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The Salvatore Side of the Story: A 2006 Jump Ball the Suns Hate

This is the third installment in a series based on a recent interview with NBA referee Bennett Salvatore. Go back to the first and second posts for more on Salvatore.

In the 2006 playoffs, Game 4 of the first round series between the Lakers and the Suns was really something.

The story, at least according to this highlight package, was Kobe Bryant's two buzzer-beaters in one game -- both on amazing plays -- resulting in a one-point Laker victory in overtime.

After that, the Lakers went up 3-1, and Kobe Bryant seemed to be well on his way to proving that he could lead a good team without Shaquille O'Neal.

But there was a lot more to it than that. In the post-game press conference, Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni misspoke most bizarrely. He summed up a lot of the things his team had done well, and then said "... and that's why we won."

Then he paused.

"Why we won?" he reiterated. "Jeez. I'm in denial."

Phoenix had not won, but just about everybody in Phoenix felt that the team had done enough to win -- it just wasn't reflected in the final score.

NBA coaches and players get fined by the league if they criticize referees in the media. D'Antoni went to some trouble to implicate the referees without criticizing them per se, saying things like "we got some bad breaks, but haven't had many calls go for us ... not saying it was a bad call ... this was weird ... almost like we're snakebit or something."

What was he talking about? Laker coach Phil Jackson, who had preceded D'Antoni at the podium, had talked about a certain jump ball that "really changed it."

You can see the play about 1:20 into this YouTube video.

The Suns had the ball and were up one point, near the end of overtime. The game, essentially, was Phoenix's to lose. Steve Nash, one of the greatest ball-handlers, and free-throw shooters (LA was sure to try to steal and then foul) in the league. Nash made his way up the court with the ball, to a spot on the sidelines near where Laker guard Smush Parker had swiped the ball from Nash near the end of regulation in another key play.

When Nash got there, he was greeted by the much bigger Lamar Odom and then Luke Walton. Nash picked up his dribble. Later he would be criticized for dribbling near the sidelines, for picking up his dribble, and for plenty more. (D'Antoni points out that Nash was having back, leg, neck, ear and possibly some other health problems at the time.)

Then there was something of a scrum. Odom stepped forward, straddling Nash's leg, to make it nearly impossible for Nash to keep his pivot foot. Nash was flailing around with the ball, and the Lakers were all over him.

Nash was not, however, calling timeout.

"I was just trying to keep the ball away from the defenders. I heard Boris [Diaw] calling timeout. I got bumped a little, pushed to the sideline. Boris was calling timeout and we didn't get it."

Didn't get it? How can you not get it?

Diaw was a few feet away, pretty close to Bennett Salvatore.

"It was a tough play," D'Antoni would say later. "He was moving the ball around, and there was some contact. Normally they call a foul."

Instead, Salvatore, who was standing nearby, kept watching, without calling a foul, and eventually called a jumpball between the tiny Nash and the much larger Luke Walton -- practically the same as awarding the ball to the Lakers. ("I knew," Kobe Bryant would later say, "that Luke was going to win that tip.")

Walton tipped the ball at center court to Kobe Bryant, who used the waning seconds of overtime to drain a 15-foot jumpshot that he says he has rehearsed many thousands of times.

For fans in Phoenix -- who would later be rewarded with an improbable Suns comeback to win the series in the seventh game -- it was only the latest bit of supporting evidence for the ongoing conspiracy theory that the NBA uses referees to help big market teams advance deep into the playoffs. (Those teams come with huge television audiences and, ultimately, advertising revenues).

The conspiracy theories got another shot in the arm, with the publication of a freeze-frame of video, showing that while Nash and Walton scrapped for the ball, Walton's foot is clearly out of bounds. And in the photo, Walton's foot is directly in front of Salvatore, who is watching closely. It appears to be a trump card: either Walton does not have a hand on the ball, and there should not have been a jump ball, or he did, and he's out of bounds.

In the post-game press conference, Nash was, like his coach, careful not to overtly blame the referees ("I don't know ... that was a tough call to make ...") but in Jack McCallum's "Seven Seconds or Less" about that season with the Suns, McCallum recounts a conversation in which Nash -- who was named the league's MVP shortly afterward -- reportedly asked D'Antoni in a private moment if, indeed, the NBA is rigged.

Last Friday, in the NBA offices, I sat down with Bennett Salvatore and asked him describe what was happening as we watch the very same video I have linked to from this post.

OK, tell me what you're seeing here.
The first thing that I have in my mind, coming up the court, is that you can not expect. I don't coach the game, I don't play the game. I'm a referee. I'm going to go by what I see and what I hear. So I am aware that he might be calling timeout. I am looking for him to call timeout. I am looking for him to say timeout.

Players and coaches sometimes notify you in advance, right? To make you aware a timeout might be coming?
Yes, but we can't go by that, because they might change their minds. We can only do what we hear or see.

In this case did they give you a heads up about it?
They did not. [The video keeps playing.] So, at this time, there has been no signal made, and no verbal call, of any timeout.

And you can call a timeout my making a "T" with your hands, or by saying timeout to a referee's face, right?
Correct. [There is an ongoing scrum on the screen.]

Now Nash's yelling something in here, right?
No, he's not.

OK, there he's yelling.
Yeah, but the whistle has already blown.

So what is he yelling here, that Boris called timeout? I think after the game that was what he explained.
You also have to understand, you can not grant timeout until you're sure that a team has possession, and that team is calling timeout.

Is this Nash asking for a timeout here?
It didn't happen. Until the whistle had blown.

Boris Diaw's over here. The story is that Boris Diaw was calling for timeout. Did you not hear him? Did it not happen?
All I will tell you is, there was no signal or call before my whistle blew for a jump ball.

After our interview was completed, Salvatore was concerned that there may ha
ve been confusion on some points concerning this play, and sent a clarification, through the NBA, by email:

When the ball is inbounded I am of the mindset that LA has to foul or the game is over, but I am also conscious of not calling it until I see an actual foul. Well, LA never fouls and they now have Steve Nash tied up just beyond midcourt. Now I'm intently looking for a time out to be called. I neither hear nor see one signaled before the jump ball occurs.

[I show Salvatore the aforementioned photo of Salvatore standing on the sideline, staring at Luke Walton's out-of-bounds foot.]

Can you tell me what we're seeing here?
There is a difference between the position you see me in and what's actually happening. [Salvatore is up now, out of his chair, reenacting the moment of the photo.] There is a split second between when I call it, and can physically do this [sending both hands into the sky, signalling a jump ball]. So what I'm trying to say is that before that foot hit that ground, I actually had that jump ball. My signal just doesn't get there before that foot gets down. It actually happens before.

Jack McCallum wrote a book about that Suns season. Don't know if you read that.
Yes! Yes! I'm in it a couple of times.

You are in that a couple of times. And at one point, Steve Nash asks Mike D'Antoni if the games are fixed. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that theory from a fan. But from an MVP, someone who is living this every day? Is that disappointing, that an MVP would wonder that?
All I'm going to say is that that thought, and that statement, is SO out there, I can't even answer that because it's so ridiculous. We're just a bunch of people who go to work every day and try to do the best we can, and that's it.