronyism and nepotism, the vagaries of the load management era and shadowy intel networks among power brokers have left the league vulnerable to lurking wrongdoers. There are conflicts upon conflicts upon conflicts. And it's not even just the conflicts -- but the mere perception of conflicts. This is why the level of trust that exists among both insiders and outsiders is still woeful.
Over the past few years, I’ve been tracking the referee system and I’m not sure the NBA is ready for the close-up. I’m bringing this to your attention now because of the rapid infusion of gambling money in the sports marketplace. You’d have a hard time finding an entity in sports or sports media – including the outlet that publishes my NBA podcast Basketball Illuminati – that doesn’t have some level of partnership with one of the leading gambling outfits.
You don’t have to dig deep to see the warning signs. There was the Tim Donaghy referee betting scandal of 2007 that went undetected, for years, under the NBA’s watch – despite Stern proudly declaring that referees were “the most ranked, rated, reviewed, statistically analyzed and mentored group of employees of any company in any place in the world.”
Rather than flush out any and all ties to Donaghy, the NBA’s referee system that fostered the scandal has, in many ways, strengthened its nepotistic and crony ties to the biggest corruption scandal of the four major American sports. For instance, Donaghy was one of four NBA referees who attended Cardinal O’Hara high school outside Philadelphia. Two of those alums, longtime referees Joey Crawford and Duke Callahan, have been promoted into corporate managerial roles in the NBA’s referee ops. What’s more, one of the league’s longest-tenured and most-trusted officials, Scott Foster, was so close to Donaghy he asked him to be the godfather of one of his children. And that’s before we get to the call logs.
Those all-in-the-family ties have helped fuel the “The NBA is rigged” narrative that was once reduced to the fringes of NBA fandom. Cynicism is now baked into the mainstream conversation, a cultural pivot that helped inspire the tongue-in-cheek creative behind our Basketball Illuminati podcast. Today’s NBA fan knows Foster as The Extender due to “his perceived habit of purposely making bad calls in order to extend playoff series.” That’s the fourth line of Foster’s biography on Wikipedia.
The implication, of course, is that Foster is a company man who does the league’s bidding by adding lucrative playoff games to the NBA’s bottom line. It’s one thing for the delightful No Dunks crew to crack their jokes about Foster The Extender, but another when the nickname is being touted by sportsbook affiliates and gambling media outlets themselves.
For decades, it's been taken as an article of fact that the Michael Jordans of the world have benefited from superstar calls. In perhaps the most acute demonstration of this type of favoritism, the NBA Referee union issued a prepared statement apologizing over an error that hurt LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, saying it would “cause sleepless nights” in the referee group. When the Lakers promptly received a disproportionate number of foul calls over the rest of the season, it was seen by many as the referees reconciling their debts.
The players are believers, too. After a lopsided free throw disparity against the Lakers, Pacers point guard Tyrese Haliburton quipped, “What was the tweet? Sleepless nights?”
The perception of impropriety doesn’t exist only in the neurosis of jilted fans or players. What does it say about trust in the NBA’s referee ops when franchise owners routinely let loose on officials and teams leak to reporters the claim that referees stole a Finals appearance? It’s difficult to argue that fans fabricate the boogeyman of cheating refs when the calls are coming from inside the house.
Fighting against the tide, the NBA has poured millions of dollars into propping up the league’s dedication to integrity. Someone’s gotta foot the bill for the 94 HD televisions in the NBA’s Replay Center. Yes, the review process has been strengthened with analytics and official reviews of challenged calls are posted on the league’s official website. Beginning in 2015, the league publicizes daily Last 2 Minute Reports which reveal internal reviews of calls made – and not made – by its officials. The NBA overarching message: trust us.
But front office executives and coaches have long rolled their eyes at the attempt at transparency. When the league touts the referees’ 90 percent accuracy rate, insiders point out the inherent conflict of interest when employees are tasked with assessing their bosses calls, a process akin to students grading their own tests. Furthermore, as coaches and players constantly go through roster churn due to lacking performance, team execs wonder when the last time an NBA referee was let go for the same (more on that another day). It’s a running joke around the league that the only person on Earth who has more job security than a Supreme Court justice is an NBA referee.
