TrueHoop: Bennett Salvatore
Last post from my conversation with Bennett Salvatore, with some odds and ends.
"A lighter moment. The guy's taking a picture so we put our heads together. There's no particular reason for that."
"You can tell I'm a holiday guy. We are humans, you know. I never got reimbursed for those hats, either. I bought those. That was on my dime."
Talking with Salvatore about this photo:
That was ... we try to be ... with the mascots, as accomdating as we can. That was something he has asked me to do. So it was part of whatever we were doing at the time. It was a while ago.
There's a danger point there. If for some reason it's a volatile time of the game, a controversial time of the game, we would ask them to understand that it's not a playful time of the game right now for us. If there is a lighter moment when we can help you do your skit, we would be more than happy to. But not at the sake of the seriousness of the job.
Are there any skits that stand out in your memory as particularly good?
Somewhere mascots are feeling crushed.
Oh. They're great. And they're very acrobatic.
"We were doing a, um, toothpaste commercial. Just one of the many, many moments. That was, obviously, a dispute."
Salvatore also told a little story about the theater of the game:
I'm going to ad lib here and tell you a quick story here. The point of the story here is to tell you that it's not necessarily true that what you see on the court that is happening is actually happening.
Charles Barkley, many years ago. I made a call against him, in the fourth quarter of a nationally televised game, that he did not agree with.
At that particular time we were going to to timeout. Charles, before going to his huddle, told me that he didn't like the call. I told him to go back to his timeout. He gave me some more of his expertise. I told him go back to his timeout.
Coming back onto the court, I'm ready to put the ball in play. The lights are back on, the TV cameras are back on, we're ready to play.
Charles walks over to me, being larger, obviously, leans over me, and starts bobbing and weaving his head.
And what he's saying is: Bennett, how's the family, how are the kids, how's the wife?
The whole world thinks that he's taking a piece out of my backside, and he's really not. He's being playful.
So not all the time is what you think is being said on the court really being said.
Photos: Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images, Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images, George Frey/AFP/Getty Images, Robert Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images.
Yesterday's monster post about Bennett Salvatore's controversial call in Game 5 of the 2006 NBA Finals has gotten a lot of reaction. It's all over the map.
Lots of people sent me versions of the photo you see here.
See Devin Harris's hand? I was convinced -- although a lot of you weren't -- that Nowitzki's shove was enough to get Wade a place at the line.
But for the rest of you, I assume revisiting this photo (it was around in the days after the game) would do the trick.
This looks to me like Devin Harris deciding to make Wade prove it from the line, instead of giving up a layup to a truly gifted scorer around the basket.
Now I know that this series is about building confidence in NBA officials. And this hardly helps with that, as Harris wasn't called for the foul. One of a million follow-up questions I'd have for Salvatore, if he and the NBA would agree to talk to me again.
But my best guess is that the contact with Nowitzki occured first, and it's entirely possible that nobody saw this. I don't remember anybody seeing this contact when it was on television, certainly.
Basketball just is a very tough game to officiate.
Now, let's get into some more reactions.
For instance, among the Maverick fans on dallasbasketballdotcom, I don't think anyone was convinced that Nowitzki fouled Wade. Thurst0509 captured the mood nicely:
I can't even participate in this discussion. I'm getting too pissed off again.
Mike Fisher of DallasBasketball.com has lots of thoughts, including this:
Why didn't the NBA release this video angle right away, to demonstrate to viewers that Dirk did indeed foul Wade? Well, I'll tell you why: Because it shows no such thing. It "suggests'' something. But proves nothing.
Lots of people all over the web point out that Wade just went to the line a ton all series long, which is tough to address without specifics. By way of specifics, this video was offered by Shmir05. So bad it's funny.
JKotsil commented that this possession was not the key play of the series:
The key calls that went against Dallas in this series were two. First, the offensive rebound by Shaq in Game 3, when he clearly, blatantly pushed off on Erick Dampier. It was with about two minutes left and Miami down 5. Amazingly he made both free-throws making it a one possession game. An offensive foul on Shaq there would have effectively killed Miami's amazing comeback. The other one was a mind-boggling foul called on Nowitzki when HE was pushed by Wade with 30 seconds left in game 6 and Miami up 1. The ensuing free-throws practically iced the game.
If you can't accept the absolute proof showing the still shot of Harris fouling Wade with both hands, one pushing Wade in the back and one holding Wade's arm, in addition to the video evidence Henry supplied, then you are a Mavs or Suns fan that cannot handle the truth.
Hey I am a die hard Mavs fan. But the Mavs completely blew that series. They had the chance to wrap it up in a sweep and let D-Wade take over. So be it. You can't go back and change it. Were there some BS calls, of course. But the Mavs have to get over it.
Radical Reactionary says:
On closer watching in super-slo-mo you can see Wade pull out a small crowbar and crack Nowitzki with it as he goes by. Then Wade falls, because it's the only way to slip it back under his jersey unobserved by the refs.
TrueHoop reader Jim really needs his own opportunity to interview Bennett Salvatore:
Looks to me like Wade exaggerates his body motion as soon as he feels any contact from Dirk. Smart play on his part, one which the two closest refs didn't fall for. ... Did Salvatore have an explanation of why the other two refs did not see or make the call he made? Did he state whether they agreed with his call in their immediate post-game review? What did other league personnel tell him in the immediate aftermath? What did crew chief Joey Crawford tell him immediately after the game?
