The NBA begins its season this week under a cloud bigger than any since 1980, when the Los Angeles Times opined that 75 percent of the league's players had experimented with cocaine. That the Times could not prove its assertion was irrelevant; the league lived with the perception -- and the resulting damage -- for years.
This season brings the bookends of Tim Donaghy's disgrace and Madison Square Garden's shame.
Donaghy, a referee for 13 seasons until he resigned this summer, confessed in July to providing inside information about officiating crews to mobsters, as the NBA discovered it knew next to nothing about how much gambling had infiltrated its ranks, not to mention that its background checks were useless.
The high tide stemming from Donaghy was finally ebbing when Cablevision, the parent company of the New York Knicks, insisted against all common sense to go ahead with a civil trial brought by a former high-ranking female employee instead of writing an admittedly sizable check to make her go away.
The resulting trial was an embarrassment, with team employees, including coach Isiah Thomas, disclosing sexual and racial epithets hurled around the Garden on a seemingly daily basis. Then there was the team intern, detailing sexual romps in the backseat of star guard Stephon Marbury's SUV.
Remember the good old days, when a lockout and a dull, ratings-killing Finals were David Stern's biggest worries? The commish said in a national conference call with reporters Thursday that this offseason was par for the course.
Stern insists Donaghy was a rogue. But an internal review found that about half of the league's 56 referees had engaged in some sort of small-level gambling during the last few years -- lotteries, betting pools and the like.
Knowing it would be hard to find 28 new refs on short notice -- or deal with wrongful-termination lawsuits -- Stern wisely decided not to issue any punishments and announced several referee-related changes in league policy.
As far as the Knicks go, Stern said he had to wait until the $11.6 million judgment for Anucha Browne Sanders went through the appellate process before he could step in.
"Also, how shall I say this, what went on there is not without context," he said last Thursday. "I'm sure you wouldn't want to prematurely judge it. So that's my concern. And I recognize that there are people who are going to, and have, called me to task for that."
And with that, we consider the season at hand. When last we looked, the Spurs had throttled LeBron James' Cavaliers to win their fourth title in eight years. The only thing left to do is repeat.
But it will not be easy for San Antonio, for, as always, the real contenders for the championship are almost all out West.
Dallas, winner of 67 regular-season games last year -- and loser in the first round to Golden State -- is singularly motivated.
So is Phoenix, still angry that the league suspended Amare Stoudemire for the critical Game 5 of the Suns' conference semifinal with San Antonio for coming mere steps off the bench as an altercation between Steve Nash and Robert Horry escalated.
Utah, Denver and Houston are capable of 50-plus wins, and the Warriors proved their helter-skelter style of play can go deep into the postseason.
Then there is Kobe Bryant, who wants out of Los Angeles. The Lakers will likely accommodate him, and, if they get off to a slow start, maybe sooner than later. (The realistic guess? One more year for Bryant in Los Angeles, filling Jerry Buss' coffers, followed by a Summer of '08 deal east. Bet cash on Chicago.)
We'll say all but Golden State from the above list will make the postseason, with the Hornets getting in ahead of the Warriors.
In the East, all the talk is about the Celtics' acquisition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but Boston's depth will be a season-long question mark. Detroit and Chicago are still the cream of the conference crop, with the Pistons' infusion of youth potentially balance-tipping.
The Nets, Raptors and Wizards will battle Boston on the conference's second tier, with Cleveland a question mark until the status of contract holdouts Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic is resolved.
Figure Miami holds off Indiana and the Knicks for the last playoff berth and gets throttled again in the first round. But the Heat may have significant cap room next summer, which would make them the destination of choice for almost every rising free agent.