DENVER -- George Karl hears the stories, and cringes. Stories about certain NBA coaches being too close to referees. Stories about coaches having refs' cell phone numbers. Stories about coaches using those phone numbers. If they're true
"That would [tick] me off, yeah," the Denver Nuggets head coach says in a quiet voice. "I would feel [a coach] has an advantage if he's that close to that referee. That has to change."
And so Karl, who is 10th on the NBA's career victories list, hears the stories and wonders: Who's friendly with whom? And do those relationships affect my team?
"Deep down inside," Karl says, "the fraternizing and interaction of who has an advantage in situations scares me. I feel there are guys that seem to be more friendly [with referees], because I haven't gone out of my way to join the fraternity of friendship."
Last month, in a court filing, ex-referee Tim Donaghy alleged that some of his former peers conspired with one another and with league employees to manipulate the outcome of games. Donaghy, 41, has pleaded guilty to betting on games he officiated and providing associates with information to win their bets. He awaits sentencing at the end of the month and could receive up to 25 years, but he will most likely get around 33 months, based on federal sentencing guidelines.
The NBA has portrayed Donaghy as a lone bad apple among referees. Commissioner David Stern has said Donaghy is a convicted felon trying to get a shorter prison sentence. But Joel Litvin, the NBA's president of league and basketball operations, told ESPN's "Outside The Lines" that if fans believe refs are too close to players and coaches, then the league needs to do a better job explaining how hardworking and honest refs are.
"If there's a perception that our coaches and refs are too cozy, then we have a problem," Litvin says.
Karl and others interviewed for this story, including former referees, say the Donaghy allegations have members of the NBA family nervous because many have had suspicions about chumminess between certain refs and players and coaches. Even Karl and former refs who spoke with "Outside the Lines" admit that they have fraternized in the past.
"The only thing I've ever done with a referee is play Mike Mathis' golf tournament in Cincinnati, Ohio," Karl says. "Maybe twice."
Karl says he played in the charity event while Mathis was an active referee. Asked if he has thought about how that might look, Karl laughs and says, "I think it was a good thing for me to do. I think it was worth the trip."
At first, Mathis, who officiated in the NBA for 26 years before retiring in 2001, makes light of Karl's presence at the golf tournament. He mentions that "George's bags didn't arrive, and we had to buy him clothes at the pro shop so he wouldn't have to play in his suit."
But upon further review, Mathis concedes he might not have invited Karl had he considered how it might look.
"That's one of the reasons that I stopped asking coaches and players to my golf tournament," recalls Mathis. "I said, 'Let's just wait till you retire.' Because that could be perceived as, 'Why is George here and why is Phil Jackson not here?' That probably was wrong too."
Says Hue Hollins, who retired as a ref in 2003 after 27 years of blowing the whistle in NBA games: "You have a lot of referees who have golf tournaments and invite coaches. They invite players, they invite general managers, and we even had one referee who brought cookies to one coach at games."
One former NBA official told ESPN that referee was Dick Bavetta, who at 68 has officiated more NBA games than anyone else.
Karl says he isn't comfortable with the coziness, even though he participated in it with the golf-tournament appearances. He says there are many nights when the whistle, rather than performance, determines his team's fate.
"There's no question there are nights that we've walked off the court going, 'What the hell happened out there?'" Karl says.
Usually, though, Karl says he isn't thinking like that when the games begin.
"I've never felt going into a contest that there's a chance of it being manipulated," he says. "I feel the integrity of the league is always there at the beginning of the game. It's what happens through the game -- and the circumstances, and losing -- that you bring out the paranoia. And it exists. It exists in players. It exists in coaches. It exists in fans by the surveys and reports that we're getting back where [out of] 100,000 people, we're seeing 75,000 of them are saying they feel there's some partiality going on in refereeing of NBA basketball games."
When asked how many of the NBA's 58 referees he trusts, Karl says his answer depends on where the game is being played.
"If I'm playing a team that I'm supposed to [beat] on my home court, I trust probably all of them," he says. "But if I'm playing the Lakers in the Staples Center, I probably only trust 25 percent of them."
