Building NBA Conspiracy Theories from Scratch

Marshall Zweig@ihavethewriteContributor IIMarch 17, 2013

At the risk of sounding like Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, let me be clear:

I believe Oswald acted alone. I believe Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, not a soundstage. I believe Roswell is nothing more than a hamlet in New Mexico.

But I readily admit there have been more than a few things fishy in the state of Stern.

NBA conspiracies theories abound. Like urban legends, they sound temptingly plausible. There's a reason, though, they're called theories.

If the truth really is out there, perhaps if we build our theories wide enough and wild enough, we'll uncover what that truth really is.

Let's give it a go.


NBA Draft Lottery: The fix is in

This hoary NBA conspiracy theory never seems to die. Perhaps that's because proof of its veracity seems to keep coming in year after year.

Let me break down the video evidence for you.

It all started with the 1985 NBA draft. It's only logical that the league and new commissioner David Stern would benefit from a strong franchise in New York, the nation's largest media market.

Georgetown's once-in-a-generation center Patrick Ewing would surely be selected first, so whichever franchise was lucky enough to have the top pick would immediately vault to contender status.

The Knicks had only the third-worst record, though, and the previous method—a coin flip—would have meant the Knicks had no chance of moving up to No. 1.

How interesting, then, that this was the year the coin toss was eliminated, on what was maybe a trumped-up pretext of avoiding tanking, and replaced by an envelope drawing, which gave the seven non-playoff teams an equal chance of drafting first?

Phase One of Operation Big Apple-Big East: complete.

But now, with seven unlabeled envelopes, how could Stern pull off this nefarious scheme, in broad daylight and live on television, no less?

Two methods have been suggested. The first you can see clearly on the video: the New York envelope has a bent corner. Stern could have felt for the bent corner and, like a grifter running a street con, simply grabbed it with a poker face.

The other strategy is more chilling—literally. Some have suggested that only the New York envelope was put in a freezer prior to the lottery. Instead of feeling for a bent corner, Stern need only to have grabbed the one cold envelope.

And when it warmed up, no evidence would remain—much like Alfred Hitchcock's Lamb To The Slaughter, in which a wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then proceeds to cook the meat and serve it to the investigating detectives.

Far-fetched, you say? Well then, once the NBA went to a ping-pong method, where teams' percentages were weighted based on their finishes, how did all these teams beat the odds?

1992: the Orlando Magic, with the second-best chance, won the lottery and the rights to draft Shaquille O'Neal. The rookie proved to be such an attraction, the league wanted the Magic to succeed, so…

1993: with a 1 percent chance, the Orlando Magic won the lottery for the second time in two years. Any statisticians wanna calculate the odds of that?

2001: with a 15 percent chance, the Washington Wizards won the lottery—just in time to have the No. 1 pick join Michael Jordan as he un-retired for the second time

2008: with a 1.8 percent chance, the big-market Chicago Bulls won the lottery and the right to draft Derrick Rose

2011: with a 2 percent chance, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the lottery and the right to draft Kyrie Irving

2012: with a 14.8 percent chance, the New Orleans Hornets—at the time technically still owned by the NBA—won the lottery and the right to draft Anthony Davis

And consider this: The worst teams have the best percentage of winning the lottery. So why is it that in the 23 drafts between 1990 and 2012, the top two teams with the most ping-pong balls have won the first pick a mere five times?

Don't tell me that's just the way the balls bounce. Statistically, that's suspicious. Or, depending on your perspective, that's iron-clad proof.

If you think it's possible, you're not alone. In a USA Today poll, 83 percent of people either believe or could believe the lottery is fixed.

As Jerry Maguire said, "We live in a cynical world...a cynical world."


The referees are in the league's pockets

OK, so Tim Donaghy wasn't. But the calls and no-calls in some of the league's biggest games during Don David Stern's tenure—or maybe 'reign' is a better term—have ranged from eyebrow-raising to beyond the pale:

Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals: tied at three games apiece, the Portland Trail Blazers led the league-preferred Los Angeles Lakers 73-58 in the fourth quarter. In the last 11 minutes, they were outscored 31-11, with seemingly every call going the Lakers' way, while the Blazers' best two defensive players fouled out.

Game 5 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals: Allen Iverson and the big-market Philadelphia 76ers were playing Ray Allen and the small-market Milwaukee Bucks. Guess which team was hit with two flagrant fouls and a technical?

The 2006 NBA Finals: The Dallas Mavericks and their owner Mark Cuban, who was outspoken in his criticism of the league, were up two games to none, and carried a 12-point lead into the fourth quarter. Suddenly, the Mavs apparently started mugging Dwyane Wade, who for the rest of the series went to the free-throw line more often than Glen Davis goes to the buffet line.

Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and the popular Miami Heat hoist the trophy. Cuban is fined $250,000. Win-win for the league.

Games 1 and 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals: the Boston Celtics were hit with a stunning five technical fouls in the first game, and with 90 seconds remaining in overtime of the second game, Dwyane Wade's foul on Rajon Rondo was a no-call, allowing league MVP LeBron James and his heavily-marketed Heat to waltz into the Finals, where…

Game 2 of the 2012 Finals: Kevin Durant was overtly fouled by James—and how about that: no foul was called. The Heat go on to win the championship.

But I saved the worst for last. If you've never seen Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, watch it—with a vomit bag on hand.

The Lakers, who with Kobe Bryant and Shaq were essentially the face of the NBA, squared up against a terrific Sacramento Kings team. Every game was must-see TV. After five games, the Kings were up 3-2.