TrueHoop reader ADyer is not buying the league's case that the inbounds pass was not over and back:
A player jumping from out-of-bounds to inbounds to catch that same pass from Payton must first establish positive position inbounds by putting a foot there (and not touching out of bounds) before touching the ball. When bringing the ball up the floor during normal play, a player receiving a pass from another player who is in the frontcourt must also establish himself in the frontcourt by touching it (and not touch backcourt) before touching the ball.
The special provision (Rule 4, Section VI) that allows the ball to be thrown into the backcourt from out-of-bounds does not also invalidate the normal rule of positive position.
The interpretation appears to be that until the player (Wade) receives the pass, the midcourt line does not exist; otherwise it would matter where Wade was before touching the ball. On the other hand, the League states that since Wade was in the air when touching the ball (something difficult to determine) he was not in the frontcourt, thus reestablishing the midcourt line during the throw-in.
The League is hopelessly confused in its ruling. In the case of a player coming from out-of-bounds, he is the player with the ball even though he does not have it during the throw-in. It's a commonplace event, yet the case of Game 5 that logic is thrown out the window.
While the ref has the prerogative to make the call -- and the League has the right to stand by it -- it in no way is consistent or correct."
Dwood 61625 echoed a thousand high school referees when he commented:
If you don't want the refs to determine the outcome of a game, then do your job and blow out your opponent.
If a game is close at the end, then there's no one to blame but youself if a call or non-call goes against you. Refs are human, and they are going to make some mistakes ... especially in sports like basketball where there is a lot of contact and fast action.
And one last thought, that came out of a discussion of this play: yesterday I flirted with the notion that superstars on the drive in crunch time get the benefit of calls. Period.
An honest question arose. Can anyone cite me an example of a superstar on the drive in crunch time of a big game getting called for an offensive foul? I'm sure it has happened, and I've seen it in games that aren't important. But can anyone remember it ever happening in an historic moment?
Photo: Doug Benc/Getty Images
When fans complain about refereeing in the NBA, they complain about many different things.
But there are two plays that stand out.
Michael Jordan's name comes up the most, often in connection with the most famous moment in recent NBA history: his 1998 championship-winning shot, in which replays showed he shoved his Utah defender, Bryon Russell, to the floor without incurring any penalty.
The other is the Dirk Nowitzki foul that sent Dwyane Wade to the free throw line with less than two seconds left in Game 5 of the 2006 NBA Finals.
Both came up in my conversation a little over a week ago with NBA referee Bennett Salvatore. He made the call the against Nowitzki. And the other one? We'll get to that in a second.
A Polarizing Night
First of all, let's take a look at what happened in Game 5 of the 2006 Finals.
When I bring up that night, Salvatore remembers it as "the call I was crucified by."
What you see is, to my eyes, Dwyane Wade driving into a crowd of bodies and then missing a layup, which is followed by Salvatore calling a foul on Nowitzki with 1.9 seconds left. Wade makes two free throws, which provide Miami's final one-point winning margin, and essentially decides the game, if not the entire championship.
People were livid about so many aspects of that play.
Some time ago, I asked Dallas forward Josh Howard about it.
You buy the theory that some kind of conspiracy involving the referees cost the Mavericks the Finals last year?
I don't want to respond to that. I'll just say that everybody in the world knows we were supposed to be champions.
Just for the record, if you don't believe it was a conspiracy, you can answer that question directly.
Yes, throughout the history of sports, losers of big games have alleged terrible things about referees. Maybe that's all that is. Or maybe we need better information about what's really happening on the court -- to dispel false assumptions or expose mistakes that could be addressed.
The Alleged Backcourt Violation
Many made the case that Wade committed a backcourt violation by jumping from the frontcourt, catching the ball in mid-air, and landing in the backcourt. The NBA addressed this at the time, explaining that was a legal play. The Associated Press reports:
"My understanding from the rule book is, if you are going to catch the ball in the backcourt, you have to be in the backcourt to catch it," Cuban said.
Not true, according to Rule 4, Section VI, which deals with frontcourt/backcourt.
Replays showed that Wade leaped near midcourt to catch the ball in the air, landing with possession in the backcourt.
Part of the rule states that, "frontcourt/backcourt status is not attained until a player with the ball has established a positive position in either half during a throw-in in the last 2 minutes of the fourth period and/or any overtime period."
Because Wade was in the air when he caught the ball, league spokesman Tim Frank said his position wasn't determined until he landed. And since another rule allows for the ball to be thrown into the backcourt at that time, there was no violation.
The "Phantom Foul"
The biggest complaint, however, was the foul on Nowitzki.
ESPN.com's Bill Simmons was one of many to express some version of this reaction:
Salvatore called the foul on Wade's final drive in overtime (remember, the call where ABC couldn't find a replay to show that anyone touched him?) even though he was standing at midcourt a full 35-40 feet from the play, and even though two other refs were closer to the play. Not only was that NOT his call, he butchered it.
