Foul play

James Williams makes the biggest calls of his career in Heat-Bulls game

Updated: April 5, 2012, 5:15 PM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

NBA Referees conferGary BogdonJames Williams (left) had some explaining to do after two bad calls.

This story appears in the April 16, 2012 "One Day, One Game" issue of ESPN The Magazine.

JUST 11 YEARS after he blew his first whistle, in a Purdue intramural game, James Williams was asked to make the biggest calls of his life as a second-year official in the first meeting between the Bulls and the Heat since they squared off in the Eastern Conference finals last spring. If the 32-year-old Williams was nervous, he didn't show it -- until perhaps the final minutes. Although the game featured half a dozen calls that had NBA VP and director of officials Don Vaden and operations VP Joe Borgia hitting the rewind button in their shared New York office, only two stood out as clear mistakes. Both belonged to Williams -- not to 19-year veteran crew chief Monty McCutchen or 23-year vet David Jones. "It's a lonely feeling," Borgia says, imagining how Williams must have felt (the NBA doesn't allow officials to comment on their calls). "You're thinking, Oh my god, did I cost them the game?"

Still, Vaden insists the Bulls-Heat game didn't change his favorable view of Williams. "He missed two plays," Vaden says. "They were just at the wrong time." Here's a look at those calls, along with a rare glimpse into how the league's referee operations department reviews such incidents.

Heat 92, Bulls 86, 2:34 fourth quarter
Play: LeBron James dribbles left across the lane and attempts a pull-up jumper. Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson converge, and Gibson gets a piece of the ball. A foul is called.
Assessment: The replay shows Gibson cleanly blocked James' shot. As the trail official, Williams didn't have a clear look because of intervening bodies, but Jones, on the baseline, had a perfect view and didn't blow his whistle. "That's the first one we really talked to him about," Vaden says. "Trust the lead."

Heat 94, Bulls 93, 16.8 seconds fourth quarter
Play: James misses the second of two free throws. Gibson gets a hand on the ball, but Dwyane Wade slaps it away. The ball is loose when Williams blows his whistle for the purpose of granting the Bulls a timeout. Because Chicago doesn't actually possess the ball, nor are the Bulls actually calling for the TO, the whistle makes no sense. The players freeze, and the ball bounces to Chris Bosh before Ronnie Brewer ties him up. The referees stop play and eventually declare an inadvertent whistle.
Assessment: Vaden says Derrick Rose told Williams right before the free throw that the Bulls would call a timeout if they got possession. But the rulebook requires a signal or vocal timeout request while the clock runs. "I told James, 'You don't have to be so quick on granting the timeout,'" Vaden says. "Make sure they have the ball. You can always put time back on the clock."

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer