If NBA Commissioner David Stern has his way, there again will be three pairs of zebra eyes, instead of two, scrutinizing the action in his league's games next season. Three referees worked each game of the 1978-79 season, but thereafter the third man was dropped because he was deemed too costly. These days the NBA has more money to spend, a more positive image to uphold and more reason than ever to put a clamp on some of the spectacular brawls that have resulted in an unprecedented number of substantial fines and player suspensions so far this season.
Stern is ready—"barring any unforeseen development," he says—to recommend the three-referee system to the league's owners at their April 26 meeting in New York. "Violence isn't the only reason for the recommendation," Stern says, "but one of the positive effects of having another official would be to inhibit certain activity away from the ball that sometimes winds up as a later confrontation." That's commissionerese for: "Let's knock off the extracurricular stuff that results in retaliation." Says Rod Thorn, the NBA's vice-president of operations and the man who doles out the fines and suspensions, "I think three refs would help. To use an analogy, if you add an extra cop to the beat, you'll have less crime."
Although crime is too strong a word to describe the brawls that have broken out on NBA courts and, in one case, spilled into the stands this season, a few of the donnybrooks have gotten nasty. At the very least, the fights have given new meaning to that favorite NBA word, matchup. Consider:
•Even before the season began last fall, two marquee middleweights, Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins and Indiana's Chuck Person, squared off in an exhibition game in Chattanooga. Twenty-one players were fined; the heaviest assessments were levied on Scott Hastings ($3,500) and Tree Rollins ($2,000) of the Hawks and Steve Stipanovich ($2,000) of the Pacers. Person was fined $750 for instigating the fight, while Wilkins was not fined.
February 8, 1988
•In a bantamweight bout at Phoenix on Jan. 13, Houston point guard Sleepy Floyd shoved his Suns counterpart Jeff Hornacek after Hornacek had made a layup, and the two had to be separated twice by coaches and teammates. Both were ejected from the game. On his way off the court, Floyd stopped to say one more goodbye to his ol' buddy: He charged Hornacek and pushed him in the face. Floyd was fined $5,000 and suspended for one game, while Hornacek took a $1,500 hit for fighting back.
•In a Jan. 16 set-to in Chicago Stadium that would have stirred the blood of any pro wrestling fan, Detroit's Rick Mahorn, a power forward with a bad rep (Hiss! Boo!) instigated mayhem when he yanked the Bulls' Michael Jordan (Yeah! Wow!) to the floor as Jordan drove to the hoop. Flagrant foul. Chicago power forward Charles Oakley then went after Mahorn and was joined by Bulls coach Doug Collins, who wound up being punched and pushed into the scorer's table by Mahorn. Mahorn was fined $5,000 and suspended for one game. Said Jordan, who was not fined, "The Pistons are one of the dirtiest teams around...to them, a hard foul is one that can hurt you."
The NBA brass deserves credit for trying to stem this tide of terrible tempers. Stern emphasized at a league Board of Governors meeting in Dallas on Oct. 12 that "violent acts" would be met with more substantial fines and more frequent suspensions, and he has followed through. The largest fine Thorn assessed during the 1986-87 regular season was $3,500. Already, Floyd and Mahorn, as well as New Jersey's Buck Williams, New York's Pat Cummings and the Lakers' Michael Cooper, have drawn $5,000 fines for fighting. Fisticuffs have cost the Suns' Larry Nance and the Pistons' Isiah Thomas $3,000 apiece. For going after Mahorn, Collins not only got a cut over his right eye, but also a $1,500 fine for what the NBA called "acting as other than a peacemaker," i.e., leaving the bench to join a fight. Oakley took a $2,000 hit.
In 1986-87, Thorn judged only one player, Boston's Robert Parish, unruly enough to merit suspension, and that didn't occur until Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final when Parish punched Detroit's Bill Laimbeer from behind. Already this season, Floyd, Mahorn, Cooper and Cummings have been sentenced to one-game suspensions for fighting, while Detroit's Adrian Dantley was suspended for one game and fined $1,000 for bumping referee Eddie F. Rush during an argument on Dec. 18. All the suspensions carry another substantial price tag: no pay for a day, which, to a $950,000-a-year player like Dantley, amounts to some $11,600.
Though the NBA claims that its policy of heavy fines and suspension has deterred fighting this season, the league is splitting hairs. Through last week, there had been seven fights in which fines were levied, as compared with nine through the same number of games last season. "Fighting is on everyone's mind now because so many of these incidents [four of the seven] have occurred within the last five weeks," Stern said Jan. 27. But the recent outbreak only proves that on-court violence follows no pattern and can occur at any time. How will the fight scorecard read in two weeks? In a month? During the playoffs when the players are most intense?
Stern knows he has trouble, or he would not be pushing the three-referee system as one of his highest priorities. The tenor of some of this season's battles has been frightening. Take the Jan. 22 fracas at the Forum that started with a shoving match between Cummings and the Lakers' A.C. Green. Cooper soon entered swinging, and he, Cummings and several other players toppled over patrons in the courtside seats. And anyone who witnessed the 6'8", 230-pound Williams trading blows with 6'8", 230-pound Terry Catledge of Washington on Jan. 8—Catledge was later fined $2,000—had to shudder.
