How do you know: Who is that guy?

November, 30, 2010
11/30/10
11:20
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Alonzo Gee and Trevor Booker
Mike Ehrmann/NBAE/Getty Images
Alonzo Gee (#15) and Trevor Booker (#35): Not the same person.

NBA referees have tough jobs.

Before even getting on the court they have to master (there are tests upon tests) an insanely complex rulebook. I dare you to read it; no human can go cover-to-cover through all that.

A section picked at random:
An offensive player shall not remain for more than three seconds in that part of his free throw lane between the endline and extended 4' (imaginary) off the court and the farther edge of the free throw line while the ball is in control of his team. Allowance may be made for a player who, having been in this area for less than three seconds, is in the act of shooting at the end of the third second. Under these conditions, the 3-second count is discontinued while his continuous motion is toward the basket. If that continuous motion ceases, the previous 3-second count is continued.

I'm of the opinion that any writer who packs that many versions of the word "continue" into such a small space (along with the dreamy word "imaginary") both went to law school and intends for the reader to lose consciousness. The NBA rulebook is a Rambo-run through legalese -- it's aggressively hard to follow.

After that there's the family-breaking travel, the pay that's not what it once was, all that airport food combined with all those fitness tests and, oh yeah ... the warp speed of the world's best athletes flying through the air in NBA real time. Everyone who would judge you -- bosses, fans, owners -- has slow-motion high-definition instant replay. But you are out there naked, having to get it right with your own two eyes, a whistle and a half-second.

An NBA referee once told me that he is careful to blow the whistle with air from his diaphragm, not from his throat. The reason: That extra fraction of a second gives your brain just the tiniest moment to replay what you just saw, buying you an option to decide, upon reflection, not to blow.

I am not among those who think NBA referees are terrible. I think they make more noticeable mistakes than ever because of TV technology, but generally fewer than referees at any other level of basketball. As a group, they are the best basketball referees in the world. That means something.

But mistakes are made and sometimes they are embarrassing. One of them occurred in last night's Heat win over the Wizards.

It started with a tense mood.

Pulses had been quickened by a spot of pushing between Wizard Kirk Hinrich and the Heat's James Jones.

The main incident came later, with 32.3 seconds left in the third quarter, Washington's Hilton Armstrong shoved the hip of airborne Heat center Joel Anthony. It quickly reminded everybody of Sixer Elton Brand's toppling of Wizard center Javale McGee last Tuesday.

Armstrong acted like a nice guy -- he ran over to help Anthony up. He could not have looked more apologetic. Later he said how sorry he was. But the referees and just about every player on the court sprinted over there like a fight was about to break out. One of the first on the scene was Juwan Howard, who is old school and stuck up for his fallen teammate Anthony by shoving the apologetic Armstrong hard to the floor, from behind. (Heat coach Erik Spoelstra would later praise his team for being physical.)

The referees were on edge, hoping to get to the end of the game -- a blowout for the Heat -- before anything really ugly happened.

With three and a half minutes left before the merciful final horn, the Heat's Chris Bosh got the ball near the hoop. As he jumped to shoot, there it was again: Like McGee and Anthony before him, an airborne Bosh was sent flying sideways, dangerously, thanks to a hand on his hip, shoving.

The call was instant. A flagrant foul type 1 -- the milder kind -- on Wizards benchwarmer Trevor Booker. That's how the referees called it. That's how the game proceeded. That's what made the official A.P. recap that has been reproduced all over today.

Booker, playing in just his 13th NBA game at the time and therefore unknown to many around the league, was as it happens, standing with his back to the play, a dozen feet away from the shoved Bosh. Video clearly shows -- and today, a corrected play-by-play concurs -- that the flagrant fouler was another player newish to the NBA in Alonzo Gee. The former Spur was playing in his 20th NBA game.

So, add one more task to an NBA referees to-do list. In addition to knowing all those rules, breathing from the diaphragm, seeing things perfectly, keeping trim to pass the fitness tests ... there is also the matter of familiarizing yourself with the many new players on the NBA court.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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