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Monday, November 15, 2010
Lamar Odom's technical foul and referee responsibility

By Andy Kamenetzky

With just under a minute remaining and the Lakers down by four points in their eventual 121-116 loss to the Suns on Sunday night, Pau Gasol snagged a missed 17-footer from Derek Fisher, then kicked the ball to Kobe Bryant to reset a new possession. Bryant eventually drove the lane, then dished to a baseline-cutting Lamar Odom. LO was met at the rim by Hedo Turkoglu, who couldn't prevent the basket despite a forearm to Odom's chest.

No question, this was a foul, and Odom quickly reacted by screaming "And one!" arguably in the direction of nobody specific, much less referee Tony Brown, who was facing the player's back at the time.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Lamar Odom's technical foul was a bigger mistake on referee Tony Brown's part than LO's.


Brown hit LO with a technical foul, which sent Steve "automatic at the line" Nash to the free-throw line. Freebie drained, Phoenix was up by three and retained possession of the ball after a timeout. Seventeen seconds later, Turkoglu buried a deep 3-pointer with Kobe's mitt in his mug.

The end officially began for the Lakers.

True, this technical didn't literally "cost" the Lakers a win. They were behind in any event. There was a matter of both teams playing out the remaining 53.7 seconds. But it definitely shaped the game. Phoenix literally gained a point, and the Lakers had to shake off the psychology from a bad turn of events. I have no idea how the game would have turned out if no tech had been issued, but I refuse to believe it didn't matter.

Before I go too far, Odom's responsibility in this matter bears mention. Even before the league dropped the "Respect The Game" hammer, players reacting to calls and/or non-calls with outbursts were susceptible to techs. Perhaps not with a minute left, but in a vacuum, the risk was present. This season, demonstrativeness is explicitly verboten. While one could rightly argue this rule hasn't been consistently enforced, it definitely has been drilled into everyone's heads.

With his team clawing its way back into the game -- a bucket from tying the score after his layup -- LO has to be aware of circumstances and stakes. Sometimes you just have to sit back and take it to preserve the bigger picture, and with that in mind, Odom lost his head.

Like any sport, basketball is and should be an emotional game, which provides a legitimate explanation for LO's reaction. Emotion, however, can't be the catch-all excuse. We live in a world where people are responsible for their actions. Odom is no exception.

But to reiterate, we live in a world where people are responsible for their actions. Along these lines, Brown failed considerably more than Odom to hold up his end of the bargain.

When David Stern was in L.A. for the ring ceremony, I asked him to explain how he defines the spirit of these new rules and what he hoped they'd accomplish:

"The spirit of it is that our players don't [complain] in elementary school, junior high, high school, college. And then they get their Masters in Complaining when they get to the NBA. And that's not a good thing, because they're great players, and they should stop complaining and play. Because the more that they play, the more people love this game. That's what's behind it."

Perfectly reasonable desire on Stern's part. Baseline-to-baseline jawing at refs while a player gets back on D (assuming said player even gets back) alienates fans. As someone lucky enough to witness 60-70 games live each season, I'll clue the less fortunate in on a secret; it's even worse in person than what the camera follows during a typical broadcast. Trying to squash this is definitely understandable.

However, I also asked Stern if a degree of player-official interaction would be allowed. He confirmed that was fine, emphasizing again the objective of cutting down on excessive complaints:

"When somebody thinks they've been fouled, and rather than getting back on defense, they spend the entire time explaining to the referee all the way up ... stop it. That's only designed to undermine the official."

In this situation, Odom didn't show up a referee. He didn't excessively complain or curse. He wasn't even given the chance to groan while backpedaling on D. He simply reacted to a potentially crucial free throw he rightly earned and subsequently didn't receive.

I'm sorry, but if Odom is now required to exercise split-second judgment with his blood boiling and competitive juices flowing, the same should at least be required from a referee while theoretically impartial to the game's outcome. If there's an expectation of time and place on Odom's part, how can the same not be expected of Brown?

I have no issue with players being held accountable for behavior. Call me old fashioned, but I'm a believer in the value of professionalism and sportsmanship. It has nothing to do with athletes being role models or "protecting the children." I just think soldiering past what you don't like is a legitimate part of most jobs, and professional sports are no exception.

But accountability must be a two-way street. There is now an onus on the players to keep emotions in check and heads in the game. Fair enough, but that onus must also be demanded from the referees. If anything, there should be a greater onus on the officials, because their job is to regulate the proceedings through good judgment. If an athlete is told to maintain calm, even during DEFCON 1 moments, a referee should also be held to that same standard while exercising power.

Just two weeks previous to Stern's appearance, I expressed dissatisfaction with the new edict's extreme nature, along with a hope common sense would prevail. I was skeptical, and my instincts unfortunately proved warranted. A rule this heavy-handed blowing up in its face during crunch time was as predictable as an M.Night Shyamalan movie released to bad reviews. If anything, the only twist was this long a delay before the inevitable.

As you'll see in the videos below, Phil Jackson, various Lakers, and even Alvin Gentry weren't pleased with the situation. They had every right to be unhappy, and I hope the Lakers contact the league office and make a stink of this. What happened wasn't a miscarriage of justice, but rather a miscarriage of authority. If the league wants this rule to be respected and appreciated, priority one should be sensible, intelligent application. There must be purpose with power.

Otherwise, the rule is nothing more than exercising empty control over players for the sake of doing what you can get away with, which makes the entire situation a joke.