The traveling rule in the NBA rulebook has changed in a profound way.
It's fallout from that surprising moment this early spring when the guy who oversees NBA officials told me that, in calling traveling, referees are instructed to ignore the rulebook.
When that happened, it was as if a thousand cranky old ex-NBA fans, in a thousand sports bars, had been vindicated. "See!" I could hear some imaginary Homer Simpson saying. "Told you. They threw out the rulebook years ago."
The rulebook allowed for just one step after the "gather," but NBA referees had long been instructed to allow two.
People have very strong feelings about whether one or two steps ought to be allowed. The two-step crowd insists that if you videotape a normal layup in any game anywhere, and watch it in slow motion, you're very likely to see two steps after the gather. Magic Johnson did it. Bob Cousy did it. Pete Maravich did it.
The one-step crowd insists that the rules have always said one, and even if that's hard to call perfectly, that's basketball, and that's a standard to shoot for now and forever. Change it at your peril.
I have no dog in that fight. (I play basketball expecting to be allowed one step. I watch the NBA expecting two. It's one of a zillion differences between my game and the NBA, and I'm fine with it.) But I know in my gut that the rulebook ought to be consistent with what the referees are calling. And I know that no one involved in NBA officiating seemed to think they were anywhere close to just allowing one step.
Therefore, the rulebook surely had to be changed. Here, in its entirety, are the NBA's new rules on traveling. Section "b" is where the action is:
a. A player who receives the ball while standing still may pivot, using either foot as the pivot foot.
b. A player who receives the ball while he is progressing or upon completion of a dribble, may take two steps in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball. A player who receives the ball while he is progressing must release the ball to start his dribble before his second step. The first step occurs when a foot, or both feet, touch the floor after gaining control of the ball. The second step occurs after the first step when the other foot touches the floor, or both feet touch the floor simultaneously. A player who comes to a stop on step one when both feet are on the floor or touch the floor simultaneously may pivot using either foot as his pivot. If he jumps with both feet he must release the ball before either foot touches the floor. A player who lands with one foot first may only pivot using that foot. A progressing player who jumps off one foot on the first step may land with both feet simultaneously for the second step. In this situation, the player may not pivot with either foot and if one or both feet leave the floor the ball must be released before either returns to the floor.
c. In starting a dribble after (1) receiving the ball while standing still, or (2) coming to a legal stop, the ball must be out of the player’s hand before the pivot foot is raised off the floor.
d. If a player, with the ball in his possession, raises his pivot foot off the floor, he must pass or shoot before his pivot foot returns to the floor. If he drops the ball while in the air, he may not be the first to touch the ball. e. A player who falls to the floor while holding the ball, or while coming to a stop, may not gain an advantage by sliding.
f. A player who attempts a field goal may not be the first to touch the ball if it fails to touch the backboard, basket ring or another player.
g. A player may not be the first to touch his own pass unless the ball touches his backboard, basket ring or another player. h. Upon ending his dribble or gaining control of the ball, a player may not touch the floor consecutively with the same foot (hop).
PENALTY: Loss of ball. The ball is awarded to the opposing team at the sideline, nearest spot of the violation but no nearer the baseline than the foul line extended.
Hats off to the League. They simply didn't have to update their rulebook. Doing nothing was totally an option -- they hold all the cards. But they did what strikes me as undeniably the right thing. They got their rulebook, and their referees, on the same page. Nicely played. That's leadership, and in its way it was bold.
There may be a public relations price to pay, too. Many told me last spring that such a rewording would never happen. One NBA source said that it would anger far too many fans, who would see it as the league letting the players do whatever they want. Right or not, and sometimes with racial overtones, a big bunch of fans just hate the idea that NBA players are getting away with something.
If comments on ESPN.com are representative, this rule change is not being taken lightly. A small minority are positive about the change. But most responses are more like these:
Sinestrojoe Like they call walking anyway ... NBA is nothing more than glorified streetball.
coolhippie51 Once again the NBA has proved it is more about the show than the basketball product. They should consider changeing their name to WWB as they enforce rules as they please to insure an outcome they want.
vijayfan This is a joke, right?? Right??
I salute the idea that fans feel protective of the game. I'm thrilled people get mad when they see things happen to basketball that they don't like. All that passion keeps the whole thing rolling.
But I don't see it on this topic. As of this week, the way it is written is the way referees have been instructed to call it for as long as anyone can remember. It's hard to imagine there will be a noticeable difference in what we see on the court this season.
And sure, anyone with a Tivo knows that referees make mistakes sometimes. But having spent time with NBA referees I can tell you it's wrong not to see them as serious professionals. They're getting things right that most of us know nothing about. (Can you pass this quiz?)
As for those who doubt the quality of the basketball being played in the NBA: Honestly, are you really watching?