“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” — Robert F. Kennedy
To be perfectly honest, I never saw this coming. When the NBA got its finals dream matchup — two dynasties, its greatest rival franchises, two brilliant coaches, a half dozen or so future Hall of Famers, a sprinkling of emerging megastars and a Whitman’s Sampler of effective role players — in no way did I imagine the early part of the series would be dominated by a rotation of middle aged fat guys in grey T-shirts who could very easily be mistaken for (take your pick) Al Bundy’s bowling team or the Pep Boys.
But that’s exactly what we’ve gotten. Despite the fact that we’re looking at what maybe the greatest collection of athletic ability in NBA finals history, the officials have been THE story of the series so far. They owned Game 1, reffing it like a bunch of old farts yelling at the neighborhood kids to quit playing on their lawn. And in the process, the only three men in America with the power to do so made sure there was no semblance of an actual basketball game played that night. A different set of refs took over for Game 2 and let the boys play a little more, but to hear Phil Jackson tell it, they handcuffed Kobe Bryant more than anyone since the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department and were the sole reason the Lakers lost. Celtics fans felt the same way in Game 3, with Paul Pierce getting the whistle for contact that wouldn’t get you in trouble in front of your date’s dad.
But to me the big issue isn’t which team is getting jobbed worse than the other. It’s the fact that we — all of us, fans, players and media alike — are constantly getting jobbed by the officials. I can live with blown calls. I can accept failure. I’d have no problem with a NBA marketing campaign built around “It’s Where Human Error Happens.”
What I can’t live with any more is the wanton, blatant, obvious, reckless disregard for the game as it’s meant to be played. This intentional, brazen contempt for the actual rules in favor of calling the game in whatever manner they feel like. It insults the intelligence of all of us (something not easily done in my case) for the Association to continue to act like the games are manipulated to suit whatever moods, grudges, personal agendas, mid-life crises or wagers the officials have on a given night.
Well, I, for one, refuse to accept that it has to be this way. If there’s one thing that defines me, it’s my starry-eyed optimism. Don’t let my lifetime of narrow-minded cynicism and sarcastic wiseassery fool you. I’m really an idealist. A “The glass isn’t half empty; it’s overflowing with pixie dust” kind of guy. And like both RFK and another certain, tragic 1960s icon, I’m seeing the sports world as it could be:
Imagine calling the rulebook. It’s easy if you try.
It’s a crazy notion, I know. But what if they just called the game the way it was meant to be called? What if they acted like it’s the league’s job to set the rules, and the officials job to enforce them? Simply put, treat a travel like a travel. An elbow is an elbow. A charge is a charge. And a flop ... is nothing. So no more phantom calls, make up calls, hometown calls or “crunch time” non-calls and so on. For once I’d like to see the greyshirts stop being the NBA equivalent of activist judges legislating from the bench. Like I said, it’s crazy, but just crazy enough to work.
Imagine no special calls. It isn’t hard to do.
This is a corollary of the first point. What if rules was rules, regardless of whether you’re a minimum salary rookie or you have your own line of sneakers sewn by the children of a Third World country? What if Allen Iverson got called for carrying the ball his whole career or Shaq wasn’t allowed to throw that elbow or they’d told Michael Jordan he could no longer take steps from Wrigley Field? How would that be?
Imagine no “Star Treatment.” I wonder if you can.
What say if you foul out, you foul out? So tough crap. If you don’t like it, then quit committing fouls. The Zen Master might have had his Chi in a bunch after Game 2, but we all know that once Kobe picked up his fifth foul, he could’ve committed armed robbery (not likely) or sexual assault (50-50 chance) and it wouldn’t have been called. The NHL might not be perfect, but if Alex Ovechkin were to go third man in on a fight, it’s a Game Misconduct. The refs don’t just go all Sgt. Schultz because a guy is a “marquee” player.
Imagine no attention-whoring. Nothing to kill or die for.
And this goes for all sports, not just the NBA. I suppose this is a product of the SportsCenter-ic times we live in. But I’ve reached the point of total burnout on officials drawing attention to themselves with schtick. Umps who can’t make an out call at first without doing the Napoleon Dynamite “Vote for Pedro” dance. Or mic-happy NFL refs who love the sound of their own voice more than drunken Japanese businessmen in a karaoke bar. Like Ed Hochuli, who can’t make a simple offsides call without a lengthy dissertation on the rule. “And while I explain the history of the encroachment penalty and the Latin etymology of the word, please continue to stare in amazement at my awesomely chiseled arms.” Just make the damned calls, fellas. If we want to see an ump/ref engaged in wacky hijinks, we can always pop in the “Naked Gun” DVD again.
Imagine integrity. A brotherhood of man.
Of all the things you can say about the state of NBA officiating, nothing speaks louder than the fact that the only source you can trust on the topic right now is a convicted felon. Tim Donaghy is like a mob boss who’s turned state’s evidence and he’s been coming clean throughout the NBA finals on how the refs call these games. He’s been showing us where all the bodies are buried, from the makeup calls to the star treatment calls to the blatant missed non-calls. And it’s fascinating to read, because Donaghy is the only NBA insider to admit the game is played with a marked deck.
And the polar opposite of the way the NBA handles things is Jim Joyce, the MLB ump who made the only call this year worse than the one Gary Coleman’s widow made to 911. As bad as Joyce blew it, he stood up, looked the world in the collective eye and admitted it. By all accounts he’s one of the good, earnest, professional umps, he just let the proverbial ball go through his legs on that one and he apologized. Profusely. You can’t get more maxima than the mea culpa he gave. I mean, you’d still prefer he got it right, but at least you didn’t come away feeling like he made the safe call because, say, he blew an out call in the eighth inning and this was the makeup call or Andres Galarraga complains about balls and strikes too much.
So like I said, I can forgive mistakes. What I can’t forgive is refs making themselves the story of the series. Or imposing their own agendas into the outcome of these games. I especially can’t forgive them for making me scream at them like I’m a kid again, yelling at the WWE ref for missing the foreign object hidden in the Iron Shiek’s trunks. And all I ask of these guys is that they make the calls the best they can and leave who wins and who loses to the guys we actually care about: the players. Imagine how that would be.
You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.