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Foul Trouble on All Sides

Referees have work cut out for them thanks to O'Neal -- and the conspiracy theorists

June 06, 2004|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

The toughest job at Staples Center today belongs to the Detroit Piston covering Shaquille O'Neal.

The second-toughest job is officiating that matchup.

How are referees to handle one of the most dominating post players in NBA history, the 7-foot-1, 340-pound inspiration behind the Hack-a-Shaq defense?

O'Neal seemingly gets fouled or commits a foul -- whether it's called or not -- just about every time he touches the ball. Should officials ignore the way defenders dangle from him like holiday ornaments? Should they whistle everything they see, as they did in Game 6 against Minnesota, when the Lakers and Timberwolves combined for 34 fouls in the first half?

It's a conundrum -- and one the basketball world will be watching closely.

"The real special superstar players all present unique challenges when it comes to officiating," said Stu Jackson, the NBA's senior vice president of basketball operations, who coached Patrick Ewing with the New York Knicks. "Allen Iverson does, Tracy McGrady does, and certainly Shaquille falls into that category."

Things could get even more bruising in the Finals, considering the Pistons are known for their tough defense and have a penchant for dishing out punishment.

"They've got some big bodies down there," said Jamal Wilkes, a Laker star before Showtime became Elbowtime. "They just had a grueling series with Indiana, and if I was [Piston Coach] Larry Brown, I'd make the point to the officials that 'We've been playing that way all year long.' He could make a very persuasive argument that the Pistons should be given a wider berth because of that."

Sometimes when it comes to guarding O'Neal, players are given too wide a berth. Consider the most recent series:

Figuring they would have better luck sending O'Neal to the free-throw line than giving up easy baskets, the Timberwolves used Hack-a-Shaq throughout the Western Conference finals. Late in Game 3, at Staples Center, former Laker Mark Madsen was wedged against O'Neal's back and clearly fouling him. Madsen wanted a whistle, and, in fact, was yelling, "Hey, I'm fouling him!" to veteran official Danny Crawford. Crawford did not make the call.

Play stopped for another reason and O'Neal said something to Crawford on his way off the floor. After the game, a Laker victory, O'Neal recounted the exchange.

"I said, 'What are you looking at?' " O'Neal said. "He said, 'I was getting ready to call an offensive foul.' "

In Game 6 between the Lakers and Timberwolves, ESPN radio's broadcast crew overheard referee Eddie Rush ask the scorer how many fouls O'Neal had after O'Neal was charged with his fifth.

Play-by-play man Brent Musburger reported the conversation, which prompted analyst Tim Legler to wonder aloud why a referee would need to know that.

For some people, that was further evidence that the NBA will do whatever it can to make sure the Lakers are in the Finals. For other people, Stu Jackson among them, it didn't mean much of anything.

"It was much ado about nothing," Jackson said. "Tim Legler was surprised about all the attention the comment generated. Ed Rush did nothing wrong by making himself aware of a player's foul situation. A referee has to know."

Jackson said the pro-Laker conspiracy theories were "absurd."

"And it's not just the Lakers," he said. "I get e-mails and voice mails back at my desk after every game," he said. "After one playoff game this year, I got 20 negative voice mails in a row. Most of them suggested we were fixing the games. I've got one comeback for those people: That's a felony. We would go to jail for that. I don't want to go to jail.

"It's bizarre. The real irony is our collective-bargaining agreement. One of the main benefits of it is, it allows teams of any market size, if they're managed well, to compete for a championship."

Seldom are NBA officials allowed to speak with reporters. But some retired referees don't mind sharing some secrets of their trade, and Mike Mathis is one of them.

He was an NBA referee for 26 seasons and worked 12 games in the finals during that span, among them the game when Magic Johnson won his first ring. Mathis, who retired in 2002, said O'Neal has been so dominant, he has had an effect on the way officials call games.

"There are few guys that come into the NBA that have an impact on the league right off the bat like he did," he said. "Jordan did it, but not as fast as O'Neal did. He's not immense like Shaq....

"Refereeing always has to catch up with the way the game develops and the ability of the players. We have to get better because the players are getting bigger and better and can do different things."

Mathis said the referees working today's game probably will have watched at least the last three games the Lakers and Pistons have played, having paid special attention to plays and tendencies.

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