Consider the scene that day on the Mavericks blog of the Dallas Morning News. You could spend a long time reading all of those angry comments. At one point blogger Tim McMahon asked Maverick fans to please stop complaining so much about the referees, and then just gets himself a whole 'nother earful. Reader Dino makes a representative comment:
Let's face reality: the Mavs played well enough last night to win 100-99 BUT FOR the fact that Wade went to the free throw line AGAIN when he missed what might have been a game winning shot. The Mavs defended him well, BUT FOR the fact the refs took it out of the Mavs hands. Ignore the officiating all you want. It just shows YOU are missing the story.
I asked Salvatore about that trend specifically, and he said: "I can not be concerned, nor can any referee by concerned with the amount of times someone goes to the free throw line or doesn't go the free throw line. We can only be concerned with if the call is correct or not correct, because that's what our job is based on."
Although Nowitzki was docked $5,000 by the league for booting a ball after that game, his reaction in the post-game press conference was tame compared to most. This is from the Ticker account of the game on the NBA's own website:
A jumper by Dirk Nowitzki over Shaquille O'Neal gave the Mavericks a 100-99 lead with 9.1 seconds remaining. After a timeout, the Heat inbounded into the backcourt to Wade, who snaked through four defenders along the right side and drew a foul from Nowitzki.
"It was like two or three guys coming at me," Wade said. "I was just trying to get a little space where I could use my quickness to get by them. Once I got by Jason (Terry), I was able to maneuver my way to the basket."
ind of thought I went out of the way and they gave him the call," Nowitzki said. "So I thought it was a tough call."
The Video You Have Not Seen Before
When the NBA agreed to let me interview Bennett Salvatore, they also volunteered the following video. There are cameras all over NBA stadiums at every game, and the league uses multiple angles to assess the quality of referee calls. This video is from the opposite side of the court from the network's cameras, the quality is excellent, and it's in super slow motion.
Watch with an open mind. Watch closely. Watch several times.
(You can also see the same video in a different player on NBA.com.)
Get down there in the comments and tell me what you make of this.
My first thought upon seeing this in slow motion from this angle was wow. Just as a human feat, wow. Dwyane Wade has the entire Maverick team all over him, and his determination is magnificently unwavering. His teammates could not be more open! All of them! But he's not going to put the title in the hands of Antoine Walker. (Or, as Dirk Nowitzki must be regretting to this day, Erick Dampier, who dropped a key ball out of bounds.)
My second thought was: why didn't every TV network get a copy of this the day after the game? Why don't we get to see this kind of video about every call?
Roll it one time watching nothing but Dirk Nowitzki's right hand. Then watch again, and this time watch Wade jump, shoot, and land. Everything about that motion -- the way the ball leaves Wade's hand with too much forward force, the way he lands stumbling, and the way Nowitzki's hand plainly shoves Wade -- it's all consistent with a guy who has been pushed in the small of the back while jumping to shoot. It's minor contact compared to a lot of things you see on a basketball court. But it's contact that makes making a layup nearly impossible. It's the kind of contact NBA referees are looking for. To my eyes, it's a real deal NBA foul.
I watched it with Salvatore. Frankly, everyone in the room, looking at this video, thought it was a decent call. He added: "I want you to do one thing. Look at Dirk. Dirk knows that he fouled him. You don't see any reaction from Dirk at all. Dirk knew."
So, I know you won't all agree, but from where I'm sitting, the worst call of Bennett Salvatore's career was good. Score one for referees, credibility, and the NBA.
What Happened to Jason Terry?
When I first watched the video, I had forgotten all about the particulars of everyone's complaints. I just watched it. And I was struck by Wade's shove of Terry.
When I started rolling that video for Bennett Salvatore, I stopped it a few seconds, just before Jason Terry went sprawling to the floor. Frankly, that play, to me, looked exactly like Michael Jordan shoving Bryon Russell to the floor. It was far from the hoop, and because it came with much more time on the clock, it may not have been nearly as game-changing as the subsequent foul on Nowitzki. (If Wade gets called for the offensive foul at that stage of the game, who knows how the game ends?)
Nevertheless, to my eyes ... that's a foul.
That was one of the things that Mark Cuban was really mad about after the game. "You mean when [Wade] pushed [Terry]? I don't know," Cuban said, ramping up the facetiousness: "I guess that's not a foul."
This is my conversation with Salvatore as I played the first part of the video.
Remember I was talking about Michael Jordan shoving down Bryon Russell? That's where Wade learned this move, right? That's a callable foul, right? Not that you'd want to make it, but ...
He's backing up to start out with, in a defensive position.
Salvatore was brushing aside the notion that Terry was shoved. What I was hearing was not squaring with what I was seeing.
Let's watch it again.
He is -- I don't want to get into how players play defense, and how offensive players do their things -- his momentum is actually taking him there. The outstretched arm looks like he's being pushed. But in essence, his defensive position is actually carrying him to that point, without the extension of the arm.
Salvatore is a warm, personable, and funny man. He made a joke, when I first started showing him video. For most of our interview, we were sitting across the table from one another (flanked by the two NBA employees I discussed in the first post of this series). As he rose to join me looking at video on my laptop, he laughingly predicted what he would be saying: "Referee was right, referee was right, referee was right ..."
