Chris Webber and the upstart Sacramento Kings nearly dethroned Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the mighty Los Angeles Lakers during the 2002 Western Conference Finals. They would have done just that, too, if not for some shady refereeing. At least, that’s how C-Webb sees it.
Webber and O’Neal have consistently bantered about that showdown through the years. But Shaq prodded the former Kings star just a bit too much back in 2018, prompting Webber to claim The Diesel and the Lakers had assistance from the zebras during a segment on live television.
The 2002 Western Conference Finals is arguably the most controversial playoff series in NBA history
The officiating during the 2002 Western Conference Finals was seen as a major source of controversy at the time. But it’s only become more infamous over time, thanks mostly to one man.
Former NBA official Tim Donaghy was the centerpiece of the league’s betting scandal in 2007. He pleaded guilty to two felony conspiracy charges and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The disgraced official really raised hell when he got out.
Donaghy wrote a book called Personal Foul, in which he alleged massive game-fixing by officials at the behest of the NBA. Donaghy claimed Commissioner David Stern preferred big-market teams to advance in the playoffs and instructed referees to skew games in favor of those teams whenever possible. He also cited the 2002 Western Conference Finals as the most rigged series in league history.
Stern vehemently denied the allegations when the book was released. Still, there is ample skepticism within the basketball community and among fans that something fishy transpired between the Lakers and Kings.
Webber has long been of the mindset that the Kings, who at one point led 3-2 in the series, were robbed. So, when O’Neal once again bragged about beating Sacramento during a segment on “Inside the NBA” in 2002, C-Webb finally snapped.
Chris Webber openly stated Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers had “dirty refs” on their side
Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Webber were on the same “Inside The NBA” panel in 2018 when Shaq saw fit to talk some trash.
Initially, O’Neal praised the Kings as the Lakers’ toughest playoff opponent. But, true to form, he still had to get a rib in. Superman reminded Webber how LA beat Sacramento on its home floor in Game 7. Webber immediately pulled the conspiracy card.
So, why do people still point to this series as one of the most repugnant displays of officiating in NBA history? Much of it stems from the Lakers getting a seemingly inordinate number of free throws at crucial times.
The Lakers handily took Game 1, but the Kings fought back by winning the next two. Game 3 was a major turning point. Sacramento raced out to a 20-point lead in the first quarter. The Purple and Gold cut the deficit to 14 at the half, but only because the refs allowed a miraculous Samaki Walker shot that actually should not have counted. O’Neal and Co. again cut into the lead and trailed by just seven after three quarters.
This is where things got interesting. Shaq — a typically awful foul shooter — somehow went 6-of-6 from the charity stripe even though he appeared to commit numerous violations. By the way, O’Neal’s six attempts in the quarter were more than he had in the entire first half. One Robert Horry game-winner later, and the Lakers tied the series at two games apiece.
The Kings responded valiantly by winning Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead. Again, though, the refs inserted themselves into the picture in Game 6. The Kings were called for a whopping 31 personal fouls, with key frontcourt players like Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard fouling out of the game and Webber racking up five fouls of his own. O’Neal had 17 free-throw attempts, 10 of which came in the fourth quarter alone. In fact, the Lakers had 27 free throws as a team in the final period to Sacramento’s nine.
Phil Jackson’s team evened the series, and LA closed things out in Game 7 at Arco Arena in Sacramento. But many, including Chris Webber, believed the Lakers benefitted from the referee’s whistle.
Webber is still bitter about how the series transpired
Chris Webber still, to this day, believes the NBA wanted Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers to represent the Western Conference in the 2002 NBA Finals.
During a recent interview with Shams Charania of The Athletic, the five-time All-Star subtly pointed out how the Kings pushed LA to the limit “In a day that the league didn’t want small teams to win.” Those remarks echo previous statements Webber made on The Ringer NBA Show in March, when he said the Kings got “cheated” in Game 6.
Webber will enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend without a championship ring. However, he’ll probably always place something of an asterisk next to that 2001-02 season.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.