Friday May 8th, 2009

Last month I had a rare interview with NBA VP and director of officials Bernie Fryer. We met at his small L-shaped office at league headquarters in Manhattan, which, to my relief, I escaped without being drenched (more on that later).

5. Flagrant fouls and suspensions. Much news has been generated throughout the playoffs by suspensions to important players such as Dwight Howard, Rafer Alston and Derek Fisher. These calls are made by NBA executive VP of basketball operations Stu Jackson, and they're taking on inordinate importance after the fact. Since the 2004 brawl at Detroit, the NBA has established its version of a zero-tolerance policy for on-court violence. When a weak '06 tussle involving Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks was replayed over and over and over on the national cable channels, it affirmed to the NBA that the rulebook must be thrown at this issue in order to prevent players from being branded as thugs.

One consequence is that fans watch the games now and find themselves arguing over whether a hard foul should be ruled flagrant. Is it a good thing when the referees become major characters in any game? I suppose it can't be helped, but at the end of Game 5 of Chicago's first-round series at Boston, Brad Miller drove to the basket and was fouled hard by Rajon Rondo to prevent the layup. For the next day there was a national debate over whether Rondo deserved a suspension. It was a bad argument to be having, because you always -- always -- want defenders to foul hard in those situations. Do we want to see tight playoff games ending with scorers breezing in for layups because defenders fear a suspension?

The good news is that Rondo wasn't suspended. But we're in the early days of these rulings, and I can imagine over the years to come that interpretations may snowball so that eventually a hard foul like Rondo's will result in a ridiculous penalty. The NBA needs to be careful about crossing that line.

Not so long ago, Alston never would have been suspended from the playoffs for slapping a player across the top of the head as he did to Eddie House during Orlando's Game 2 Eastern semis loss at Boston Wednesday. But the league has all kinds of rules for what is and isn't permissible, and they are scrutinized the way the replay booth now studies whether the quarterback's knee was down before the football came loose.

While I understand the NBA's desire to squelch fights before they can start, I also feel strongly that this kind of after-the-fact video review goes against the spirit of the game because these rulings threaten to take the game out of the context in which they are played. Stu Jackson has an entirely different view of things from his quiet and dry office (and as you will read later, he should not take having a dry office for granted) than the first-hand view of the referees, players and fans who together create the scene and make the game ultimately worthwhile.

But I also acknowledge that the spirit of the game is changing, and that video review is a big part of everything. As I learned anew during my interview with Fryer.

4. Judgment calls. By 8 a.m. each day Fryer is in his office reviewing portions of the previous night's games, which have been digitized and logged play-by-play by NBA Entertainment staffers in New Jersey. Over the course of the long season he watches portions of virtually every NBA game.

"If the Blackberry was active and there are questions from coaches or from referees, they've got it all there," he said, pointing to the large flat-screen TV on his office wall. "All I need is time and period, and I've got the play."

When teams complain about calls, Fryer replies within 48 hours to inform them whether or not the referees' judgment was correct.

"This year they have a team inquiry web site, and if [teams] want to know the logic of a call or the ruling of a call. and it's unclear to them, they'll send it into the web site," said Fryer. "At the first of the season there was a lot of inquiries, and then it kind of slacked off. They can send in: Why was this a defensive three seconds, or why was this a block or a charge? And we'll send back [a reply], 'Well, we missed it. It shouldn't be [a block or a charge] because he was planted ...' or whatever the reason might be."

So the league tells teams when referees make mistakes?

"Oh yes, absolutely," said Fryer. "We try to get it back within 48 hours, and sometimes within 24. If they send a play in and I try to sugarcoat it, first of all, I lose my credibility. I can look at it slow-motion and freeze-frame, and I'd better get them all right looking at it that way. But there are some plays that are gray area, like goaltending -- you go down frame-by-frame and it's inconclusive. There are a few plays that are inconclusive, but just a few. Usually, we can definitely make a call in here (to judge) if they got it right or wrong, or they should have done a call (as opposed to making no call)."

