Teams start to play for it in midseason. They step up the tempo, activate the A-game for it. It is absolutely essential for success in the NBA playoffs.
It's called the "home-court advantage," and it's supposed to be the lift you get from 20,000 friendly voices in the audience, the joys of home cooking, your own bed for sleeping, a short commute and all the rest of it.
Maybe it's not that. Maybe it's the friendly whistles on the floor, not the seats. Maybe that sixth man is not the spectators, it's the guy wearing the striped shirt.
"Home-court advantage" may be nothing more than a referee who suddenly thinks "Uh-oh, do I want to call one on the home team here? Am I sure?"
You think the coaches aren't aware of the home-court syndrome? Perhaps you noticed when Chicago Bull Coach Phil Jackson the other night called the officiating in Indianapolis the worst kind of homering since the Munich Olympics of 1972 when Iron Curtain officials all but handed the gold medal to the Soviet Union over the United States.
He was referring to the fact the Pacers' Reggie Miller all but kicked Michael Jordan out of his way before he got open for a game-winning three-point shot in Game 4. It was not only a foul, it was a felony, he said.
Not to be outdone, Indiana Coach Larry Bird noted that if anyone fouled Michael Jordan the way the Bulls' Scottie Pippen kept fouling the Pacers' Mark Jackson, he would have been given life without possibility of parole.
Not surprisingly, Pippen did get in foul trouble when the series moved to Indiana--and he tried doing the same things he got away with in Chicago.
Are the refs venal? Corrupt? Naw. They're simply honoring an ancient league tradition.
Look! Do you know how many times Wilt Chamberlain fouled out of a game in his career of 1,045 season games and 160 in the playoffs? None. Not one.
I mean, ask yourself: Would you like to be the official who fouled Wilt out? The player all those thousands of people in the seats came to see? Foul Wilt out of a game and you'd foul yourself out of a job.
Michael Jordan hasn't fouled out of a game since 1992. Remarkable? I don't think so. Dog-bites-man stuff. He has committed more than 2,500 fouls but fouled out only 10 times in his career. Four of those were in his first season, before he became "Air" Jordan. He got caught fouling 285 times his first season. His next full season, he got caught fouling 217 times but run out none. By 1997, they could catch him fouling only 156 times.
The records show that people got caught fouling him almost 8,000 times. Consider that he owns the record for the most free throws made in one half--20. Also the record for the most in one quarter--14 (on a separate occasion). He led the league in free throws twice (972, one season) even though he is the last guy rival teams would want to send to the foul line.
Compare this around the league. Just to take a name out of the hat, let's try Indiana's Rik Smits. Rik led the league one season in disqualifications with 14. It's interesting that he rolled up more in a season than Jordan has in a lifetime. Michael has 10 DQs, lifetime, Smits over 70. And he has played one less season than Jordan.
So, ask yourself. Are you going to foul Michael Jordan out of any game, much less a playoff game? There are easier ways to commit suicide. Career suicide.
Check it out. Sometimes when a flagrant foul by a star player--say, by a Michael Jordan--has been detected and must be called, the ref will look around and spot the nearest no-count player, say a Luc Longley. And lay the foul off on him.
Longley won't complain. Because he knows it will be better for him to get sent to the bench than a Michael Jordan. In hockey, they call some players "penalty killers." Basketball has "penalty killers" too. The guys who soak up fouls committed by stars.
You see some curious things: In his first season, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fouled out eight times. By the end of his career, he was getting thrown out, maybe, once. Smarter player? I don't think so. Smarter officials.
There was a time, not too long ago, when an owner, Ben Kerner in St. Louis, made a practice of getting the dismissal of any official who would call critical fouls on his stars. Kerner was the patron saint of the home-court advantage. They should have put him on a medal.
Before him, the game was called evenly. Guys regularly fouled out. Even the era's best. The all-time record for disqualifications in a career was 127, set by Vern Mikkelsen. Now, Mikkelsen is a Hall of Fame player who fouled out 20 times one season, 18 another and 17 another. Even the great George Mikan, fouled out 14 times a season. Players of his drawing power today wouldn't foul out that many times in a lifetime. It's interesting to note that a modern icon, Magic Johnson, fouled out only five times in his career, never more than once a year and usually none.
So, if I were Michael Jordan, I'd become Hulk Hogan out there now. Particularly if he gets five fouls. He can do everything out there but pack a gun. Who's going to lay that sixth foul on a Michael Jordan?
There are many advantages to being Michael Jordan besides the innate ability. One is, you get away with murder out there. But the guys on you better not even muss your hair.
If you're on your home court in this game and you're a star, you can do everything but take prisoners. If you're Michael Jordan, you can even do that. The referee who fouls him out can make a name for himself. Benedict Arnold.