The refs in Game
5 called 56 fouls (evenly divided between the teams, if you're scoring at home)
and three technicals. They made about a dozen other calls for various
violations such as traveling. On a similar number of occasions they had to
instantly judge which player knocked the ball out-of-bounds, a call that some
refs will tell you is their toughest. And there's no way to figure out how many
times the refs decided not to make a call. Thirty? Sixty?
then, that the average ref in the average game has to make 100 decisions on the
fly. By contrast, the only way to determine if a third-base umpire is sentient
is to stick a mirror next to his mouth to see if he's breathing.
That said, NBA
refs do make some extraordinarily dumb calls and no-calls. While a minor bit of
jostling 30 feet away from the ball can result in a foul, Garnett (to single
out just one superstar) is allowed to take an extra little step or half step on
virtually every play, something for which a bench warmer would be whistled
immediately. In a key down-the-stretch play in Game 3, the Lakers' Vladimir
Radmanovic took three giant steps as he went in for a dunk but was not called
for traveling. Those are precisely the kinds of plays that drive your Uncle
Harry nuts—In my day you couldn't get away with that!—and lead him to conclude
that virtually every whistle is suspect.
Then, too, some
refs are too close to players and coaches—it is common for refs to solicit
signed sneakers and other memorabilia. One NBA coach told SI last week that he
once heard Michael Jordan unleash a stream of f bombs in the direction of a
referee. The ref did not hit Jordan with a technical foul or say anything to
him until after the game, when he asked, "Michael, can I have your
sneakers?" Indeed, some refs act like puppies around the superstars, eager
to be a part, however peripheral, of an exclusive posse.
BUT IF calls are
shaded toward superstars and superteams, is that a conspiracy or just human
nature? Is anything that Donaghy says believable?
First of all, it
is implausible that Stern, by anyone's account one of the smartest
commissioners in the history of sports, would risk bringing down the whole
enterprise by ordering refs to fix games. But given that the NBA, probably more
than any other sport, benefits from having certain matchups in the Finals
(Lakers-Celtics is a clear ratings booster; San Antonio Spurs--Cleveland
Cavaliers in 2007 was not), it is not implausible that some refs might receive
a subtle message. More to the point, the public believes it's not implausible.
Jackson suggested during the Finals that referees "be under a separate
entity," a notion Stern dismissed with extreme prejudice. But the league
should consider putting referee review, now handled internally, in the hands of
an outside agency. That might increase public belief in the integrity of the
Nothing will do
that as well, though, as games like the one on Sunday night. Though it had its
chippy moments—serial nice guys Derek Fisher of the Lakers and Ray Allen of the
Celtics were hit with a double technical for jawing at each other in the second
quarter—the game never got out of hand. It was played hard but fairly and
refereed well, as the combatants later acknowledged. Garnett said he got in
foul trouble partly because of needless overaggression; Rivers agreed. Pierce
conceded that Bryant never touched him when he reached around and flicked the
ball away, the game's decisive moment. "It was just a great defensive
play," said Pierce.
In short, an air
of civility reigned despite the high stakes. Perhaps it was because the Celtics
were heading for the safe harbor of Boston, and the Lakers felt good about
having defended their manhood at home. Or perhaps it was something else, the
realization that the integrity of the league had been brought into question and
it was time to close ranks. That could change in an instant, of course. A
championship was on the line in Beantown, and Boston fans are not celebrated
for their civility.