Before the season, NBA General Managers received a videotape of the Top 10 hits of recent years from the league office. They were not gifts that moved the G.M.'s to sing along. The tape is a medley of body shots that are violations of the new hard-foul rule, which was designed to help referees draw the fine line between physical and felonious play.
The general managers saw, among other things: Rick Mahorn apply an elbow and send a soaring Michael Jordan to the floor, face-first; Charles Barkley, Mahorn's teammate in Philadelphia, put a shoulder into the exposed rib cage of an airborne Craig Ehlo; Bill Laimbeer use an outstretched hand to twist the face of a driving Jerry Reynolds; Scottie Pippen flatten a chugging Laimbeer with a necktie tackle. Until this season, the victim of such mayhem usually got two free throws only; on breakaway fouls the shooting team retained possession of the ball. Under the hard-foul rule, which seeks to penalize unnecessary and potentially injurious contact, a player who deliberately fouls another can be ejected from the game—and possibly fined and suspended; the victim gets two foul shots and his team will keep possession.
The league has been weighing such stern punishment for three years. "We were going to get people hurt," says Rod Thorn, the NBA's vice-president of operations. "Players weren't going for the ball, they were going for a knockdown. It's just not part of the game to, in effect, dismember guys under the rules." The changes will give the league's 54 referees more freedom to adjudicate—and more pressure to perform.
As the NBA tried to clamp down on fighting in recent years, players began to channel their feuds through hard fouls. The success of the Bad Boy Pistons also fostered a macho mentality—Drive our lane at your own risk—around the league. Throughout the body-slamming playoffs last season, particularly the Bulls-Bucks and 76ers-Cavaliers series in the first round, TNT commentator Rick Barry railed about potentially injurious D. "Pull any bozo off the street and he can play that way," Barry says. "What they were doing was penalizing the more gifted players."
Laker general manager Jerry West favors an alternative to the hard-foul rule: "The same few players are doing it over and over again," he says. "Fines should be progressive—make them higher with each offense."
By and large, the NBA's rank and file embraces the idea of hard time for hard fouls; the rule was unanimously approved by the league's 27-member competition committee and endorsed by its board of governors on Oct. 25. "Fifteen years ago there was a lot of violence," says Atlanta general manager Pete Babcock. "But the difference is that players were more sensitive to the danger of ending another player's career. You also didn't have the high fliers and dunkers 15 years ago. Guys like Dominique Wilkins who hang in the air are in real jeopardy." Says Sun forward Kurt Rambis, who makes his living playing physically, "I can stop you from scoring before you get your arms above your waist. Or I can knock you to the ground, which I think is ridiculous. I hope this puts a stop to that."
Indeed, there is likely to be less dispute over hard fouls than current rules governing the other type of flagrant fouls—those called when a defender is excessively physical while making a legitimate stab at the ball. (The penalty is two free throws and possession.) When the NBA screened 20 examples of excessive fouls at its meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., coaches howled at about seven of them. "Laimbeer rarely goes for the ball, but he always puts his body against his man when the guy shoots a layup," Chicago coach Phil Jackson says. "He's so good at it you can dispute it every time."
Which brings us to the referees, who will define the new rule by the way they call it. "I'm not in favor of giving officials more latitude," says Phoenix president Jerry Colangelo. "But somebody has to take control."
The current herd of zebras—more than half of whom have less than five years of experience—will have to navigate some difficult waters. Laker center Mychal Thompson: "The refs will overreact to establish their authority." Detroit center Tree Rollins: "The problem with the younger referees is that they go [strictly by the book]."
The first test of the changes came in St. Louis, in the fourth period of an Oct. 13 exhibition game between the Clippers and the Pistons. And no, it wasn't a Bad Boy who was punished, but L.A. center Benoit Benjamin, who last posted up hard in a Wendy's to-go line. Without trying for the ball, the 7-foot, 260-pound Benjamin plowed into 6'1", 185-pound Isiah Thomas, who had a clear path to the basket for a layup. Benjamin was banished and Detroit went on to win 118-111.
"There will probably be complaints at first, but our players always adjust to new rules," says Thorn. "As long as the calls are consistent."