Since the tipoff of that very first game in 1946, the National Basketball Association has entertained millions around the world. In that time, the league has also seen more than its fair share of controversy. The following five scandals are some of the NBA’s most infamous.
Punch-up Between the Pacers and Pistons
On Friday Nov. 19, 2004, perhaps the most talked about basketball brawl ever took place between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. The Pacers were leading the then-Champions 97-82. A rough foul by Ron Artest prompted a response from Piston center Ben Wallace. A scuffle broke out that was quickly separated by other players.
While things were calming down, Artest was taking a minute to one side, lying on the scorer’s table. Suddenly, a riled-up Pistons fan decided to poke the proverbial tiger, and threw a soda from the stands. The drink hit its intended target – a suitably enraged Artest.
Seeing red the Pacers small forward launched himself into the crowd, which resulted in a huge fight breaking out between players and spectators. Within seconds, what seemed like the entire stadium was brawling, forcing the referees to abandon the game without seeing out the clock.
The NBA took serious action against those involved. It suspended nine players for a combined 146 games. Five of those involved faced charges of assault, receiving probationary sentences. Additionally, a handful of spectators were charged with assault and permanently banned from watching future matches at the stadium.
Tim Donaghy Betting Scandal
In 2007, the entire NBA found itself at the heart of a scandal involving referee Donald Donaghy. An FBI investigation into allegations that Donaghy had leveraged his relationships with various individuals in the league to inform criminal betting brought the game’s entire legitimacy into question.
Following a disclosure of the investigation in the New York Post, NBA commissioner David Stern made a statement on the incident:
“… no amount of effort, time or personnel is being spared to assist in this investigation, to bring to justice an individual who has betrayed the most sacred trust in professional sports.’
The authorities apparently got wind of Donaghy’s involvement via a wiretap on the Gambino family. Reports claim that Donaghy was threatened into giving tips on games. This allowed the organized criminals to bet on numerous games during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons.
In fact, the allegations went even further. Donaghy oversaw numerous matches in which irregularities were observed. However, perhaps the most brazen was the Heat-Knicks game in February 2007. The Knicks somehow managed to receive 39 free throws for dubious personal fouls by Heat coaching staff.
Donaghy resigned from the NBA in July 2007 over the allegations. In court, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and served 15 months in federal jail. The league also introduced new guidelines for referees following the incident.
Donaghy later admitted that he struggled controlling a gambling habit. He says he knew his betting was jeopardising his career but he couldn’t stop. In the years since being released from prison, the former referee has travelled around the United States speaking about the harm gambling addiction can cause.
Tim Hardaway’s Homophobia
Tim Hardaway brought plenty of bad press to the NBA in 2007 for his homophobic comments. John Amaechi, a retired NBA star, had just come out as gay on the ESPN Outside the Lines show. At the time, there were very few openly gay male US sports stars and none in the world’s most celebrated basketball league.
Hardaway had expected criticism over his sexuality. However, he claims to have ‘underestimated America’, stating that 95% of those that had contacted him following his revelation had been supportive. However, in the 6’ 10”, Britain-born center’s own words, many of the comments from the remaining 5% were ‘viscerally, frighteningly negative.’
Among those in the latter camp was a now-retired Tim Hardaway. The five-time NBA All-Star reacted to the news that he had at least one gay teammate:
“Well, you know I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.”
Following his remarks, Hardaway was dropped as Chief Basketball Operations Advisor at the CBA team Indiana Alley Cats. He was also banned from attending the upcoming NBA All-Star Event.
Dallas Mavericks Sexual Assault
In 2018, the Dallas Mavericks found themselves at the center of a sexual assault scandal. A Sports Illustrated report cited more than a dozen employees, both current and former, who spoke of inappropriate behavior towards the female staff at the club. The women spoke about a real ‘locker room culture’. However, the problem wasn’t in the actual locker room.
Those claiming misogyny, being groped, and dealing with overtly sexual behavior at work were actually complaining about the club’s executives. Many of the claims from victims who chose to remain anonymous were made against the Mavericks’ then-CEO, Terdema Ussery. Ussery had previously been investigated in 1998 for similar conduct but no action was taken.
Ussery, who had already left the club by 2018, denied the allegations. As did Mavericks’ owner, Mark Cuban. However, Cuban did fire two members of staff, one of which was the club’s head of Human Resources, Buddy Pittman. The women had reportedly complained to Pittman several times but no action had come of it.
Following the report, the Mavericks responded with a statement:
‘Yesterday we notified the league office and immediately hired outside counsel to conduct a thorough and independent investigation. The investigation will focus on the specific allegations related to this former employee, and will look more broadly at our company’s workplace practices and policies.’
In an effort at greater inclusivity, the team also took on the NBA’s first black female CEO. However, Cynt Marshall’s influence clearly wasn’t enough to deter employees preying on their female colleagues. In July, 2020 it emerged that additional claims were now being made against Tony Ronzone, the Mavericks’ head of player personnel. Evidently, the Mavericks still have a problem with inappropriate behavior.
Donald Sterling’s Racism
Given the number of black players, coaches, CEOs, and fans of basketball, you might not think that racism would be part of the game. However, you’d be wrong.
In 2014, LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling found himself at the middle of a particularly shameful incident. Sterling was recorded giving his mixed-race girlfriend grief over her Instagram account, which had pictures of the young half-black, half-Latina hanging with Magic Johnson and other black people. V. Stiviano recorded the rant herself and showed the world Sterling’s true colors.
Perhaps the most offensive part of Sterling’s outburst was the following:
“You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that…and not to bring them to my games.”
Yet, none of this would have been news to anyone familiar with Sterling’s past. The attorney-turned-realtor-turned-Clippers owner has faced previous legal action for refusing to rent apartments to minorities. He settled out of court to keep the matter out of the public eye. Then in 2010, Elgin Baylor, the Clippers’ former general manager, alleged that Sterling had turned down candidates for jobs based on their race alone.
Baylor reportedly commented:
‘Personally, I would like to have a white Southern coach coaching poor black players.’
Fortunately, Sterling no longer has anything to do with the Clippers. His ownership was terminated and he was banned for life from attending any NBA-related. He also had to cough up around $2.5 million.