There also have been frightening, albeit brief, battles—a "quick flare-up" in NBA terms—in which fines were not assessed, such as the one in which Seattle tough guy Xavier McDaniel ended a squabble with Laker reserve Wes Matthews by applying a stranglehold that only Hulk Hogan could love.
At the very least, the recent outbreak of fighting raises several intriguing issues. Are certain players, such as Jordan, protected? Are certain teams, such as the Pistons, the bad guys? And what in the world would compel 21 players to get involved in a donnybrook in an exhibition game in Chattanooga?
The answer to the last question is simple: intensity. Intensity resulting from greater parity among the league's teams, intensity resulting from more pressure-oriented defenses, intensity resulting from smoldering past conflicts. Whatever the source, the fact remains that NBA players don't allow themselves nearly as many "nights off" as they used to.
That's particularly true in the Central, the league's most competitive and combative division. Detroit and Atlanta are exceptionally physical teams, and Milwaukee, Indiana and Chicago play only a little less rough. On top of that, the soaring, high-scoring Jordan always seems to raise a game's temperature by a few degrees. The notion that superstars are protected by NBA refs is neither a new nor a particularly farfetched one. Rollins claims that he was told by an official from the NBA office, "If there's a fight between a superstar and a nonsuperstar, we're not kicking the superstar out of the game." Rollins won't name the guy, but says the comment was made in Los Angeles. Thorn says, "I don't know who the official was, but he certainly wasn't anyone in power. That is definitely not the NBA's official position."
But Thorn has a hard time selling that denial, and not just to players. "I felt the fine and suspension [of Ma-horn] were ridiculous," says Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey. "If it had been anybody else but Michael Jordan, nothing would have happened." Here's what Rollins, who is certainly no fan of the Pistons, had to say after watching a TV replay of Mahorn's foul: "It seemed to me that he laid him [Jordan] down pretty gently." And then maybe Uncle Ricky told him a bedtime story, eh, Tree? The facts are that many teams believe Jordan is protected, and when he embarrasses them, they make him pay.
The feeling among many players that there's an in-group and an out-group can't be overlooked as a factor in fights that don't involve Jordan. Phoenix's Nance admits he was feeling frustrated—by his lack of All-Star votes from the fans, by the lack of recognition he feels he gets from the press, by the lack of respect he believes he gets from officials—when, on Jan. 7, he took a swing at Dallas's Mark Aguirre (who, because he swung back, was also ejected and fined $1,500). Is it a coincidence that Nance took out his frustration on Aguirre, who is an attention-grabbing All-Star forward?
Feelings and perceptions are hard to change. It almost doesn't matter anymore whether players like Mahorn or Laimbeer deserve their bully-boy reputations. The opposition goes up against Detroit with a chip on its shoulder. "We won't back down," says Jordan. Adds Oakley, "I guess it [the fine] was fair, but it won't stop me. What I do next time could be worse."
Those kinds of messages are sure to chill the blood of the folks at NBA headquarters. What can they do about them?
•Continue the major fines, the $5,000 ones, for instigators of violence. Even for highly paid pro athletes, $5,000 is real money. Cooper says, "When you're married and your job is to make money for the family, [your wife] gets upset when you lose it in dumb ways. I got scolded out pretty good." The league could also increase the fine, to $7,500 or $10,000, for subsequent incidents.
More suspensions—something the NBA would rather not do, for fear of antagonizing ticket-buying fans who wouldn't like to see their favorite player get the heave-ho—would be an even greater deterrent. Coaches don't care about players being fined, but having a key man out of action is another thing.
•Address the matter of the Big Man's Code, as expressed here by Mahorn: "A guy goes for the hole, he's got to understand that's the big man's land. He's got to figure on contact." The league should toughen up the rules against flagrant fouls. There's simply no interpretation of the rules that would permit a player to be "laid down," gently or otherwise.
•Adopt the three-ref system for next season. "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the three-referee system cut down the altercations when we had it before," says Darell Garretson, the NBA's chief of officials. "And it would work again.... Certainly cleaning up the weak-side coverage would be a big factor. We can't always do that now when we're watching the ball." The estimated cost, according to Thorn: $1,500,000 for the salaries and expenses of 15 additional referees.
Overall, the NBA has tried its best to deal with violence. Bigger and bigger bodies are flying around in a playing area bound by dimensions that were established when players were much smaller. And since there's very little support for a restructuring of the game by, for example, widening the lane or increasing the size of the court, it's going to take a concerted effort by everyone—league office, referees, management, coaches and players—to keep the extreme physicality that sometimes results in violent acts out of the game.
"Somewhere along the line we're going to have a player get hurt," says Laker general manager Jerry West. "We've got to get people to wake up and realize that they're messing with careers."