The history of sports is littered with stories of cheating and people trying to seek an unfair advantage like steroid-users Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. We have also seen teams and players try to fix games for financial reasons (Black Sox 1919, Pete Rose, etc.)
While these are perhaps the most well-known examples, stemming from Major League Baseball due to the sport’s elaborate history and reputation as our “National Pastime,” there is one specific example in the NBA that has tainted the end-result of a season for two teams (and decidedly cursing one of these two teams ever since).
I am talking, of course, about the game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
Let me paint the picture for you:
The Los Angeles Lakers had just won their second straight championship over the Philadelphia 76ers, solidifying a dynasty and entering the following season with hopes of three-peating and becoming only the third team in history to do so since the 1960s Celtics. Kobe Bryant was entering his prime, and Shaquille O’Neal was still the most dominant center in the league.
En route to both of their previous championships, the Lakers met the Sacramento Kings in the playoffs (first round in 2000, second round in 2001). These two teams were not necessarily rivals, but a five-game series in 2000 and sweep in 2001 made for tense meetings, and the Kings were an up-and-coming team, relevant finally after a long history of lottery seasons.
The Kings acquired point guard Mike Bibby in the offseason and reeled off 61 regular season victories, best in the league. The Lakers finished close behind in 3rd, setting up a potential showdown in the Western Conference Finals. A contrast in style and team composition would pit the superstar-driven/championship-pedigreed/big-market Lakers against the balanced/passing-oriented/small-town Kings.
Over the years, a lot of people have asserted that this was the true NBA Finals (given the fact that the Lakers eventually swept the Eastern Conference champion in the next series). But what tends to be overlooked is the fact that there were moves being made in the east intended to raise the anticipation of an eventual NBA Finals series.
NBA on NBC is one of the most successful basketball broadcasting ventures in the history of the league. During its run from 1990-2002, the NBA and fans enjoyed some of the highest-rated games of all-time. And who was at the center of this run from 1990-1998 with his six championships?
That’s right, Michael Jordan.
And who was it that returned from his second retirement after the 2001 season to join the Washington Wizards?
Again, Michael Jordan.
This is no coincidence. Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all-time, and his prime helped globalize the sport and bring the league to new highs after a decade of rejuvenation thanks to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1980s. Jordan, with the Chicago Bulls, had accomplished two separate three-peats, and the repeat champion Lakers were seeking to match that almost unheard-of feat. Thus, Jordan returned to the league. He probably would have preferred to rejoin the Bulls, setting up an anticipated Finals showdown between the two reigning dynasties in the NBA.
As it were, he joined the Wizards, but if they had been successful and made it out of the east, the 2002 NBA Finals most certainly would have been the highest-rated series in history.
Now, the New Jersey Nets surged to the top of the east with their acquisition of point-god Jason Kidd, but another historically-heralded franchise emerged in 2002 as a contender, and this team returning to the Finals could revive the greatest basketball rivalry in the NBA’s 50+ year longevity.
That would be the Boston Celtics.
Led by young stars Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, the Celtics enjoyed a 13-game improvement and made their way through the reigning Eastern Conference champion 76ers and reignited Detroit Pistons on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. A meeting with the Lakers in the NBA Finals would surely have lived up to the anticipation of an MJ vs. Shaq/Kobe showdown, pitting the current dynasty against the most successful franchise of all-time.
So here we are on May 18, 2002. The Wizards experiment failed, but the NBA has another way to make this the greatest Finals ever, and that would be if the Celtics upset the Nets and faced the Lakers. There are four possible NBA Finals pairings at this time: Lakers versus Celtics would be the most-watched/desired; second would be Lakers versus Nets which would still allow for a three-peat; Kings versus Celtics would likely be less enjoyable but still watchable with Boston’s resurgence; Kings versus Nets would be a ratings nightmare with two unknown, small-market teams.
