Last June, after working the fourth game of the championship finals between Detroit and Portland, Earl Strom, 62, retired as an NBA official. He had been an NBA ref since 1957 and had come to be regarded by the players as the best in the league. The following story is adapted from his book, "Calling the Shots," which was recently published by Simon and Schuster
Larry Bird and Bill Laimbeer were charging after a loose ball at Detroit's end of the court. They jostled each other and fumbled for the ball before Bird dived and Laimbeer pulled up, thinking Bird would get called for traveling as he scrambled. Flat on the floor, Bird finally controlled the ball and flipped it downcourt. As Boston scored a fast-break basket, Laimbeer shouted at me, "That's traveling!" I told him, "No, that's sliding, and we don't have a rule on that."
By the letter of the rules, he was right; but to me, it was a good "pro call," or, in this case, a good noncall. When a guy risks life and limb with extra hustle, the fan is getting the best kind of pro basketball action. And I firmly believe the referee has to look for opportunities to encourage that kind of action, not cripple it with technicalities. Enter judgment—the pro call.
When I talk about the pro call, I mean a philosophy of officiating that recognizes that pro basketball is bigger than the rule book and that officials need latitude to interpret the game. The league can present its idea on what each call should be, written into the Official's Manual according to the opinions of the Supervisor of Officials, but ultimately the NBA must rely on a referee's judgment for what is a violation and what isn't.
A man makes a steal, and as he lets go with a pass downcourt, the guy whose pocket he has picked tries to grab him to stop the pass. He doesn't get enough of the stealer to prevent it, but he makes contact. Do you call the foul and deny the team a layup? The pro call is to let the play go; that rewards the team for the steal and rewards the fans with continued action.
Over the years, each supervisor has placed his own signature on the style of play he wants for the NBA. When I broke in, and for most of the years I officiated, we were given leeway to develop our own judgment. But in the latter years of my career, the league placed increasing emphasis on conformity. I feel that this approach takes away the personal judgment that makes the game work. Sure, the league has a "let 'em play" attitude compared with college and high school ball, but it doesn't let 'em play quite as openly as I would advocate. The league would expect me to call traveling on that sliding Larry Bird. I think that puts the ref and the players into the wrong frame of mind.
Fans see lots of things and say we missed them. But the challenge is to determine what is really affecting the game, and the let-goes are part of it. Some people call this frontier justice; I think it's like being a cop on the street. You ignore the jaywalkers and watch for the muggers. You earn respect with your voice, body language, knowledge of the facts, instincts and judgment. In my years as an official, I rewarded aggressive play, but I never condoned the hatchet men who inhibited the play of the biggest talents. That's the primary role of an official—to ensure that talent has a fair chance to display itself within the spirit of the game.
That's why I would tell guys to keep their hands off. I would give 'em a warning, tell 'em what I want, set the guidelines. I would much rather talk to a player first than blow my whistle all night. If he gained an unfair advantage I would call it, but if there was no edge, then I would get him shaped up and keep the game moving. Some guys think you have to call everything you see to control the game. That's ridiculous. They'll play to whatever guidelines you set. Too many of today's officials lack the feeling for where to draw the line. That throws off the whole game. Ticky-tacky fouls keep guys from getting into a rhythm; they spend too much time standing around, and they start reaching, grabbing, poking, holding, playing defense with their hands instead of their feet. You've got to encourage the game to take off.
For so many years, everyone looked for a great center who would guarantee a team success. Everyone wanted a franchise kind of big man. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar validated that idea when he came into the league in 1969. Twenty years later, people still seem to think the answer lies in a great center, but the '80s showed how great forwards and guards could dominate a game. Julius Erving, Magic, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan are the most obvious examples. These guys all have good size, but it's their mobility and all-around talent that is so dramatic; these guys can rip rebounds, shoot with finesse, hammer inside, block shots, steal the ball, make great passes. They're just an indication of the mobility there is in the game now. And instead of a couple of big horses battling for the rebounds, you can have 10 pairs of hands up over the rim. They certainly have made for a faster, more active game, and therefore one that's a helluva lot harder to call than it was 20 years ago.
The '80s provided a steady recovery from the damage done by the rivalry between the ABA and NBA a decade earlier. Inspired by Bird and Magic, the work ethic returned. When superstars come out to bust their butts on both ends of the court every night, the quality of play goes up for everyone. Salaries continued to climb toward an average of a million dollars a man by the end of the decade, but at least guys looked like they cared. It was as if the players caught on that the public didn't mind spending a good buck for sports entertainment. But you better give 'em a show, baby, or you'll ruin a good thing.