It was a decent laugh line. Salvatore had just admitted that he has made some bad calls in his day, so it seemed like of course he wouldn't really be whitewashing everything. But then we discussed three controversial plays, and in each case he explained that he had been right -- Latrell Sprewell hadn't called timeout, but other Knicks reportedly had; Boris Diaw, on the other hand, had not called timeout at all, per Salvatore. Fair enough, maybe he was right on both counts.
But in the case of Jason Terry's collapse -- what he was telling me was simply not squaring with what I could see on the video, which I have now watched probably close to a hundred times. When I said "let's watch it again" to him, the unspoken addendum was "because surely if you watch this again you will not keep telling me that Terry fell because of his defensive stance."
And I felt like I was getting the whitewash.
Sliding quickly in a defensive stance is something that Jason Terry has presumably been practicing since the first time he put on a uniform. Left alone in a gym, I assume he can do it all day without falling down. A wet spot on the floor? That could topple him. Feet tangled with somebody? That could make a sliding player fall for sure, and some people see it on this play. But I went over that part of the video extremely closely. Wade's black shoes and Terry's white shoes are helpful in picking apart the pixels. Yeah, it's a little blurry, but I'm pretty sure I can see some court between their feet at all times.
You watch and tell m
e what you think.
Complaining is for weenies. Not for one second am I interested in re-opening the floodgates of "we were robbed" diatribes from Dallas. The Miami Heat are the 2006 NBA Champions and what's done is done.
I'm even open to the argument that you don't make that call. You don't want a tacky offensive foul in that moment. I can see that argument that the shove wasn't enough. But the argument that there was no shove? Really?
What we're talking about here, in the big picture, is whether or not fans trust referees moving forward. That's the topic that was opened by the Tim Donaghy scandal, and that's the topic the NBA is presumably trying to close, in some small way, by making Salvatore available for this interview.
And on that count, this play leaves a funny taste in my mouth -- and Salvatore's explanation makes it even worse. It makes me wonder if he is expressing his honest assessment of this or any other play. It makes me worry that perhaps, as someone who is plainly very respectful of his NBA superiors, he is speaking more like a loyal soldier and less like a truth-teller.
It also makes me concerned about what works and what doesn't on the court. Watch the way Wade is operating on this play. His team is down one on what could be the last possession of the Game 5 of the NBA Finals. The series is tied at two game apiece. Wade must not make a mistake. A turnover, a foul ... even a miss would be disastrous.
Yet to my eyes Wade is operating with impunity -- like a man who knows he is not going to be called for an offensive foul pretty much no matter what. He uses a guiding hand on the hip of nearly every defender he encounters. First Jason Terry -- shove or no shove, he's certainly putting his hand all over that guy's hip. Then here comes Devin Harris, who also gets some action from Wade's left hand. Then it's time to switch directions, and Wade's left hand has some tough-to-decipher contact with Josh Howard's hip that appears to send Howard toward the baseline a little harder than Howard intended.
I'm not stupid. I understand that superstars on their way to the hoop in the closing moments of big games are the best thing that happens in the NBA. That's the moment -- as exciting as the league gets. Interrupting that with some minor offensive foul is a crime against, if not the game then at least the entertainment value, and by extension the economics, of the game.
I have never understood the claim that the way the whole series was officiated was favoritism to Miami as part of some scheme to make Dallas lose. If you want to get calls from NBA referees, I remember writing at the time of the outrage surrounding this play, give the ball to a superstar and have him attempt magic. In that situation, in my experience, the referees smile on the offense.
Which directly contradicts what Salvatore told me earlier, that no one gets special treatment, and referees just call the game the way they see it. Which is what fans by and large say they want.
But I'm not sure that kind of impartiality is really evident in this video, and if Salvatore or anyone else from the NBA wanted to really impress fans, and build some trust, they'd admit to some high-profile bad calls once in a while. (Maybe this play isn't the one. Maybe the NBA really sees this play as well-called. Giving me this video in super slow motion is evidence that is so.) But there must be some high-profile calls that are wrong, right? I say get in the habit of 'fessing up.
The Tim Donaghy scandal rocked the NBA's boat pretty hard. But the idea was that it was the kind of crisis that would inspire meaningful change, and a stronger NBA moving forward. It was a chance not just to deal with the issue of a single crooked referee, but also to install new systems, greater transparency, and to build greater trust between fans and the league.
I see it as maybe trust in NBA referees was at a five out of ten at this time a year ago. And then for a moment it was briefly a two out of ten, thanks to Tim Donaghy. So now's the time to get it back to a seven or eight where it probably always should have been.
Mark Cuban and David Stern -- two men who have disgreed mightily in the past -- were both singing that song this summer.Here's an excerpt of David Stern's press conference after the Donaghy scandal:
We are going to, as I said, use the summer to analyze everything that we have, get the right opinions, and, you know, continue to improve our systems. Before I leave with a thank you, I just want to sum up to say to you that this is something that is the worst that could happen to a professional sports league. And I want to say on the other hand that we are going to make good on the covenant that we believe we have with our fans, and I pledge that my involvement will be as intense and complete as it can possibly be and what we do will be completely transparent.
S--- happens. Bad s--- happens. When it does, there are two options. Cry over it and do nothing or recognize the problem and do the best you possibly can to not only fix it, but make the entire organization stronger.
As bad as the allegations facing the NBA today are, it's also an opportunity to face every allegation that has ever been directed towards the NBA and its officials and pre-empt them from ever occuring in the future.
