NBA Traveling: "We Really Don't Reference the Rulebook"

March, 4, 2009
3/04/09
11:37
AM ET

The enormous flat-screen TV on the wall of Joe Borgia's office is showing a moment of the 2005 Christmas day game. The Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade catches the ball on the right wing, eyes up his defender, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, and plows into the lane.

We're on a high floor on Fifth Avenue, at the NBA's headquarters, where Borgia is the Vice President of Referee Operations. After controversy involving a travel call on LeBron James and his crab dribble, the ensuing commentary made clear that while basketball fans and journalists may be upset about how NBA referees do or don't call travels, very few of us really understand the NBA's actual traveling rule.

The written rule is far more complicated than you -- or indeed most NBA players -- would expect. And some digging has revealed that the way it's actually called in games is far more complicated than that.

Borgia oversees the referees and tells them how to enforce this and all NBA rules. We're watching TV together, so Borgia can tell me what is and is not an NBA travel.

Wade makes a body fake for the baseline, freezing Bryant for an instant, then drives hard for the middle, where Bryant guides Wade into a helping teammate.

One of the NBA's great genies, it appears, has been bottled.

But no!

Still moving at warp speed, Wade picks up his dribble while spinning hard on his right leg. The move neatly tucks Bryant away from the play, while opening Wade a seam to the hoop. Ball in hand, he storms the opening with first one big step, onto his left foot, and another, onto his right. Then, while a foul is called, he finally elevates and shoots.
Traveling in the NBA
Traveling in the NBA:
A TrueHoop Investigation

Perhaps the most fundamental rule of basketball is under fire. TrueHoop digs in.
(Source image by Andrew D. Bernstein NBAE/Getty Images)

" 1: Introduction: A basic rule, yet a mystery.
" 2: NBA Executive: "We really don't reference the rulebook."
" 3: NBA players on video: What's the rule?
" 4: Why traveling is tough to call.
" 5: Rewrite the rule.

In real time, the whole thing takes less than a second, and it's hard to tell what happens. But Borgia has referee eyes, and sees after one quick viewing that this is a case of a player gathering the ball and then taking two steps and shooting.

"I don't see a travel," says Borgia. "He gathers the ball, and then he gets a one-two."

The same play appears in slow motion. At this speed, however, it's clear Wade's spin included a simultaneous hop. That's a moving pivot foot -- which should be called a travel every time.

Seeing that, Borgia allows, this is certainly one of many travel calls that are missed in any NBA season, but this isn't one that he'll lose sleep over. "If you can see that in real time," he says, "God bless you."

Two Steps?
A couple of weeks later, I call Borgia again. I have this article half-written. I have spent quality time with the NBA's rulebook, video clips, and a number of interviews. I have learned a ton. But there's one key point -- the biggest point of all, as it happens -- on which things remain fuzzy.

In that play, Wade clearly picks up the ball and then takes two steps. But the NBA rulebook, and a hundred million basketball fans around the globe, insist players ought to get only one step after picking up their dribble like that.

Yet Borgia was ready to give him -- and every other player -- two steps in that situation.

In the conversation that follows, Borgia unravels one of the NBA's great secrets.

"We really don't reference the rulebook."
Disgust. For many of basketball's fans, that's the main reaction to seeing today's NBA players cover great distances -- sometimes almost all the way from the 3-point line to the rim -- without dribbling the ball.

"It's very blatant now," says Walt "Clyde" Frazier. One of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Frazier is also, as a Knick team broadcaster, a close observer of today's game. "They go twenty feet to the hoop without dribbling one time. This is what they are getting away with nowadays. Some of them are so obvious. You'll hear me on the broadcast saying 'That's a travel! Watch the feet!' Wilt [Chamberlain] would have averaged 100 points a game if they had let him do that."

Frazier speaks for multitudes who are convinced that when it comes to traveling, referees nowadays ignore the rulebook almost entirely.

Shockingly, Borgia -- the man in charge of telling referees what is and is not a travel -- admits that referees are instructed, by him and others, to ignore one part of the NBA's written traveling rule.

"We really don't reference the rulebook," says Borgia. Where the rulebook says Wade, in our example, has to shoot or pass after taking just one step, Borgia says NBA referees work with the rule of thumb that such players are entitled to two steps.

Without wanting to be identified, other NBA officials confirm that there is an age-old schism in basketball that is only now coming to light. The rulebook says one step, and vocal fans have long insisted it stay that way -- in keeping with every other level of the game. Yet for as long as anyone can remember, NBA referees have operated with the direction to allow players to take two steps after picking up a dribble, or catching the ball on the run.

A New Rule to Replace a Confusing One
Borgia is hoping to end the schism. He recently drafted a new rule legalizing the second step. "I wrote a version," he says, "and I put it out there." He is waiting to see if "the people upstairs" will embrace the change.

Borgia claims the current rule is so confusing that it's impossible to tell if it allows one step or two. The suspicion is that the NBA ignores the rule to inspire exciting offensive players to create great moments. Borgia insists the rule is ignored simply because its intent is lost in a tangle of legalistic terminology.

The key part of the traveling rule has not changed in more than a half century. It is dense and nuanced, for something that describes one of the most basic elements of basketball. (Blazer rookie Greg Oden's
proposed re-write, after reading the rule: "If you don't take a dribble, and you're moving ... that's a travel.")

