Ron Agostini

Doubt will always be there

Starting today, Tim Donaghy is to the NBA what Benedict Arnold was to the fledgling union.

Donaghy the disgraced official became Donaghy the convict after pleading guilty to two felony charges Wednesday. He admitted that he fed inside information to professional gamblers in December 2006, and when they won, they paid him. Donaghy also bet on games in which he officiated, another world-class no-no.

Which makes him a turncoat, a betrayer of the public trust. If you compromise the integrity of the final score — sports' most precious commodity — you might as well fold the entire operation and take up crochet.

Donaghy faces a possible 25 years in prison. The next game he works will be San Quentin vs. Terminal Island. By the way, Donaghy likes San Quentin by 6.

If I'm king of the world, Donaghy serves a maximum sentence. He must become the cautionary tale, the living example for what happens to rogue refs, before the NBA restores its credibility.

For the NBA, however, its sentence could be longer than Donaghy's. The aftermath of this, the worst scandal in the history of the league, will transcend the wrongdoing of a single bad actor.

Remember, we've reached only Phase 1 of "Scandal: When David Stern's Party Ended." The feds haven't yet disclosed what they've heard from Donaghy, gambler James "Baba" Battista and another jailed associate, Thomas Martino.

The questions are endless: Are other officials involved (so far, not likely)? Since Battista was moving and shaking many small sums of money to avoid detection and not affect the point spread, whose cash was this? Are mafia families involved? Did Donaghy's specific calls determine who won in Las Vegas and on the court?

The dirt will be found in the details, folks, and we've only started on this sewer-infested path. Before it's done, I think Stern, the commissioner since 1984, will turn in his own whistle. His smooth talk can't cover such mountains of slime. Clearly, the league hasn't done a good enough job of vetting its officials, and Stern must take the hit.

The league has grown into a money machine during his watch, but honesty is priceless. Stern must retire and let the league press "restart," especially if the Donaghy mess grows tentacles.

Betting expert RJ Bell has reported that during the first 15 games called by Donaghy in 2006-07 that had big-enough action to move the spread by at least 1.5 points, the bettors were a perfect 15 for 15 against the Las Vegas line. The odds of such a trend are 32,768-to-1.

And for those who think one official can't affect a game's outcome, think again. In the last two seasons, Bell discovered that 14 games worked by Donaghy were decided by a basket or less. And 13 games officiated by him fell within a single point of the spread.

Which brings us to another sad reality: Everything is in play — all the so-called "conspiracy theories," the belief that the officials slant their calls from player to player, from week to week and from team to team.

Donaghy wasn't at the Staples Center during Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, when the Sacramento Kings — according to many fans and much of the media — weren't allowed to close out the Lakers. Here were the Lakers, fighting desperately to stretch the series to Game 7, trailing at halftime. And then, like manna from the sky, they shot 27 free throws to the Kings' 9 in the fourth quarter. The Kings deserved to lose Game 7, but that's not the point. Were they given a fair chance to apply the KO in Game 6?

The Donaghy case sheds fresh light on all suspicious stories, and every team will open its portfolio. Incredibly, some good might result from the fallout. Stern's dalliance with Las Vegas — remember the recent All-Star Game? — crashes and burns. Hilmar will receive an NBA franchise before Sin City. The league also will review and remodel everything from how they select officials to how they investigate in-house.

More important, however, is how we react to Donaghy and the entire culture of cheating in today's sports world. Not to go too Pollyanna here, especially in the NBA, where $50 billion is bet each each year, but Donaghy sounds a five-alarm bell regarding society's skewed approach to our beloved games.

I mean, can we ever watch another majestic home run without wondering, "Is he juiced?" When we witness a record-breaking 100-meter dash, will our first words be, "Is it real?" When the pulling guard makes a crushing block, will we wonder, "Is he on the stuff?" When an NFL ref incorrectly enforces some obscure rule and changes the course of an entire season, will our first thought be, "Fix!"?

And when an NBA official calls a charge instead of a block and settles the outcome with 30 seconds to go, will we accept it or think he's on the take?

That's the price we'll pay for Tim Donaghy.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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