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It's a Fine Point

Criticizing refs costs Jackson, Lakers $50,000 each, their second penalties in five weeks

March 12, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — Phil Jackson and the Lakers were fined $50,000 each for Jackson's criticism of referee Bob Delaney after Monday's game in Utah, the second time in five weeks the NBA has docked the coach and the organization for their public defense of Shaquille O'Neal.

A team source said Thursday that the league imposed similar fines in the days after O'Neal was suspended without pay for a game for disparaging referees and swearing on live television following a victory in Toronto on Feb. 1. At the time, Jackson called the league "vindictive" and General Manager Mitch Kupchak characterized the punishment of O'Neal as "excessive." The league did not announce those penalties.

Including lost salary, O'Neal ($275,000), Jackson ($100,000) and owner Jerry Buss ($100,000) have committed nearly a half-million dollars to the cause since Feb. 2. The NBA sometimes fines its franchises in situations where it believes the coach is not being controlled, in hopes management will request softer public statements as a result.

The fines against Jackson are believed to be the most since the league took $50,000 from Pat Riley for suggesting referee Steve Javie had it out for the Miami Heat last season. Two years ago, Dallas Maverick owner Mark Cuban was fined $100,000 for "decorum not becoming an NBA owner."

Jackson said Thursday his view that Delaney was "prejudiced" against O'Neal was meant as protection for his center.

"He's so disappointed sometimes," Jackson said. "Games can frustrate him because he feels like he's playing under wraps all the time. Everybody wants to be able to play. If you can't really play, you feel like you're in a closet. And the game's already changed behind his strengths in the last three years because of the defensive rules and regulations.... So this has been more and more stuff to curtail Shaquille. Some of it's that.

"The other thing is Shaquille, time and time again, gets flagrant fouls and he takes punishment like nobody else takes in this game. So the game seems unfair. In fairness to the league and the referees, it's very difficult to referee the size he brings to the game. So, yeah, I mean, we're trying to even the playing field a little bit and allow this guy to play the game."

When the Lakers came to Utah in previous seasons and his own center was overrun, Karl Malone would stand in the post against O'Neal and do what many in his position have. He'd hack and wait for the whistle. If it did not come, he'd hack harder. He'd continue the tactic until a referee put O'Neal at the free-throw line.

"Sometimes they would," said Malone, who joined the Lakers this season. "Sometimes they wouldn't."

Then he'd start all over again.

The on-court defense and judgment of O'Neal, at 7 feet 1 and 340 pounds, has again become an NBA conundrum, as opposing players have at him and officials consider the penalty. O'Neal was ejected from Monday's game -- in Utah, as it happened -- because Delaney twice considered O'Neal's play to be near enough to violent as to be technical foul-worthy.

O'Neal left the floor incensed, and has brooded about it for three days, Thursday ignoring reporters again.

In the meantime, a familiar topic has resurfaced, one that grows in consequence for the Lakers as they near the playoffs, where heightened defenses bring a need for O'Neal's half-court dominance.

The Lakers again are complaining that O'Neal is penalized for being large. They argue that officials presume O'Neal can handle beatings others can't and that dislodged defenders have been made so by a bulling O'Neal.

Privately, referees admit there is no handling of O'Neal. Publicly, it changes by the night, by the crew. O'Neal believes he is treated unfairly by many of the referees, Delaney and those like him in particular, as do the Lakers.

The coaching staff was unhappy that Seattle SuperSonic center Vitaly Potapenko twice fouled O'Neal without regard to the ball in a game last Friday night, and neither time was Potapenko charged with a flagrant foul. Even more distressing, according to one member of the organization, was that a referee on the floor that night had previously said his philosophy was to err on the side of calling flagrant fouls, "Then I let the league sort it out."

Of Potapenko, Malone said, "He didn't have any motion to go for the ball. He just wanted to foul, and foul him hard. It's a flagrant foul, by the rules. Then you wonder why when it gets to another level. There's so much stuff that can be stopped before it gets to that level."

Often, O'Neal trudges to the free-throw line without complaint. In Utah, perhaps feeling the frustration of foul trouble, he became more forceful, twice sending Andrei Kirilenko sprawling, he says by accident.

"The referees see a massive man and they see smaller men pounding away at him," Jackson said. "It's just an effort to stop him from scoring. But it's certainly not within the guidelines of what's supposed to be a foul. So he feels, obviously, the weight of that kind of discrepancy."

So, Laker coaches ride the referees from the bench, though often not as hard as O'Neal would like. O'Neal shouts "And one!" after many layups and dunks, when fouls are not called. And he modifies his game, grudgingly.

"I've had referees tell me, 'You're so big and strong, how'd you feel that?' " Malone said. "So you get penalized for being big and strong. There's no even playing field when you're big like he is.... If a call should be made, make it.

"Foul the whole team out. OK."

Or let the coach have at them.

"I'm contemplating resigning as spokesman for the Positive Coaching Alliance, because that's one of our attributes, that we're supposed to show that we honor the game by abiding by the officiating," Jackson said, smiling. "I should have used 'bias.' Maybe it would have been less money if I had used 'bias.' "

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