Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The problem with the NBA

The problem with the NBA is fans are asked to pay big money to watch "Refereed Basketball".

One of my early blogposts wondered about moral behavior when playing a sport which is refereed. I admit I still do not know what is just and righteous - especially in the instance of high school age sport. Do Team A and Team B implicitly agree they are playing "Refereed Sport", and therefore anything (short of injuring an opponent) which is done to influence or obscure a referee is understood to be fair inside the context of "Refereed Sport"? Or, are Team A and Team B playing "sport", and therefore effort to influence or obstruct the referee ought not be made?

I won't do it now, but I could easily jot off 1000 words on this subject. For instance: if you are sliding into a base, and you know you are tagged out, yet the umpire calls you safe, should you then call yourself out and jog to the dugout? This happened to me in a high school game, and I always felt dirty that I did not call myself out. Was my feeling silly and misguided? Or, was it moral, just, and inspired by God?

But: morality is not my point today. The problem with the NBA is fans are asked to pay big money to watch "Refereed Basketball".

This was additionally driven home at the intro press conference of new Mavs coach Rick Carlisle. Answering a question about personnel changes which need to be made on the Mavs, Carlisle said(paraphrasing) "because of the way the game is refereed today, you need athletic players who will drive into the lane and draw fouls." Carlisle was not saying the Mavs need players who are more skilled at basketball. He was saying the Mavs need players who are more skilled at "Refereed basketball".

Now comes the noncall on Derek Fisher during Brent Barry's last second shot attempt. Let it be known: it was a clear, indisputable foul. If Brent Barry were Kobe Bryant, he would've gotten that call 127 times out of every 100 occurrences. He would've never been denied that call. Ever.

Let it also deliciously be known: no other sports team has fans who are as paranoid as Spurs fans. Over a dozen Spurs fans, infused with lava-hot paranoia, spontaneously combusted during the night. I know it without even checking the papers. That Joey Crawford was the closest ref actually tripled the death toll ... and will lead to untold fan combustion catastrophe in the future.

But: the star system is (mostly) not my point today; and possible NBA/referee collusion/corruption is not my point. The problem with the NBA is fans are asked to pay big money to watch "Refereed Basketball".

My point is, after the game, identical reaction came from all these voices - Reggie Miller, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli:

1. It was a foul.
2. Barry did not properly sell the foul.

When Fisher leaped: Barry made a tiny, semi-evasive dribble, then leaped up into Fisher's left side and launched the shot. The proper maneuver is: no dribble + leap squarely into the middle of Fisher's airborne body. Miller, Smith, Barkley, Duncan, and Ginobli were unanimous that Barry would've gotten the call if he had implemented the proper maneuver. Miller, Smith, and Barkley were unanimous that both Kobe and Ginobli would've leaped squarely into Fisher 100% of the time, and would never have made Barry's "mistake". Barkley avowed that he tells players all the time to leap squarely into defenders when they are in the air. Barkley said Barry's initial reaction was to make an evasive dribble, which is also Dirk Nowitski's initial reaction when defenders leap near him, which is another reason Dirk and the Mavericks will never win a championship. Barkley said this type of poor play drives him crazy.

Notice: no one talked about basketball. No matter Barry's proper or improper maneuver: everyone agreed Fisher nevertheless fouled Barry, and everyone agreed Joey Crawford blew the call.* The problem is: everyone focused on how to properly play "Refereed Basketball". Brent Barry didn't make a bad basketball play. He made a bad "Refereed Basketball" play. NBA fans pay large sums of money to watch "Refereed Basketball".

Although watching basketball is fun, beautiful and inspiring: watching "Refereed Basketball" is less fun, less beautiful, and MUCH LESS inspiring. THAT is the problem: value vs. cost. Less fun, less beautiful, and less inspiring = less value.


If I only point out the problem - if I fail to suggest a solution - then I am part of the problem. The solution:

1. Triple referee salaries, to: a) increase the pool of qualified and motivated applicants; b) justify additional workload of off the court video study and other work with league officials.

In every calendar year there are 200 talented yet short and slow guards who dream of making the NBA. When their dream eventually dies (on or about age 21-28), 50 of them should gleefully leap into their secondary dream of making $750K per year as an NBA referee. The NBA should provide them a $50K income while they matriculate through the rigorous NBA referee university. The NBA should farm them out to the CBA. The NBA should farm them out to travel with NBA teams and call practice drills, practice scrimmages, and post practice one-on-one sessions. Their efforts should be videotaped and graded and critiqued. Individual players and teams should grade and recommend and criticize those practice and scrimmage efforts.

Huge effort should be made to develop and maintain outstanding referees. Since most trainess will fail to make the league, the NBA should help them find careers both inside and outside basketball. NBA referee training - which will have included background investigation, physical exams, psychological training, displine and rigor, and performance under stress - should be considered favorable resume material by American corporations, and by schools looking to hire coaches. The military might consider offering officer training to any NBA referee trainee.

This is a radical (and expensive) way to think about things, and yet: the credibility of the NBA depends - not on it's specific players - but on it's referees.

2. Vastly increase size and scope of league oversight of referees: grading, study, conferencing with, replacement of or discipline of less effective referees. Many current referees should be graduated to the league oversight office.

The future financial success of the NBA depends on increasing emphasis on basketball, plus decreasing emphasis (as much as possible) on "Refereed Basketball".


*After the game, both Popovich and Barry said Crawford made the correct call for the situation. However, this was post-game, NBA insider spin. Immediately after the call, on the court, both Popovich and Barry were obviously, unquestionably furious with Crawford.

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