Teams are understandably ambivalent when informed that a referee missed a call and nothing can be done to change the outcome. "I believe the referees are doing the best they can to get it right and to get better," says a Western conference GM, who asks to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. "Where they lose credibility with us is when they try to tell us 96-to-97 percent of the calls are correct. Come on now."

The NBA insists that 96 percent of the referee's judgments are correct, and here is the key point: They are correct from the point of view of Fryer (as well as the rest of the referee operations department headed by senior VP Ronald L. Johnson, the former Army major general who was hired last year). Because of the universal access to video, the goal is to make everything black-or-white while turning "judgment" calls into definitive yes-or-no declarations.

"It is black and white, ultimately," said Fryer. "I guess there would be some people who would argue, but I want it to be black and white. Let's come to a conclusion. It's a block or a charge."

3. Technology. Teams surely will question the finality of those judgments, but the league is essentially trying to turn a weakness into a strength. The use of video replays on TV broadcasts as well as on the arena unborn has been exposing the judgments of referees for years. In response, the NBA is applying those same replies to develop a universal definition of "judgment" calls.

Fryer was an NBA referee for 28 years, and for the first half of his career he had little access to video to help inform his decisions. Then videocassettes were introduced.

"Before video that's all it was -- by talking," said Fryer. "You couldn't go by video. Joe Gushue (the former referee) was a tremendous teacher and he'd say, 'You know that play, kid, you had back in the fourth quarter ...' and he'd try to talk you through it. Darell Garretson was the working supervisor back then, and that was your training when you got to work with him -- that was the greatest, because he'd get a (VHS) tape of the game and he'd sit in a room and you could go over tape, which was tremendous. And then it just kept evolving into what we have now."

In the days before video, every referee had his own view of how certain fouls should be called -- in much the same way as every umpire has his own strike zone in baseball. Through Fryer's office the NBA is trying to create a uniform standard for the rules. Throughout the season the referees refer to a continuously updated video rulebook online (which will be available to the media next season) to define what is and isn't a foul, and Fryer routinely provides feedback either by e-mail or phone calls to referees as they're traveling from game to game.

"Of course you don't have this discussion with the general public -- it would be nice if you did," said Fryer of the give-and-take conversations he has with game officials. "The referees really don't want to be wrong. So sometimes they'll put up a fight, and we'll debate it. But sooner or later it's: 'OK. Debate over with. This is a block. You got it, fellas?' So if they see it again, now they know."

2. Context. Fryer was an NBA guard for two seasons in the early 1970s when he decided to become a referee. "My second year in the league, I remember Henry Bibby and I sitting on the bench in New Orleans wondering if [our] coach is going to put us in or not, and I just started watching the refs. And I was, you know, I can do this. When I didn't come back to the Jazz, I called [the league] and asked, how do you become an NBA ref?"

He was the first NBA player to become a league referee. He would officiate the L.A. summer league for three years as preparation, and the rest of those years he would work as a logger in his native Washington and Alaska. Why would an NBA player want to put himself through the abuse and pressure that are routine for referees? The answer is that he viewed refereeing as a new form of competition.

"You have to be somewhat strange," he said. "It's an impossible task, which makes it fun. You'd love to get them all right, but you hope you'd only miss a few.

"I'm still a player at heart, I still think like a player. I think that's helped me. Darell used to say, 'You've got to quit thinking like a player and start thinking like a referee,' and I always disagreed. Thinking like a player, I know what they're going through. I lived it. I was in the league only a couple of years, but at least I got there and I could play a little bit, so I knew their frustrations and I think it really helped me."

1. The flood. Fryer rarely gives interviews, and not one, but two, public relations officials from the NBA sat in to make sure everything went OK from the league's point of view. But things happen -- leaking water pipes, for one example -- that cannot be contained. More to the point, Fryer turned out to be a likable guy who doesn't take himself too seriously.

He had retired from officiating for a few months in 2007 when he received a call on his boat in the northern Pacific that summer from commissioner David Stern, asking him to oversee the referees following the Tim Donaghy scandal.

