Referees. Also known as zebras, assassins, unprintables and aging zombies with whistles whose sole function is to disrupt the balletic flow of pro basketball games. Referees give and take away with astonishing caprice. Not their fault necessarily, but in the past few seasons, this arbitrariness has been given credit for helping to foment two of pro basketball's most explosive plays—the technical foul and the bloodbath.
Because violence became so conspicuous in the NBA last year, the league had no choice but to act. Out of limbo came an old suggestion that a third official be added. Commissioner Larry O'Brien, whose intention to eradicate violence from the game was made manifest by his tough disciplinary action against combatants last year, agreed with the proposal. "But adding policemen does not, by itself, eliminate crime," he says. O'Brien's special committee on violence agreed that most passionate disagreements on the court begin with "hand checking," that wholly illegal, irritating-as-hell but tolerated practice in which the defender uses his hands to "feel" what the offensive man is doing.
"John Havlicek was the absolute master of the hand check," says Phoenix' Paul Westphal. "He'd look like he was just resting his hand on you, but he was so strong and sneaky that he'd actually be grabbing a whole handful of your gut. By the end of the game you'd be all black-and-blue."
The rule against hand checking has been on the books since Dr. James Naismith nailed up his first peach basket. In the NBA it is covered by Rule 12B, Section I: "A player shall not hold, push, charge into, impede the progress of an opponent by extended arm, knee or by bending the body into a position that is not normal...." At the college level, the hand check has also always been taboo, but in the NBA, pushing, holding, slapping, slashing have been condoned for years, like the famous "three-step-no-travel" and "no harm, no foul" philosophies. This year, however, the rule carries an addendum: "...hand checking will be eliminated by rigid enforcement of this rule by all three officials. The illegal use of hands will not be permitted."
Suddenly, players are finding that the slightest brush of the fingertips against an opponent can draw a whistle, and that there are three, not just two, whistles to be wary of. Hand checking is still a judgment call, the key word in the rule being "impede." A simple hand on a man is still not supposed to be a foul unless the man is actually impeded. But what is allowable has been drastically narrowed, and according to instructions from Supervisor of Officials Norm Drucker, anyone who touches another player is officially "suspect" and subject to a referee's judgment. And most referees are judging a touch to be a foul.
Before the season started, the mere thought of such tight control had NBA people conjuring up images of three-hour whistle concerts and free-throw shooting contests. Amazingly enough, early returns show that the new restriction is working better than even its most optimistic proponents thought possible.
Through the first 68 games, there were exactly 1.5 more fouls called per contest than in the same period last year, and the average time of a game—two hours and seven minutes last year—has soared by a full four seconds. In fact, the only statistic that has changed substantially is scoring, with point production up by an average of 4.6 points per team per game. While the advent of three referees and no hands has brought predictable moans from certain teams that object to playing basketball the way its inventor had intended, the overall effect is a game that is cleaner, purer and more fun to watch. The offensive artists, like George Gervin, Julius Erving, David Thompson, Marques Johnson, Elvin Hayes and Westphal, can move to the basket without getting mugged. The true defensive specialists, like Bobby Jones, Don Buse, Artis Gilmore and Quinn Buckner, are plying their art with their feet rather than their hands.
"The league did such a good job educating the players and promoting the new rule that they don't have to call hand checking as much as we all expected," says Westphal.
The third official is also working out, although complete acceptance of anything new in the NBA takes a millennium, especially anything having to do with officiating, which, says Earl Strom, a 21-year veteran official, is more idiosyncratic than in other sports. "There are no natural parameters to judge from," he says. "No strike zone, no foul line, as in baseball. No line of scrimmage, as in football. Nothing is black or white. And every basketball official has his own philosophy about the game. One man's block is another man's charge."
After the league owners voted last June to spend the $700,000 to implement the three-man system (it had been stalled, as too costly, for five years), Drucker scoured the Eastern Basketball Association, the industrial leagues and the college conferences to find enough rookie referees to fill the required 13 working crews, each with a veteran as chief. According to the format Drucker designed, the crew chief works a totally new position for an NBA official, from foul line to foul line along one sideline. The other two refs go up and down the floor, alternately working under the basket and in the backcourt near the sideline opposite the crew chief. The three always form an equilateral triangle. But the presence of the crew chief on the sideline means that the most experienced official never gets "into the pits" where 75% of the shooting fouls are called. And that is where the new system most commonly comes under attack.