Conspiracy Theories

By Mark Heisler
Updated: May 29, 2009

LOS ANGELES — Can’t we all just get along?

Not this time of year.

It’s true, the thrust of human history suggests some progress. We not only don’t burn witches at the stake anymore, they now have websites such as the one offering “news and networking for the Modern Witch, Wiccan and Pagan Community.”

Still, as nations have yet to beat their swords into plowshares, no NBA coach has ever gone through a playoff series without targeting the referees, as the Lakers’ Phil Jackson did after Game 4, and Denver’s George Karl did after Game 5.

Of course, if you’re playing the Lakers, or the ’90s Bulls or the ’60s Celtics, there’s the old League Conspiracy.

In the really bad news, there is a league conspiracy these days.

It’s not the one people allege, to deliver the right two teams to the Finals.

Instead, Commissioner David Stern and his officials are now conspiring to demonstrate that there’s no conspiracy, which is where this spring’s wave of technical fouls, flagrant fouls and judicial reviews came from.

Denver’s Kenyon Martin has had eight Ts — one more than it takes to be suspended — but three were rescinded.

Kobe Bryant, of course, is sitting on five, as is Orlando’s Dwight Howard.

The Western Conference finals have been competitive and noncontroversial, but they’re warming up.

After the Nuggets were hammered in Game 5, Karl blamed the referees, noting he was shocked — shocked! — that Jackson could get such quick service after going on about the officiating after the Lakers’ loss in Game 4.

“Phil is so better at it than I am,” said Karl, “so much more philosophical about the whistle and how it changed.”

Not that Karl didn’t have reason to be offended. In a key play in the fourth quarter, Nene got his fifth foul, trying to draw a charge on Pau Gasol.

I thought it close but correct — Nene was moving and didn’t have position — but it was followed by a ticky-tack T for saying something over his shoulder as he walked off.

So, Stern’s system, which is supposed to reassure Karl he’s getting a fair deal, just gave Denver’s coach another reason to believe the NBA not only would like the Lakers in the Finals, it’s trying to make it happen.

Not that Karl, the Nuggets, and Denver, didn’t already think so, and will ever stop.

This just in: People cherish their conspiracy theories.

Not that this is new. Worse, but not new.

In the ’40s, when the NBA emerged from the swamp, the lowly Knicks grumbled the Minneapolis Lakers’ George Mikan got away with murder.

The NBA got as much coverage as high school ball does now, so we don’t know whether the Knicks said that the league wanted glamour markets such as Minneapolis in the Finals.

In the ’60s, when the Celtics ruled absolutely, their opponents had absolutely no question there was a conspiracy. I was on the 76ers’ beat in the ’70s with Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News, a ripper’s ripper and storyteller’s storyteller, who swore referee icon Mendy Rudolph was in Red Auerbach’s pocket.

Back then, there was such a thing as gossip.

Now, if Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy says Stern hired Satan to get the Cavaliers to the Finals, everyone would debate the proposition pro and con for weeks.

Incredibly, this judicial reign of terror comes amid the postseason of the NBA’s dreams, in response to . . . nothing, no fights, no scary flagrant fouls, such as John Starks’ clotheslining of Scottie Pippen in 1992.

Unfortunately, in an almost universal misunderstanding, it’s being put on the referees, who are barred from talking to the media but never called this silly stuff before.

In one of this spring’s so-called incidents, referee Mark Wunderlich ignored Dallas’ Antoine Wright’s little bump on Carmelo Anthony, who then made a game-winning three-pointer.

The Mavericks, who had a foul to give, which Wright tried to take, went nuts.

I thought it was a no-call, a disgrace as an intentional foul and arguable, at the very least.

Nevertheless, NBA counsel Joel Litvin quickly announced it was wrong, selling out Wunderlich, telling the entire staff to call every twitch if you don’t want to be overruled in public, but doing nothing to mollify Dallas owner Mark Cuban, who now has official proof he was robbed.

Yet to be seen is whether Stern avoids the Gotterdammerung, a twilight-of-the-gods final act, in which his rules oblige him to suspend one of his stars at a climactic moment.

If you think even Bud Selig could handle this one, see Stern vs. Amare Stoudmire, et al., the suspension that trashed the 2007 Phoenix-San Antonio series.

It was no surprise when the NBA quickly rescinded Howard’s sixth technical foul last week. With the effusive Howard’s celebration now thought-crime, it wasn’t hard to imagine a suspension turning the Eastern Conference finals around.

Of course, everyone in Cleveland now thinks Stern fixed things to keep Howard on the court for TV, etc.

Who ever had a postseason like this?

Tune in to see whether this ends with a great series or it’s the first title ever won on a free throw after a technical foul for taunting.