The Lost Champions: The 2002 Sacramento Kings and the fixed Western Conference Finals
- Updated: May 18, 2010
Editor’s Note: With the 2010 NBA playoffs in full swing, we felt it was time to tell this story. Eight years ago, the Sacramento Kings were robbed of an NBA championship in one of the most lopsided officiated series in sports history. The author will never be the same.
There were a few moments there when I still thought we had them.
Bobby Jackson nailing clutch three after clutch three. Mike Bibby refusing to go home without someone’s head on his mantle.
Chris Webber still somehow making beautiful, behind -the- back touch passes in traffic.
Despite all the horrifying calls. Despite the indignant steam coming out of our players’ ears.
Looking back, that’s what makes the whole thing even tougher to swallow.
That Kings team was so good that it persevered through all the ridiculous calls, through all the conspiracy theories, and probably almost made David Stern’s head explode like a mafia godfather after a failed hit.
Say what you want about Sacramento missing free throws in Game 7. (The Kings went 16-30.) Or about Peja Stojakovic (who didn’t even play in the first 5 games due to injury) airballing a potential go-ahead three-pointer with less than a minute left.
They shouldn’t have even been out there. They should have been in the film room, watching tape of Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets, instead of battling the two-time defending champs and the referees in the biggest game any of them would ever play in.
The thing is, Game 6 wasn’t just in the Kings’ heads. It was a loss. It counted against them. Even though they outplayed the Lakers by a mile in the fourth quarter.
They held Los Angeles without a field goal for nearly six minutes down the stretch. The Lakers scored on just 5 field goals in the entire quarter, but made 18 free throws in the final 6:21; the Kings shot just four.
Sacramento fought valiantly on each possession, hitting clutch shots from everywhere. Chris Webber had what would have been a career-defining 26-13-8. Mike Bibby had a gutsy 23 points.
The Kings even had the ball down three with a chance to tie it with about 15 seconds left.
Bibby, who had been elbowed in the face and called for a foul (apparently for falling) two plays earlier, started to the left, came back right, and launched up a three. It hit the side of the rim, and Robert Horry grabbed the rebound away from a lunging Chris Webber.
Final score: Lakers 106, Kings 102.
But they never had a chance.
Vlade Divac said after the game that he knew he was going to foul out beforehand. After he picked up his fifth foul, when he apparently committed some sort of breathing violation, Divac turned to Webber and said, “We’re going to get (bleeped).”
Divac’s backup, Scott Pollard, was miraculously disqualified after just 11 minutes of play. Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon wrote that Pollard’s sixth foul “wasn’t a foul in any league in the world.” The calls, wrote Wilbon, “weren’t subjective or borderline or debatable.”
Sacramento was saddled with an impossible 20 fouls against big men Divac, Pollard, Funderburke, and Webber, all of whom attempted to guard Shaq and the five-foot force field surrounding him. Somehow, O’Neal was charged with only four fouls.
The game was so uneven that consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote a letter to David Stern, calling for an investigation.
Stern’s reaction? Exactly what you’d expect from the “Godfather” of the NBA.
“He spoke like the head of a giant corporate dictatorship,” Nader said.
L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke told Sports Illustrated that he asked Stern about the game during the NBA Finals that year. Stern bullied him.
“He looked at me, pointed his finger, and said, ‘If you’re going to write that there is a conspiracy theory, then you better understand that you’re accusing us of committing a felony. If you put that in the paper, you better have your facts straight,” Plaschke said.
“So I just backed off,” he said. ” I didn’t have any facts, just what I saw, but he got very upset at me.”
In 2008, former NBA referee Tim Donoghy was sentenced to 15 months in prison for betting on games he officiated and accepting cash payments from gamblers.
Donoghy told the FBI that the NBA sometimes used referees to “manipulate results,” and that Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals was one of the games in which the league did so.
He alleged in his book Blowing The Whistle, that Dick Bavetta, one of the referees assigned to the game, was generally assigned to manipulate games in which the league wanted a particular result.
Bill Simmons of ESPN.com made a similar observation in a column right after the series in 2002. (Note: this is also linked to part 1. Scroll down to Question: What was the most disturbing subplot of the playoffs?)
As Simmons points out, Bavetta has been assigned to various questionable games, and at the very least, probably shouldn’t have been one of the league’s top-rated referees.
(Which… of course… he still is. Hmmm.)
Donoghy alleged Bavetta of being so good at manipulating game results that he was frequently “sent in” to help a particular team win. Donoghy said Bavetta spoke openly about rigging games, and told him he was the league’s “go-to guy” in that regard.
Now, this is coming from the mouth of a convicted felon, but…
If that isn’t one the most disturbing thing ever alleged about a professional sports league, I don’t know what tops it. Fans should have the right to know whether what they’re watching is the highest level of competition or the WWE in high-tops.
(Watch some of the ridiculous calls for yourself below.)
But wait…it gets even stickier.
One of the other two referees, Bob Delaney, is a former FBI agent who infiltrated the mafia.
Go ahead, read that last sentence again.
The man INFILTRATED THE MOB!!!
Yeah, it’s true. He even wrote a book about it.
What better candidate for a covert operation than a man who literally spent two and a half years as “Bobby Covert“?!!
(For the record, the third referee assigned to the game was Ted Bernhardt.)
Whatever happened that night, someone had it out for the Kings.
Whether it was bad luck, (what the NBA wants you to believe), bad karma (what C-Webb haters would have you believe), or bad intentions (what really happened), the Kings had to be eliminated.
And, as Dick Bavetta and his crew proved that fateful Friday night in Los Angeles, you never go against the family.