Hiring a two-star general to supervise five dozen referees might sound like overkill to some, but not NBA commissioner David Stern. From where he sits, anyone or anything who could put an end to the persistent whispers that some of his league's games are - how should we put this? - manipulated can't begin work soon enough.
People who read only the headline on Tuesday's announcement could amuse themselves by imagining the general named to the newly created post, senior vice president of referee operations, was none other than Bob Knight. But no. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Ronald L. Johnson, who reports for NBA duty Wednesday morning, trails Knight by miles as far as basketball expertise is concerned, but he takes a back seat to no one in his knowledge of disasters.
Johnson put in 32 years of service as a combat engineer and was commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers in the Gulf Region from 2003-04, overseeing $18 billion of reconstruction in Iraq. A few years earlier, he commanded the 130th Combat Engineer Brigade in Bosnia. With disgraced referee Tim Donaghy set for sentencing in two weeks and the league scheduled to release the results of an internal investigation sometime after that, Johnson's experience could turn out to be very relevant.
No one calls in the army when things are going well, but that's exactly what Stern insists he's doing. The commissioner believes there's very little that can be done to improve referees' performance on the floor, but plenty in how that performance is received. So while he praised Johnson's engineering background and his mastery of systems analysis, processes and operations, what he liked most about his new hire were Johnson's leadership and communication skills.
``Our referees are the best in the world,'' Stern said in a statement, ``but they never stop striving to improve and Ron has made a career out of getting the very best out of people.''
Stern is right, mostly, about his referees. They're the equal of officials in any sport, and because the dimensions of the court weren't laid out with players of the size, strength and speed of the current generation in mind, theirs is the toughest to call.
That's one reason warmed-over conspiracy theories about NBA games being rigged never completely die - though to be sure, Donaghy's guilty plea last August to felony charges that he accepted payoffs to provide inside information and steer gamblers toward games to bet on didn't help. Nor did his claims that fellow referees and league executives engaged in similar shenanigans.
Whether investigators found proof of any further misconduct remains to be seen, but with the case effectively closed, Donaghy is the only person charged with a crime. In a court filing last week, prosecutors argued Donaghy exaggerated his cooperation in hopes of lessening his prison term. Stern has rarely passed up an opportunity to bash Donaghy and belittle those claims - he raised those issues three days straight during the NBA finals - but he's barely made a dent in the perception held by a surprisingly large segment of the public.
Johnson will assume those duties beginning Wednesday, when he conducts a round of media interviews. The NBA higher-ups from Stern on down understand that a lack of transparency about the officiating system only fuels suspicion. So not only will Johnson be expected to improve and standardize the way the refs' business is run - from recruiting, through training, evaluation and even scheduling; he will be front and center defending the people who work for him when the situation demands it.
``Ron brings personal integrity, an understanding of the importance of rules, as well as the importance of compliance. In that sense, his background puts him in good stead,'' said Joel Litvin, who, as president for league and basketball operations, will be Johnson's boss.
``We don't want to make him a star, insofar as the point of an officiating program is be as invisible as possible. But we do understand we have a perception problem and to that extent, we hope to put a better face on the program. It deserves that much.''
It's worth noting that while the league can't wait for Donaghy to disappear - though he faces up to 25 years in prison, he's likely to serve less than three years under federal sentencing guidelines - the NBA is continuing its full-court press to recover the cost of his salary, airfare, meals, complimentary tickets and even sneakers - $1.4 million in all.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been fined about the same amount for publicly lobbying Stern for better officiating, and that's on top of an undisclosed amount he spent studying referees' behavior. He called Johnson ``the perfect hire.''
``He has experience managing professionals in high-stress situations,'' Cuban added.
Good thing, too, since the referees are hardly the only people in the NBA who are feeling the heat.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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