A prominent former NBA coach who asked not to be identified tells ESPN that in the fourth quarter of a playoff game against the Bulls, he heard a high-profile ref say to Michael Jordan, "Can I get your shoes after the game?"
Karl says he's heard that story, too.
"It's wrong," Karl says with a sigh. "It's wrong."
Mathis says it was not uncommon in his day for officials to request shoes, jerseys or autographs from players.
"Don't think these players don't remember this, either," Mathis says. "They remember it because what they say is, 'Hey, man.' I heard this on the floor a couple times: 'I signed that for you.' They'd be telling my partner. I'd say, 'Signed what?' 'Oh, I signed a pair of shoes.' And he brought it up at a critical point of a game. It just leaves you open, and it needs to be out of the game."
Karl remembers a scene he witnessed in the NBA store in New York about five years ago. It still bothers him.
"There were a couple of NBA officials in the store, and they were asking for autographs from players. And I've heard the stories that they ask for socks and ask for jerseys to be signed, and I'm hoping it's all for charity," he recalls with an uncomfortable laugh. "I'm hoping it's all for the good of giving back to the game. But it worries me. It worries me that a young official in this league has a charity or has a foundation for giving back. Sometimes, I think it's for themselves. I didn't like it."
Neither did the legendary referee Jake O'Donnell. The NBA's highest-ranked referee for more than a decade, O'Donnell, now 71, shudders when that story is related to him at his home in the hills of North Carolina.
O'Donnell, who retired in 1995 with the record (since broken by Bavetta) for number of games officiated, says with disgust, "Referees shouldn't do it in public, especially. If you're gonna do it, you do it in the basement where the players' and the referees' rooms are or something like that."
The NBA's Litvin says it's against the rules for refs to ask players to sign merchandise. But he says the league has not enforced such rules as well as it could have over the past few years.
O'Donnell admits he once took a gift from a player.
"I've gotten a basketball from Michael Jordan for my son," he says. "It was back in 1994, just before I left. I asked, and it was the only thing I ever took from a player."
As a solution to some of the issues raised recently in the wake of the Donaghy case, some coaches have pointed to a need for more transparency in how referees are graded and dealt with publicly. Lakers coach Phil Jackson has called for the referees to be managed independently of the NBA.
"I think [that] makes sense," Karl says. "The league doesn't think it makes sense."
Karl also has his own twist. He says he's always felt that the ideal person to supervise NBA officials is a former NBA head coach.
"Put a guy that's been influenced by the whistle, affected by the whistle, had his career ruined by the whistle, in charge of the refs," Karl says.
It's rare for an active coach to discuss officiating publicly because the NBA routinely fines coaches and players for criticizing officials. If they speak out, they're punished. But Karl says the league needs to encourage dialogue about officiating, rather than suppress it, which is why he agreed to an interview with ESPN.
"It should be talked about," Karl says. "There should be a forum of coaches, players and general managers and the league on 'How do we make this better?' If we have a shadow of felons in our league, it'll come out. We will never be able to hide it, and the Donaghy cloud gives us the opportunity to open the window up to whatever -- an independent investigation, a forum of coaches, a new leadership of referees, an independent source. Whatever it comes to, I think we can turn it into a win."
Asked if he believes Donaghy is the only referee guilty of manipulating games, Karl squirms before he answers. He leans forward, then back. He sighs. He shakes his head and finally offers, "I don't know how to answer that question without getting fined."
"Just because [Donaghy] is a criminal doesn't mean he's a liar," says a former NBA head coach who asked that his name not be used. "If a federal investigation hadn't turned him up, he'd still be refereeing in the NBA. And the league would still be telling us not to question his integrity."
For the good of the game, Karl says he hopes Donaghy is not telling the truth. Yet, he's not entirely convinced that everything out of Donaghy's mouth is a lie.
"Donaghy's cloud has got us nervous. Nervous as hell," he says.
"Because we all have thought it," Karl replies.
Reporter Mark Schwarz works in ESPN's Enterprise Unit and for the program, "Outside the Lines."