The Refs Need a Ref
A rift between Darell Garretson, the NBA's supervisor of officials since 1981, and several of the league's respected veteran referees is widening. Several coaches told SI they believe the split has had an effect on the way some games are officiated.
Rod Thorn, the NBA's director of operations, who oversees Garretson and his officials, says that he stands behind Garretson, who is in his 24th season as a ref. Thorn says that complaints about Garretson "are no greater than when I took this job five years ago." Garretson did not respond to telephone calls.
It is important to note that the rift is much more than a personality clash between Garretson and former NBA official Earl Strom, who, from the free-speech harbor of retirement, has been extremely critical of Garretson, first in his book Calling the Shots, published last fall, and lately in interviews. Strom's latest—and most serious—charge is that philosophical conflicts among officials are influencing their calls. "I see guys trying to upstage each other out on the court," says Strom. "The feelings of the pro-Garretson refs and the anti-Garretson refs are so strong that one guy will make a call at one end, and the other guy will say, 'I'll get that s.o.b.,' and make a call that upstages him at the other end."
One widely respected referee, who asked for anonymity, says, "This isn't just about Earl Strom shooting off his mouth. There is such a division of referees right now, it's unbelievable. It affects close games if you get the wrong mix of a crew, and politics while officiating a game is the last thing any game needs."
Although identified strongly with the anti-Garretson faction, another veteran official doesn't agree that personalities are dictating some calls. "That would amount to cheating," says this ref, "and I don't believe that any of our staff is unprofessional enough to let personal matters interfere with our job."
Still, this official does concur with Strom's claims that Garretson is "power hungry" and that he "intimidates" and "dehumanizes" his charges with threats, tongue-lashings, strongly worded letters and a system that encourages referees to, in Strom's words, "spy on each other."
Says this official: "Darell has made the refs so afraid that when they go out on the floor, they can't do their job because they're worrying about him. Let's say that you've taken all you can take from a coach, and you want to eject him. But you hesitate because you think about that red phone light that might be on when you get back to your hotel room. 'Uh-oh,' you think. 'Darell disagreed with me.' "
There are, to be sure, other veteran—and respected—refs who are solidly aligned with Garretson. But his hold is strongest on the younger officials, many of whom were added in the last few years because of the three-referee system.
At least half a dozen coaches say that there are cliques among the officials and that, in the words of one who also asked to remain anonymous, "they are affecting the consistency of calls."
A number of coaches believe that under the Garretson system refs have less give-and-take with coaches and players than they once did, and that they have become increasingly impersonal. Speaking independently, at least four coaches used the word robot to describe the type of referee Garretson prefers.
Adds an Eastern Conference coach: "This is a 'feel' game more than anything else, and the refs are losing that. They referee from fear. Every call has to be perfect, so they're afraid to make any call.
"It's happened to me more than a couple of times that I'll walk by a ref before a game and he'll say, 'Don't talk to me. There's an observer [from the league] here tonight.' You can't ref like that, just like you can't play like that."
Angered by Strom's repeated snipings, Thorn says that the accusations about Garretson are unfounded, and he does not agree that cliques are affecting calls. "In any group of 52 people [the number of officials currently on staff] there are some who, for whatever reason, disagree with the leader," says Thorn. "I think Darell does a super job. He's an incredibly hard worker, and most of what he does is designed to make people better—to make them watch tapes, be in condition, learn the proper mechanics." As for the assertion that refs are getting too impersonal, he says: "There are some refs who have personalities that allow chitchat with coaches, and there are many who don't. That can be a problem. Plus, there are coaches who like engaging the referees in conversation and coaches who do not. If an official talks to the coach who does like to talk, that's a perceived advantage. If a coach has a legitimate question, officials are supposed to answer it, and I think our refs do that."
Thorn and NBA commissioner David Stern feel strongly that Garretson has raised the overall standard for refereeing in the league. Some coaches and referees agree. Thorn and Stern also embrace the principle that referees should blend into the landscape and not command center stage, as veteran officials such as Mendy Rudolph, Sid Borgia and Strom once did. That principle is at the root of the Garretson system.
But the NBA higher-ups also know that they must soon confront the anti-Garret-son feelings, even if they believe those feelings aren't justified.
While recently playing with his three-year-old son, Jeremiah, Hawk guard Glenn (Doc) Rivers attached a toy basket with suction cups to his own forehead. But instead of shooting Nerf balls at the basket from long range, as Doc had in mind, Jeremiah uncorked a ferocious slam dunk that ripped the suction cups from his dad's forehead, leaving one large, irregular red patch that was evident at the following day's shootaround. Thus Rivers's new nickname: Gorbachev.
No Longer Blazing
While jumping to an 11-0 record to begin the season, the Trail Blazers were likened to the 1971-72 Lakers, who won an NBA-record 33 straight games. Portland's play of late has invited a different, and more pressing, comparison. To wit: Arc the Blazers as good as the 1990-91 Lakers? Before beating the Clippers 130-126 on the road on March 20, Portland had lost eight of its previous 11 games and had fallen out of first place in the Western Conference for the first time all season. At week's end the Blazers had regained the top spot from the Lakers by a game. But holding off the Lakers to secure the home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs is not the sure thing it once appeared to be for Portland.
Why has this deep and talented team barely kept its head over .500 since the All-Star break? "They just don't look to be quite as fresh," says Mike Schuler, whose Clippers beat the Blazers 107-97 at Portland on March 17. "They didn't run quite as hard or play quite as explosively. Maybe they lost a little mental edge." Some other coaches more or less concur with that assessment.
The Blazers' troubles are symptomatic of an eternal NBA truism: A team rarely goes through a season without some kind of mental lull, usually a significant one. As much as any team in the league, Portland has depended on emotion to stay on top, and its emotional stockpile was depleted after playing three months of outstanding basketball. The question now is: Will the Blazers regroup and relight their fire or go up in smoke?
Coaches Bow to Their Don
Don Chaney's coaching skills were not highly regarded when he was fired by the Clippers after the 1986-87 season. Some observers felt he was just another former player who couldn't cut it in the world of X's and O's, and there was much skepticism about his chances of success when the Rockets made him their head coach before the '88-89 season.
But right now there's no hotter coach in the NBA than the man known as Duck, whose team finished the week 43-24, two games behind Utah, the Midwest Division leader. When NBA coaches were asked in the SI poll to select their choice for coach of the year, 14 of them answered "Chaney." Phil Jackson of the Bulls drew five votes; Chris Ford of the Celtics, three; and Del Harris of the Bucks, Jerry Sloan of the Jazz and Bob Weiss of the Hawks, one each. Two coaches could not be reached to cast their votes.
"He lost his best player [Hakeem Olajuwon] and kept his team performing at a high level," said the Clippers' Schuler in casting his vote for Chaney. "You can't ask any more of a coach than that."
Clearly, Chaney won the poll not only for his stewardship during Olajuwon's 25-game absence because of an eye injury, but also for his smooth blending of the superstar center back into the lineup after his return on Feb. 28. Chaney is working on the final year of his contract, but the word from Houston is that he will not be a lame Duck much longer.