Tuesday October 23rd, 2007

Though it doesn't come out in his somber pronouncements about fines and suspensions, the free-market imperative to grow the sport, and, of course, the hellfire reserved for officials who conspire with gamblers, David Stern does possess an excellent feel for the rhythm and tempo of his game. When he watches the NBA at home or in hotel rooms, Stern confessed in a recent interview, he sometimes finds himself leaping from his seat and hollering at the TV. "How can you make that call! Are you blind?" And as a fan, not to mention a commissioner, he's well aware of the unpleasantness in the NBA ether this season. Forget the lowest TV ratings ever for the Finals last spring and the embarrassing dirty laundry aired by the Knicks in federal court before training camps opened; one calamity trumps them all. On Jan. 28, Tim Donaghy is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to transmit gambling information across state lines. The sentencing was postponed from Nov. 9, leading some to speculate that the disgraced ref is providing additional information to the FBI in an effort to get a more lenient sentence.

Indeed, a giant cloud has hovered over the NBA since the Donaghy revelations broke in July. Though league officials insist -- and the evidence to date bears them out -- that Donaghy was an "isolated rogue criminal" (Stern's characterization of choice), the disconcerting roar had to be addressed. To do nothing would have been to miss an opportunity to, as Stern says, "talk about ways we can improve the [referee] system and deal with issues such as recruitment, education, mentoring, teaching and rules, both on and off the court." To make wholesale changes, such as firing Stu Jackson, the NBA executive vice president who oversees refs, or Ronnie Nunn, the director of officials, would have been seen as an admission that Donaghy's reprehensible actions, including betting on games he worked, were the product of a flawed system. So instead the league made subtle fixes.

The NBA hired recently retired official Bernie Fryer as Nunn's assistant, giving the striped shirts a popular, one-of-the-guys resource to tap into as well as giving the league someone to train the new (and the incompetent) in the art of getting calls right. The league also expanded the use of instant replay to include the review of flagrant-foul-2 calls, which carry an automatic ejection, and on-court altercations, to help referees decide on possible ejections.

This is all fine as far as it goes, but more must be done. First and foremost, the NBA has to make every effort to cut down on the sheer number of calls, which is what leads to the mind-numbing procession to the foul line that slows games to a crawl. (The apparent way that Donaghy affected games, remember, was to make call after call, everything by the book, so that more free throws would be shot and an informed bettor could take the "over.") One easy change would be to instruct officials to swallow their whistles on the oft-disputed, can't-get-it-right-anyway charging call unless it's a blatant infraction. If wild-haired Cavaliers forward Anderson Varejão wants to plant himself in front of a ball handler in an attempt to make an impact on the game, let him go splat but don't reward him for it. I have the feeling that most refs agree but are afraid to be overruled by the league office, the eye-in-the-sky that subjects them to endless video second-guessing.

Stern grew up as a Knicks fan in an era (late '40s and '50s) when refereeing was more art than science, and he came to power (in the late '70s) when many of those old artists (e.g., Earl Strom, Jake O'Donnell) were still among the best officials in the game. But he insists that a system in which refs are personalities and are allowed to make decisions according to the ebb and flow of that particular night is unworkable in the 21st century.

"Now that we're 30 teams with three-person crews, it is not responsible practice to breed 60 artists," says Stern. "It's not fair for coaches and players to think that one night you might be getting Rembrandt and the next night you're getting Jackson Pollock." But with the glut of calls and the automatonlike manner in which many of the refs make them, we're getting a lot of LeRoy Neimans.

The fact is, many of today's refs are artists, and it would be great to see them as faces of the game. The public knows nothing about, say, Joey Crawford except that he's the hothead who blew his top at Tim Duncan in last spring's playoffs and got himself suspended. (He was recently reinstated.) Why not let the fans get to know Crawford, who is usually a delightful guy? Let him and some of his brethren tape You Make the Call segments that would air during halftime of all national broadcasts. For years PGA rules officials have been explaining why moving a daffodil with a nine-iron is a capital offense; let fans take a peek into the much more difficult world of NBA whistle-blowing.

At the same time, the league must make a more dedicated march into instant replay. ("If this be treason, make the most of it," as Patrick Henry said.) The overwhelming number of calls (and noncalls) in a hoops game makes constant review an impossibility, of course, but what's wrong with allotting one challenge per team per half, with a failed challenge costing that team a timeout? That has worked quite well in the NFL, which by and large avoids grand controversies about calls because, from time to time, the head zebra sticks his head in a box, watches replays from various angles and makes sure a call is correct, an exercise in judicial checks and balances that seems to soothe Football Nation. Admittedly it would be a tough sell, this opinion from Lakers coach Phil Jackson no doubt being the prevailing one at the moment: "As much as I like the idea of getting it right, I'd say no to any challenges."

But the NBA should not abandon the notion. And if league Pooh-Bahs are worried about challenges taking up too much time, why not reduce a team's number of timeouts? As often as coaches make significant strategic adjustments during timeouts, they just as often sit there with nothing to say because there's nothing to be said.

This leads to Stern's own pet peeve about the game, which also deserves consideration. "I would love the idea of experimenting with no timeouts allowed in the last three minutes of a game," he says. "It dawned on me as I was watching an old game and the action was spectacular because no timeouts were called: Let the players play." That sounds like a great plan. It would allow the best teams and the best-coached teams to carry the day.

Because of Donaghy, catcalls at arenas will take on a new tenor this season, with a nasty, uncomfortable edge. And while it's also a reality that head-banging, teeth-grinding, profanity-spewing dissatisfaction with referees' calls will continue into eternity, this is a crucial time for the NBA. The league did in fact break a sacred covenant with its fans. And whether it's the suds-slopper in Row Z, the corporate sponsor in his luxury suite or the teenager in front of his TV, those who love the game have to believe that the league is doing everything in its power to make things right.

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