LOS ANGELES (AP) -Jack Nicholson and the rest of the beautiful people had barely settled into their courtside seats, and already four Boston starters had been whistled for fouls. The Lakers had an early lead and Kobe Bryant had a free pass to the free throw line, just like the conspiracy theorists had predicted all day long on sports talk radio.
On an ordinary night in the NBA, no one outside the bookies in Las Vegas would have given it much thought. The rest of us have long since accepted the role the home court advantage plays in professional basketball and the inherent power that NBA referees have to change games with their whistles.
This, of course, was no ordinary night. This was Game 3 of an NBA finals that was supposed to be a celebration of all that is good and right with the league.
It was a night to see and be seen. A night to celebrate the inevitable beginning of a comeback by the home team in front of Tinseltown's finest.
Not a night to admit what is becoming increasingly apparent - that the NBA has an image problem magnified at the worst possible time by events both on the court and in a court.
Commissioner David Stern wasn't about to do that, even as he stood deep in the bowels of the Staples Center an hour or so before the game to answer questions that had nothing to do with the championship series and everything to do with the integrity of a league where games can be decided at the whim of three guys who have never dunked a ball.
A few hours earlier, the lawyer for disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy had leveled perhaps the strongest allegations ever made against a professional league in this country by claiming a 2002 NBA playoff series was rigged to go to seven games and that a 2005 series also was manipulated.
In a letter filed in federal court, Donaghy's attorney also claimed the NBA routinely encouraged refs to ring up bogus fouls to manipulate results and discouraged them from calling technical fouls on star players.
Stern dismissed the allegations as nothing more than a desperate attempt by Donaghy to win a lighter sentence after admitting to taking cash from gamblers and making bets on games himself. Stern repeatedly referred to him as a convicted felon who would say anything and do anything to avoid as much prison time as possible and said the league has nothing to hide.
``He picks his spots. He figures the NBA finals, game in LA, I'll file it today and then all you guys will come running in breathlessly to see whether there's something new that the NBA should respond to from a convicted felon who really violated probably the most sacred trust in sports,'' Stern said.
Stern was right about the timing, and the letter was filed in court with no evidence backing up the allegations. But he was just as wrong when in the next breath he said he was not terribly concerned about the charges.
``Why should I be worried?'' he asked.
Here's a good reason: Because perception doesn't lag far behind reality, and the perception among a lot of basketball fans is that the NBA controls a lot more that happens in its games than the league would ever admit.
The idea that Stern and his minions would gather behind closed doors and order referees to make the 2002 series between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings go seven games to make the teams some more money seems laughable, but the way NBA games are officiated it only feeds the conspiracies.
Has anyone figured out what a foul really is in the NBA, or why the team playing at home usually seems to get the best of them?
Even before the latest Donaghy allegations, the chat on talk radio was about the 38-10 edge the Celtics had in Game 2 at the free throw line, and the 13 free throws in 14 minutes by seldom-used reserve Leon Powe. The consensus was the referees would make it up to the Lakers at home, and sure enough the home team shot 20 of the first 22 free throws.
Were the Lakers suddenly that much more aggressive than the Celtics? Did Nicholson glaring from behind his shades prompt the referees to give the Lakers more calls?
Again, who knows. But to the conspiracy sorts, it certainly seems suspicious.
Lakers' coach Phil Jackson certainly fueled much of the talk when he complained about the officiating in Boston. But Jackson also offered an idea before Tuesday's game that made some sense.
Separate the referees from the league, he said, and make them a separate entity. That way there can be no claims that anything they do is influenced by the people who sign their paychecks.
``But I don't think that's going to happen,'' Jackson said. ``That's just a want and desire in the area of having everything apart from the NBA that can be apart from the NBA.''
Stern isn't likely to give control of the referees away. But in a league where the fortunes of teams can be changed on a referee's whim, he might work on making what they do as transparent to fans as possible.
Because admit it or not, the NBA has an image problem.
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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org

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