HEY, HAVE you heard? NBA playoff games are fixed!
Silly question. Of course you've heard it. David Stern has heard it for at least a decade. Worse, he knows that everyone else had heard it. It's spring, the talk-show hosts saw their shadows, and that means six more weeks of conspiracy theories.
If you wonder why the commissioner went nuclear in response to what seemed like another round of playoff coaches' gamesmanship this week, that's why. Because he heard that tired refrain one too many times: "We can't get any calls because the NBA wants Team X or Player Y to win [or lose]."
Not to mention the refrain to the refrain: "What do you expect - that's how the NBA works."
Stern hears it too much from the public, despite the utter illogic of it and the inherent unfairness of the accusation. Recently, he's heard it from players and coaches far too often, and the reaction has been loud and predictable.
And he's known for a while that eventually, it would take more than a biting reply or a sharply worded statement to counter such a slap at the league's integrity.
So when Jeff Van Gundy crossed that line Stern had quietly drawn, Stern fired back with a record $100,000 fine, an intense investigation into the coach's claims and - now that Van Gundy is stonewalling - the threat of a suspension.
Van Gundy picked the wrong time, the wrong place and the wrong way to influence the officiating for center Yao Ming. The way was bad enough - he said that an official he wouldn't identify told him that the refs were instructed to watch Yao closely after repeated complaints from Mark Cuban, the owner of the Rockets' playoff opponents, the Mavericks.
That's a step further than the annual button-pushing by the Phil Jacksons of the world about what calls Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal should or shouldn't be getting. Van Gundy, by the way, is no novice in this area, with much of his Knicks tenure spent campaigning for Patrick Ewing and tuning out Jackson's complaints.
Generally, such griping from coaches prompts little more from Stern than a sardonic eye roll and a history lesson tracing the tactic back to Red Auerbach and his contemporaries.
Not this time, Stern said: "This one, in our view, set a new low for that."
Stern, however, saw that "new low" coming at least three years ago. Back in 2002, the Lakers-Kings Western Conference final generated a record harvest of conspiracy theories, including one from Ralph Nader. Stern could be only so diplomatic about it.
"We would laugh," Stern said, "but perhaps we should not have been so easy on this, because fans may be more open to suggestion. We'll be encouraging our coaches to be a little bit more muted in their observations."
In subsequent years, Stern replied to such accusations with a sort-of-tongue-in-cheek admonishment: "You're not trying to accuse us of a felony, are you?"
He often followed that up with a defense of his game officials - or, if their performance didn't warrant it, a defense of the difficulty of the job. The very presence of players of the dimensions of Shaq and Yao makes it harder to officiate games than ever, even in the days of Wilt Chamberlain.
Even with that in mind, officiating is often indefensible, and that's largely because the quality in the league is as low as it's ever been; there simply aren't enough good ones to go around for a variety of reasons, and there haven't been for most of the last decade.
So it's not a particularly heinous crime to call refs incompetent from night to night; a cursory fine usually settles the matter, and the complainers figure the resulting evening-out of calls is worth the price.
However, the buzz that Van Gundy lent legitimacy to (inadvertently or not) is different. What Commissioner Nostradamus foresaw has come to pass, and he has no choice but to hit back hard. The idea of tracing bad calls all the way to the top has become too commonplace, now that it goes on during first-round series between teams that are long shots to even avoid getting swept in the second.
Bad calls in the World Series, the NFL playoffs, or even March Madness are never taken to that extreme; only the NBA playoffs are considered so suspect.
Stern couldn't nip it in the bud years ago, so he took a chainsaw to Van Gundy. Odds are that it will be a while before coaches and players cross that line again.
That became evident within hours of the Van Gundy fine on Monday, when competing coaches Scott Skiles of the Bulls and Eddie Jordan of the Wizards were asked about it; both practically clapped a palm over their mouths.
Then again, throughout a series filled with more than its share of whistles, both coaches have made startling claims, in full view of the public and media. The officials are calling a lot of fouls, Skiles and Jordan said, because the players are committing a lot of fouls.
Stern should give both of them bonuses.