When it comes to the NBA, more and more professional sports handicappers are finding it a risky bet.
It’s been a year since the hoops world found out that Tim Donaghy was nothing more than a wannabe bookie in a gray shirt — gambling on games he officiated and making calls based on spread in the books.
Immediately, the bony fingers of blame pointed to Las Vegas, which is like blaming a brush fire on brush, not the arsonist. Fact is, people shouldn’t worry as much about gambling in the NBA now that we’re in the wake of the Donaghy scandal. They should be worried that the NBA might be losing its credibility with the gambling community.
It’s still not much more than a murmur, but sports bookies are openly taking about the possibility of taking the NBA off the boards. Go into a sports book these days and you’ll hear the talk. “Are you still going to bet on hoops?” “Is it fixed?” “Can we trust the NBA?”
Well-known handicapper Dave Cokin, who also co-hosts the early afternoon program on ESPN Radio 1100 in Las Vegas, doesn’t see the bouncers keeping the NBA out of the sports book, but he still thinks the league needs a good kick of some kind to realize its credibility is at stake.
“I don’t believe there’s any real chance the books will boot the NBA, but I wish they would,” Cokin says. “What a great message that would send.”
Why does it matter if sports gamers abandon the NBA? It’s not like the arenas will go dark because no one puts up money for the Warriors to beat the Suns.
But if the sports books don’t find the NBA credible, it won’t be long before the fans do the same. And without the fans, the arenas will go dark.
The uncertainty of the result is at the heart of why bettor and fan alike love basketball. What’s the use if you already know the result? Or even worse, when people don’t trust the result.
As far as Commissioner David Stern and the rest of the NBA higher-ups are concerned, they want this to go away into a locked cell along with Donaghy. But just when the NBA seemed to isolate this to Donaghy and make him the fall-guy, Donaghy’s rat-like squealing implicated fellow official Scott Foster in the scandal. On top of that, other officials are being investigated by the Feds. Dick Bavetta may have had an easier time beating Charles Barkley in a footrace than he will beating the FBI.
The NBA has been as silent as a verbal playoff history of the Charlotte Bobcats when it comes to just what they’re going to do about Foster. As far as we know, he’ll be right back to calling games in November even while folks are going on YouTube watching his questionable calls and wondering if he threw games.
“The current NBA stance on Foster is dicey,” Cokin says. “They can’t fire him without proof, although the circumstantial documentation is impossible to dismiss.”
And it’s not just betting scandals that have many questioning the league’s officiating. Like something out of the Art Bell show, the NBA has among its fans several conspiracy theorists who say the refs sometimes favor the superstars, will take things out on players they don’t like and even have marching orders from the NBA’s higher-ups to let results go a certain way.
The fact that Donaghy, whether he is a valued source or not, substantiated those fears doesn’t help the League.
But why trust Vegas? The reality is, there isn’t anyone better when it comes to keeping basketball, and sports in general, clean.
With the league likely now to look for an expansion team to go with one to replace the departed Sonics in Seattle, Las Vegas is atop of most lists as Save for a few NFL players in town gobbling up trouble like Pac-Man, it could be argued that Vegas passed its first test with the NBA, not to mention the crowds the city has brought to the NBA Summer League and the USA Basketball exhibitions. Even still, you’ll still hear the cry of “but gambling” after any talk of Vegas landing an NBA team.
“It’s simply a matter of those offering the criticism being ridiculously misinformed and ignorant on the subject,” Cokin says. “Legalized sports wagering is actually the best safeguard any game can have in terms of protecting its integrity.”
A player with a Las Vegas franchise is not going to have much success if they have a runner make a $10,000 bet that they score less than 20 that night, then deliberately do so. For one, NBA salaries these days make the potential winnings a drop in the bucket. For another, warning bells would immediately go off at the book itself, which would in turn inform the gaming commission, who would in turn inform the FBI, which would in turn likely mean the end of that player’s career.
It’s not a coincidence that just about all of sports’ betting scandals of the last few decades — from the Arizona State basketball game fixing, to Pete Rose to Donaghy — occurred through illicit bookies away from Vegas, but it was usually Vegas sports book informants who tipped off the Feds.
Las Vegas casinos are too big and have a quarterly bottom-line no different than a corporation. Their sports books would have little to gain from a quick boost by fixing a game, and a lot to lose from the aftermath. If the games aren’t clean, neither is Vegas. And you won’t find any manager of a sports book looking to be anything but squeaky clean.
The “but gambling” cry seems even sillier when you consider the proliferation of Native American casinos nationwide. Many NBA franchises play within miles of legalized gambling. One WNBA team — the Connecticut Sun — calls an Indian casino’s arena their home court.
Then there’s the proliferation of fantasy leagues, most of which charge a fee and have a cash prize. What’s the difference hoping a player gives them “fantasy points” so they can win money from someone making moo-la off their performance in Vegas?
When Las Vegas says that the NBA may be becoming too dirty for their dealers’ hands, people should start listening. Of course, there are still plenty who think that nothing is ever going to come of the NBA officiating scandal.
Chris Reed is a journalist based in Henderson, Nev., on the outskirts of Las Vegas. You can follow him on FriendFeed and Twitter.