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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?
It's conceivable, 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 product.
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.