I don’t really think the NBA is rigged. But I will gleefully entertain each and every NBA conspiracy theory. The league is just more interesting when there’s a suggestion of disrepute and random assortments of notable people are getting #MadOnline. NBA conspiracy theories are wondrous and bizarre — like wrestling crossed with a high-tech carnival — but also comforting. I’d rather live in a world where smart, slightly nefarious people work behind the curtain than I would the real one, where chaos reigns, humanity is fallible, and players kick each other in the nuts multiple times only by accident.
The shadow history is integral to the way the league is perceived. It provides a counterbalance to the official narratives, press releases, and commemorative videos. It’s only there that we can learn about (in no particular order) Knick Bavetta; Game 6, 2002; Game 5, 2006; Wilt’s moon-landing-esque "100-point game"; the frozen envelope; Michael Jordan’s rumored crippling gambling addiction and league-mandated exile; the 2011, 12, 13, 14, and 16 draft lotteries; LeBron being a snitch; and the entire reportage subgenre of using online jersey sales as auguries.
One of my favorite pieces of shadow history revolves around Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, and the 2006 NBA Finals. It was Game 5. Wade drove on three Mavericks with 1.9 seconds left in overtime, contorting his frame into the space between the defenders, and drew a foul on Nowitzki from thin air. Wade hit both free throws, part of thinking-face-emoji 25 free throw attempts total, the same amount as the entire Dallas team.
During a crucial stretch of the fourth quarter, Wade was awarded three trips to the foul line in just over three minutes. Miami won in overtime.
According to the shadow history, Mark Cuban, in the chaotic moments after the game, was overheard to scream, "Your league is rigged," in the general direction of commissioner David Stern (though on his blog Cuban denied saying anything to Stern). Recent shadow history reports state that Cubes hired an ex-FBI agent to investigate the game’s officiating. (He denies this too.)
Ten years later, we have another chapter of the shadow history. Game 4 of the 2016 Finals will now take its place next to Game 5 of the 2006 Finals, both occupying the enduring nether-universe of blog posts, Reddit threads, social media missives, and folk memory where freeze-framed nut punches, foul counts, and other sundry details cross-pollinate and congeal into only the most woke-ass conspiracy theories.
It’s sort of fitting that the shadow-history play of these Finals wasn’t really a basketball play. Shadow history thrives on non-basketball events like frozen envelopes.
In retaliation, Green flailed his hand up into the area between James’s upper thighs. Play continued, a bit of a scuffle popped off, then blah, blah, blah, long story short: Draymond got suspended.
According to the shadow history, Draymond’s suspension is the result of the NBA wanting to extend what is surely a lucrative series.
"But wait," you might be saying. "Considering that the NBA’s TV deal is locked in until 2025, isn’t it the Warriors who stand to benefit from an extra home game’s ticket sales?"
Sure, but where’s the fun in that?
In 2006, Roland Beech, now vice president of basketball strategy and data science for the Sacramento Kings, analyzed the foul calls in Game 5 of the 2006 Finals at his seminal blog 82games.com. Though careful to stress that he saw no evidence of a conspiracy, just human error manifesting at the worst time in a difficult environment, Beech posits that Miami benefited from two "dubious" and three "very dubious" foul calls, resulting in a net plus-5.7 advantage in points. Nowitzki’s foul on Wade with 1.9 seconds left is listed as one of the "very dubious" plays.
The structure of basketball naturally lends itself to this kind of conjecture. Stars have an outsize influence on winning, and the NBA has always marketed its product accordingly. It’s only natural that charges of favoritism and crookedness should follow. Of the past 30 NBA champions, 22 had at least one player in the top five of league PER.
The obvious economic incentives involved in the operation of a multibillion-dollar sports entertainment league, built primarily on the talents of a handful of rare star players, provide the easy motivation for shenanigans. The New York Knicks landing the first pick in the inaugural NBA draft lottery would’ve seemed merely serendipitous if not for how plainly beneficial it was to have a star in the league’s biggest market. Pump Adam Silver full of sodium pentothal and ask him if he wants the Indiana Pacers to play the Portland Trail Blazers in the Finals and he’ll scream "Fuck no!" before chomping down on the cyanide capsule secreted in his (OFFICIAL PARTNER OF THE NBA) Tissot watch.