Calamity can be a catalyst for significant change.
There are any number of examples in the business world where calamity led to better management, better communications, greater transparency and even better products. As the proverb goes, Necessity is the Mother of Invention.
The NBA took a hit today. Behind that hit is a catalyst and opportunity for significant change that could make the NBA stronger than it ever has been. It's a chance to proactively put in place people, processes and transparency that will forever silence those who will question the NBA's integrity.
As someone who hears from a lot of NBA fans every day, I'm hungry for that new integrity and transparency, and I know I'm not alone! Maybe I'm too impatient, but I kind of thought we were going to get these kinds of things this season.
What exactly? I want real evidence about which calls are good and which ones aren't. Even Salvatore has said that he thinks such a thing would ultimately be helpful. I want those new systems that everyone is talking about.
Anyone know what they'll be?
The first step, surely, is to hear the results of Lawrence Pedowitz's investigation, I guess. After that, whatever the NBA's cooking up, I hope it's good. Because so far I'm not sure anyone has good tools at the ready to silence those who claim that referees are incompetent or crooked.
NBA referees have been in the news lately, particularly because of the Tim Donaghy betting scandal. But also because an ensuing investigation by the league revealed that, as told by Commissioner David Stern, every NBA referee had gambled in one small way or another. Neither of these revelations helps someone like Bennett Salvatore, who as a referee would rather not be in the position of having to defend his credibility in any way.
I had agreed to the NBA's request not to ask particular questions about Tim Donaghy, whose legal status is not fully resolved as he has yet to be sentenced. But I did asked him a series of questions about gambling and referee credibility in general.
Over the off-season, after the Donaghy scandal broke, I spoke to an officiating professional who does not work for the NBA, and he told me that they felt bad for you guys, because you were going to be dealing with more intense and angry catcalls from crowds than ever. Have you found that to be so?
I have not. I have found it to be almost non-existent. I have worked probably seven or eight games now. The crowd has been what I would deem a normal crowd. They take you to task on the call of the moment.
I think the crowds have been great. I think they themselves realize, perhaps, that this was one very very bad, unfortunate situation that was not the norm and will never be the norm.
What is the mood like among referees?
Right now, the mood is very good, very strong, very upbeat. We're professionals. We're intent on doing the best possible job we can do.
We went through emotional ups and downs with what happened, because it is our profession, and we're very proud of our profession, we take it very seriously. We were very hurt by what happened, and it's back to business now, and we're going to go forward, and we're going to do the best job that we possibly can.
I know you try to do the best job you can possibly do, but do you have to somehow be better now?
You try to be better every night. I don't want to sound silly here, but I'm in my twenty-sixth year, and I learn something new every year. When you say you try to do better, every night you try to do better than last night. The effort is always there, and now we have more tools to improve effort. That has nothing to do with this summer.
Would you say that the oversight referees get from the league is improving?
There are more tools at our disposal. Technology has allowed us to review games immediately after the game. We can see plays from all over the league that happened the night before. The league office does a very good job of sending us plays that are tough plays, and they will either ask our opinion or tell us how they would like to have that play called.
The whole idea is to get us all on the same page. We're spread apart. They want to close that gap. They want you to understand the block/charge as well as I do. The computer and technology has been a great gift in doing that.
You're pretty confident that refereeing today is better than it was in the past, and will continue to get better in the future?
You have to go back to when I first started -- there was no video tape. If you made a bad call on Friday night in Sacramento, the office didn't know about it until Monday morning. That's the old days. That's how it was. Today it's completely different. Technology allows an immediate sense of accountability. It goes both ways, too. After a game, I can email the office and say what do you think on this play? I'm not quite sure how you want me to call that. And it goes both ways. It's just not force fed from the office.
Who do you ask?
There's a whole breakdown, but we have supervisors, but if the supervisor can't provide us with the answer, we can ask either Ronnie Nunn or now Bernie Fryer, and if they don't have the answer, they would ask Stu [Jackson].
So, recently, there was this news that referees had gambled in small ways. On golf games, or whatever. Some reports had it at some percentage of the league, others said every referee. Yesterday, Commissioner Stern talked about it and said, essentially, that the rules had been unclear. Were the rules unclear?
We're going into an area that, honestly, I'm going to allow the commissioner to answer those things.
What about gambling in general. There's a lot more of it in the U.S. then there used to be. Is this something that referees should be doing, can be doing safely, or no?
I think the commissioner has done an excellent job answering those questions, and I want to talk to you about basketball.
If someone asked me about this two years ago, I would have said "I'm not going to ask Bennett Salvatore about game fixing, it's insulting." But we have had the scandal now, so I have got to ask you the question: Has anyone ever offered you money to fix a game? You ever been approached by anybody?
It's not even discussable. I know it is to you, Henry. But to me, it's not even a conversation worth having because it's the unthinkable. No. Our minds don't even go there.
Yours don't, but the world out there ... we know there are people who are looking to make extra money gambling on games by getting to people like you.
To answer your question: no.
No, never happened?
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.
This is the second installment in a series based on a recent interview with NBA referee Bennett Salvatore. Go back to the first post for more on Salvatore.