"I had to come back and help because we had the Donaghy thing," said Fryer. "I knew that people were going to beat us up, and I really love the NBA, so I couldn't say no."

Fryer subtly referred to complaints that referees have been managed poorly while discussing his approach. "There's always somebody not happy, so your skin has to be really thick," he said of the game officials. "You get nothing but negative feedback, which is what I tried to change. My main goal was to make sure the guys don't get beat up by management. My bedside manner tries to be instructional, not, 'You missed three plays last night. How can you miss that, that was an easy foul call, how could you miss it?' They know they missed it. So just the way I deliver the message, I just try to make it so they're not getting beat up."

On the other hand, he added that he demands excellence -- again, based on the judgment of his department. "First of all, if they're really bad, I'm going to fire them," said Fryer. "And the next step is they don't get into the playoffs, and that's extra money [for the referees] -- so that comes back to getting every play right. People don't understand, every play is graded. So if you miss too many, I'm sorry -- the guy ahead of you didn't miss that many, he'll be going to the [playoffs] next week, he's working and you're not."

We had been talking for close to an hour, in between video clips that Fryer had broken down to explain why certain calls are made or not made, when one of the PR guys walked across the room with a plastic trash basket to catch tiny drops of water that had begun to drip inexplicably from the far corner of the ceiling. The interview went on while the dripping continued loudly and with greater frequency, when suddenly everything was interrupted because water was pouring from the corner of Fryer's ceiling as if from a faucet.

"Water's coming down right on top of your equipment," said the PR staffer.

"Oh my goodness!" said Fryer.

More NBA staffers came into the office with more plastic trash cans, until there were at least 10 in the room. This being the brain center of the NBA refereeing operations, they moved with alacrity to rescue the computers. "Maybe if we disconnect the monitor," someone said.

"I don't want to think about where the water's coming from," said Fryer.

After several minutes another staffer arrived to report that a gasket had blown in a bathroom upstairs. The water had been turned off, the torrent abated to a latent harmless dripping, but documents still needed to be saved. It occurred to me then just how thankless and luckless is Fryer's lot in life. He spends one hour of the year talking to a reporter, and in that hour his office is practically flooded.

But referees learn to expect and accept calamity. He was carrying a load of folders under his arm amid the noisily splashing trash cans when, with a comedian's timing, Fryer leaned toward one of the PR guys and said loudly, "Ian's not going to write about this, is he?"

4. What do you think is wrong with Andrew Bynum? I know he missed much of the second half with injury, but he returned late in the season and put up good numbers. Yet he has been all but missing in the playoffs. What gives? -- Mike Washner, Elyria, Ohio

Lakers special assistant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had it right when he pointed out that Bynum isn't used to the heightened level of play in the playoffs. While his Lakers teammates are elevating their games in pursuit of the championship, he is trying to regain his conditioning and rhythm while having to deal with Yao Ming. It's as if Bynum is working through a second training camp in the middle of the roughest part of the season -- which is no easy thing for a 21-year old coming off knee injuries each of the last two seasons. Had he gone to college he would be a senior now. So he is being educated under severe circumstances.

3. Recently you identified a number of players whose injuries altered the playoffs. Why not Elton Brand? The Sixers got to Game 6 without him; wouldn't he have made a difference against Orlando without Dwight Howard? And in the future, how do you think the Sixers will fit him into their scheme? -- Jim B., Philadelphia

The 76ers played better without Brand during the season. Most people in your town would say that Andre Iguodala played at a much higher level without Brand, and that Philadelphia rediscovered its rhythm as a running team after Brand went down. Next year Brand must return in excellent shape in order for them to develop him as a post scorer on the move, so that the offense doesn't bog down when they work the ball to him. They have to make it work with him, because I don't think they can get anything close to equal value by trading him.

