Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am

It has always seemed laughable how conspiracy theorists have inherently gravitated towards the NBA. They don't trust the corporate behemoth the league has become.

They accuse commissioner David Stern and his minions of doing everything from fixing the NBA draft lottery to manipulating the referees in order to quench the league's insatiable thirst for higher TV ratings and, inevitably, more money.

Personally, I always found it pretty funny. But after the events of this past week, it's not so funny any more. A dubious ruling by Stern and his chief disciplinarian, Stu Jackson, turned what should have been a showcase play-off series between the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs into a disreputable fiasco that may taint the league for a long time. A totally uncalled-for cheap shot from the Spurs' Robert Horry sent the Suns' all-world point guard, Steve Nash, tumbling out of bounds near the end of a game-four victory that tied the series for the Suns.

Two of Nash's teammates instinctively and passively strolled over to see how he was and were subsequently suspended for one game a piece for leaving the bench. The two players were first-team all-star Amare Stoudemire and fellow starter Boris Diaw. Meanwhile Horry, who is a role player at best, was suspended two games for his actions. The bottom line is that an undermanned Suns team lost game five at home in the final seconds to the Spurs before losing game six and the series in San Antonio.

The Suns are clearly the most entertaining team in the NBA and having them on the sidelines will now make the rest of the play-offs a yawn fest. Of course, if you are a basketball fan it is hard to dismiss this fact so easily and this is where I am at right now.

The Spurs are a team who play brilliant defence and should they meet the Detroit Pistons in the finals, a situation that now seems highly probable, it will likely be a low-scoring and ugly affair. And I could care less.

At the end of the day, I'm not even sure the NBA wants or needs fans like me any more. They want critical consumer mass, the type of fans who go 'ooh' and 'aah' when some bimbo in the dancing team makes a free throw during a break in the action and will buy more NBA merchandise while being oblivious to some of the poor basketball being played.

This is consistent with their philosophy and I can live with that. But what I can't live with is the inconsistencies that permeate the NBA, the same type of inconsistencies that have so many wondering about how fair the NBA is.

Stern is an unusually forceful and efficient commissioner who is largely responsible for the growth of the game.

He is also largely responsible for the corporate culture of the league and has arrived at a position where he seems to be beyond reproach.

A few years back when an ugly incident between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers spilled into the stands, Stern issued a number of harsh suspensions. He was asked who decided the suspensions and he replied without hesitation that he did and it appeared he was clearly OK in being both judge and jury.

But when the Spurs, who were obviously the aggressors in odious behaviour throughout the series, stood to gain a huge benefit from their dirty play, well, c'est la vie. Still, Stern is a lawyer and he has made a career out of interpreting rules.

But when he is called on to do the same thing so he can inject some sort of credibility into a woefully unfair situation he throws his hands in the air and says: sorry, rules are rules.

'His decision was heavy-handed and wrong-headed,' Rich Bucher wrote on ESPN.com. 'Rules are meant to be broken when their application fails to execute their purpose. That's why we have judges.'

Stern's unusually emotional and vociferous defence of his actions is proof that there is little doubt the NBA's integrity has been called into question. And this time it goes far beyond the lunatic fringe.

Facing elimination in game six, the Suns staged a furious late rally and for a moment it appeared that the gods of basketball karma had finally awoken.

But there is one thing to remember about the Spurs. Even though they flop, throw cheap shots and whine incessantly, they know how to win and have captured three titles in the last eight years.

If this team were the New York Spurs, every kid in China would be wearing their jersey. But because they are in a small market way down in southern Texas, where they can't even get any ink in state behind the more high-profile metropolises of Houston and Dallas, the Spurs are barely on the radar. After watching their antics the last few weeks, that might not be a bad thing.

It's more than a little ironic that in trying to uphold his league's integrity, Stern openly called it into question. He bristles at the notion that if the Spurs should run the table and win this year, they will somehow be viewed as tainted champions.

Stern is first and foremost a businessman. As commissioner, he is basically chairman of the board.

Like any good chairman he has to make more money for his shareholders, the team owners, who are his true boss. He believes his controversial ruling was all about taking care of business and, when it comes to today's NBA, well, business is king.

While that may be so, sadly it's no longer any of my business. Literally and figuratively.


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