But the rule is also clear on the key point: A running player who picks up his dribble, or catches a pass, with a foot on the floor, gets one more step before he must shoot or pass.

The key part of the NBA's official rule is as follows:
A player who receives the ball while he is progressing or upon completion of a dribble, may use a two-count rhythm in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball. The first count occurs:
(1) As he receives the ball, if either foot is touching the floor at the time he receives it.
(2) As the foot touches the floor, or as both feet touch the floor simultaneously after he receives the ball, if both feet are off the floor when he receives it.

The second occurs:
(1) After the count of one when either foot touches the floor, or both feet touch the floor simultaneously.

The first count clearly occurs "as he receives the ball, if either foot is touching the floor." Picture Wade, at the free throw line. He has his foot on the floor as he gathers the ball. He then gets just one more count before having to get rid of the ball. He instead was granted two -- plus a missed moving pivot foot.

Two steps, the current status quo, clearly ought to be outlawed, or the rule changed.

Instead there is confusion. "The book," Borgia says, "possibly could be interpreted differently from what actually happens. You could read it so that it's almost like you're allowed one. If you interpret it that way, right. That's where we're having an issue."

What's clear, however, is that NBA referees have long been instructed by the League that two steps are allowed.

"Forever, as long as I can remember, a player has been allowed two steps," says Borgia, whose father was an NBA referee for the league's first two decades, and then a referee supervisor. "I've never heard anything other than that. ... Everyone in the world knows you're allowed two steps."

A New Permissiveness?
Borgia's new version of the rule would allow two steps, and he doesn't even think the NBA's rules committee will need to see it. "We're not really making a rule change," he says. "We're just trying to write the rule that makes sense."

Borgia's position is supported by a cursory examination of video. Highlights show everyone from Bob Cousy to Magic Johnson taking two steps after gathering the ball off the dribble or catch. What's harder to look up, however, is vintage footage of players getting called for travels.

There are several reasons why two steps today might look worse than two steps in the 1960s. For instance:
  • Players have gotten bigger, stronger, and faster through the years, and appear to have grown more aggressive in using their allotted two steps to full maximum advantage. For many NBA players, two steps are all that's needed to get from just inside the 3-point line all the way to rim.
  • Players are employing strategies to maximize the effect of two steps. Rather than simply taking an extra step on a layup, now it's common to see players like Manu Ginobili or LeBron James change direction once or twice -- eluding defenders -- without dribbling. The League is essentially telling players with this mentality that they need not dribble as they drive through the defense.
  • Thanks to League Pass and DVRs every NBA play is now subject to intense scrutiny for violations of any kind. The worst of them make their way to YouTube. A feeling emerges that referees might be in decline. But are they? Or are they merely subject to new scrutiny?

Frazier does not discount those effects, but is not buying that as the whole story. He insists that the NBA consciously allowed scorers more leeway as a reaction to the ugly, low-scoring, defense-oriented basketball that thrived in the early 1990s, especially under Pat Riley and assistant coach Dick Harter in New York.

"When guys couldn't put up points, about when they changed the hand-check rule, they made things easier for scorers, because these players can't shoot like we did," says Frazier. "Those few years when the Knicks were good -- that wasn't pretty basketball."

I ask if he thinks it was a deliberate strategy on the part of the league. "Yes," says Frazier. "Making it easier for scorers." Frazier sees it as an affront: "If I'm a defensive player, it's hard to stop NBA stars from scoring. I have pride in what I'm doing. Why give the offensive player even more of an advantage? You're going to allow him to do that? How am I supposed to stop him now?"

This is a variation of the common complaint that referees will allow superstars today to get away with traveling on the way to the hoop. Dr. Jack Ramsay, a recent member of the NBA's rules committee and a leading voice for speeding up and opening up the game, says many aspects of the traveling rule are not called consistently -- a particular beef of his is seeing players come off a screen, catch a pass, and take steps before coming to a stop.

But superstar treatment, he insists, is as old as the hills, and if anything has declined.

"That has been going on forever," says Ramsay. "I think that, in fact, that's becoming less the case than it used to be. I remember Chet Walker. You remember him? I had him out at a kids' camp in the Poconos, years ago, as a guest. He was showing them how he did his move. And he'd fake with his right foot. Then he'd pick up his left foot, crossover, and then dribble. I said 'Chet, that's a walk.' He said 'that's my move!' He was allowed to do it his entire career. And he moved both feet before he started dribbling!"

It Starts Young
Borgia says he can prove that players taking two steps on the way to the hoop is not some scourge of the NBA -- but is instead simply the global norm in basketball, which some people don't want to accept.

"Take a video camera and go to any high school game you want," he beseeches critics. "Film it, and then go home and watch it in slow motion. I won't bet the ranch -- we're not allowed to bet anymore -- I would say that there is a high probability that they're going to take two normal steps after they gather the ball."

Borgia says he has done this same exercise watching classic NBA basketball players like Pete Maravich, and he's wholly satisfied that there's nothing new about allowing two steps. "The normal, basic layup, eighty percent of the time the player is going to gather the ball with a foot on the floor, and then we give them a one, two.

"I teach little kids basketball. We say OK stand here. Take one step, layup. When you're dealing with six, seven, eight-year-olds, you stand at the basket and say take one step. Then you say OK, you made it five times, take another step back and one, two, one two. Then you go to the dribble. It's as basic as I can ever remember."

(Video courtesy of the NBA)

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