2. There have been a lot of reports that Dwyane Wade wasn't entirely happy with the Heat's supporting players in Game 7 vs. the Hawks. Do you think if the Heat don't reach the second round next season, Wade may leave in free agency? -- Eric Shore, Toronto

Wade shouldn't be happy. After all, many of the same players contributed to a 15-win season a year ago. But I don't think Wade has lost sight of the bigger picture: The Heat led the league with a 28-win improvement while successfully developing a new young coach in Erik Spoelstra. With Pat Riley in charge, this will remain one of the league's most ambitious franchises, and over the next couple of years you'll see Miami improving the roster around Wade in order to keep both him and Riley happy.

1. Interesting idea about using hometown announcers for national games. What announcers do you feel do the best job from an information standpoint and an entertainment standpoint? -- Nicky C., Trenton, N.J.

There are a lot of good ones, but Doug Collins and Jeff Van Gundy are among the best in both categories -- and in their business you can't be entertaining without excellent information. The announcer who is most entertaining without trying to entertain is Hubie Brown, because of his information, perspective and entirely unique personality.

These quotes come from Artest's interview with me last month in Houston.

3. On scoring in the playoffs. Artest became more prominent offensively in February after Tracy McGrady was sidelined by a knee injury. Despite an early-season ankle injury, Artest had a strong second half to average 17.1 ppg overall this season:

"For some reason everybody was saying the Rockets are not good, but they were not taking into consideration that we were banged up," Artest said. "I heard that Charles Barkley went on TV [and] said the Rockets are horrible, they're not going to make it past the first round. He wasn't giving us any credit for the adversity that we faced. When I look at him, he was a guy who had a chance to win a championship, and when he faced adversity I don't think he overcame it. He had Michael Jordan in front of him; now we have guys like Kobe Bryant and LeBron in front of us, and we're still trying to fight for a championship. And he really didn't respect that. So I called him; I said, 'Why don't you respect us? Why don't you give us no props?' He said, 'I don't think you guys can score the ball enough to win in the playoffs.'"

I have to admit here that I agree with Barkley: I've written that the Rockets don't have enough scoring to beat the Lakers. Yet Artest has scored 46 in the opening two games at Los Angeles as the Rockets seized homecourt advantage from the Lakers in their Western semifinal.

"If Yao [Ming] averages 20, and I'm averaging 20, I don't know how we can't score the ball," continued Artest. "Look at me -- when I was playing after T-Mac left and my ankle got better, my numbers were right up there with some of the best. I just didn't see how we couldn't score the ball."

I mentioned that Paul Pierce contributed to a championship by defending more and scoring less. Artest replied that Pierce will enter the Hall of Fame someday because of that championship. "That's what counts, that's what's going to make you great," Artest said. "That's why Paul Pierce moved ahead of Charles Barkley. I don't think Charles Barkley is top 50 no more, I think it's Paul Pierce. I think Paul Pierce just knocked him out."

I asked Artest if he can be up there with Pierce.

"Got to get that ring. I mean, there's nothing without that ring. Got to get that ring."

2. On his emotions. Artest was ejected with 6:57 left in Game 2 Wednesday in the Rockets' 111-98 loss at Los Angeles. But he wasn't the only violator: the Lakers' Derek Fisher also was ejected, and a total of five players on both teams earned technicals in what was an emotional game.

"For the most part you've got to think the game," he said. "It's impossible to stay like this (low-key) for the whole time. But for the most part you've got to able to think, and you can't think with emotion.

"It's too hard, there are too many things that your mind has to be focused on rather than being caught up in the moment too much. There's always going to be a time for getting caught up in the moment, but emotion takes too much out of the game. Having a medium tone mentally, you're able to overcome any adversity during the game. And you're able to not get too big-headed, you're able to stay more level-headed during the game."

Artest was assessed just three technicals during the regular season. In his first year with the Rockets he avoided the inflammatory incidents that threatened his ruin in the past.

"Sometimes I want one, like when I'm not going to the free throw line," he said, smiling. "I let it slide all the time, every time. I let it slide so much that I think [the officials] know I'm not going to say anything to them. Because I don't really talk to the refs. I'm not going to say anything, so sometimes they miss a lot of calls. But that's all right."

1. On Kobe Bryant. When Artest heard rumors of a trade from Sacramento last summer, he assumed he would be going to the Lakers.

