TAXING THE PLAYOFFS? As many as 20 veteran NBA referees could be indicted on charges they downgraded first-class airline tickets so they could fly at the cheaper coach rate and failed to report the money received on their income tax forms. Concerned that the IRS investigation could come to an end before the NBA playoffs, league basketball operations chief Rod Thorn said Continental Basketball Association and NCAA officials would fill in, keeping the games played as scheduled. Four NBA refs have already entered guilty pleas in the matter and have lost their jobs with the league. And several others, reportedly, have cut deals with the IRS not to be prosecuted until after this year's playoffs.

MILE-HIGH LOYALTY: In an era where players are constantly on the move, LaPhonso Ellis fights such disassociation. As a free agent in July, he is free to escape the 10-win nightmare that has become reality for the Denver Nuggets. The Fonz, however, wants to stay put.

It's not just about basketball. It's about a community my family loves and a franchise that's a part of me," Ellis said. "I know the Denver Nuggets are better than this.

I don't want Denver's name to be associated with something so negative," he added. "The urgency to win is there."

THE DOPE ON KAREEM: Just weeks after being busted for marijuana possession at a Canadian airport, NBA all-time scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was coaching one of the rookie teams at the Phoenix pre-draft camp. He hopes to parlay the experience into an NBA head coaching job.

"If it means working as an assistant coach for a while, I'll do it," said the 51-year-old. "I had to get away from the game for a couple of years. I was burned out. Now it has drawn me back. There's a lot I can do for young players. The teaching aspect is missing. It's obvious."

BOWL-ED OVER: Outrageous behavior is synonymous with Rockets forward Charles Barkley. Few of his experiences, however, rate with a story Mavericks forward Cedric Ceballos recently shared with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

"We went to the john together, and he's talking, and he accidentally drops a quarter in the john," Ceballos said. "He starts cursing. Then he whipped out a $100 bill and throws it in the toilet, and I really thought he was a psycho.

"Then he reached into the toilet and grabbed the $100 bill and the quarter, and I go, `Why did you do that?' " Ceballos continued. "He said. `If I'm going to put my hand in the toliet, I'm not going to put it in there just for a quarter. I'm going in for the $100 bill, too.' "

Ceballos and Barkley were once teammates with the Phoenix Suns.

FOUR SPORTSMEN: Charlotte's Bobby Phills, New York's Allan Houston, San Antonio's Avery Johnson and Seattle's Hersey Hawkins have been selected by a six-member panel of former players as divisional winners for the 1997-98 NBA Sportsmanship Award.

The NBA media will choose one of the four finalists for the leaguewide honor. Joe Dumars of Detroit won the award in 1996, while Cleveland's Terrell Brandon prevailed last season.

STRICTLY BUSINESS: Once a Knicks fan, always a Knicks fan. Spike Lee promises.

The filmmaker's latest project is a commercial for professional basketball's Miami Heat. But that doesn't mean he's abandoning his beloved New York Knicks for one of their biggest rivals.

"I can personally separate my allegiance to the Knicks and business," he said Sunday night - before the Knicks lost to Miami and then protested that referees failed to count what would have been a game-winning basket with 0.2 seconds left.

Last year, the Knicks and Heat got in a big brawl during a playoff game in Miami. New York was left shorthanded for the rest of the post-season because five players were suspended.

Lee, who is a fixture in front row at Knicks' home games, said the Heat invited him to film the commercial. It features the entire Heat lineup, coach Pat Riley - who used to coach the Knicks, birdlike mascot "Burnie" and cheerleaders. Dozens of fans turned out Monday in Coral Gables to take part.

Sound bite: "This is like bully against bully, neighborhood against neighborhood. This is old-school basketball where you go out there, lace 'em up, play physical and don't back down." - Knicks guard Chris Childs on the New York-Miami rivalry.