And, of course, the thinking goes that the NBA makes more money the longer a playoff series goes. This is why games 5 and 6 are traditionally overrepresented in the shadow history: They are the games seen as the most likely to be rigged.
Of course, this reading requires you to overlook the fact that Draymond did swing his hand into James’s little kings and that this is at least his third such offense of the postseason. It’s kind of like Murder, She Wrote; how many times can Angela Lansbury happen to be at murder scenes before she becomes a suspect?
May 1997, Knicks vs. Heat in the East semifinals: That’s when I first realized, to my eternal dismay, that the NBA was actually not biased toward its biggest market. Clearly the better squad, New York ground out a 3–1 series lead. The conference finals, and a rematch with the hated Bulls, loomed. But in Game 5, noted Heat enforcer P.J. Brown flipped Knicks point guard Charlie Ward (a better football player than he was a basketball player, alas) into the stands like a kettlebell, sparking a brawl.
Two seasons before that, the NBA, seeking to curb the donnybrooks (many involving the Knicks) that were increasingly defining its product, beefed up its "no leaving the bench during a fight" rule. The $2,500 fine became a maximum $20,000 hit and an obligatory suspension. So in that ’97 series, Patrick Ewing, Ward, Allan Houston, John Starks, and Larry Johnson were each suspended for a game. The sanctions had to be stretched out over Games 6 and 7 so the Knicks could have enough active players to field a team. Many were surprised by the severity of the punishment. "That’s a bad rule,’’ said Charles Barkley at the time. ‘’They should clarify the rule and decide if a guy’s going out as a peacemaker or if he’s going out to get involved. It’s just a normal emotion when a fight breaks out, you go help your teammate.’’
Jordan vs. Knicks would’ve been a gold mine, the kind of series that would make Don Draper smile while meditating at an ashram. All the NBA had to do was go easy on a few of New York’s players. Ewing notably never crossed half court and didn’t get near the scrum; Johnson was clearly playing peacemaker. But there would be no leniency.
The bench rule was an early part of the league’s march toward a more aesthetically pleasing product. And the Golden State Warriors are the final result of that march. That the NBA would want to make things harder for the Warriors at the expense of their integrity is silly, but also fun. Just imagine Silver scrunching his face while watching Dray’s arm swinging into LeBron frame-by-frame as if he were examining the Zapruder film as Kiki VanDeWeghe wonders aloud if Green’s hand merely got the cheeks and taint or actually impacted the sack. Which is a thing that definitely happened, by the way. Is this not why we watch? Is this not the best sport in the world?
Unwritten rules are rules that no one bothered to write down because they’re about feelings, a subject that no one wants to talk about. We laud the Platonic ideal of the athlete who will do anything to win until they actually do anything to win. That’s what makes the debate around LeBron and Draymond so fun, so circular, and so hypocritical. No one likes being called a bitch. Moreover, no one likes admitting that they don’t like being called a bitch. And, furthermore, being stepped over is basically the physical embodiment of being called a bitch, so don’t do it, because you know how it makes people feel: It makes them feel feelings.
In the wake of Game 4, lots of feelings were being felt: Ayesha Curry served Twitter the saltiest meal of her culinary career; James Worthy tweeted that a suspension should result only from a "devastating blow" (not even a regular blow; A DEVASTATING, CRANIUM-RENDING, SPINAL-FLUID-BURSTING BLOW) to the head; Stephen Jackson accused LeBron of snitching (Klay Thompson agreed); former NBA player and current Lakers broadcaster Mychal Thompson (a.k.a. Klay’s dad) did his best impression of the most annoying soccer dad in the suburbs and called LeBron "entitled"; someone made the worst sports sign in history (non-racist/non-homophobic/non-misogynistic edition); and we learned that LeBron has watched The Godfather at least six times this postseason.
Now that’s fun.