The toughest call: Block or charge?
The block/charge call will surely be a factor throughout the playoffs
Nuggets coach George Karl: "It's an incredibly difficult play to call"
Today it is far easier to draw a charge than it was 30 years ago
This story appears in the April 27, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
At this time of year James Posey walks barefoot across the locker room carpet with a tentative hobble. If crash-test dummies could unbuckle their own seat belts, they would stagger away from accident scenes much like the 32-year-old Posey has after some of his recent playoff games -- bent severely at the hips, trying not to aggravate the aches that already cause his lips to purse. Yet this is the time of year that Posey loves more than any other.
Because this is when he matters most, even if it almost kills him.
Posey has become expert in both pain management and championship celebrations because he is among the best in the league at drawing charges. When the Hornets' forward sees an opponent driving to the basket, he turns into a 6' 8" Mahatma Gandhi with a headband. Leaving his own man unguarded, he scurries to the top of the semicircle under the basket, faces his enemy and stands in nonviolent protest of the punishment that awaits him.
Over his 10-year career with six NBA teams, Posey has averaged a negligible 9.2 points and 4.9 rebounds. But his sacrificial approach to defense contributed mightily to two recent championships -- with the Miami Heat in 2005-06 and last season with the Boston Celtics -- and persuaded New Orleans to sign him last summer for $25 million over four years. Posey routinely dives chin-first for loose balls, wrestles through screens and bodies up against larger opponents, but it is his talent for drawing charges that defines his value to New Orleans.
The risks of the most selfless deed in basketball, though, go beyond the physical. That's because the often-fractional difference between a charge and a block call is decided by a referee who has to determine, in a split second: a) were the defender's feet set, b) was he outside the court's semicircle, c) who initiated contact, and d) does the contact merit a call at all? What's really cruel is that despite Posey's skill, anticipation and sacrifice, he could very easily send the player who ran him down to the free throw line. Which can make those postgame walks across the locker room carpet ever more painful.
As defenses tighten and All-Stars attack the hoop recklessly over the weeks of playoffs ahead, the block/ charge call will inevitably make its presence felt as the least understood and most infuriating symbol of postseason intensity. The hunger to attack and defend the paint leads to familiar arguments over who was there first: a violent crash, the whistle, two or more sneakered survivors lying askew and thousands of biased eyewitnesses awaiting justice. While a bang-bang out-of-bounds play might equally test an official's reflexes, the block/charge ruling can result in a personal foul and points, not just possession. "It's an incredibly difficult play to call," says Nuggets coach George Karl. "I could put 20 on tape that everybody would miss. Some you would call charge, some you would call block. They're that close -- where the offense has the right to the territory and where the defense has the right to the territory, it's a very thin line."
That line is one that some of the biggest NBA names love to dance along. When LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade need points in crunch time, where do they go? They take the ball inside, confident that the whistles will blow their way and free throws will follow. Wade's ability to get the favorable side of the block/charge call was key to the Heat's beating the Mavericks in the 2006 Finals. "Who's charging who?" says Trail Blazers forward Channing Frye. "If it's LeBron versus any other dude, they're not going to give [the defender] the call. They want to keep [LeBron] in the game, or at least they'll give him a break." Also, Frye says, refs almost automatically award foul shots to quick guards like Tony Parker and Chris Paul on the assumption that they must have beat the defender to the spot. Of course, a reputation as a charge taker can come in handy too. "If you're a good help defender," says Frye, "90 percent of the time you're going to get the charge call."
Bernie Fryer, the NBA director of officials, cries foul at the notion of star treatment. Against the vast weight of anecdotal evidence, Fryer insists that the relative status of players has no influence on a call. The NBA's grading system ultimately decides which referees work in the playoffs and earn extra money, Fryer argues, so it's in the refs' best interest to get the block/charge right, whether it's LeBron James or Jerome James barreling to the hoop. In an attempt to quell the controversy around block/charge rulings, Fryer recently invited a reporter to his office to view replays of 13 calls. A difficult one from last season showed Miami guard Smush Parker driving around the Knicks' Renaldo Balkman and straight into a suddenly appearing Jared Jeffries. In slow motion you can see that Jeffries gets position, but in real time the players seem to arrive at the same moment. "In the old days you know what [prominent former refs] Joe Gushue or Jake O'Donnell would call?" says Fryer, breaking into a smile. He rotates his forearms, the signal for traveling. "Because he didn't know," says Fryer. "He didn't know, so he'd say, He must have walked."
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