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NBA officials see themselves in no-win situations

8/3/2007

This article appears in the Aug. 13 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

Chances are you've heard that an NBA referee recently resigned, sending a wave of uncertainty rippling through the league and leaving everyone to wonder what the commissioner will do to resuscitate faith in his officials.

Chances are, you're thinking of the wrong ref.

While allegations that Tim Donaghy conspired to fix the NBA games he was officiating rocked the league's foundation, it was the resignation of Bernie Fryer immediately after he worked Game 3 of the NBA Finals that was the summer's first bombshell.

Fryer, a 28-year ref regarded as one of the league's best, is hanging up his whistle because he can no longer stomach the league's current system of managing its officials. And his disaffection is shared by as many as nine other topflight veterans -- about one-sixth of the corps -- who also have talked about stepping down in protest. "It's so bad," says one, "guys buy lottery tickets everywhere they go. If they win, they're just going to leave their shirt hanging in the locker."

In short, the system is neither respected by veteran officials nor, it now appears, capable of weeding out miscreants such as Donaghy.

If referees were losing their taste for the job before, when amateur Oliver Stones found grist for their conspiracy mills despite having not a whiff of hard evidence, imagine how much less palatable it will be if proof surfaces that one of their own was blowing his whistle to affect outcomes. Many of them now expect arenas to be filled with taunters waving dollar bills and shouting Tony Soprano references after each controversial call.

Most refs actually agree that Donaghy was, as David Stern called him, "a rogue, isolated criminal." But unlike the commissioner -- who only recently submitted his referees to the kind of background checks NFL officials have gone through for years -- they aren't just hopeful that Donaghy acted alone. They say it's too difficult to change the outcome as part of a three-man crew. In fact, some have gone back and reviewed tapes of games they officiated with Donaghy and were unable to find any evidence that he attempted to manipulate a game. They're also convinced that Donaghy didn't do this as a way to get back at the league.

Envisioning winning the lottery and abruptly leaving a game a whistle short right before tip-off, however, reflects how some refs would be willing to act out at the league's expense. The refs' dreams of doing something else seems odd, since from the outside, it looks as if they've already hit the jackpot. They're at the top of their profession, enjoying a solid six-figure income with all the perks that come with working on an international stage. What can compare with presiding over a roundball version of Cirque du Soleil, instilled with the power, with only a quick exhale, to bring the entire escapade to a screeching halt?

For good measure, throw in the satisfaction that comes from knowing that you can confidently nail in a split second what the rest of the world often needs seven different camera angles and slow-motion replay to see. Sure, you have to be able to slough off the wisecracks from the cheap seats and the intimidating glares from men twice your size, but all in all, why would anyone quit this one-of-a-kind opportunity even one second earlier than necessary?

Officials say that over the previous two seasons, their decisions have been second-guessed by the league more than ever before and, all too often, erroneously. They are convinced that public or team perception of a call will ultimately dictate whether the league finds it correct.

Problem is, the job is not what it seems. Officials say that over the previous two seasons, their decisions have been second-guessed by the league more than ever before and, all too often, erroneously. They are convinced that public or team perception of a call will ultimately dictate whether the league finds it correct. Several refs say they've been given a thumbs-up on a performance only to be harangued, even reprimanded, by the same people several days later after they've had a chance to view the slo-mo replay. "With every whistle, guys think, Will the tape justify the call?" says one former ref. "Guys aren't being backed up. It's all about PR now."

For the league, the most humiliating aspect of the Donaghy revelation is that its executive VP of operations, Stu Jackson, and director of officials, Ronnie Nunn (both of whom, along with Stern, refused repeated attempts seeking comment), have over the past few seasons taken extreme measures to discount the notion among coaches, players and fans that stars are treated differently or that maverick refs brandish their own brand of justice. An observer at every game files a play-by-play review after watching the action live and again on tape, and refs are then given a detailed critique of every call. Playoff crews actually aren't allowed to leave their locker room until a league office supervisor gives them the all clear.

Jackson and Nunn, sources say, have complained to Stern that if their measures haven't improved the league's officiating, it's only because the league's old dogs won't learn new tricks. According to the refs themselves, maybe it's because they don't trust the teachers. While Nunn was considered a competent official during his 19 years, he certainly wasn't respected enough by his former colleagues to be viewed now as an authority or the ideal for how the job should be done.

His weekly show on NBA TV, in which the rank and file see him pointing out missed calls and then correcting them for the viewing public, hasn't exactly improved his standing. Jackson's undistinguished record at every other position he's held -- Knicks coach, Grizzlies coach and GM -- has him forever fighting to win the respect of his charges, some of whom dealt with him in his previous capacities.