And so here is how the next two weeks unfolded:
May 18, 2002: WCF Game 1
Even though they won fewer games this season, the Lakers were far from underdogs. Playing at ARCO Arena in Sacramento, the Lakers duo of Bryant and O’Neal came out hot and helped LA build a substantial first quarter lead. Bibby struggled from the field, and the Lakers held on to take a series lead 1-0.
May 19, 2002: ECF Game 1
Pierce struggled from the FT line, as did Walker from the field, and Kidd’s triple-double helped the Nets take game 1 at home, establishing a series lead at 1-0. At this point, the second-best pair of series outcomes is expected.
May 20, 2002: WCF Game 2 (Lakers 1, Kings 0)
Both teams shot poorly, but the Kings were able to build second-half lead to even the series at one apiece. A second loss at home would likely have sealed their fate, so the close victory in game two proved to be crucial.
May 21, 2002: ECF Game 2 (Nets 1, Celtics 0)
Like the Kings, the Celtics could not afford to go down 2-0. Despite a combined 14-52 shooting night (YIKES!) from Pierce and Walker, Boston withstood another Kidd triple-double and fourth quarter Nets comeback to even the series at one game apiece. Best-case NBA Finals scenario is still alive, and we have 3 days before the next game in Los Angeles.
May 24, 2002: WCF Game 3 (Lakers 1, Kings 1)
Up to this point, the Kings were 0-for-5 in the playoffs at Staples Center, but Bibby and franchise power forward Chris Webber combined for 50 points, helping to build an early lead, and Sacramento capitalized off Bryant’s poor shooting night. The Kings took a 2-1 lead after staving off a fourth quarter comeback from the Lakers. Our NBA Finals scenarios are in jeopardy with the Kings reclaiming homecourt advantage.
May 25, 2002: ECF Game 3 (Nets 1, Celtics 1)
The NBA community was panicking when the Celtics trailed by 26 in the second half and a 74-53 deficit heading into the fourth quarter, but Pierce helped spark the greatest final period comeback in NBA history with 19 of his 28 points in the last frame to seize the 2-1 series lead. If Boston won their next two home games, they would advance to their first NBA Finals since 1987.
May 26, 2002: WCF Game 4 (Lakers 1, Kings 2)
Though slightly abated due to the Celtics’ win, the NBA community is still at DEFCON 3, since a 3-1 advantage for the Kings would be nearly insurmountable for Los Angeles. After falling behind by 20 in the first quarter, the Lakers clawed back over the final three periods to come within two at 99-97. Bryant would miss a game-tying basket in the lane, and O’Neal blew the putback attempt, but the ball was tapped out to Robert Horry on the perimeter who hit perhaps the most clutch shot in his esteemed career to save the Lakers season. 2-2.
May 27, 2002: ECF Game 4 (Nets 1, Celtics 2)
Despite 31 points, Pierce’s free throws were once again Boston’s undoing. After tying the game with two in the final minute, he missed his first with one second left and the Celtics trailing by two. An intentional miss and failed putback from Tony Battie followed and the Nets reclaimed homecourt advantage. Perhaps these Celtics were too young for the moment.
May 28, 2002: WCF Game 5 (Lakers 2, Kings 2)
Hungry to prove themselves to the world, the Kings took a 3-2 advantage with a one-point victory at home after Bibby’s game-winning jumper and Bryant’s subsequent miss at the buzzer. The Lakers were now a game away from elimination and would have to win game six at home just to earn a decisive game seven in Sacramento. We are now at DEFCON 2.
May 29, 2002: ECF Game 5 (Nets 2, Celtics 2)
Pierce and Walker (10-33 combined) again struggled from the floor, and the Nets’ balanced scoring attack clinched the win and moved them within one game of their first NBA Finals appearance. Things are starting to look interesting.
May 31, 2002 ECF Game 6 (Nets 3, Celtics 2)
For whatever reason, the scheduling of the games put the ECF game six ahead of the WCF game six. Kidd tallied another triple-double, and the Nets’ second half comeback in Boston destroyed any hope for the Celtics and sent New Jersey – a historically irrelevant franchise – to their first NBA Finals. The NBA’s dream of Lakers/Celtics is dead, and a small-market in New Jersey will represent the east in the championship series. Ladies and gentlemen, we are now at DEFCON 1.
May 31, 2002: WCF Game 6 (Lakers 2, Kings 3)
And so the stage is set for one of the most pivotal games in NBA television history. The league looks poised to accept a worst-case scenario Sacramento-New Jersey Finals as its fate, but a proven criminal in Tim Donaghy has the power to intervene. While NBA referees could not possibly fix a game seven in the Lakers favor, the league desperately needed LA to win game six to stave off elimination. The two-time defending champion and darlings of the NBA could not be allowed to bow out in six.
If the Lakers were to go down, they would do so riding their best player in Shaq, and the unstoppable force fouled out two Kings in Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard and forced Webber to take five. Shaq dominated to the tune of 41/17, a clutch performance that kept LA alive. This is where the alleged “fixing” might be proven to be bullshit.
Throughout his career, Shaquille O’Neal bullied guys in the post so much that referees stopped making calls in his favor unless the fouls were egregious. In the fourth quarter, he was fouled five times and shot 6/10 from the line. To make matters worse, O’Neal only shot one free throw in game five before fouling out. If there were unfair calls in game five resulting in ten more FTs for the Kings, this game six was guaranteed retribution.
The Lakers proceeded to the FT line 40 times in game six to Sacramento’s 25. Is this a questionable statistic? Sure. Did this advantage decide the game and allow LA to easily clinch the win? Not at all. Even if there was a refereeing bias, the Kings still had a shot to tie the game in the final seconds.
Far more informed souls than I have spent countless hours breaking down game six, including Roland Beech’s allegedly objective analysis (http://www.82games.com/lakerskingsgame6.htm). Far be it from me to make the ultimate decision about the controversy, but at least it wasn’t as bad as the officiating at the beginning of “The Longest Yard.”
And for all those sorry Kings fans still crying about Kobe elbowing Bibby, have another look at the replay. At 0:45 you can clearly see that Mike’s right arm is wrapped around Bryant’s torso. The no-call here is correct.
Crisis is averted briefly, but game seven is still in Sacramento.
June 2, 2002: WCF Game 7 (Lakers 3, Kings 3)
The Lakers shot only three more FTs in this game than their opponent, so referees cannot be the scapegoat here, and if there is to be a glaring flaw, it’s the Kings’ inability to make the foul shots they earned (16/30 in the game, OUCH!). Going 2-20 from downtown also proved to be their undoing. In any case, the champion Lakers pulled out a gritty win in OT to advance to their third straight NBA Finals, preventing a disaster match-up of Kings-Nets.
Well as it played out, the Lakers spanked New Jersey and swept the series to complete the three-peat. And although we’ll never know what could have been, we can all assume that the Kings, too, would have beaten the Nets – presumably in a series less one-sided. But the point is moot, and the record books will forever celebrate the Los Angeles Lakers as the 2002 NBA Champions.
And if you’re still not satisfied and crying foul, here’s a little reminder for you:
The league faced certain disaster again four years later when a German named Dirk Nowitzki threatened to take over the league after a 2-0 start against the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. The NBA was struggling after three consecutive Finals duds as the small-market Spurs won two titles* and the Pistons upset the Lakers and ended Shaq-Kobe. The league needed a new darling, and Dwyane Wade was their last hope.
Wade proceeded to take up permanent residence at the foul line for the rest of the series as the referees favored the Heat rather obnoxiously. What’s even worse is the fact that it’s impossible to find full replays of games 3-6 online. Maybe David Stern and the rest of the league know they messed up and are hiding the evidence. We’ll never know, but I don’t want to hear any more griping about 2002 game six when there are larger scandals to be found out.
*It’s also worth mentioning that the 2003 NBA Finals between the Spurs and Nets is the lowest rated championship series of all-time. But at least by then San Antonio had won a title already. Imagine if the sordid Kings had faced off with New Jersey the year before, they might have cancelled the series entirely due to “basketball reasons.”