In May 2000, the Knicks beat the Heat in Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs, and the City of Miami freaked out, because the key play came down to a disputed timeout that the Knicks either did, or did not, call.
The referee who made the call was Bennett Salvatore.
Getting the winning points from Patrick Ewing with 1:20 left and the benefit of an official's call with 2.1 seconds left, the Knicks knocked the Heat out of the playoffs 83-82 Sunday in Game 7 of their second-round series to advance to the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana.
So upset were the Heat with the way the ending went down -- they felt an official had awarded the Knicks a timeout when no one had asked for one -- that Jamal Mashburn chased the referees as they ran off the court while Miami's coaches yelled that they had been robbed.
Referee Bennett Salvatore said Sprewell had called a timeout, although Sprewell admitted he hadn't. Chris Childs said it was he who had called time out from several feet away, while Sprewell thought it was Marcus Camby who called it.
''They had three officials in their pocket,'' Mashburn said.
When I met with Bennett Salvatore in the NBA's offices last Friday, I brought along a copy of the AP article excerpted above. I handed it across the table to him, and asked for his thoughts.
Then something funny happened. At first it didn't strike me as funny -- who hasn't seen somebody pull a pair of reading glasses out of their pocket?
But Bennett Salvatore is a referee, the butt of a hundred "put your glasses on" jokes a season.
He paused, glasses in hand, acknowledging the humor. "Now," he said, "I have to put my glasses on, and I'm going to get killed."
He then punches up his voice several decibels, Joe Pesci style, and bellows to an imagined audience of hecklers: "IT'S ONLY FOR READING!"
Then he picks the paper off the table, and begins to read. An instant later -- long before he could have read much, if anything, he drops the paper, and declares "I remember this play as though it were yesterday."
On this one, he does not waver nor does he hesitate.
"There were three people that called timeout at that particular moment. There were three people in blue jerseys that called timeout in that moment, and that was confirmed by my partners. Obviously, I picked the wrong person that called timeout," he says. "But I knew that the person next to me wearing the uniform was blue, and I granted the correct timeout, and I was wrong in the person, on the team that called it. I was right in the team that called it."
I ask if timeouts are normally assigned to a particular player -- does it matter who called it? "You usually, if you can, and you should, assign it to an individual player -- or today it could also be a coach," he explains. "I gave it to Latrell, but I don't remember if it was Allan Houston, Charlie Ward ... I was wrong in the assignment of it. I was not wrong in the team I granted it to."
"Before we even allowed the timeout," he continues, "I checked with my partners to make sure I was correct in who I heard it from. And in fact, if you look at the overhead, you'll see two Knick players calling timeout."
The overhead? I assume there's video footage from an overhead camera that's part of referees video review.
This, right here, is the kind of evidence that the NBA already has, and I think fans should have, too. Yes, sometimes it'll make the league look bad. But all in all, I am quite certain, it will make the league look good, and it will infuse all conversation about referees with a lot more reality.
In the meantime, that Jamal Mashburn quote is, I'm sure, making it hard for a lot of people in Miami to take Bennett Salvatore's word for it.
After "the Tim Donaghy affair," I have been hardcore in favor of greater transparency in the referee game.
I hear from a lot of basketball fans who think NBA referees are blind, idiotic, corrupt, demonic or worse. The only real evidence on the other side of the ledger is some vague promises from the league that NBA referees are the best in the world. (Listen, it may well be true. But show me, don't tell me.)
The debate quickly loses meaning from there, as essentially no one has any real arguments of substance.
I'm hungry for more real evidence -- better public documentation of which calls are right and which are wrong, as well as a better sense of who our referees are, and what the job of a referee is like.
As one small step in that process, I asked the NBA to let me interview one of the best-known and most controversial NBA referees: Bennett Salvatore.
Referees, by and large, are not permitted to talk to the media, but the league makes exceptions from time to time for feature stories and the like. They were nice enough to go along in this case.
A 26-year veteran of NBA refereeing, Salvatore has a solid reputation among the various experts I have talked to. But among fans, it's hard to imagine there is a more reviled official.
Salvatore famously made a key call against Dirk Nowitzki in Game 5 of the 2006 NBA Finals after which Dallas owner Mark Cuban held one of the angriest press conferences in history. ESPN's Bill Simmons has named Salvatore the second worst referee in the NBA, and a review of every call of Game 5 by 82games.com found that of the ten debatable calls Salvatore made in that game, an astonishing eight (I'm no math whiz, but that's 80%) favored the Heat -- who ultimately won that game and the championship.
This past Friday, November 9, I ventured to the NBA's offices in Manhattan and spent more than an hour interviewing Bennett Salvatore one-on-one. (Well, it was kind of one-on-one. There were two NBA staffers present on hand, one of whom was also recording the interview.) I had agreed in advance that Salvatore would not answer questions about working with the yet-to-be-sentenced Tim Donaghy, although gambling in general and the effect of the Tim Donaghy scandal were fair game.
The results of our conversation will appear in a series of TrueHoop posts over the next several days. Here is some of what's coming up:
- Tim Donaghy fallout, gambling, broken trust, and the perception that referees are not on the up and up.
- Bennett Salvatore describes, moment by moment, what happened on that much disputed, game-changing play against the Lakers in 2006, when Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns got a jump ball when they thought they should get a timeout or an out-of-bounds call.
