Two months ago Knick coach Pat Riley unloaded on the league's referees. He felt that a Jan. 18 game at Cleveland had been "taken away" from the Knicks by the officials. He also claimed that refs had shown increased "awareness" of questionable New York violations since a Dec. 26 game at Madison Square Garden against the Spurs when flagrant fouls were whistled on Patrick Ewing and Anthony Mason of the Knicks. And having obviously researched the subject himself, he challenged reporters to check whether his points were well taken. Fred Kerber of The New York Post did just that. He studied figures for almost a month following the Spur game and found that the officials called almost three more fouls per game on the Knicks than they did on New York's opponents. Riley, incidentally, was fined $2,500 by the league for his unsolicited research.
More recently, Warrior coach Don Nelson suggested that Sarunas Marciulionis, his vastly improved third guard, was being victimized by some referees because he's a foreigner. In a game at Dallas on Feb. 24, several journalists sitting courtside heard referee Ed Middleton say, after calling a double dribble violation on Marciulionis, "Maybe you can put two hands on the ball in Russia, but not here." Jeff Chapman of The Oakland Tribune thought Middleton was serious; Ron Bergman of The San Jose Mercury News and George Shirk of The San Francisco Chronicle thought he was joking. Apparently Nelson didn't. He said that two years ago during an exhibition game, a referee silting in the stands had said, referring to Marciulionis, "I wouldn't give that Russian any call."
Last week, an NBA source quoted Middleton as saying he was joking. Middleton then worked the Warriors' 110-100 win over Houston Saturday night in Oakland and told reporters the matter had been resolved, but he wouldn't discuss the resolution. Rod Thorn, the league's vice-president of operations, also refused comment about the outcome. Nevertheless, the statements were particularly galling to Marciulionis because he is from Lithuania.
The question for the NBA is whether there are double standards in officiating—for any reason. Many players and coaches, while allowing that refs get involved in personality clashes from time to time, believe that calls balance out over the course of the season. "I think I've been treated fairly in my career, and that's all I can compare it to," says the Sonics' Ricky Pierce. But just as many others feel that prejudicial refereeing is common.
"Referees see reputations, not plays," says an Eastern Conference player, a former All-Star. "It damages the integrity of the game and—you know what?—there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. Complain, and you get fined. Ask them quietly, and they'll come after you even more." A Western Conference coach agrees: "I don't think it happens very often that a ref will intentionally go out to screw one guy. But I do think you have guys, like [the Pistons' Bill] Laimbeer and, for a while, [the 76ers' Charles] Barkley, who committed a lot of flagrant fouls, and those guys get watched closer than others." (Players and coaches would not go on record with negative comments about officiating, for fear that they would be eternally doomed, not to mention heavily fined.)
One Eastern Conference coach believes that the biggest clashes occur when certain refs work particular venues. "It takes guts to make calls against the home team in Detroit, Utah, New York and Boston, arenas where the fans are very intense and close to the court," says the coach. "When I walk into one of those buildings and see a certain crew, I think to myself, 'Forget it. Unless we play a perfect game, we have no chance.' The fact that some refs can't work in that atmosphere docs not say much for the league."
Others subscribe to the oft-expressed notion that better-known players get better treatment. "Take [the Celtics'] Robert Parish, for example," says one Western Conference general manager. "He hasn't had to establish a pivot foot for 16 years. He walks every time he gets the ball. Once they let a guy establish a move, he can usually get away with it." Says another Eastern coach: "With the way the game is marketed, who do you think is more likely to get a call on the blocks—Patrick Ewing or, say, Greg Kite?" One Western coach with a losing record puts it this way: "If there are 10 calls that could go either way, I believe seven of them will go to a team with a winning record."
One referee, who asked that he remain anonymous, says that personalities do, indeed, clash during games. "If I've got a guy who's always on me and said some bad things about me in the past, sure, I'm probably going to be tougher on him," admits the ref. "Or at least I'm not going to give him anything. It's human nature. But it doesn't happen that often, and we don't talk about it among ourselves officially. Sure, before a game I might think, 'Uh-oh, I just had trouble with so-and-so.' But the topic of personality conflicts and keeping certain refs away from certain coaches does not come up."
What about Riley's comments? "I had one of those games when Pat was complaining," the same referee says. "He was really upset afterward that Ewing hadn't gotten to the foul line. But I remember that game and Ewing never took the ball to the basket. That happens."