Tim Donaghy, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant,
Left: Photo by Ronald Martinez /Allsport/Getty Images, Right: Photo by LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP via Getty Images

Is the NBA Rigged? Inside the 2002 Western Conference Finals Game That Birthed a Conspiracy


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We live in a world where conspiracy theories run rampant. More often than not, a conspiracy will pop up and make you question a person's sanity, their grasp on reality and maybe even whether or not you continue to involve them in your life. Conspiracy theories used to be "the moon landing was faked" or "the Denver Airport has underground tunnels." Now, Kyrie Irving thinks the Earth is flat and others think that lizard people are living among us. It's a lot.

But, if there's one conspiracy theory I subscribe to, it's this: at one point in the early 2000s, the NBA was a bit rigged.

I know, I know, it's a lot to take in, but hear me out. In 2002, the Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers were battling in one of the greatest Western Conference Finals the NBA had ever seen. And then in Game 6, things went absolutely haywire. According to a source, that game was fixed and manipulated by two refs on the three-man crew assigned to officiate it.

That source is Tim Donaghy, the disgraced NBA referee who was sent to jail for betting on games he officiated for over four seasons.

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Not the best source, but trust me, he's got a point.

Tim Donaghy: Disgraced NBA Referee

Tim Donaghy stands on court during an NBA Game.

Photo by Ronald Martinez /Allsport/Getty Images

Some professional referees find themselves officiating due to a love of the game or they can no longer play the game they enjoy, but Tim Donaghy was born into officiating. Donaghy's uncle was an NBA ref, while his father worked NCAA games. In his book, "Personal Foul," Donaghy referred to officiating as a "job I was born to do. After four years working in the NBA's developmental league, in 1994, the Pennsylvania-native was called up to the NBA at age 27.

Donaghy would officiate games in the NBA for another eight seasons ahead of the game in question, each one without any sort of doubt that it was a clean game or not. But during that span, Donaghy began to meet up with golfing buddies at his country club and a gambling problem was born. This is the first problem for Donaghy: gambling is against the rules the NBA has for its referees, with the exception of placing wagers on horse racing...for some reason.

At that club, Donaghy cooked up a scheme to place bets on the games he was officiating, working with a friend to place bets one a handful of games. Later that system grew to include multiple people and secret code words that Donaghy would use to tell his collaborators which team to bet their $1 million on. It's horrible, it's wrong and Donaghy would eventually go to prison for 15 months.

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Except here's the problem: that meeting happened after the most famous game Donaghy's been tied to.

In fact, Donaghy wasn't involved at all.

The 2002 Western Conference Finals

Kobe Bryan, Shaquille O'Neal, Mike Bibby, Chris Webber

Left: Photo by LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP via Getty Images, Right: Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

When you ask a fan about horrible officiating, this is the game they'll mention. Why? Because it is quite literally the most controversial professional sporting event in the history of North American sports. With the Sacramento Kings up 3-2 in the series, the Lakers needed to win Game 6 to extend the series. These two teams were absolutely stacked.

This was peak "Kobe Lakers" with Shaquille O'Neal snagging rebounds, Kobe, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher and Robert Horry dishing out assists, the Lakers had a solid lineup for Phil Jackson that helped him win his seventh and eighth NBA Championship rings. This is the Lakers team that would complete Jackson's third three-peat. Spoiler alert: Shaq (NBA Finals MVP), Kobe and Phil got their rings, sweeping the New Jersey Nets in four games.

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But they still had to get to the NBA Finals and are down 3-2 in the series.

The 2002 Sacramento Kings aren't a bunch of slouches either. Chris Webber and Mike Bibby were outstanding for the Kings in the regular season and have been just as good in this series. Add in a supporting cast of European superstars like Vlade Divac, Hedo Turkoglu, Peja Stojakovic and the ever solid Doug Christie, the Kings had some serious magic going on that season.

Looking back, this was the Kings' window to win an NBA Championship. The Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets were done, the Portland Trail Blazers in 200 were all flash and with Michael Jordan no longer forcing the NBA Finals to come through the Chicago Bulls, things were wide open. Unfortunately, the Lakers filled that void quickly. Over the next decade, the Western Conference would be dominated by the San Antonio Spurs Dynasty, the Dallas Mavericks and the Lakers, despite trailing off after this year. This playoff series could have launched Sacramento into a dynasty of their own, but... well, it's pretty clear what's about to happen.