"I was playing in a streetball game in New York City -- I was in a gym playing with a tournament -- and after the game we went to eat at a Houston's restaurant. So we were going to Houston's and my friend said, 'Ron, you got traded.' The only trade that I knew of was the L.A. trade, and I'm like, oh, I'm going to L.A. -- let me call Kobe really fast to tell Kobe that I'm going to see him in a little bit. Then he said, no, I'm going to Houston.

"I said that's not possible. How am I going to Houston? That's like me going to San Antonio or Utah. I'm like, that's impossible -- those teams are not going to risk a Ron Artest. Even though I know I'm getting more mature and I know they can use a Ron Artest and I know I can adapt to that type of team.

"And I got a call that night from my agent (David Bauman), he said, 'You're going to Houston.' I was like, oh my goodness, these people don't even know what they done did. We're getting a ring. And then Mac got hurt, and I still say we're getting a ring."

Much is being made of Artest's attempts to create a rivalry with Bryant, but in our conversation he presented a different view of the relationship.

"We have a respect for each other, playing against each other over the years, that led to us really talking to each other," said Artest. "Kobe loves basketball. He probably thinks he loves basketball more than anybody. I don't think that he loves it as much as me. I mean, I don't know how much he loves it -- I don't work out with him in the summer. We just respect each other, and I love his game. You've got to love somebody who reminds you of Michael Jordan. Let's face it, when Michael Jordan left, something was empty in a lot of peoples' hearts, and now there's Kobe Bryant playing like Michael Jordan. You get a chance to see Michael Jordan every day."

I asked an NBA advance scout who has seen a lot of the Cavaliers this season for his take on James' first (of many) MVP awards.

2. The hype. I used to hear league insiders grouse about James' fame while they complained about his inconsistent defense or his shot selection. But all of that has turned around this season.

"LeBron was probably the most built-up high school player of all time," the scout said. "Probably more so than even Lew Alcindor, given the way things are today as opposed to how they were back then."

It's a fair comment: Alcindor's high school games weren't broadcast on national television as LeBron's were.

"So he came into the league with all of that hype, and most guys are never as good as they're supposed to be. But when I look at LeBron now, he has exceeded that build-up. He is better than people thought he would be, and how often do you see that happen?"

The only other example I can recall in recent times is Tiger Woods.

1. Teamwork. "He is nothing like the kind of star Brett Favre is, when you think about how Favre separates himself from his team," the scout said. "When you watch that Cleveland team you realize how much those guys love him. Usually when you're that good, you naturally separate yourself from everybody else, but LeBron goes out of his way to be one of them.

"When he was named MVP, he had all of his team there with him. All of that stuff they do as a team before each game, that's LeBron's way of being one of them and being part of the team."

The scout referred to the time in the Eastern finals two years ago when James was criticized for turning down a contested layup in order to pass to teammate Donyell Marshall, who missed a wide-open three to lose the game. "That perceived weakness," he said of criticism that James didn't force himself to take the last shot, "is his strength. At this time of Jordan's career (in his sixth NBA season), he was being criticized for not trusting his teammates.

"LeBron has never been like that. He is so good that if he decided he wanted to lead the league in scoring -- that he was going to average 35 instead of the 28 he had this year -- that's all he would have to do. He would just have to decide he was going to score 35 a game and then he would do it, because that's how talented he is."

1. For signing Flip Murray and Maurice Evans. Last summer the Hawks were damned for failing to sign sixth man Josh Childress, who turned down five years at $33 million from Atlanta in order to sign with Olympiakos of Greece. But that move hasn't turned out so badly, has it?

In place of Childress the Hawks recruited Evans, an all-around swingman with three-point range who makes an effort defensively, and Murray, a ruthless scorer off the bench. As a result, they won 10 more games than last season and won a playoff series. Of course they might have done as well with Childress. But GM Rick Sund is to be congratulated for improving the team in spite of the Olympiakos move -- while spending a total of $4 million this season on the two replacements, with Evans signed for two an additional two years at his current salary of $2.5 million.

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