Do referees single out certain players in the heat of the action? "Coaches are obsessed with that," says the referee, "but, personally, I'm not sure when Ewing is playing against Brad Daugherty and when he's playing against the worst center in the league. I do think referees should have some idea of what the foul situation is. It doesn't look very good, for example, if it's 7-0 in fouls for one team or the other, and I might do something to straighten it out. But even that doesn't happen much. I think coaches give us far too much credit. I don't think we're smart enough to think of all the things they accuse us of."
As for Marciulionis, few observers outside of Golden State think that he is a target for the refs. For one thing, only a handful of players—most of them superstars such as Michael Jordan, Karl Ma-lone, David Robinson, Barkley, Clyde Drexler and Kevin Johnson—get to the line more often than Marciulionis, and only the Mailman shoots more free throws per minutes played. The consensus is that Marciulionis's hard-driving, go-to-the-basket style initiates contact that is called both ways. "It makes it hard to know when to call the foul for him or against him," says Seattle center Benoit Benjamin, who drew the ire of Nelson with a hard noncall on Marciulionis a few weeks ago. A Western Conference general manager says: "Marciulionis gets every break. He walks every time he gets the ball, for one thing. And he does one trick where he puts the ball right in the defender's chest, pushes off and shoots his shot. I think the complaints were all just a ploy by Nellie to get his player more breaks."
The contract between the NBA and the referees expires on Sept. 1, and the most recent bargaining session ended in failure. "The salary proposal offered by the league was a piece of crap," says one referee who was at the meeting during All-Star Weekend in Orlando. The NBA would not comment because of an agreement with the referees union not to negotiate in the press. The main issue is salary. The officials are seeking parity, or something close to it, with major league baseball umpires. At present, the top salary for an NBA referee with 25 years experience is $123,000; it's $175,000 for an umpire. Starting salary? For the ref, $36,000; for the ump, $60,000.
"I'd say we have a ways to go," says the referee.
Top of the Heep
Since Earl Strom's retirement after the '89-90 season, the unofficial mantle of "best referee in the league" has fallen on the shoulders of veteran Jake O'Donnell. Does it belong there, or is O'Donnell, a tough-minded yet engaging fellow, merely popular with the media?
It belongs. Eighteen of 25 coaches and general managers who responded to this week's poll named O'Donnell the NBA's best referee, most of them as unequivocally as the Eastern Conference coach who said, "That's the easiest question of the year." Joey Crawford, Dick Bavetta and Ed T. Rush (not the young ref Eddie F. Rush) got two votes each, while Jess Kersey got one. All are veteran refs with experience ranging from 25 years—for O'Donnell and Rush—to 15 years for Crawford. The non-O'Donnell voters liked Crawford's and Bavetta's control of the game (the former through bulldog tenacity, the latter through diplomacy), Rush's composure and Kersey's consistency. What did they like about Jake? Everything.
An Eastern coach: "Like Felix Frankfurter, he's fair and just. There couldn't be any better combination for a ref."
A Western Conference executive: "Jake is very consistent and has complete control of the game."