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NBA Traveling: Always Been a Tough Rule to Call

10/20/2009

When I first arrive in his office, Vice President of Referee Operations Joe Borgia shakes my hand, eyes locked on mine, and asks: "What color shoes am I wearing?"

Without peeking, I can see his shirt, and guess it might be the kind of shirt you'd wear with black shoes.

"Black," I say. He smiles, impishly.

I look down at his shoes.

Which are brown.

His point: Referees look primarily for fouls. They're looking at bodies, elbows, heads, the ball, and everything else. The eyes are up -- there's just no way around it. Yet traveling happens with the feet -- so it's just about always called with peripheral vision, at a run, often with other players obscuring the view.

Nobody ever said it would be easy to call, and plenty of times players seem to get away with even more than the two steps NBA referees intend to give players at the end of their dribble.


Making a Tough Call in Real Time
In slow motion, it is possible to identify the moment a player stops dribbling and gathers the ball, to note which foot is in the floor, and then how many steps come after that. In real time, there is never much time, and there is never a great view.

In fact, when all three referees are in position, the one closest to the play is not the main person watching for travels -- it's too hard to see up close, and that official is well-positioned to call fouls. So the officials across the court are more focused on it, but their views are often obscured.

And it all happens fast -- getting it right requires a natural, internal sense of what's a travel and what isn't.

To clarify, I ask if referees are essentially saying to themselves "that looks like a travel."

"A lot of it is the cadence of the player," he says. "You can't sit there and count the feet. A guy going in for a layup or a dunk, there's a defender with him. Can't say one, two, badabing. It's a cadence, and watching it with peripheral vision."

"What we have been trying to get to lately," says Borgia, "is when somebody gathers the ball, picks the pivot foot up right away. When somebody catches it say LEFT, and then looks at the defender. But if somebody's charging at you, and they're a half-step away when they catch it, you're trying to see one thing on the floor, and another thing up high, and something has got to give."

It's not a perfect system, and not just because it is sometimes too permissive.

"You'd be surprised at how many things are called travels that aren't travels, because they look bad. The cadence of the player, being awkward or going off the wrong foot. We saw a clip of Hedo Turkoglu. Often times the tendency is that if they did something funny, you know it. You're going to go with your instinct, and the cadence. And sometimes you're wrong."

On the Agenda: Stricter Calls
Borgia is talking in a week when, by coincidence, he has just prepared a collection of video clips to send to referees as part of their ongoing education. He shows me more than a dozen. I ask if he'll also be including some of these instances when the calls are too aggressive -- the called travels, that really weren't.

"We're still trying to get them to call the illegal ones," he says, knee-jerk. The video he'll send out to the referees will not have travels that should not have been called. 

It's an interesting moment of the interview. Part of the reason to even address traveling is to answer those fans who see lax travel calls as a sign of the league's general abandoning of core basketball principles in favor of something flashier. If Borgia, the NBA's guy in charge of telling referees how to call travels, is telling me he's wringing his hands trying to get more travels called, then perhaps that would go some distance to disprove the shadowy theory that the League runs some kind of conspiracy to let the players flout the game's most basic rule in the name of looking good in highlights.

So I follow up. Does that mean Borgia wants referees to call more travels?

"I don't care if it's more or less. I want them to get every one right. Right now we see them missing some, so obviously, we're saying get them all."

He's clearly wary of being on record advocating anything like a quota. But the sense is undeniable that he's eager for referees to make more calls.

Think about all the commentary out there criticizing NBA referees. All those YouTube videos. A thousand screaming coaches, prancing on a thousand sidelines. A zillion drunk heckling fans, over a career. All emboldened since the Donaghy affair. Imagine if you were an NBA referee, like Joe Borgia, and all you were ever trying to do was to get every call right. All that second-guessing could get a little tiring. In exhausted defiance of all those who would doubt the integrity of the operation he heads, Borgia adds: "Get them all right, one way or the other, with every call."

