Michael Jordan’s first retirement
What: Jordan’s retirement on Oct. 6, 1993 was not really a retirement, but rather an NBA agreed suspension related to Jordan’s gambling.
Why: On the heels of an unrelated investigation into Jordan’s gambling that turned up empty, the NBA conducted a second investigation following reports during the 1993 playoffs that detailed Jordan’s gambling losses (he was also seen gambling in Atlantic City the night before a game with the Knicks). Fearing damaging publicity and potential huge losses in advertising revenue for both Jordan and the league, the NBA essentially told Jordan to go away and let the potential media storm die before it really began.
How: As the league worked through its investigation and neared its conclusion, rather than release its findings — which would have prompted more digging and independent investigations — Jordan simply retired rather than face suspension and scrutiny for his wrongdoings. Then, four months later, Jordan signed with the Chicago White Sox and played minor league baseball, helping further divert attention away from basketball and gambling.
Case for: Several things don’t add up. Jordan was 30 years old, at the peak of his abilities, and just coming off the third of three consecutive NBA titles. Given his known competitive drive, why would he retire? Jordan’s father was murdered in July of 1993, at the same time more allegations of gambling losses were surfacing. Was there a connection? Jordan announced his retirement just days before the NBA concluded its investigation into his gambling. Not surprisingly, at this point the NBA again found no violation of league rules. Then, during his retirement press conference, when asked about a potential return, Jordan’s answer included a stunningly peculiar condition: “… if David Stern lets me.” Was this a slip indicating that his leaving was Stern’s mandate?
Case against: Many reports have since indicated that Jordan first considered retirement prior to the 1993 season, citing his burnout from two grueling championship runs plus Dream Team and the 1992 Olympics. No matter how big of a problem, Stern would have done everything to keep any gambling-related issues tightly sealed and addressed them while moving forward. There is no way Stern, the most marketing-driven commissioner in the history of professional sports, would have pressed his cash cow to leave the league. In addition, unless this was a 1-on-1 deal between Stern and Jordan, it would have been nearly impossible for others to keep the suspension a secret. And again, despite numerous reporters’ investigations into this theory, no concrete evidence of a suspension or agreement has turned up.
The Lakers and Cetics are meeting for the 11th time in NBA Finals history.
Bottom line: Among all of the conspiracy theories, this one is certainly the juiciest. It has all the makings of a great TV crime drama: the supremely famous and rich yet flawed superstar, a murder, gambling, and a backroom deal. While it was obviously in the NBA’s best interest to quickly diffuse talk of Jordan and gambling, no person involved with the investigations has come forward with evidence of gambling that would have warranted a suspension by the league. The pressure and opportunity for windfall today is too great for secrets such as these to be kept.
What: Calls determined by factors other than on-court situations (e.g., team favoritism, gambling, assisting desired outcomes by the league, etc.).
Why: Naturally, in almost all of these instances, money is the primary reason, either directly for an individual (Tim Donaghy), or indirectly through a more valuable and marketable overall NBA product. Beyond that, allegiances come into play: vendettas against certain teams or players on the parts of referees.
How: In the case of gambling, the scandal involving Donaghy betting on games that he worked obviously relates to a desire to win money, but not necessarily favoring a certain team. Allegations are that Donaghy placed bets on the “over,” or greater than the combined points scored, and influenced this by calling more fouls on average (leading to more free throws and more points) than in games worked by other referees. Theorists believe that some referees don’t call violations against superstars and role players in the same manner. Ditto for home and road teams. Ditto for perceived preferred teams like the Lakers.
Case for: Compelling. Here are just a few: Facing elimination, the Lakers went to the foul line 27 times in the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the 2002 West finals and defeated the Kings by four. Joey Crawford’s ejection last year of Tim Duncan for laughing. Crawford, who also reportedly challenged Duncan to a fight, was suspended. Stern’s letter-of-the-law interpretation in suspending the Suns’ Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for one game in last year’s playoffs for barely leaving the bench area during an altercation against the Spurs. And, most recently, the no-call on Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who banged Brent Barry in the closing seconds of Game 4 against the Spurs.
Case against: More than a thousand games are played each season. Yes, referees make mistakes. Today, however, every mistake is captured on video and analyzed and overanalyzed on TV, radio and the Web. Theorists believe that every mistake is the result of an agenda. If the NBA indeed wanted certain teams to win, why would it ever have allowed a Spurs-Cavs Finals last year? While the NBA was late in developing a systematic evaluation process for referee performance, it’s unlikely now that a referee could consistently make bogus calls and remain in the league.
Bottom line: Contrary to popular belief, referees are human. Some are influenced by outside factors (irate crowds, players with exceptional skills, relationships with coaches, and long histories with some of those relationships). Do these factors contribute to how they call games? In general, probably not. In some cases, however, they do. Ultimately, most players and coaches see referees as one of many variables out of their control that must be overcome. As Chuck Daly, whose Pistons were poised to win the 1988 title in Game 6 before a last-second foul call derailed them, said recently: “When you deserve to win it, you will. I don’t think there are any agendas.”
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