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"Our rules on contact are specific. It's just that we intentionally don't follow them," says Bob Bass, the ABA's new supervisor of officials. "If we played according to the rules, we'd have a game that fans, coaches and players wouldn't like."
This game would be either a procession to the free-throw line or contests ending with such scores as 500-498. It is all but impossible to stop a man making a medium-range jumper on the run without a little nudge here, a small shove there and a whole lot of lighting for position away from the ball. Naturally, toughness on defense is countered with roughness on offense. The result is pro basketball: hard picks that jar the marrow of 230-pound forwards, innocent-looking hand checks by guards that would crush the rib cages of normal men, rugged play by the monsters near the basket in which a shooter will commonly find his hands free but will unavoidably notice that his lower body is receiving a treatment that can only be described as medieval.
The rules governing contact in professional basketball repose almost entirely in the eyes of the beholders, the ones running about the court in those funny, black crepe-soled shoes. NBA officials long ago evolved an extra-legal version of how the game should be played, a mental rule book that held the contact in check just this side of dismemberment. It served to make the game salable, but it also required of referees that they make repeated, instantaneous judgments without any guidance aside from their own eyesight and experience. In a sense, pro officials make up the rules as they go along, for every time a player devises a new ploy or contact takes on a fresh nuance it is the refs who must determine on the spot whether it will be allowed or not. Says one top ABA official: "I blow my whistle only when I feel a guy is gaining an advantage from doing what he's doing. I'm not anxious to make calls. I want the players to win or lose the game on their own, but they've got to do it within my rules."
All of which leaves the contact portions of the pro game open to interpretation by anyone: fans, coaches, players, writers, general managers, popcorn vendors and refs, good and bad. To make correct decisions on the run with a cacophony of voices trying to scream him around to their point of view demands a man of unusual qualities.
"Psychologically, an official should be like a good policeman," says one NBA coach. "He should be possessed of a mean streak and yet be full of compassion."
"A ref should be a hard-headed egomaniac who doesn't care whether it's Oscar Robertson or Don Chaney he's making a call on," says another coach. "That takes born guts; it's not something you can sprinkle on a guy's Wheaties."
Obviously, mere knowledge of the rules is not sufficient to be a good referee. A ref must be in top physical condition to withstand the rigors of four games a week. He must be thoroughly self-confident, so that his calls cannot be swayed by the disapprobation of those around him. He must be even-tempered and assess technical fouls without carrying a grudge even when his parentage or sexual proclivities have been questioned. He must be decisive, making his judgments fast and firmly in order to keep control of the game in his hands. And he must, above all, be consistent.
The rule book on fouls that the best referees carry around in their heads is a concise document. They can see the same offense committed 15 different ways and recognize it for what it is 95% of the time. They can detect the slight movement by a defender that changes an apparently identical earlier call of offensive charging into a defensive blocking foul.
"All I want from them is consistency," complains one angry NBA player. "I want to be able to walk out on the floor and know they're going to make the same calls the same way for everybody. Pro players are really good and we can adjust to whatever the refs say, but we can't adjust when the ref is calling things differently every two minutes, or when he lets some guys get away with things that other guys can't."
Finding men with such qualities would not be easy under any circumstances. To amplify the problem, pro refs must also be relatively young, willing to be away from home 80% of the time between mid-September and April and dedicated enough to work without expectation of praise. "Officiating is the only occupation in the world where the highest accolade is silence," Dolly King, a ref from an earlier era, was fond of saying.