Then he barks: "THAT'S THE GOAL!" This line comes with body language that seems to add: "Honest!"

Watching YouTube With a Top Official
How many times have you seen an egregiously bad NBA call, and just wished you could show the video to some bigwig at the NBA, and have them explain themselves?

Joe Borgia is ready to take his medicine. He hands over the cable so I can plug my laptop into his big-screen TV and make him talk me through some of YouTube's greatest travels.

And while generally defending NBA referees as people with a very tough job, who are trying to call it by the book,  he still calls them like he sees them.

For insta
nce, when I showed him that Vladimir Radmanovic clip, which, incidentally takes place with an NBA Finals game on the line, Borgia responds: "That's a travel. Can't help you there. Sometimes you see a play -- you're almost embarrassed. ... The guy's probably sneaking a peek at the defender. ... We're not perfect." 

Watching this one, Borgia says: "Are travels missed? Absolutely they're missed. But it's not as simple as people think."

The Crab Dribble
Watch the move
, which is now famous, and you'll be convinced that, by the letter of the law, LeBron James certainly did travel.
But it's closer than you might think. It all comes down to when James gathered the ball, because that's when the dribble stops.

Start and stop that video again and again. Try to find the exact moment when he stops dribbling by gathering the ball into his hands.

"He's gathering," says Borgia, "on the left foot." If James had gathered slightly later, though, with his left foot lifted off the floor, it would have been different. Then he'd have been a guy gathering on his right foot, and taking the two steps that players have long been getting from NBA referees. It's not allowed by the NBA rulebook, but it has long been allowed by NBA referees. "Another three feet, another half-step," says Borgia, "and it's legal."

Listen to LeBron James, though, and he's just sure that he only took two steps. Borgia agrees that James has likely done this move before without having it called. But in those other instances, Borgia suggests, James has gathered the ball slightly later, after that trailing leg was off the floor. Then he could take two steps to the hoop.

Not All Travels are at the End of the Dribble
The NBA is working on something truly splendid. A video rulebook. The idea is that, eventually, there will be an online, multimedia showcase of what is legal and what is not. It will help to settle many an argument.

Until that's ready, there are all kinds of video clips available and the NBA uses them all kinds of ways. As part of ongoing training, the NBA recently sent referees a series of clips showing different kinds of travels. They provided us with some of them. For instance, here then-Bull, now-King Andres Nocioni with a garden variety case of starting to run before he dribbles:


In this one, Orlando's Dwight Howard (after a collection of tiny steps that probably would not have been called) establishes his right foot as his pivot. Then he moves that right foot a country mile as he spins, which is a classic of dragging your pivot foot:


Beno Udrih of the Kings violates a different part of the rules. From the rulebook: "Upon ending his dribble of gaining control of the ball, a player may not touch the floor consecutively with the same foot." Borgia makes clear that this is one part of the rule that is in the minds of referees. You can't jump from and land on the same foot while holding onto the ball the whole time.

There is also something of a trend among NBA players in recent years: At some point, perimeter players started using jump stops as they drive in the lane. "If I gather the ball with the foot on the floor, you get a one, two, after," explains Borgia. He mimics taking a step, and then launching and landing on two feet: the jump stop. "All I can do is jump off two feet to shoot, I can jump to pass. But I can't pivot. That would be three."


Wizard Dominic McGuire, meanwhile, does something a little confusing. This is the kind of thing that sometimes doesn't get called, and it can drives people crazy.


For the record, my interpretation of this McGuire play is that he technically violates the traveling rule twice. He gathers the ball while on his right foot. Then he hops and lands again on his right foot. That's a travel right there, as we just learned from Beno Udrih. But then, just to top it off, McGuire then takes another step with his left, virtually forcing the referee to call it.

Making matters worse, he moves awkwardly, drawing attention to his travel.

(Video courtesy of the NBA)