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Perception more harmful to NBA than reality

6/3/2002

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The NBA has a problem.

The problem is not that there is a conspiracy to put the Lakers (or, in their day, the Bulls) in the Finals, or that playoff games are fixed.

The problem is that so many otherwise rational people think there is a conspiracy to put the Lakers (or, in their day, the Bulls) in the Finals, and that playoff games are fixed. The problem is that the very teams who compete now state openly that they expect to get screwed in important games.

For 15 years, I've listened to crackpots tell me how the league is no different than pro wrestling, that I should be ashamed to cover a sport where the results have been determined in advance by a cabal of power-mad men (the list is never the same but frequently includes David Stern, NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol, the heads of various Fortune 500 companies, and once -- only once -- Suzanne Somers). I laugh to myself, for there is nothing I can do to help these people.

And then comes a game like Friday's Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. There is nothing I can say that will explain 27 free throws for the Lakers in the fourth quarter -- an amount staggering in its volume and impact on the game. It gave me pause. How can you explain it? How can you explain a game where Scot Pollard fouls out when he's two feet from Shaquille O'Neal, or that Doug Christie is called for a ridiculous touch foul just as Chris Webber spikes Kobe Bryant's drive to the hoop, or that Mike Bibby is called for a foul deep in the fourth quarter after Bryant pops him in the nose with an elbow? Regardless of whether the fouls were called correctly or not, they put a black mark on what has been as compelling, dramatic and well-played of a series as I can recall in recent years.

What gives one pause, though, is not that these fouls were called against the Kings in this one game. The pause comes because these fouls were called against the Kings in Los Angeles two days after O'Neal fouled out of Game 5 in Sacramento -- the same game in which Bryant was saddled with five fouls. How can consecutive games be called so diametrically opposite -- with such dramatic differences in the impact on the respective teams?

This is my problem: the 180-degree turns from day to day in the playoffs. One day, Shaq is allowed to drop his shoulder and knock any defender senseless. The very next day, if Shaq looks at Bibby, he gets the foul. How can it be the exact opposite of what it was the game before? And I think people pick up on that, and think something is not right.

I am not speaking here of your garden variety fan who roots for his or her team passionately, sometimes nonsensically, and who will thus create boogeymen to explain his team's losses where none exist. Nor of the poor souls who have to assign the state of their own wretched lives to some unseen, omniscient force. Nor of the professional cranks and nutjobs who earn a living by finding gunmen in grassy knolls -- no, they fired from the bridge above! No, wait -- it was from the sewer below! But of ordinary folks who pay their taxes and hold themselves responsible for their lot in life.

After Game 6, I went out to dinner in L.A. with a couple of sportswriters and three or four other folks who aren't in the business. Each one of us at the table had a college degree. None of us had a dog in this Lakers-Kings fight. But us Sports Guys wanted to see if we were overreacting. So we asked the woman with the business degree who has season tickets to an NBA team (not the Lakers, not the Kings) what her immediate reaction was after watching Friday.

"They stole the game from the Kings," she said, matter of factly.

The next morning, I call for a bellman for help with the bags. The door is open five seconds when he says, and I'm paraphrasing here because I don't generally quote bellmen, "What was up with that game last night? I mean, I'm a Laker fan, so I appreciate the calls. But I don't want to win that way. It was like Chris Webber was saying, 'I can't win, so why should I play hard?' "

Which, if the bellman had been in the Kings' locker room on Friday, was exactly the demeanor he would have seen from Webber. His lip was literally quivering, he was so angry. He spoke in guarded tones about how "we're still the Sacramento Kings" and how he had been told it would be impossible to beat the Lakers Friday. "I was warned," he muttered. Twenty feet away, Vlade Divac was asked if he played O'Neal any differently than he had the first five games. "Of course," Divac smirked. "I thought 'Tonight, I will play him very aggressive and foul him every time.' "

You can dismiss this as sour grapes from the losing team. But this has gone on for so long in so many losing locker rooms over the years, it is now part of the postgame procedure: Winning coach compliments spirit of losing team, losing coach laments horrible officiating. It is so matter-of-fact as to be a cliche: We got the calls tonight; they'll get the calls tomorrow. Only in the NBA does a coach who's won eight championships whine more than a stuck engine valve about refs. You may hear Lou Pinella rant about the strike zone on Monday, but he's not still at it on Thursday. Officials blow calls every Sunday in the NFL, but that league makes sure you know about it on Tuesday, while the NBA still muzzles all discussion about its officials' performance.

So why do NBA coaches do it?

Because it appears to work.

When Phil Jackson gripes about the Knicks and Pistons not allowing flow and freedom in a game -- when he says that Dennis Rodman is being persecuted; when he says that Shaq isn't being allowed the same freedoms a man six inches shorter receives -- he's not talking to the guy or gal that asked him the question in the news conference, and he's not talking to you, dear reader. He's talking to the three people in the striped shirts who will call the next game.

Please understand: I think NBA refs have the hardest job officiating of all the major sports, and that includes the guys who do it on skates. Basketball -- and pro basketball in particular -- has more subjective calls in a half than you'll see in a season of football. Block or charge? Did he jump straight up, or come over the back? Is he hooking, or using leverage? And I think because the game is so subjective to call, no one knows what to expect night in and out.

The NBA also suffers because of the nature of the game. One dominant player out of five will necessarily have more impact than one out of nine in baseball (including the pitcher, who only plays once every four or five days) or one of 11 in football. So someone like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or Isiah Thomas -- or Shaq -- tends to win more often than in baseball or football. This tends to lead to the same teams winning championships -- which creates the impression that this is desired by the Commish, the networks and advertisers looking for common themes, one-name superstars and storylines to sell to the public.

(Of course, the public is as hypocritical on this as it is on so many things. The very people who say they're sick of seeing the same faces win year after year in the NBA are the same folks who stayed away in droves, and didn't watch, during the league's most democratic era -- the 1970s, when talented if nondescript teams like Golden State, Washington, Portland and Seattle won championships.)

I acknowledge I am at a loss about what to do. The Commish acknowledged last week that the game has gotten, in some ways, too quick for the refs, which is why he's now behind some form of instant replay. The Competition Committee will receive a proposal from the league for replay at its meeting this week. And here, the NBA can learn from the NFL, which is always perceived as tinkering with its game to improve officiating and make the game more pleasant for fans.

Of course, the NFL often does no such thing. But people think it does.

Perception is reality.

David Aldridge is an NBA reporter for ESPN.