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The Needed Next Step

9/6/2007

Posted by Kelly Dwyer
Transparency? All for it. Let us know. Let the league show. Make it so the chat radio gasbags haven't a minute of fodder to waste your time with. If the whole of this nation's sporting fandom thinks that NBA referees are on the take, let's try and disabuse them of that notion. While the NBA is at it, I have some more important things I'd like the league and its referees to take care of.

Let's start with the obvious: the state of NBA refereeing is in trouble. Deep trouble.

Let's continue with what nobody wants to own up to: the referees themselves aren't the problem.

Bashing the refs is too, too easy. It's a cop-out move designed for fans, writers and observers who don't want to observe too much, and enjoy the warmth and comfort of easy answers and typical villains. These referees are the best of the best, scrutinized and trained until no end, and they're not replaceable. Suffer through any college or high school game, and see what I mean. They're the best - it's just a damned impossible game to call, at this point.

Tim Donaghy was obviously on the take, ratcheting up foul calls to drive teams into the penalty and drive scores past the stated over/under. Joey Crawford should have known better, and Bennett Salvatore calls a lot of ticky-tack fouls. That said, for the latter, check below: he's been doing that for over a decade. Yes, he sent Dwyane Wade to the line quite a bit during the 2006 Finals; but hand-checking is truly illegal now (and the game is so much better for it), and he used to call the same calls on David Wingate's behalf. The Mavericks should have known better, really.

So the NBA's recent announcement that lets us know about referees being able to use instant replay to re-regard fights (not that important, if someone throws a punch, it's usually seen in real time and the player will be suspended anyway following a game tape study) and flagrant fouls (very important) is a good start.

The flagrant foul issue has gotten out of hand. Refs have been bashed over the head by the last three Director of Officials to call each and every possible flagrant foul with an unwavering "tweet" of the silver whistle. Problem is, a lot of these flagrant fouls aren't really flagrant fouls - more often than not, they happen to be two supremely athletic players jumping very quickly into each other at a high rate of speed.

With that collision, one of the players is bound to either fall hard, or look awkward in tumbling back to earth. Usually there is no more malice involved in these altercations than your typical pre-tip off fist-bump. And yet, the refs feel a need to award a flagrant foul to players who truly don't deserve it, on results (such as a player crashing to the floor) that couldn't have been avoided, and on a play that at no time bore the hallmarks of premeditation.

Suns GM Steve Kerr, for one, always seemed to be the voice of reason with these calls while sitting courtside as a Spurs or TNT analyst over the last few years. This isn't a case of some gym teacher-type begging the refs to "let 'em play" or decrying the weeniefication of the NBA; rather, this is just a needed step to let things cool down a bit after a play that got out of hand, and award the correct penalties.

The NBA can't stop there, however. More than Donaghy, more than poor shooting or show-boatin' or horn-tootin' or Cedric Bozeman - the biggest and most dangerous threat to the sanctity of the pro game is the NBA's continued insistence on overcalling the block/charge play.

We've been over this before. Dennis Hans has been on top of this for years. Fans have been frustrated for years, the game has suffered; and even with the rewards afforded to players who drive (with the hand-check scrutiny), penetrators not named "Dwyane" or "Kobe" are still hesitant to dash toward the front of the rim, because they're well aware that some chump with a head on his shoulders (big or small, they all take the charge) will slide in front of the semi-circle in the paint, draw the whistle, and send the play the other way.

(And, on the flip side, there are still far too many block calls. This isn't all about Anderson Varejao-types; a flopper Hans calls "the Blanche DuBois Defender of the Year." Refs are told that no contact that close to the rim with a player stationed and taking a dive should go uncalled. Everything is called, and only about 70 percent of the "collisions" need to end in a whistle.)

The calls are changing the game. Outside of a few big men, most power forwards and centers never leave their feet in order to challenge or potentially reject a shot. Why would they? All they have to do is slide underneath a player, fall down, and get a pat on the butt and praise from the TV commentators ("so heady, what hustle!") as his team gets the ball back and the shooting guard picks up his third foul of the first half. So the spectacular defensive players are dwindling, as are the spectacular all-out drives to the basket.

All in the interest of getting everything right. Not fair, but right.

I'm not sure if anyone's noticed, but the refs are at the game. They're on the court. They're in the flow. The last thing they want to do is stop the damn game every 28 seconds.

If you get a chance, listen to these guys on the court. They spend the entire game imploring players to do the right thing well before blowing the whistle: "no hands, Jason. Watch the hook, Antoine. In the lane, Alonzo." The refs spend the bulk of their energy preventing players from committing infractions that never get called because the referee warnings drew a spark of recognition from players that should know better, and subsequently changed their ways. So the last thing these refs want to do is keep punching players out for contact near the rim.

And yet, they're being told to - by people who aren't at the games. By administrators and executives who aren't caught up in the flow of things, and just want the quota filled, and don't want to have tape on their desk the next morning that shows Andres Nocioni falling to the floor after running underneath Jason Richardson, not getting a call, and looking up at ref with those "where's the bloody call?" eyes.

The NBA has to work on this. The last batch of Director of Officials has effectively put a moat around the hoop, and it's only going to get worse. On both ends of the floor. If David Stern wants to make some cosmetic changes for changes' sake, I'd have to suggest working on something that might be the missing step toward another NBA renaissance.