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Bill Dwyre

This NBA Class Has a Rough Beginning

October 21, 2006|Bill Dwyre

The Lakers and the Clippers took the court at Staples Center on Thursday night for what was to be an exhibition basketball game. Actually, it was 48 minutes of behavior mod.

Teaching the class, on behalf of the NBA, were Ron Garretson, Scott Wall and Eric Lewis. They are game officials.

Their lesson plan included the frequent stoppage of play to chastise the boys for being bad. They called 59 fouls, resulting in 85 free throws, and seven technical fouls were whistled, including four that were supposed to be raps on knuckles with rulers. The three others were defensive three-seconds technicals.

Also assessed was one flagrant foul against the most non-flagrant player in the league, the Clippers' Elton Brand.

From the referees came many stern looks, wrinkled brows and lots of arms crossed over chests that seemed to say, "We warned you it was going to be this way."

Near the end, one frustrated fan in the gathering of 14,316, not really understanding what was going on but fully aware that something was different, stood and yelled at the men with the whistles, "For Pete's sake, let them play."

Not this season, buddy. Get ready for eight months of no recess and lots of after-school study hall. It isn't going to be the NBA of your fathers, at least not for a while. For now, it will be the ZTL, Zero Tolerance League.

Although the league denies a direct connection, the new rules appear to be part of a continuing process of image-rebuilding after the brawl two seasons ago between the Indiana Pacers and the home-team Detroit Pistons, a brawl that overflowed into the stands.

For a while, that put off fans who worried that, if you can't take little Johnny to a pro basketball game, sit in the fifth row and eat popcorn without fear of getting popped by a player, then it's better to just stay home.

Even scarier for league officials was that its jive-guy, hip-hop, fist-flying image was not being received well on Madison Avenue, where sponsors, advertisers and perception-makers come together to take the league to its desired next level: from rich to filthy rich.

Stu Jackson, executive vice president of the NBA's basketball operations, a.k.a. head cop, said Friday that his league's recent move toward yanking the chain of yakking players has merely been a reaction to an increase in "unfavorable player and coaches' responses to officials."

Added Jackson, "If you give an inch, they take a yard, and pretty soon, you've lost control."

The league's declaration to that end went out to all teams in a letter Oct. 2. It said things were going to change, that the whining, showboating and general disrespect for officials would stop. Now.

The memo, acquired by The Times, read, in part: "This season, the NBA is adopting new rules designed to reduce the amount of complaining about officiating that players engage in during games. Such complaining takes many forms, such as yelling or cursing at game officials, using gestures or arm movements to indicate disagreement with a foul call, carrying on conversations with game officials throughout the game over calls.... This behavior interrupts the action, distracts the fans, and conveys a negative impression of NBA players to the general public. It needs to stop."

Later in the memo, no-nos were specifically spelled out: "Arm-flailing, dramatizing contact by slapping one's arm, or through other gestures, raising one's arms in the air in a questioning manner. Approaching an official in a hostile or otherwise threatening manner, running or jumping in disbelief over a call, or clapping sarcastically after a call has been made."

Ah, finally, an end to the sarcastic-clapping epidemic.

Jackson said the coaches were told of the new emphasis at league meetings in Chicago in September. He said that players had gone through clinics with referees in recent weeks, with the same message being passed.

He also said that, instead of lengthening games, he expected this to shorten them and improve the flow of the action.

"These players are smart," he said. "They'll figure it out."

If Thursday night's game was any indication, it remains a work in progress. Several of the punished appeared genuinely dismayed by the penalty in relation to the crime. Drop a pencil, wash the blackboards.

That was especially true of the Clippers' Shaun Livingston, who completed some sort of NBA double-double by missing a dunk, then trying to tip the shot in while still hanging on the rim with one hand, then being called for offensive basket interference and also a technical because he yelled for a foul on the dunk attempt.

Livingston was angry, confused, frustrated and disbelieving, all in about three seconds.

This may be the season teams put psychologists on the bench.

Mike Dunleavy, Clippers coach, whose team actually won the game, 91-90, called its performance "deplorable" and gave the impression that he may not share Jackson's view of enough Phi Beta Kappas on each team to figure this out.

"They know what is going on with the refs," Dunleavy said. "They need to just get over it, move on" after a foul call.

It was suggested to Dunleavy, that rather than responding to questions about the referees' performance because such answers bring fines, he might merely roll his eyes appropriately. He declined, having not had a chance to memorize the league memo.

The NBA is about a week away from opening its season. Another NBA official said this cleanup act was no idle threat, or something that will be forgotten as the season goes on.

"We will stay with it," he said.

So, look for the NBA school year of 2006-07 to be a real test. Expect lots of C-minuses and detention slips.

*

Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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