If NBA Commissioner David Stern has his way, there again will be three pairs of zebra eyes, instead of two, scrutinizing the action in his league's games next season. Three referees worked each game of the 1978-79 season, but thereafter the third man was dropped because he was deemed too costly. These days the NBA has more money to spend, a more positive image to uphold and more reason than ever to put a clamp on some of the spectacular brawls that have resulted in an unprecedented number of substantial fines and player suspensions so far this season.
Stern is ready—"barring any unforeseen development," he says—to recommend the three-referee system to the league's owners at their April 26 meeting in New York. "Violence isn't the only reason for the recommendation," Stern says, "but one of the positive effects of having another official would be to inhibit certain activity away from the ball that sometimes winds up as a later confrontation." That's commissionerese for: "Let's knock off the extracurricular stuff that results in retaliation." Says Rod Thorn, the NBA's vice-president of operations and the man who doles out the fines and suspensions, "I think three refs would help. To use an analogy, if you add an extra cop to the beat, you'll have less crime."
Although crime is too strong a word to describe the brawls that have broken out on NBA courts and, in one case, spilled into the stands this season, a few of the donnybrooks have gotten nasty. At the very least, the fights have given new meaning to that favorite NBA word, matchup. Consider:
•Even before the season began last fall, two marquee middleweights, Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins and Indiana's Chuck Person, squared off in an exhibition game in Chattanooga. Twenty-one players were fined; the heaviest assessments were levied on Scott Hastings ($3,500) and Tree Rollins ($2,000) of the Hawks and Steve Stipanovich ($2,000) of the Pacers. Person was fined $750 for instigating the fight, while Wilkins was not fined.
•In a bantamweight bout at Phoenix on Jan. 13, Houston point guard Sleepy Floyd shoved his Suns counterpart Jeff Hornacek after Hornacek had made a layup, and the two had to be separated twice by coaches and teammates. Both were ejected from the game. On his way off the court, Floyd stopped to say one more goodbye to his ol' buddy: He charged Hornacek and pushed him in the face. Floyd was fined $5,000 and suspended for one game, while Hornacek took a $1,500 hit for fighting back.
•In a Jan. 16 set-to in Chicago Stadium that would have stirred the blood of any pro wrestling fan, Detroit's Rick Mahorn, a power forward with a bad rep (Hiss! Boo!) instigated mayhem when he yanked the Bulls' Michael Jordan (Yeah! Wow!) to the floor as Jordan drove to the hoop. Flagrant foul. Chicago power forward Charles Oakley then went after Mahorn and was joined by Bulls coach Doug Collins, who wound up being punched and pushed into the scorer's table by Mahorn. Mahorn was fined $5,000 and suspended for one game. Said Jordan, who was not fined, "The Pistons are one of the dirtiest teams around...to them, a hard foul is one that can hurt you."
The NBA brass deserves credit for trying to stem this tide of terrible tempers. Stern emphasized at a league Board of Governors meeting in Dallas on Oct. 12 that "violent acts" would be met with more substantial fines and more frequent suspensions, and he has followed through. The largest fine Thorn assessed during the 1986-87 regular season was $3,500. Already, Floyd and Mahorn, as well as New Jersey's Buck Williams, New York's Pat Cummings and the Lakers' Michael Cooper, have drawn $5,000 fines for fighting. Fisticuffs have cost the Suns' Larry Nance and the Pistons' Isiah Thomas $3,000 apiece. For going after Mahorn, Collins not only got a cut over his right eye, but also a $1,500 fine for what the NBA called "acting as other than a peacemaker," i.e., leaving the bench to join a fight. Oakley took a $2,000 hit.
In 1986-87, Thorn judged only one player, Boston's Robert Parish, unruly enough to merit suspension, and that didn't occur until Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final when Parish punched Detroit's Bill Laimbeer from behind. Already this season, Floyd, Mahorn, Cooper and Cummings have been sentenced to one-game suspensions for fighting, while Detroit's Adrian Dantley was suspended for one game and fined $1,000 for bumping referee Eddie F. Rush during an argument on Dec. 18. All the suspensions carry another substantial price tag: no pay for a day, which, to a $950,000-a-year player like Dantley, amounts to some $11,600.
Though the NBA claims that its policy of heavy fines and suspension has deterred fighting this season, the league is splitting hairs. Through last week, there had been seven fights in which fines were levied, as compared with nine through the same number of games last season. "Fighting is on everyone's mind now because so many of these incidents [four of the seven] have occurred within the last five weeks," Stern said Jan. 27. But the recent outbreak only proves that on-court violence follows no pattern and can occur at any time. How will the fight scorecard read in two weeks? In a month? During the playoffs when the players are most intense?
Stern knows he has trouble, or he would not be pushing the three-referee system as one of his highest priorities. The tenor of some of this season's battles has been frightening. Take the Jan. 22 fracas at the Forum that started with a shoving match between Cummings and the Lakers' A.C. Green. Cooper soon entered swinging, and he, Cummings and several other players toppled over patrons in the courtside seats. And anyone who witnessed the 6'8", 230-pound Williams trading blows with 6'8", 230-pound Terry Catledge of Washington on Jan. 8—Catledge was later fined $2,000—had to shudder.