- Remember the closing moments of 2000's Game 7, Knicks vs. Heat, when Latrell Sprewell was granted a timeout while falling out of bounds? And later Sprewell said he had not called timeout? Bennett Salvatore was the referee who granted that timeout, and now he explains why.
- A lot of NBA fans first learned Bennett Salvatore's name when he called that foul on Dirk Nowitzki at the end of Game 5 of the 2006 NBA Finals. It was a huge factor in deciding the series, it embittered the city of Dallas, and yet the TV cameras didn't catch much of a foul. Some video you probably have not seen before, and an explanation from Salvatore, may change your view of that call.
- Outtakes: Bennett Salvatore buying Santa hats for his entire crew, a pretty great anecdote about Charles Barkley, doing skits with mascots, and more.
There is no getting around the fact that Bennett Salvatore fits a stereotype. When fans peruse the names of referees, fantasizing about which guy might have mob connections, it doesn't take a PhD to linger at his most-Italian of last names. Add to that a history of playing a controversial role in big games and various oddities like having worked for the Italian Federation in Rome, and you probably have a flavor of some of the meanest things people bark at Salvatore from the stands.
The way he dresses doesn't do much to dispel the notion. He's impeccably groomed and decked out in the kind of Italian-style suit -- the cut and fabric are distinct -- that would fit right in on the "Goodfellas" set.
Of course, what I'm describing is 0% evidence and 100% prejudice. Only in the mind of a bitter person is time spent teaching Italians to play baseball anything to do with the mob.
The man I met in that conference room was smiling wide, and extremely welcoming. I had been in the room only a moment or two before it was clear to me that the NBA had made a good PR move by exposing the off-court Bennett Salvatore to the media.
One of the phrases I had heard about him -- brace yourselves, Mavericks fans -- was that he's "such a nice guy." It's not just a line. I put a lot of tough questions to him, and while he ducked a couple of them, he was always thoroughly polite and largely disarming -- the kind of guy who could make you feel comfortable in a restaurant.
Think about it -- it's four people in the room, none of whom really know each other all that well. And we're in the NBA headquarters talking about stuff like: are NBA games fixed? Half the people in the room are presumably there as hall monitors/police.
And you know what? We laughed a lot. It was not adversarial, tense, or weird. I'd happily do it again.
Bobby Valentine's Lifelong Friend and Rival
We started out with the life story. Salvatore has lived his whole life in Stamford, Connecticut, where he was an honorable mention All-America quarterback as well as a top pitcher in high school. In college, Salvatore's C.W. Post football squad was ranked second in the nation, he says.
One of his most intense athletic rivals in Stamford, and a close friend to this day, is former MLB manager Bobby Valentine. Their rivalry persists, as Valentine and Salvatore both have restaurants in Stamford. Bobby V's is what Salvatore calls "more of a shot-and-a-beer place," while Salvatore's steakhouse, Bennett's, is a high-end, critically acclaimed steakhouse. (If your steakhouse clientele includes not just garden variety celebrities like Tim Allen, Rudy Giuliani, and Bernie Mac, but also one of the world's most prominent vegetarians -- Salvatore says the Dalai Lama ordered salmon -- you must be doing something right.)
"My father-in-law," he explains, "owns the property, and before he rented it, he asked me if I wanted to do anything with it. You have to really know what you're doing if you want to run a top restaurant, and I went to school with two guys who were in the restaurant business." Salvatore doesn't take a lot of credit for the restaurant's success: "I'm the hand-shaker," he s
ays. "I never go in the kitchen."
A Referee's Burden
When Salvatore discusses his day job, he is nearly reverential. He talks about his employer like people used to talk about their employers in the 1950s -- back before Enron, when pleasing your boss was a lifelong meal ticket.
At one point I asked him about a controversial call he had made, one for which he has been vilified for years -- and his response included this, which may have been motivated by the league bigwigs in the room, but I believe was from the heart: "It comes along with the territory. It could be a travel in the first moment of the game, as well as a play-ending foul. You have to be strong enough just to do what you're doing, and hope that it's right. But the most important thing is that you know what your employers believe it to be, right or wrong. That's the only way you learn."
I ask him if he has ever made the wrong call. "Sure! Absolutely! I remember one, it must have been 15 years ago. I had a call in Sacramento. It was at the end of the game, and I had scored it a three-point basket, and in fact it was a two. I was wrong. I didn't know I was wrong until afterwards. But it cost the team a game, and I was sick about that. We go in the locker room afterwards, I was sick. I can't repeat on the tape what I said. And I think maybe that's the thing that the general fan doesn't understand the most -- and that's how much we care about our job. And we do. There is no one more upset than the referee if they make a mistake, than that referee. Whenever I talk to anybody, rule number one is -- we make mistakes. We don't want to, but we do."
(Bennett adds that particular bad call nightmare story has a happy ending, in a way: "Today, that would have been overturned by instant replay. That's the beauty of where we've come. To be able to get things right is the greatest thing in the world.")
NBA Referees Always ...
Give superstars and friendly players and coaches the benefit of the doubt, punish rookies and those with hot tempers, issue make-up calls to mistaken bad calls, and cater to the home crowd.
As NBA fans, we hold these truths to be self-evident.
