APPhoto/Scott Cunningham, Nba Photos
The Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan makes the game-winning shot, on a play Jazz fans still question whether or not it was a push-off, during Game 6 of the NBA Finals against Utah at the Delta Center.

WHAT-IFS-VILLE — All you CSI wannabes, put away your spray bottles of Luminol. It's finally time to close the case of "The Stolen Championship Caper."

Referee Dick Bavetta and his crew will plead guilty to a couple of blown calls in Game 6 in exchange for Jazz Nation dismissing charges of aiding and abetting Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in stealing the 1998 NBA title.

Jazz fans have long embraced the notion of a conspiracy. Maybe you've spent the last 3,717 days believing Jordan shoved off Bryon Russell, with the clock winding down — enabling His Airness to hit the game-winning shot, turning the Chicago Bulls into champs and the Utah Jazz into chumps. Or that on the preceding play — when Jordan swats the ball from Karl Malone's clutches — you remain adamant that Bavetta & Co. swallowed a whistle, or two, or three.

Certainly recent court proceedings on felony gambling charges involving former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who claimed that the NBA wanted certain teams to win and that officials sometimes (wink, wink) helped make that happen, raised eyebrows and piqued interest here in Jazzland. Could it actually be that Stockton-to-Malone wasn't denied its rightful glory by a superhero donning No. 23, but instead was jobbed by a Grinch in stripes?

But what if Donaghy's accusations, self-serving as they might seem, had merit? What if the NBA was an accomplice in the theft? Thinking a more critical examination of the 1998 NBA Championship series was in order, the Deseret News assembled a panel of four college basketball officials to review NBC's broadcast of controversial Game 6. The panel evaluated the game dispassionately — dissecting and critiquing what they saw — much the way a forensic pathologist might examine a crime scene. But because it's bad form in referee circles to criticize another official's work publicly, they only did so on the condition of anonymity.

And the Grinch, it turns out, has an airtight alibi.

"I don't see a Dick Bavetta conspiracy at all," one official said with the others agreeing. If anything, their unbiased consensus

is that Game 6's officiating actually favored the Jazz and with a few notable and highly publicized exceptions, the game was called consistently from start to finish.

Now let's go to the tape ....

We'll start off with a call that even a kindergartner could have made, but three skilled NBA officials didn't. Howard Eisley's 3-pointer with just under 10 minutes to play in the second half, which Bavetta incorrectly waved off, and is the root of many of the conspiratorial overtones haunting memories of that game.

The panel of referees doubted a similarly bad call could happen today with replay in use on 24-second violations. Two of the officials did think Bavetta erred by not consulting with the other officials because of the call's potential importance. The other two thought the play in real time was still close enough that too much shouldn't be read into the game crew's miss.

The refs noted how the lead official/crew chief (Bavetta in this case) in NBA games will work to establish themselves — even "over-officiating" sometimes in order to establish control of a game. The lead officials rarely ask for help, and the less experienced referees in the crew don't second-guess their calls on the court

But three points is still three points. So how important was the blown Eisley 3-pointer to the game's overall outcome? Again, our officials were split.

One thought it was very important. "That was huge," he said. "It (the call) wasn't even close."

But the other three thought it was early enough in the game not to be nearly as critical as Jazz folklore makes it out to be.

Later they compared Eisley's shot to the fourth-quarter, running jump-shot made by Ron Harper after the 24-second clock had expired, which Bavetta's crew incorrectly called good.

You can see both shots here, edited from a Spanish broadcast but clear and complete with replays: www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGSiEEpF3WM

"Much closer," said the official who earlier thought the Eisley shot clock violation was critical. "That (missing the call) could happen at game speed. It's very close."

The other three also thought it was close enough to again cut the game officials some slack.

Now for that infamous Jordan push-off, which looks less obvious watching the replay on DVD with four sets of trained eyes — none who said they would have called it a foul.

View it at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwKbj8nNkLQ or from a different angle at www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ra9ni9_C7A.

And this next comment is especially telling: "To me, it's indicative of the way the entire game was called," one panel member explained. "The players from both teams put their hands on each other like that the whole game. You look for consistency in the way the game is called, and that was consistent."

Unquestionably contact was made on the play. But the officials say it's unclear which player initiated contact. It's also difficult determining whether Jordan actually shoves Russell and, in fact, an argument can be made that Jordan is simply trying to steady himself when he places a hand Russell's lower back/buttocks. It also appears replaying the action that Jordan's hand on Russell may have been partly responsible for Russell's momentum carrying him past Jordan and enabling M.J. to use his superior athleticism to stop, gather himself, and pull up to make the eventual game-winning shot.

There were also other calls that our officials thought were missed. But tracking the action, the officials felt, more of the close calls went Utah's way. If, as conspiracy theorists suggest, Bavetta was trying to hand the game to Jordan and the Bulls, he didn't do a very good job. The panel saw several close calls down the stretch that Bavetta could have whistled in Chicago's favor without taking a lot of heat or risking additional scrutiny. But he didn't.

Not much was called on the stars of either team throughout the game, but the panel agreed that's the way the league works. Also, when it came down to crunch time, the game officials let the players continue doing what they'd done all game long and that included some "touching" that fans might view as fouls.

"In the NBA, it has to be pretty ugly to be called at the end of the game," one official noted.

Something else that became clear watching a replay of the game. It would be difficult, if not impossible, NOT to miss a few calls here and there given the speed and size of NBA players.

"You could pick any game at any level, and we could watch a tape and find things we don't agree with," said one official.

In fact, several vigorous debates broke out between the officials watching the DVD about who a foul should be called on and whether or not the proper call was made.

In the process of debunking this decade-old Jazz myth, an obvious question came up. How does a Donaghy-like official throw a game one way or the other without being obvious?

"The easiest way is to sit someone down," one official said. The panel agreed. "Most likely, sit the second or third (best) guy down with fouls. You're not going to take out the star. And you're certainly not going to foul out the top guy in the NBA."

How NBA games are officiated might lead fans to believe there is bias when, in fact, there is a system that most casual fans don't fully understand.

"It's a show," offered one ref. "It's like going to the movies."

While referees in college games deal almost exclusively with head coaches, the panel explained, NBA officials are managing many superstar egos all the time. "In the NBA you essentially have 12 bosses — the two coaches and the 10 players on the floor," said a member of the panel.

Referees also have to deal with the roles players are asked to perform for their teams.

Dennis Rodman is what two panel members referred to as a "game-wrecker." That's because instead of focusing on calling the technical aspects of the game, officials must also be aware that there is a player on the floor who has ulterior motives beyond scoring and rebounding.

In Rodman's case, efforts to get under Malone's skin and subsequently into his head, led to some entertaining physical exchanges — probably the best being the oft replayed stumbling entanglement between the two as they fought to get down the floor during a second-half possession. When fouls involving the pair were called, they followed the established NBA hierarchy — typically they were called on Rodman because Malone, after all, is a star while everyone knows Rodman's job is to wreak havoc.

"Look at that. Karl not going to act up if Rodman isn't in there," said one ref drawing his line between good and evil on the court. "I hate to have guys (like Rodman) doing stuff like that."

So the metaphorical police tape around EnergySolutions Arena can finally come down. There's nothing left but regrets and dashed dreams for the Jazz and a painful reminder why Jordan is the greatest to ever lace up.

Motive perhaps. Circumstantial evidence, maybe. But no crime.

Move along, folks, move along.


E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com;

chuck@desnews.com