Then came Game 6.

Disgraced former NBA referee Donaghy, whose credibility must surely be questioned, said this in an email about the game:

“Sacramento had the best team in the league. But the referees/league didn’t allow the better team to win.”

The game was tied at 75 entering the fourth quarter. Somewhere up in the stands, David Stern must have touched a finger to his nose, because in the final quarter, the Lakers received 27 free-throw attempts, while the Kings got just nine.

In fact, the Kings got 25 free throws in the entire game—two fewer than the Lakers shot in that final frame alone. Even still, the Kings barely lost, falling by a mere four points.

Phantom calls on the Kings. No-calls on the Lakers. It was so blatant, consumer advocate Ralph Nader sent a letter to Stern; Nader said Stern, in his response, "spoke like the head of a giant corporate dictatorship."

Perhaps Kings center Vlade Divac said it best:

“Why don’t they (the refs) just let us know beforehand? We didn’t have a chance to win.”

But the league got what they wanted: a Game 7.

You see, former CBS sports president Neal Pilson says the league cares less about matchups and more about series lengths:

"There is little financial benefit in the matchup of the teams. Ratings are a factor, but the 'conspiracy theory'...has to do with the total number of games. NBC would trade a great matchup that's a sweep in a flash for a bad matchup that goes seven games."

Seems to the NBA, more is more. So in any tightly contested game six, expect more of the same.


Michael Jordan's retirement was really a suspension

This one's a cover-up the likes of which haven't been seen since Fake Paul McCartney.

Michael Jordan's abrupt retirement before the 1994 season was attributed in large part to his grief over the tragic murder of his father. In his retirement press conference, he said he was planning to spend more time with his family.

Really? Where was his family just months later, when he was swinging a bat for the minor-league Birmingham Barons? How come with all this alleged grief, he had no trouble playing baseball? (Well, he had a lot of trouble playing baseball, but you know what I mean.)

Jordan, an admitted gambler, was being investigated by the league for his rampant betting. How odd that just two days before Jordan's retirement press conference, the league announced that their five-month-long investigation into Jordan's gambling had ended without finding anything of significance.

Here's what "really" happened, according to Jordan's gambling was more virulent than anyone suspected. For example, in a 10-day period, he had allegedly lost $1.25 million betting on golf. Jordan was even spotted in an Atlantic City casino in the wee hours of the morning—when that night he had to play in Game 2 of his 1993 playoff series against the Knicks.

After reports of that Atlantic City spotting broke, Stern was questioned by NBC announcer Bob Costas about Jordan's gambling. That, plus an alleged conversation wherein Jordan was heard to say into a phone, "So you say the line is seven points"—indicating he was gambling on sports—led Stern to insist Jordan "retire" to get some help.

As evidence, here's an interesting turn of a phrase from Jordan's retirement presser. Asked about missing the game, Jordan talked about a potential comeback, saying:

"Five years down the line, if the urge comes back, if the Bulls will have me, if David Stern lets me back in the league, I may come back."

Why on earth would Stern not want you back in, Mike? Unless he kicked you out in the first place...

If you think there wasn't a conspiracy here, I got two words for ya:

Wanna bet?


This gives rise to other blatantly obvious conspiracies

• After big men Manute Bol, Shawn Bradley and Yao Ming retired, David Stern paid them both to have children with Amazonian babes Brooke Shields, Uma Thurman and Venus Williams, in hopes of creating the first 8' tall NBA center.

• How come the Lakers are in Los Angeles, where there are no lakes? And don't give me any of that "they moved from Minneapolis" bullcrap.

• Similarly, how come the Jazz are in Utah, when finding a jazz club in Salt Lake City is like finding a Tupac Shakur museum in Alabama? You're gonna tell me there was brand loyalty from their New Orleans days? Uh-huh, right.

• If his name is Metta World Peace, how come he's still so violent? And if his name is Carlos Boozer, how come his breath doesn't smell like MD 20/20? Coincidence? I think not.


You get my point? Like I said up front, I don't really believe in conspiracies. People want the world to be more complex than it really is.

My take on the above conspiracy theories' chances of being true:

Fixed lottery—NAH: You can see the 1985 draft envelope getting bent when it gets tossed into the fishbowl. The lotteries took some strange bounces, but not impossible ones.

Fixed refereeing—SORT OF: Superstars and superstar teams probably have assumptive priority when it comes to fouls, but I'd say it stops short of fixes.

MJ forced into retirement—MAYBE: I adored MJ as a player, I've complimented in this publication his Hall of Fame speech for its honesty and vulnerability, and I believe he deserves the respect of being taken at his word.

That being said, he has admitted to a serious gambling problem, and to hanging out with the wrong kind of people. Plus there is his curious phrase about Stern letting him back in.

Is it possible? Yeah.

But if you ask me, I say he probably got bored of being the best, retired, got bored of retirement, tried to be the best at something else and failed, got bored of not being the best, and came back to the sport he dominated.

Nothing more than that.

Things like the blocked Chris-Paul-to-the-Lakers trade are clearly partisan business decisions. But to me, that's just the icky falseness of capitalism, which falls somewhere short of a conspiracy.

You want to believe in that cloak-and-dagger stuff, feel free. Conspiracies, like the sinners in Billy Joel's song Only The Good Die Young, are a lot more fun than the truth. And who knows: To reference Mr. Joel again, you maybe be right, and I may be crazy.

But trust me or Gerald Posner on this:

Oswald really did act alone.


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