Let's hope situation in the NBA is isolated

A college coach once told me if he wanted to "fix" a basketball game he knew exactly where he'd start.

"The guys in the striped shirts," he said.

That conversation came back to me when it was reported that NBA official Tim Dongahy, a 13-year veteran, is being investigated by the FBI for possibly betting on games, including some he worked.

Now, the coach wasn't talking about determining a winner or loser on the scoreboard. If betting was as simple as picking the winner, the gambling business would be about as lucrative as the current marker for leisure suits.

In the gambling world, winners and losers are based on point spreads, meaning the team that's supposed to win could still come out on the long end of the score. But the bettors, hoping for a quick buck, win when they correctly wager on how wide the scoreboard margin might be.

I don't know if you've ever checked point spreads one day and the final scores the next, but it's is amazing how accurate the bookies can be. It's how they stay in business, how they make their money. If the averaged Joe who plunks down $20 on the Knicks-Lakers were smarter than the bookies, he'd be the one raking in the dough instead of the one coming back the next day looking for a sure thing.

Thus, my college coaching friend was convinced that referees, whose calls can control the flow of the game and the score, would be the place to start if someone wanted to "win" consistently with money on the line.

It would seem the players would be the best place to start, but unless you can get two or three involved it couldn't be that easy. If you lined up just one player to go on the take, there's no way to guarantee he'd have the ball in his hands enough to really affect the point spread.

It's worked in the past. A point shaving scandal at N.C. State and North Carolina in the early 1960s hammered those schools and the ACC with a black eye. It brought the Dixie Classic Basketball Tournament to an end. The investigation revealed more than 50 players nationwide were involved in point shaving from 1956-61.

It didn't work out because gamblers found the players couldn't control the games as easily as they thought.

But an official doesn't need the ball, just the whistle and the willingness to blow it at just the right time.

I'll admit that in 36 years of covering basketball I've seen some things to make me shake my head.

A few years ago I watched a ref whistle a technical foul at the final buzzer that turned a one-point spread into a three-point spread. The next day I checked the betting line. The spread was three points. That one call at the end of the game turned a lot of winners into losers.

Of all the things that could happen in sports, having officials accused of gambling is perhaps the worst of all, because they supposedly hold the integrity of the games we watch in their hands. It's their responsibility to assure the games we're watching are fair and square.

Sure, they miss calls, even the best officials. They're human.

But to have an official accused of what Donaghy faces suddenly throws the integrity of every official -- particularly those in the NBA -- into question. It's a scenario the NBA, whose popularity isn't on the rise to begin with because it's a badly played game, doesn't need.

Moreover, it's the kind of controversy sports in general doesn't need.

You've heard it even at the lowest level of sports. Your kid's team at the local YMCA gets a bad call and some mama stands up and yells "Hey, ref, how much they paying you?"

Clemson gets a bad call against the Tar Heels and someone's on the take.

The Panthers don't beat the point spread against the Falcons and fans, at least those who bet, are sure the back judge who tossed that pass interference flag will be picking up a nice payday from a member of Gambino family.

The sad part of the Donaghy investigation is that a lot of very good officials are going to be painted with the same ugly brush.

And who knows, others could be involved in this. NBA Commissioner David Stern said on Tuesday it was an isolated case. Let's hope.

No matter what the case uncovers, my coaching friend is probably saying "I told you so."