Using much more polite terminology, and sticking very close to the referee PR playbook, Bennett Salvatore swears that's all, essentially, a crock. Point by point:
- Superstars, rookies, hotheads, and nice guys: "Whether it's a rookie or a veteran, a nice guy or a not nice guy, our job is not to get into that, and follow the guidelines. It may sound trite, but that's really what we're trying to do. ... Sometimes these ideas come from seeing someone like Michael Jordan. But you have to realize, he handled the ball for his team 60% of the time which means you may go to the line more. We do not give calls to anyone. ... We don't have any relationships with the players and the coaches off the court. But our relationship on the court is professional. They know we're there to do a job, I know they're there to do a job, and we may have a very congenial and respectful working relationship, but there's no break just because you have been in league ten years. Your foul is his foul, his travel is your travel, and we try to maintain that."
- Make-up calls: "This is the reason why we don't do that -- I can't tell you how many times I make a call that I think is correct -- and then go into locker room and it's wrong or vice versa. We don't really know. We do what is in our heart and what our mind tells us, but we don't know for sure until we see it in the locker room. So every play is a new play, and your focus has to be on the next play."
- Home crowd: "That's what makes us professionals. Our focus on the court does not allow us to be swayed by the noise of home court. ... You have to drown out the crowd. I mean, there's many times my wife might be at a game and she'll say 'boy they really gave it to you after that call,' and I don't even know what call she's talking about. You know, you're so involved, you're so intense on the game."
A Day in the Life of a Referee
For whatever reason I am always curious about the process of people's jobs, and Salvatore was gracious in explaining. Before the game, every day and without fail, he takes a nap. Referees are under contract for 82 games a year, just like the players. Then, as a crew chief, he meets with his crew and organizes a meeting that includes going over the relevant information -- reports from the crew that worked the last meeting between these teams and the like. They take note of which players have squabbled, so they can be alert to any trouble.
They also go online to review video prepared by the league of tough calls from around the NBA. Sometimes that video comes with specifics about how such situations should be called in the future, other times the league solicits thoughts from referees.
And other times, referees hear the hard news about calls they get wrong.
Although there have been rumblings that officials are dissatisfied with the way they are overseen by the league (and even an ongoing shakeup of referee honchos) Salvatore will not admit to any of the league's supposed faults, a big one of which was said to be quotas for this or that call.
"People talk about the quota calls," says Salvatore, "but I don't think there has been grumbling. The idea is not to be used because you didn't have any defensive three-seconds calls or that kind of thing. Let me give you an example. Two years ago the league told me that according to the statistics that my calls that I had incorrect were mostly in the third quarter. I took that to heart. You use that information to look in the mirror. I say OK, let's pick it up a little bit. Maybe you were a little lackadaisical coming out of the half. And now I'm not. And my incorrect calls have gone down in the third quarter. That's the type of use a referee puts that information to. But it's not a matter of ten of these or twelve of that. It's to look for certain areas of your game that you have to be conscious of, certain tendencies."
(Salvatore further adds that he's amenable to some of the changes that may be coming down the pike, for instance publishing video demonstrating good and bad calls: "I don't really know if I have feelings about it one way or another. I think it'll probably wind up to be a good thing, because I think what the public will find is that we're probably right a heck of a lot more times than we're wrong. So I think that the overall truth will be that, and I think that's a good thing.")
After all of the review, getting changed, and limbering up, it's time for the game, during which, he explains, crew chiefs have special responsibility. In addition to having final say on any rules interpretation issues, the chief notes things like wet floors and malfunctioning clocks for a postgame summary and report submitted to the league. The crew chief is also the referee on the spot when instant replay is called for.
After the game and showering off, the crew used to huddle around a laptop to review the game, but now has what Salvatore sees as a major improvement. "It's a giant step!" he declares. "The league has provided us with projectors that plug into the computer, so now we don't have to look at the tiny screen anymore. It makes life a lot easier. It's bigger and easier to see clearly, and you don't have to crowd three guys around the laptop anymore."
Reports and reviews complete, it's time to head to the next city. Here, post-9/11 security has an effect. Referees travel as much as players do, but without private jets. The particulars of flying, in that reality, weigh heavily. (And yes, Salvatore was one of the referees who got in trouble for not paying taxes on income realized by trading in league-purchased first-class seats for cheaper seats.) The referee's contract calls for officials to fly out the same night if the schedule allows. "We used to get on the plane five minutes before takeoff, and that was it," he writes. "Now we're in the airport an hour or two." That means a lot of times, they fly the next day. And it means a lot more time in airports. "It is," says Salvatore, "a fatiguing part of the job."
Another tough part of the job? Salvatore won't complain about it, but nobody likes getting screamed at, questioned, called corrupt, or interrogated by investigators. The unthinkable Tim Donaghy story is in a class by itself. Among the rest of the workforce, a bad call here or there is no cause for alarm, says Salvatore: "We try not to defend ourselves. We're not in defending mode. But rule number one is that we make mistakes. ... We all have kids. We have parents. We just go to work. We work hard. And, above all, if there was any message at all that I had for anybody it's: we give it our best shot, and we will continue to."
More Salvatore Side of the Story to follow in the days to come.
(Photo: Bennett Salvatore at the NBA Finals 2006 with Avery Johnson. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.)