I’m not sure exactly when Americans became cynics. Vietnam. Civil Rights Movement. Watergate. O.J. trial. L.A. Riots. Who knows? But a jacked up government, more information and a few senseless killings here and there led to a country built on conspiracy theories and faithlessness. That naturally trickled down to sports where every bad ref call led to at least one person at the bar yelling, “it’s all fixed!” And, while you can always find a way to argue that refs and commissioners conspire to get certain teams and markets to win, there was arguably no other more obvious example than Game 6 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals.
The Lakers featuring Kobe and Shaq were down 3-2 against a well-rounded Sacramento Kings team that featured Chris Webber, Mike Bibby and a bunch of freaking Europeans (ew.) That game was highlighted by a 27 free throw fourth quarter for the L.A. Lakers, climaxing with Kobe elbowing Mike Bibby in the face in the game’s waning seconds only to be rewarded with two free throws to seal the contest. Game 6 was nothing short of tragedy and it acted as the smoking gun for the Tim Donaghy “confession” that referees were fixing games.
The Lakers should have lost Game 6 and gotten bounced out of the playoffs. But they didn’t. Don’t feel bad for the Kings though. They absolutely choked in Game 7, bricking half of their free throws and missing wide open go-ahead threes late in the game. The Kings were the better team and they outplayed the Lakers for five games (don’t forget Robert Horry’s lucky three earlier in the series) and got hosed thanks to shoddy refereeing.
Looking back on that game, the Sac-town Hose Job opened up a timeline where the Lakers dynasty thrived and the Kings became famous also-rans instead of winning a 2002 title (sorry, but there weren’t too many teams in the West not sweeping the Nets in 2002). But let’s just imagine the NBA wasn’t fixed and Stern didn’t have a secret meeting with referees before Game 6 to make sure the Lakers won. Just look at how the NBA would have been different.
The Team Game — In trying to recreate the Jordan years, the NBA worked hard to make a game suitable for one or two stars to succeed. In the NBA, people root for players, not teams. The Kings was a team with no stars. Webber was the closest thing they had but he was sub-par in the playoffs and wouldn’t have been the story as much as Mike Bibby (who played out of his mind, and would have entered elite point guard status with a Kings championship) and the European influence (Stojakovic, Divac and Turkoglu’s blonde highlights.) The Kings were a complete team, a throwback squad that didn’t care about stats (or defense) and a precursor to the 2011 Mavericks, 2004 Pistons and 2008 Celtics. Yes, there were the Spurs, but the Kings were actually entertaining to watch. The NBA, as a copycat league, might have started building complete teams a few years earlier instead of just stacking one star on a team of scrubs that we saw until the league wallowed in offensive inefficiency right around 2005.
“The Webber Complex” — Kids, you may think LeBron James is a choker but he’s Mr. Clutch compared to C-Webb. Webber wrote the book on shriveling up like a peen during a Nancy Grace and Betty White pudding tub wrestling match. It started with his timeout that cost Michigan the National Championship and his complex only got worse. He hot-potato’d the ball in the fourth quarter and never quite snapped out of his time out. While we’ll remember Webber for his dunk on Barkley, Fab Five days and Everest College-like play-by-play delivery, we’ll also remember the way he never realized his potential. But NBA championships are the cure-all. How much higher would a ring put Webber in the great power forward category? And how much better would the world be if Juwan Howard isn’t the only Fab Fiver with a (pending) ring?
The Dynasty Falls — We all know that by 2001, Kobe and Shaq’s feud was at least brimming below the surface if not a full-fledged cold war. The thing that kept them together was winning. And even after winning two titles, the 2002 season featured prevalent Kobe trade rumors. If the Lakers end up losing in 2001, would the Lakers have shopped Kobe? (Let’s be clear: though the Lakers parted with Shaq in 2004, they would have made a different choice during Shaq’s prime). I think they would have tried to get the duo to work out one more year, but it’s impossible to know if they could have come back to win a championship with the feud raging and their not winning a title. Maybe they blow up the Lakers after 2002.
The Ray Allen Legacy — And who would the Lakers have traded Kobe for? The loudest rumor had KB8 going to Milwaukee for Ray Allen and Glen Robinson. The Lakers starting five then looks like Fisher, Allen, Fox, Robinson and Shaq with Horry coming off the bench. That’s a championship team. Let’s not forget that Ray wasn’t just the spot-up shooter he is now. Dude spent his best years toiling away at Seattle and carrying a shit-joke Bucks team. But pair him with a well-rounded team like the Lakers with a legit big man and they’re winning titles. Ray, then, doesn’t need to go to Boston in 2008 and his legacy is secured as a multi-time champion on a Lakers dynasty and all-time three point leader. Hall of Fame, please.
Kobe’s Legacy — Imagine Kobe spending his best years in Milwaukee. Then, when his contract is up, he goes to Chicago and maybe wins a title or two. He’d have to live with the legacy of being incapable of staying together with the Lakers for more than one title. He’d average like 35 points a game with Milwaukee and win a title or two in Chicago. Not too shabby, still. He’d have 2-3 titles under his belt, a few scoring titles and maybe two MVPs.
But this is all just speculation… however, it’s still fun to play with a few “What ifs.” The infamous Game 6 is even more pertinent especially in light of a 2012 playoff season that’s featured some of the worst officiating in recent memory. Like most fans, we all travel back to May 31, 2002 every time a whistle is blown without merit and the refs destroy another game. Because you know they inevitably will.
* – The Dwyane Wade free throw parade in the 2006 Finals begs to differ, but you get the point.