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Referees, and the failure of the NBA

  It's fair to say I was a very serious fan of the Dallas Mavericks for a long time.  I remember following Brad Davis, Rolando Blackman and Mark Aguirre.  I had the only season tickets of any sport I've ever owned for the 2002-2003 season, and saw the Mavs at home for 41 regular season games and every postseason game until they lost in 6 to the eventual champions, the San Antonio Spurs.

  That's why it surprised so many of my family and friends when I told them a couple years ago, that I couldn't watch NBA games.

  Despite my love for the sport and the ability of so many players at the top level, I grew tired of seeing referees determine the fate of individual games, from the most mundane to the most important.  I still astound my sister, a rabid Mavs fan, when I tell her I really don't care how the Mavs fare.  It's not because I don't want to root for the team; it's the simple fact I can't support the National Basketball Association as a governinig sports body.  A prime example, which has an obvious Mavericks tie, is the final 6 seconds of Saturday's game 3 contest against the visiting Denver Nuggets.

  In case you don't follow the NBA, or the Mavericks or Nuggets, let me set the scene.  Denver arrived up 2-0 in the Western Conference Semifinals and held their own throughout the game.  Dallas was never able to run away, but with 6.5 seconds on the clock and up 2, the game seemed either headed to overtime or to game 4 with Dallas having edged out a close one, as whoever caught the inbound pass was sure to be fouled.  Carmelo Anthony received the pass, and was promptly fouled, albeit lightly, by a defending Antoine Wright.  This in an of itself was a bit surprising, as the referee crew had called every single foul and many extra, resulting in 89 free throws up to that point.  Wright, understanding he had to foul harder to put Anthony on the line, bumped into Anthony with his shoulder and hacked his arm to the point where Anthony was forced to swipe Wright's arm away just to stay inbounds.  Despite the obvious foul and Anthony's attempt to escape a turnover by stepping out of bounds, the refs held their whistles.  Their silence was deafening as Anthony rose to hit the game-winning three-pointer.

  Now this story isn't about whining about the non-call.  Anthony hit the shot and his persistence and skill are the reason the Nuggets won the game.  What this story is about is why the NBA is a farce and the NFL is miles ahead in terms of running a sports league.

  Just hours after the game ended, the NBA released a statement, saying:

the officials missed an intentional foul committed by Antoine Wright on Carmelo Anthony.

I could do nothing but laugh when I heard this.  Not only was the NBA unable to admit that the officials missed "two" intentional fouls, but the release said nothing of the magnitude of the referees' errors.  To put this in perspective, let's look at what happens when an NFL referee misses a call.

ESPN's Elizabeth Merrill wrote an incredible story on the aftermath of Ed Hochuli's missed call from last year.  Consider a couple distinctions.

1: Hochuli immediately realized he made a mistake, but was unable to correct it due to a technicality in the rules.  Refs make mistakes, but when they have the rationality to recognize a mistake and make an admission seconds later, you can at least take comfort in the fact that the referees are practical enough to view the game on its merits.  Hochuli had to deal with calls for his suspension, this despite being one of the most respected referees byu NFL head coaches. The NFL was realistic enough to change the rule so as to allow said referees to review the play in the booth and examine the play so as to make the right call.  Kudos to the NFL for having done so.  Now consider the NBA.  Does anyone expect Mark Wunderlich, the referee who failed to make the call, to come out and admit he made a mistake?  Or to struggle with his non-call?  How many missed calls do NBA refs make per game?  Heh.

2: The Hochuli missed call came in week 2 of the NFL season.  I repeat, this was the second game of the season, giving each team 14 games to prove their talent.  The Saturday basketball game, on the other hand, was a crucial game 3 that would either hand the series to the Nuggets, or keep the Mavericks in it.  Whereas Hochuli's mistake was during an early regular season game, the mistake on Saturday was during a conference semi-final.  Consider the backlash Had Hochuli made this during the divisional playoffs of the NFL.

3: The mistake in the Mavs-Nugs game would have been on an unknown name to the casual fan, Antoine Wright, sending a well known name to the line to tie the game, Carmelo Anthony.  Did this play a role in the non-call?  I bet my balls on it.

There a couple other discrepancies I could highlight, but I think I've covered it enough.  What is the point of this?  The NFL manages the rules of its sport with integrity.  The rules are a framework within which the best coaches can extract the most potential of the best players on any given Sunday.  In the NBA, the rules are meant to be a set of suggestions to referees to use as guidelines in marketing the ultimate product of the NBA: superstars.

The NFL is a team game: 11 men crashing into 11 other men in an attempt to move a ball into the end zone.  The NBA, in stark contrast to the college version, is a game dependent on the superstars to not only perform on the court, but have good teeth and maintain marketable characteristics (see: Michael Jordan's tongue, LeBron's pre-game chalk explosions, Shaq's personality).  In the NFL, personalities are often a minus.  They draw away from the reality that every play in football requires team cohesion.  The game of basketball, on the other hand, is often a game of LeBron, Kobe, Dwayne, Dirk, or any other player, taking on one or two defenders and succeeding.  In a game that depends on individual success, as opposed to team successes, officiators are pressured to ensure those individuals are allowed as much advantage as possible.  Otherwise, the nature of the game fails.  That is the problem.

The NBA has turned itself into a game of individuals.  Remember the Celtics?  A dynasty build on team play, both superstars and role players?  Or Chuck Daly (rest in peace.  The NBA need you around for another 25 years) and his Bad Boy Pistons?  Those were teams.  Look how easy it was for the Celtics last season when they actually put a team together.  The 1961-62 Philadelphia Warriors' season, when Wilt Chamberlain scored more than 4,000 points, ended when they faced the Boston Celtics, who boasted five 1,000-point scorers.  Most would remember Bill Russell; it might surprise you that Russell was the second-highest scorer on the team behind Tommy Heinsohn.  That wouldn't happen in today's NBA; Chamberlain would get dozens of calls in the lane as long as he screamed loudly enough, flailed his arms, and flopped around on the ground like any of today's top floppers (Manu Ginobili anyone?).

It's not that the sport of basketball is inferior to football; it's that the organizational body that governs these sports has walked two differing paths.  One has relegated themselves to the fates of specific players to determine not only the fate of specific contests, but the entire destiny of a season and by extension the league; the other has placed its' future into the hands of talent, skill and management.

There's a reason why the NFL is considering (or not, if you believe Goodell) playing a Super Bowl in London.  It's that the NFL runs its sport respectably.  Mr. Stern, here's a suggestion: when one of your referees is found to be illegally refereeing games so as to push money into underground betting circles and the referees of your sport are so bad, that no one can identify who it is after watching countless hours of recorded NBA games, something is wrong with the way you enforce the rules of your sport.  When you're forced to apologize mere hours after a referee determined the fate of a playoff series, something is wrong with the way your referees interpret the rules of your sport.  And when either the Lakers or Cavaliers win this year's Larry O'Brien trophy and the defining moment is not a team play, but Kevin Garnett telling us anything is possible or King James assuming the mantle that Michael Jordan laid down more than a decade ago, take a second and realize how inferior your association is to the NFL.  Realize it is because you promote players above teams.  Realize you have sacrificed the heart of your game to make more money by selling tennis shoes.  Realize that the future of your organization is in China, eastern Europe and South America because you have failed to promote one of the most basic tenets of football, baseball, hockey, and, yes, even your beloved basketball:

Teams win team sports... dumbass.