Subscribers to The Finder will be introduced to these stories, and this is the opening foray into referee operations. Red flags that will be uncovered here at The Finder in the coming days should raise your antenna. I’ll tease one example.
A while back, I decided to map every NBA referee and track where they went to college. Did any of them overlap with NBA stars? I thought that might be an interesting thread to pull on. I wondered if the NBA would ever let those officials work those games when they share an alma mater with a star player.
Turns out there were. Two overlaps in particular caught my eye back in the 2016-17 season: James Harden’s Arizona State and Kawhi Leonard’s San Diego State. Longtime official Billy Kennedy went to ASU while two officials Bill Spooner and Rodney Mott attended Leonard’s San Diego State.
I was curious: Did the San Diego State refs, Mott or Spooner, ever work a Leonard game? I pulled up the game logs and scanned for the referees in the box scores.
You know that scene at the end of Usual Suspects, the one when Detective Palminteri drops his coffee mug once he realizes the true identity of Keyzer Soze? That was me when I saw that the officials on an April 17, 2017 playoff game between the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies: Bill Spooner, Dan Crawford and Rodney Mott.
That’s right: the NBA put not one, but two San Diego State alums on a Kawhi game. That wasn’t just any old basketball exhibition. That was the infamous “Take That For Data” game, the one in which Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale famously unleashed an explosive postgame rant blasting officials.
Fizdale’s chief complaint? Leonard, who scored a playoff-career-high 37 points, tallied more free throws than the entire Memphis Grizzlies team.
This seems like a pretty easy landmine for the NBA referee ops to navigate around. In fact, Referee Magazine once listed its conflicts of interests to avoid for officials.
The No. 1 on the list?
With so much at stake, the NBA didn’t see a glaring conflict of interest of having two alumni on the star’s game. Whether Mott and Spooner actually conspired to give Leonard the game of his life is not necessarily the point (good luck proving that). The NBA either didn’t realize they were doing it or didn’t mind having a blatant appearance of impropriety. Does the NBA realize how bad it smells? By putting those guys on the game, the NBA opened the door and invited the possibility of conspiracy into the consciousness of NBA fans (Subscribers can expect the full deep dive inside the Take That For Data game in the coming days).
As owners, teams and players regularly voice their concerns about officiating, it’s clear that the waters of the NBA are already contaminated. But the NBA keeps chugging along. In one of the NBA’s most bizarre officiating moments in NBA Finals history, all three ESPN/ABC broadcasters — two of the them, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, have since been laid off — were aghast at the referee decisions at the end of Game 5 in June regarding Jimmy Butler’s phantom 3-shot foul. Their colleague at ESPN, Kendrick Perkins, echoed their sentiment on Twitter and said the quiet part out loud. The former NBA champion had seen enough, calling for commissioner Adam Silver to take action on the refs. Keep in mind, ESPN is a league partner.
The scars of the Tim Donaghy scandal haven’t healed. Time and time again, the league can’t seem to avoid scoring own-goals. Perkins’ above reference to “Burner Accounts” was one of them. Just before the Finals, the league were forced to remove Eric Lewis, a longtime NBA referee, from the Finals roster after he was mired in an investigation over an unauthorized Twitter burner account that, at times, took issue with Lakers fans. Lewis was the same referee involved in the “sleepless nights” Lakers-Celtics game on national TV. (LeBron couldn’t believe the connection either).
It’s my opinion that trust in the NBA’s referee system has never been lower but I also worry that everyone’s blinded by green. With billions at stake, it stands to reason that the NBA would be incentivized to root out any corruption -- or even a perception of corruption -- that could suck Planet NBA into a black hole.
Which brings me back to Las Vegas. I should point out that the NBA did attempt a Vegas dry run in 2007 for the NBA All-Star Game. “It was a disastrous weekend,” cried the mayor. At one point, during the media blitz leading up to the game, David Stern went on a local radio show and bristled at the host asking if the commish was worried about a point-shaving scandal.
“I'm not worried about games being fixed, and I’m surprised you asked the question,” Stern barked back.
Six months later, the Donaghy scandal erupted. Stern called it the worst thing that could happen to a professional sports league. Fifteen years later, as the NBA dives head first into gambling as its newest revenue stream, it appears critically blind to conflicts of interest that fester under its nose.