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Monday, November 1, 2010
When a foul is worth two

By Zach Harper

Officiating is hard.

It’s not just something you can do casually to get some practice in like going to the batting cages, heading over to the driving range, or pumping up the old Spalding and taking some jumpers in the driveway. To try to remain sharp and keep your eyesight skills honed is not an easy task to keep up.

Whenever people start complaining about how bad the referees in the NBA are, I like to ask them if they’ve ever officiated a basketball game. Almost every time I’ve asked this question the response I get is they have not.

Well, let me tell you that being a ref is extremely hard work. I haven’t even really tried to be a ref either. It’s not like I moonlight high school basketball games as a zebra. However, in doing some assistant coaching at the junior varsity high school level, I’ve had to make the calls in a fair number of scrimmages among my players and the freshman team.

It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s hard to even keep up with those kids in terms of how you watch the game and what you’re looking for. I missed a lot of calls in those scrimmages, because I found my mind wandering. There were far too many times in which I caught myself just watching the game instead of really watching the game. Due to this minor flirtation with officiating, I find myself sticking up for NBA refs. For the most part, I think they do a pretty good job.

Now just because the job is hard, it doesn’t mean they should get a free pass for mistakes. I’m sure being a rocket scientist is hard or being a mechanic can be very challenging. But just because I, personally, can’t build a rocket or fix my own transmission doesn’t mean I should excuse it if paid professionals mess it up.  Overall, I think the refs should get a little more slack than they do from fans who are quick to throw the blame at the guys calling the game than their favorite players playing the game.

There can be a lot of confusion in officiating a basketball game. Last night’s Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder game was a perfect example of such confusion.

In the second quarter, Russell Westbrook drove to the basket, as he tends to do. As he drove down the middle of the lane, Al Jefferson was late in rotating over to cut off penetration, as Al tends to do as well. Westbrook leaped into the air for the layup as the Utah big man attempted to set himself in order to take the charge. Whistles blew and the blocking foul was called.

The weird thing about this play is that the charge was also called.

John Goble was the official on the baseline and he hit Russell Westbrook with the charge call, while James Williams called the block from the sideline. The two conferred with each other before bringing in Bill Spooner, the senior referee from the officiating crew.

In this situation, it was apparent there would not be a clear resolution unless seniority won out, and James Williams’ call was nullified due to his status as the young guy in the crew. Instead, Bill Spooner told the scorer’s table there was a double foul on Westbrook and Jefferson.

I looked at the replay a few times and I’d probably lean toward it being a charge. It definitely wasn’t a clear-cut call either way; Jefferson may not have been set until Westbrook was already in flight.

The interesting thing from this play was the fact that a double personal foul was called. I fully expected the refs to issue a jump ball or just give the ball to Oklahoma City on the sideline and start the possession over. Al Jefferson immediately asked John Goble (the ref who called the charge) why it wasn’t a charge. You can read his lips enough to see his explanation was simply that James Williams had the block and Goble had the charge.

And that’s it.

I’m conflicted on how to view the result of this play. It seems impossible there could be a charge and a block on the same contact. It almost has to be one or the other. At the same time, you can’t just waive the infraction because there was definitely a foul on the play.

The most ideal resolution would have been for Bill Spooner to come in and make the decision one way or the other. Instead, both sides seemed angry and confused at the call.

I was happy with the result of the call but that’s probably because I’m neither a fan of the Jazz nor the Thunder. There was a foul on the play and you could make a very good case for it being on either player. Both players got a foul that at least one of them deserved, and there was a jump ball at center court to decide possession.

The refs left it up to the old mantra of “Jump Ball Don’t Lie.”

It wasn’t an easy decision for the refs to make, but it was probably the right thing to do.

After all, officiating is really hard.