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For the past eight seasons referee Mike Mathis spent time in
June officiating the NBA Finals. Not this year. Instead, Mathis
may be in federal court in Cincinnati fighting to retain his
freedom, his job and his reputation.

Mathis, an NBA official for 21 years, and fellow refs Hank
Armstrong and George Toliver, both nine-year veterans, have been
indicted by federal grand juries on tax-fraud charges. All three
men pleaded not guilty, but the NBA suspended them, with pay,
pending resolution of their cases.

The indictments stem from the referees' alleged practice of
downgrading airline tickets supplied by the NBA from first class
to coach, pocketing the price difference and then using their
own frequent-flier miles to upgrade back to first class; or, in
some instances, cashing in first-class tickets, keeping the full
amount and using their frequent-flier miles for replacement
tickets. In either case, failing to report that extra cash as
income is a felony.

In the five-count Mathis indictment, a copy of which was
obtained by SI, the grand jury charges that from 1989 to '92
Mathis failed to report approximately $69,000 of taxable income.
Prosecutors in Roanoke, Va., where Toliver was indicted, say he
failed to report $47,000. While no amount had been made public
at week's end in Armstrong's case, sources have put that figure
at more than $100,000.

Under terms of the 1995 collective bargaining agreement, the
referees are allowed by the league to exchange their tickets to
supplement their income. League sources say NBA attorneys
repeatedly advise officials to declare the extra income. Yet
Mathis, Armstrong and Toliver probably aren't the only referees
in trouble with the IRS. Attorney Terry Grady, who represents
Mathis, says he believes as many as 20 NBA officials are under
investigation. Dana Boente, a senior trial attorney for the
Justice Department, would not comment on the number of
forthcoming indictments.

Although NBA commissioner David Stern has publicly adopted a
wait-and-see stance, league sources confirmed that a ref's
conviction will result in his automatic termination--the penalty
for any felony conviction, as spelled out in the collective
bargaining agreement (which Mathis, as union head, argued
against ratifying). If the core of high-caliber officials or a
large chunk of the overall referee pool is implicated and forced
out of the game, the NBA will be facing a crisis.

The investigation has cast a pall over officials who wonder if,
or when, they will be indicted. Says another veteran referee,
"It's a nightmare. We're not bad people. Maybe we made a
mistake, but to lose our jobs--go to jail--I'm scared to death."

The penalty upon conviction for tax fraud is not easily
determined before a trial. If an individual pleads guilty to
criminal tax violation and admits to "the totality of the
criminal conduct," that person is given what is known as "point
reductions" for acceptance of responsibility. In the case of the
referees, who have no prior felony convictions, a guilty plea
could mean a reduced sentence of probation or home detention.
However, if a referee pleads not guilty, goes to trial and is
convicted, he will almost surely serve time in prison. Grady,
who formerly worked for the Justice Department, says Mathis
fully understands the risks of going to trial. "The stakes are
very high," says Grady, "but my client wants to clear his name
and will vigorously defend himself against these charges."

Even if more indictments are handed down soon, the NBA feels it
can get through this season. "We have 58 officials," says Rod
Thorn, senior vice president of basketball operations and the
man who supervises the referees. "Very few of our younger guys
are under investigation, and the playoffs are not that far off.
We start the postseason [using] 32 referees and are down to 11
by the Finals. We're fine."


The sour relationship between Pistons forward Otis Thorpe and
coach Doug Collins is beyond repair, say team sources, who add
that Thorpe will most likely be traded this summer. The bad
feelings between Thorpe and Collins go back to last season, but
their animosity came to a head in a game against the Suns on
Feb. 2 when Collins called a timeout just after a Thorpe
turnover early in the first quarter.

According to Pistons players, Thorpe implored everyone to "play
defense," to which Collins responded, "Does that include you?"
When an embarrassed and angry Thorpe tried to confront Collins
after the timeout, the coach turned his back.

Since then the two have rarely spoken. If Collins wants to put
Thorpe in the game, the coach dispatches assistant Brian James
to summon the power forward. Thorpe is also unhappy that Collins
is running an increasing number of plays for perimeter shooters
such as forward Terry Mills instead of focusing on the post-up
game, Thorpe's forte. Conversely, Collins has been disgusted
with Thorpe's sulking and lack of defensive intensity. On March
7, after a 95-88 loss in which Jazz power forward Karl Malone
scored 41 points, many against Thorpe (who had zero), an
incensed Collins told some Detroit players that Thorpe had quit
on them. Guard Joe Dumars spent the next several days trying to
calm the team. Sources say players have considered asking owner
Bill Davidson to mediate, but Davidson has historically been a
hands-off owner. Ironically, even though the Thorpe-Collins
relationship was already tenuous last summer, it was Collins who
persuaded Davidson to give Thorpe, then a free agent, a
three-year, $18 million contract.

Collins called a team meeting before last Thursday's 102-82 win
over the Nuggets and asked his players to finish the year on a
positive note. "Doug told us to trust one another," says Thorpe,
who did his part, scoring 22 points and holding Denver's Antonio
McDyess to 10.


One of the factors that prompted Suns guard Kevin Johnson to
announce last fall that he would retire at the end of this
season was that over the past four years, he had missed an
average of 28 games per season because of injuries. KJ was out
for 11 games in November following abdominal hernia surgery, and
Phoenix, seeing a need for a point guard, obtained Jason Kidd
from the Mavericks. But Johnson has been healthy since Kidd's
arrival on Dec. 26, and so have his numbers: 20.7 points, 9.5
assists and 1.69 steals a game at week's end.

Now friends close to Johnson say he's rethinking his retirement
plans. KJ isn't commenting, and coach Danny Ainge isn't
asking--yet. "I haven't given up [on Johnson's returning],"
Ainge says, "but I haven't told KJ that. I'll wait until the end
of the season to see what's on his mind."

If Johnson decides to come back, he will be a free agent at the
end of this season. What if a contender--say, the Bulls--offered
him a shot at a ring next season? Could Ainge talk KJ out of
that? "I wouldn't," says Ainge. "I'd wish him the very best luck."


Warriors forward Donyell Marshall, March 13 against the
Cavaliers: 44 minutes, 11-15 field goals, 3-4 free throws, 30
points, 10 rebounds. Forgotten but not gone, Marshall, 1994's
fourth overall draft pick, resurfaced to lead Golden State to a
101-95 win. Two days later he scored 20 points and grabbed a
career-high 14 rebounds in Golden State's 106-102 win over


Looks like those Chicago-New York wars are as hot as ever. After
Knicks forward Larry Johnson helped hold Scottie Pippen to
4-for-18 shooting (and 14 points) in the Bulls' 97-93 loss at
Madison Square Garden on March 9, Pippen blasted Johnson in the
Chicago Tribune, saying, "He's garbage. He might as well have
been sitting over there with Spike Lee. All he's doing is being
a cheerleader for them." Countered New York coach Jeff Van
Gundy, "When you have number 23 on your side, it allows you to
get very, very cocky."...Timberwolves officials are quietly
confident that this summer they will be able to sign second-year
forward Kevin Garnett to a long-term deal with no escape clause.
Such a commitment is key, since rookie point guard sensation
Stephon Marbury won't stay unless Garnett does.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Mathis (center) is among the referees already indicted for tax fraud. [Mike Mathis and two referees]

COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER Rare good health has Johnson (driving on the Kings' Mitch Richmond) rethinking retirement. [Mitch Richmond and Kevin Johnson in game]