Jackson and Nunn have said that they are trying to develop a corps of interchangeable whistle-blowers, each one calling every minute of every game the exact same way. Three seconds in the lane is a violation, be it in the first minute of the second quarter or the last 30 seconds of overtime. Same with a hand check or a moving screen. The league strives for conformity by creating statistical averages and tracking its officials' adherence to them. Refs say they now receive calls from Jackson informing them that they haven't whistled a particular infraction for several games and need to pick up the slack. And that makes them feel like little more than traffic cops filling ticket quotas.

There's no underestimating how much this whistle-by-checklist philosophy sticks in the craw of every accomplished referee, particularly in the context in which the calls are made. How, they ask, can every call be the same when no two teams, no two games, are the same? And then there is this: Officials say that if they actually adhered to the letter of the law, they'd be calling multiple infractions each trip down the court. Still, the league routinely points out inconsequential infractions and hammers its employees for not calling them.

One unintended repercussion is the long-running success of Flopapalooza. Acting as if you've been mauled to get to the line has long been part of the game, but now players do it everywhere, anytime, because they realize that today's refs are more apt to blow the whistle. Blame a better-safe-than-sorry mind-set among officials who don't want to get blasted for not calling what could look, upon league replay, to be a legit foul. "NCI," says one ref. "It's short for 'no call incorrect.' That's what they hit you with the hardest. You're better off getting it wrong by blowing your whistle than by not blowing it."

Strict adherence to the rules -- albeit not by game officials -- resulted in the Suns being punished more harshly than the Spurs for the altercation instigated by San Antonio's Robert Horry at the end of Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. The league, Jackson has admitted, chose "correctness" over "fairness." And that's what it always does. But that kind of thinking goes against a philosophy that has been hardwired through generations into every veteran ref: Let the players decide the game. "They've taken the common sense out of the officials' hands," says a former ref.

The pursuit of uniformity, several refs contend, is creating mediocrity, even as isolated focus on every call is creating paralysis by analysis, especially among the younger officials.

The pursuit of uniformity, several refs contend, is creating mediocrity, even as isolated focus on every call is creating paralysis by analysis, especially among the younger officials. And they see an irony in being asked to walk a straight line while they are being issued wildly careening directives from the league office. The 2005-06 season began with refs being told to exercise diplomacy and patience, to allow coaches and players to air their grievances as long as they weren't too demonstrative.

Then they were told to do a 180 a year later, when a zero-tolerance policy was handed down. (Jackson objected to the idea that it was a zero-tolerance policy.) These days, no one is quite sure where the line is or, post-Donaghy, where it will fall. Will players and coaches be permitted to vent, or will the refs be filled to the brim with Donaghy smack and not take a drop more?

For the officials, it would appear that correcting one of the ills of last season would be a good start. Remember Tim Duncan's sarcastic laughing fit following a foul call during a game back on April 15? Joey Crawford ejected the All-Star and followed it up with words that got the ref bounced for the remainder of the season. But multiple sources say that when Crawford asked, "Do you want to fight?" it wasn't a challenge, it was a question, as in, "Why do you keep staring at me? Are you trying to pick a fight with me?"

While several refs concurred that Crawford would have been better served ignoring Duncan, his harsh punishment was taken as further evidence that they now toil in a no-win situation. On one hand, Stern doesn't want games marred by altercations or other distractions. On the other, he doesn't believe that in the heat of battle, being "fair" is the best way to ensure that. Crawford had long been known for his short fuse, but he's had a short fuse with everybody, star or scrub. Challenge his authority, and you're going to pay the price.

And his colleagues point to the fact that altercations don't happen in games he works as proof that his approach quells disturbances rather than fomenting them. "What they did to Joey was wrong," said one player. "It's not that I like him, but you know what you're going to get with him. He's consistent. He's fair." Don't shed tears for Crawford. He's asked to return to his job next season, and Stern has indicated that he'll let him.

But even with Crawford and 57-year-old Blane Reichelt, whose planned return after a two-year retirement has been thrown off course by the scandal, the NBA still faces a crisis-provoking exodus of its most experienced refs. The NBDL hasn't turned out to be the hoped-for proving ground for whistle-blowing wannabes, and the NBA has even had to resort to holding an open tryout for its new crop of officials.

In fact, the league has found it so difficult to find suitable replacements that it has six men over 60 still humping it up and down the hardwood, including the respected Joe Forte, Jim Clark, Jack Nies and Jess Kersey. And then there are the fiftysomethings, the next wave of first-rate officials that includes Crawford, Bob Delaney and Bennett Salvatore. "Working a couple of extra years to improve your pension isn't worth it," says one official. Fryer, who is walking away in good health and standing, is clear evidence of that.

The man has to be counting his blessings that he won't be around to witness the Donaghy Effect or be subjected to the suspicions that have crept into the minds of the faithful. But there is one respect in which Donaghy's indiscretions could serve as a benefit to the fraternity. Maybe a chastened Stern will now listen to -- and trust -- what his best referees have to say about how the job needs to be done.

It's pretty clear that if he doesn't, traveling will be the hot new call in the NBA.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.