Conspiracy theorists unite: You have a new crowd in your midst. All you UFO believers, JFK hypothesizers and moon-landing deniers, welcome in a group of Orlando Magic fans who seem to think the Cavaliers are on their way to the NBA Finals.

The Eastern Conference finals start Wednesday night, but there is already chatter among fans in bars, message groups and Web sites with the same belief: The NBA would much rather see LeBron James play Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the NBA Finals. People in the Orlando Sentinel’s live chat during Game 7 with the Celtics talked about it. Someone on the popular Magic blog “Third Quarter Collapse” posted this: “I hope the Magic can beat the refs” when talking about the Cavs series. He even included a poll, “Who do you think will win with the refs?” Of the 38 people who responded, 22 said neither (and 11 said the NBA is rigged).

Whether this represents a small segment of the Magic fan base or not, the chatter is real.

“This next series with the Cavs, I will be looking at the fouls being called,” said Derek Patti, 23, a Magic fan in Apopka. “As much as I don’t want to think the refs will favor the Cavs the whole series, I truly would not be surprised one bit. I love the NBA, but when calls are made by refs that you just know are bogus, it is very frustrating to watch. Especially when it is your team that is getting the shaft.”

Indeed, the NBA has had to battle the perception that the league is fixed for some time, but it came to a head when disgraced ex-referee Tim Donaghy admitted last year that he gambled on games. He also said two of the three refs who worked Game 6 of the playoff series between the Kings and Lakers in 2002 impacted the outcome, a charge the league vehemently denies, but one the fans point to as a reason they believe the refs can’t be trusted.

Then there was Game 3 of the Dallas-Denver series this year when the refs failed to call an intentional foul on the Mavericks before Carmelo Anthony hit the game-winning 3-pointer. The NBA admitted the officials made a mistake.

“Perception is reality,” said Eddy Rivera, a contributing editor at “Third Quarter Collapse.” “There’s been a lot of problems with the NBA with officiating this year and in the past. The NBA has done a poor job of cleaning up that perception. Fans of any team are running with that. With the Magic right now, the Kobe-LeBron finals that everyone seems to want – I don’t believe there’s a conspiracy but I can sympathize with fans because of what’s occurred in the NBA over the last several years.”

One Magic fan, David Stella of Orlando, said he truly believes the games are rigged: “I honestly believe this, going back to the Lakers and Kings series. It’s not just from a Magic fan perspective, I’m looking at it from the big picture, it seems that way and I strongly believe a lot of the games are fixed.”

NBA spokesman Tim Frank called any accusations about game fixing “reckless and irresponsible. It’s such a disservice to the game, it’s an insult to the coaches, players and fans to say the games are not decided on their merits.”

Perhaps fans from smaller markets feel their teams feel somewhat paranoid because they are not in bigger markets. Former Dallas coach Avery Johnson remembers when he played for San Antonio, fans believed the NBA didn’t want the Spurs to win because ratings would be bad.

“But the fact is the NBA wants the best team to win. Small market or big market, there are no conspiracy theories there,” said Johnson, who works as an analyst at ESPN. “There shouldn’t be any preconceived notions. Nobody’s going to get cheated. The referees are going to call the games fairly. There isn’t going to be any bias.”

TNT studio host Ernie Johnson offers this voice of reason: “The league is not trying to manufacture a final. If they were, then Boston would be playing Cleveland.”

(c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-05-19-09 2056EDT

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