The National Basketball Association playoffs start this weekend and I have it on good authority that they’re fixed for the New York Knicks to win.
What’s that you say? The Knicks aren’t in the playoffs and haven’t been since 2004? Oh well, never mind. Maybe I misheard and they’re fixed for the L.A. Lakers to win.
The idea that the NBA pulls the strings to facilitate a predetermined outcome in its playoffs—and instructs its game officials to tailor their foul calls accordingly— was strongest when the Knicks were serious contenders, but it never goes away entirely. It’s a full-blown urban legend, right up there with the giant white alligators in the New York sewer system and the fiends who booby-trap kids’ trick-or-treat candies at Halloween. You’d think that the every-day realities of big-city life would be scary enough, but apparently they aren’t.
Like all legends, the one about the NBA’s “fixed” playoffs has a plausible base. The nation’s largest metropolitan areas have the most TV sets, so it follows that success by their hoops representatives would translate into higher TV ratings, more profits for the networks that carry the games and, ultimately, bigger rights fees for the league.
It’s credibility is heightened by the nature of play in the NBA, which has become so physical that most contact between players necessarily goes unwhistled. Some fouls (such as palming the ball on the dribble) rarely are called and others (3 seconds in the free-throw lane) are called only intermittently, and when a dribbler and defender collide it’s often unclear whether it’s a charge or a block. Either way the call goes someone is likely to have a beef, and it’s tempting to ascribe ones that go against your team to ulterior motives. That tendency is underlined when coaches and players berate the officials off-court, as is their wont at playoff time.
But a “fix” that would involve the NBA’s entire, 67-person officials’ roster, plus a half-dozen administrators? Please. It’s tough enough to keep a secret involving just you and me without cluing in 70 other guys. If Nixon and Clinton had kept that in mind they could have ended their presidential terms more gracefully.
Notions of a “fix” also commonly occur when the sport of horse racing is fresh in mind, as it always is at this time of year as the Kentucky Derby nears. Last year’s Derby was won by Mine That Bird, a truly outlandish 50-to-1 shot, and when this blog expressed shock over that overcome I got a call from a reader eager to chasten me for my naivete.
“Wake up, Klein! The race was fixed for Mine That Bird to win,” the guy said.
“How do you figure that?” I inquired.
“Everyone loves it when long shots win big races. It’s great for the sport,” he replied.
I pointed out to him that the racing odds are set by the public’s wagers and that when a horse goes off at 50-to-1 he carries only 2% of the betting pool. That means that when he wins roughly 98% of the bettors lose, hardly a formula for widespread happiness. I also noted that a fixed race requires the connivance of the other competitors, and asked what motive they might have had to forego a chance at the $1.2 million winner’s share of the $2 million Derby purse so a long shot could make a one-day headline.
I can’t recall the guy’s exact response, but it was dismissive. “Don’t bother me with facts when I’m arguing,” he said, in effect.
Fact is, though, that for all the “fix” talk you hear bandied about involving big-time American professional sports, darned little of it has much basis in fact. Steroids aside, baseball has been “clean” since the Black Sox scandal of almost a century ago, and it’s been 64 years since “fix” rumors (unproved, involving the 1946 championship game) scarred pro football. NBA ex-ref Tim Donaghy spent 15 months in prison for fixing games in 2006 and 2007, but his treason was a first and by all accounts it served to benefit no one but himself.
And while it would be genuinely naïve to think there never has been any other hanky panky involving the above activities, much less horse racing—never say “never”—even dedicated conspiracy theorists can find a bright side. I mean, for all they know, the games could be fixed for their teams to win.