And you better believe the superstars are the heart of the show. Docs that mean that superstars get away with things, get favored treatment? To some slight extent, maybe. When you watch someone make a move, it's tough to completely eliminate all your built-in expectations, and I suppose that gives the edge to the superior talent. If a rookie shuffles his feet, he's apt to get called on it; if it has become part of a man's game, he will probably get some leeway. A Dr. J or a Jordan taking off from the free throw line to slam the ball might have taken an extra hop before going airborne, but he has done enough spectacular things to give him the benefit of the doubt.
On the whole, though, I say the question is all wrong. Superstars don't hold an edge because referees look the other way. It's the referee's job to make sure the game is played right, and if he does his job well, that's going to allow the superstar to do his thing. The superstars benefit most by what we do call, not by what we don't. It's imperative that the referee make sure the super talent isn't taken right out of the game by desperate defense.
I was conducting an instructional clinic at the 76ers' preseason camp in the late '70s, when officials were trying to crack down on heavy-duty hand checking. Henry Bibby, a stocky guard, piped up, "Earl, how am I going to check a guy like George Gervin if I can't use my hands'? He's taller than me. He'll overpower me if I can't defend myself with my hands." I reminded him that, first, he couldn't use his hands on guys in college and, second, it's not up to the referee to neutralize the talent of one player so somebody else can keep up. The year before, I had a game in San Antonio; Billy Paultz came up to me at the half and said, "I've got four fouls and Kareem's got 25 points. Earl, if you don't let me play him my way and stop calling all these fouls he's going to score a hundred on me." I didn't have much sympathy. "What am I supposed to do, Billy?" I said. "Maybe I should tell him, 'Kareem, you're not supposed to be 7'2" and that good. This guy can't keep up, so I'm going to let him bludgeon you to death.' "
A couple of years ago, Atlanta was playing Chicago and an Atlanta player undercut Jordan as he went in for one of his flying dunks on a fast break. I called a flagrant foul. Some guy yelled out from the Atlanta bench, "Ah, you're just protecting the superstars."
"Damn right I am," I told him. "You eliminate these guys from the game and we're all out of work."
Dominique Wilkens looked at his teammate and said, "Amen."
It really isn't so much a matter of protecting the privileged few as it is ensuring that the guys with the greatest skills, the guys with the flair and finesse and touch, can play their game without being pounded right out of commission by some of these muscular assassins. Don't get me wrong, it's a tough, physical game and there are some guys who are big and strong enough to bruise the ordinary man on the street just by bumping into him. But a grinding, rugby-match approach isn't tolerable in the new era. This is the era of flash and flair, and it's paying big dividends.
Like I've said, I believe in common sense, whatever the rule book may say about a particular action. If you've been allowing Robert Parish to put his hand in the middle of Kareem's back all night, you don't suddenly start calling it close at the end and nail the guy. If the game's a rout and there's almost no time left when Jordan seemingly takes off from midcourt and stuffs one in out of the rafters, you don't call the extra step he took. The crowd loved it, it didn't affect the outcome, why take it away from him?
People are always crying about shuffling feet, guys taking little stutter steps. James Worthy probably has the quickest first step of any forward in the game. It sure looks like he has to be doing something illegal to blow by people the way he does. But if you can do it quicker than the human eye can register it, I guess you're entitled to it. The rules about traveling and fouls haven't changed that much since Naismith. It's the same game, but it's played with so much more speed and ability now that you have to use judgment in determining what really gives one guy an advantage over another. And that's what the rules are all about—keeping the conditions the same for both sides. The challenge for the officials is to keep up with the talent.
In a playoff game against the Lakers in 1988, the Pistons' Isiah Thomas came up with a move from the top of the key that Ed Rush figured had to be traveling and called that on him a couple of times. Isiah told Rush to check out the films. Sure enough, it was a legal move.