Starr Gazing: Is The Fix In?

There must have been something in the air a few nights ago. Because 3,000 miles apart, in both Boston and Los Angeles, there were very strange--and strangely similar--doings on the basketball court.

Actually, both incidents emanated from slightly off the court, in the kingdom of the high-priced courtside seats. In Boston, a season-ticket holder named Stewart Berg, who apparently has been a serial heckler of Celtics all-star forward Antoine Walker all season, found himself with some particularly good ammunition. In the playoff series against New Jersey, Walker had been pathetic, including back-to-back 3-for-15 shooting nights in losing efforts. With a few minutes to go in the game, Walker responded to Berg's abuse by getting up in his face. Further details of the confrontation will likely be determined in deposition. But the early returns went Walker's way. Security ushered Berg out of the FleetCenter and the Celtics later announced they had revoked his season ticket.

The L.A. fireworks came courtesy of the Lakers' most celebrated fan, Jack Nicholson. It isn't clear whether Nicholson was giving an impromptu plug to his latest movie, "Anger Management," or demonstrating that he was typecast for the role. But in the second quarter of a do-or-die Lakers game against San Antonio, Nicholson took issue with a foul call on Shaquille O'Neal. He rose from his $2,000-a-game courtside seat, stepped out onto the floor and gave referee Mark Wunderlich an earful. Even though Nicholson's was a more grievous violation of accepted boundaries for fans than the Boston incident, Jack never heard a disparaging word from the Staples Center security crew. Hell, he probably would have been given a key to the city if he didn't already have a drawer full.

Now it may not come as a shock that no two people are equal in the starry world of the NBA. And while cutting some slack to Hollywood's favorite actor is pretty innocuous, the implications of such unequal treatment are, of course, fraught with peril. It is widely perceived by fans that the NBA is a league where there are indeed different rules for different players and, just possibly, for different teams, as well. And the Lakers, long the glitteriest team in the league, are widely believed to be the biggest beneficiaries of any unequal treatment.

That perception has spilled out of the fringe world of chatroom, conspiracy fanatics to become pretty much conventional wisdom among mainstream NBA fans. Which is why Thursday's Game 6 against the Spurs, a survival game for the three-time defending champion Lakers, will be scrutinized as carefully as any in memory. Because it was last year, with the Lakers in the very same situation against the Sacramento Kings (though one round further along in the playoffs), that the referees handed L.A. a ticket to three-peat.

In the fourth quarter of last year's Game 6, with L.A. on the ropes, the refs called offensive fouls, touch fouls, phantom fouls, technical fouls and anything else they had up their whistle on the Kings. The Lakers shot 27 freebies in the fourth quarter alone, two more than the Kings, and took the entire game. And the Lakers required all of that to survive. Particularly memorable was a foul in the final seconds on the Kings' Mike Bibby for getting his face in the way of Kobe Bryant's elbow, a call that helped the Lakers secure the victory. There has already been a bit of deja vu this playoff season when the Lakers were struggling in the first round with the Timberwolves. A bunch of dubious calls, including a true phantom that fouled out Minnesota's superstar Kevin Garnett, primed L.A. for victory in Game 3, except that the Lakers self-destructed in overtime.

The conspiracy theorists see it all rather simply. TV is the bread and butter of the NBA (and every other major league), and the Lakers are far sexier than, say, Sacramento or San Antonio where--and I've noticed this shameful fact--there is such a shortage of beautiful people that fat people are actually allowed to sit courtside. Shaq, Kobe, Jack, the Lakers Girls and all the other beautiful people deliver the best ratings that the NBA, in this era of downsized viewing, can possibly hope for.

I don't happen to subscribe to that conspiracy theory (or most of them). I think there are a whole host of less sinister explanations for the favoritism extended the Lakers. For one, Phil Jackson is a master manipulator and that skill extends to referees as well as to players. Furthermore, success breeds expectations to which officials are not immune. Champions strut in a different way and, as a result, even the officials can be swayed to see things in a Laker light (It has long been suggested that the Yankees get more than their fair share of the same kind of largesse). And all the egregious examples cited occurred at the Staples Center, and most every team gets at least a little favoritism, driven by the emotion of the crowd, on its home floor.

Still, there is little doubt that the game's true superstars do get decidedly preferential treatment. Michael Jordan got more than anyone, granted at least one extra step in the lane not to mention the right to mug his opponent on defense without the annoyance of a whistle. You just don't call a measly step or even two on a legend nicknamed "Air" any more than you call Barry Bonds, reputed to have the best eye at the plate in baseball, out on strikes on a borderline pitch. That is the way it has always been. But that edge gets compounded when a team like L.A. boasts the two biggest stars in the NBA today.

Both Shaq and Kobe are deserving of all their accolades. Both are hyperactive on the court, with Kobe leaping into people and throwing his body around in all manners of contortions and Shaq bulling his way to supremacy in the lane. And when both get all the benefit of the doubt--and the ball is in one or the other's hand maybe 65 percent of the time--that's one huge advantage to the Lakers without anyone having to conspire about anything. I know San Antonio's David Robinson is a faded star now, but he is still a former NBA MVP. So it's hard to fathom how, in the fourth game in L.A., Robinson fouled out against Shaq in just 14 minutes on the floor while O'Neal wages war in the low post for 45 minutes and gets whistled for two infractions.

San Antonio may be the last team that can halt the Lakers' four-peat. Sacramento's loss of Chris Webber was likely a lethal blow and Dallas remains thrilling to watch but too soft defensively. And no one in the Eastern Conference is likely to challenge the Lakers sufficiently to even bring officiating into the equation. So it's likely up to the Spurs to dethrone the champs. I suspect the refs are acutely aware, without anyone from NBA HQ in New York saying a word, that Thursday night they will be in the eye of the storm. As a result, I wouldn't be surprised to see some close calls go San Antonio's way. Frankly, I believe the NBA could use some new blood at the top. But however you feel about dynasties--whether for or against them--nothing can be worse for the league than tainted blood.

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