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NBA Finals: Goofy is the name of the game

Walking wrestlers, mooing media, refs whistling in the dark. It's all just so silly.

June 02, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Thursday, we embark on another couple of weeks of silliness, aka the NBA Finals. Think of it as the prelude to the parade.

The silliness is not the players, who are all marvelous athletes. Nor is it the competition format, which only follows the lead of most organized sports these days. That means seasons that are way too long, followed by playoffs even longer, leading to the exhaustion of everybody involved except for those benefiting the most -- television, team owners and Madison Avenue ad people.

No, the silliness is the game itself, as it has been allowed to evolve.

Once, we had passing and shooting. Now we have wrestling. The players are bigger, stronger and faster and the coaches talk more about power and muscle than finesse. It is now more rugby scrum than basketball.

The outcomes are a bigger deal because the money is huge. And the media herd right along, mooing at great length and great volume while perpetuating that importance.

All of which is fine, as long as we see things for what they really are, especially when it comes to the poor suckers known as referees. Such as:

* The game as it is played today is impossible to officiate.

* The people with whistles are not bad people, and they're not participants in some great conspiracy to have Team A beat Team B. They are just overmatched by the task at hand.

* Fans who see a call go against their team and immediately assume some official is the next Tim Donaghy -- and call talk shows and write letters to the editor -- need to get a life.

Officiating in the NBA is not a sweet science. It's not even a science. It is survival.

The court's too small, the players are too big and too fast, the rules are too funky, and the pressure to cater to superstars is too severe. There used to be two referees working games, now there are three. They could have 10 and it wouldn't matter.

They have a rule against standing in the lane for more than three seconds. That's a joke.

They have a rule against moving while setting a screen. That's a joke.

They have a rule against taking more than two steps off the dribble before shooting. That's a joke.

What our high school coaches taught us to avoid is now done every time down the court in the NBA and the TV broadcasters call them "great moves." Referees used to call that "walking."

NBA officials are now calling so many fouls and whistling so many game stoppages that if they called all this other stuff too, the games would last four hours.

Then there is a relatively new concept made popular in the last few years by the men in front of microphones sitting courtside. It is called the "great non-call." That apparently means that the specific physical assault that took place was not severe enough -- no broken bones protruding or gashes needing stitches, apparently -- to warrant blowing a whistle.

Take, for example, last year's incident when Derek Fisher of the Lakers draped several portions of his body over Brent Barry of the San Antonio Spurs, who was taking a last-second shot.

No whistle blew, and afterward, the consensus seemed to be that it was a great non-call. That must have been because Barry didn't have to be put into traction.

Just for a little salt and pepper, the NBA, in its infinite wisdom, has come up with a system where certain fouls are reviewed the next day and some that have been called flagrant are now not. If we wait long enough, one of those "great non-calls" will turn up the next day as a Flagrant 2, whatever that means.

They also have rules now about how many technical fouls a player can have before he is suspended for a game. But they make sure that, in their review process and reversals the next day, that is not going to happen, especially to any of their superstars.

All of that is utter nonsense, but no more than the league's attempt a few years ago to stop all the whining to referees after calls.

In one recent preseason, referees were encouraged to slap technical fouls on any players arguing a call, throwing up their hands in complaint or even rolling their eyes in disgust. The league said it was tired of players showing up officials.

That obviously went well.

What we have now is a league of players who can go right from the NBA into lobbying jobs in Washington or into playing dramatic leads in Broadway plays. Never have so many whined so much. A fair guess would be that Kobe Bryant has had more conversations lately with referees than with his wife.

Apparently, the NBA no longer views a 6-foot-8 player standing over a 5-10 referee, fists clenched, neck veins bulging, as an attempt to show up the referee.

Then there are the coaches, who apparently budget at the beginning of the year for their inevitable league fines for criticizing officials.

Those usually start with the coach standing at a podium after the game, statistics sheet in hand, saying something like: "Well, I see we shot 15 free throws tonight and they shot 25 . . . "

The IRS ought to make those fines deductible, under a category of "necessary expenditure for psych jobs."

So, each night, into this cesspool of thinly veiled athletic competition step three people who are equipped with whistles, determined to do their best under impossible circumstances and are well paid for carrying out these charades.

Don't get mad at them. Pray for them.


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