Two teams that seemed destined to advance to the NBA Finals, but only one can win the Western Conference and face off against the winner of the Celtics/Nets ECF matchup.

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After dropping the first game, the Kings came roaring back winning the next two. The Lakers then took the Game 4 by one point, which the Kings then did the same in Game 5, returning the favor. With the series lead now in Sacramento's favor, the Kings were in win-and-in mode. The Lakers needed a little help to even things up.

The Kings held a 56-51 lead at the half, which is when things began to get hairy, according to Donaghy.

Prior to Game 6's tip-off, Donaghy claims in a letter submitted to the judge in his trial, that he learned two of the three officials working the WCF series wanted a Game 7. Donaghy has also stated that the NBA and Commissioner David Stern favored the Los Angeles Lakers, as he wanted a larger market team in the NBA Finals. In order to make sure that happened, the officiating in the fourth quarter became insane.

The Fourth Quarter of Game 6

Mike Bibby and Rick Fox wait for a free throw in the 2002 Western Conference Finals.

Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Phantom fouls, missed calls and gifted free throws happened at an insane rate. Washington Post sportswriter and host of ESPN's "Pardon The Interruption" Mike Wilbon noted that "Kobe Bryant elbowed Mike Bibby in the nose in plain view with the Lakers up by one, but no foul was called on Kobe, even though Bibby lay on the court and then went to the sideline bleeding."

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Wilbon continued, "I wrote down in my notebook six calls that were stunningly incorrect, all against Sacramento, all in the fourth quarter when the Lakers made five baskets and 21 foul shots to hold on to their championship." Wilbon then added that he consulted his mentor David DuPree to see if he could quelled the thoughts of conspiracy and NBA agenda. DuPree's response? "I've been covering the NBA for 30 years, and it's the poorest officiating in an important game I've ever seen."

Wilbon then goes on to discuss how other NBA fans reacted. Some were outraged, some didn't care, but the response that sticks out is one fan who said "we all knew NBC needed a Game 7."

Now, I know I said that conspiracy theories are wild, but this one seems to have legs. But more importantly, why would Tim Donaghy offer this up in his trial for fixing games in the following years? This doesn't help him unless the problem is rampant.

We may never know if this game truly was pushed in the Lakers' favor, but do yourself a favor and watch the final quarter. If anything, you'll get a dose of nostalgia from Turkoglu's frosted tips and get to see some classic NBA action, but I think you'll begin to see the conspiracy in the open.

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David Stern and the NBA have denied these allegations stating, "We welcome scrutiny here. This is something that should be scrutinized," before telling ESPN that Donaghy was a "singing, cooperating witness." The prosecution added, "We've never taken the position that Mr. Donaghy has lied to us. But there is a difference between telling the truth and believing you're telling the truth and finding out later that a number of the allegations don't hold any water."

Donaghy was found guilty to two federal charges and the rest is history. The Los Angeles Lakers would go on to win the 2002 NBA Championship, completing the three-peat. The Sacramento Kings would go in the other direction, making just four playoff appearances in the 20 years that followed.

The three referees responsible for Game 6, Dick Bavetta, Ted Bernhardt and Bob Delaney continued to officiate NBA games, including games in the NBA Playoffs. Years later, Reddit threads still hash out the details of the game, with each commenter varying in their stance on what happened.

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Who to Trust in an Upside Down World

Tim Donaghy, Dick Bavetta, Kobe Bryant

Left: Photo by Ronald Martinez /Allsport/Getty Images, Right: Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Conspiracy theories are normally based on a single shred of possibility and rarely lean on hard tangible evidence. But what happens when the evidence is insurmountable? When there's so much evidence screaming at you to look at what's going on?

Is the NBA rigged? No. If it was, then Michael Jordan would have won a seventh ring with the Washington Wizards. Did the NBA rig the 2002 Lakers vs Kings Western Conference Finals? There's no way to know, but you cannot argue with the fact that three men greatly affected the outcome by the way they controlled the game.

Does that make me a conspiracy theorist? Who's to say. But what doesn't make me a conspiracy theorist is my opinion that officials should enhance the game, not affect it.

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