At this time ofyear James Posey walks barefoot across the locker room carpet with a tentativehobble. If crash-test dummies could unbuckle their own seat belts, they wouldstagger away from accident scenes much like the 32-year-old Posey has aftersome of his recent playoff games—bent severely at the hips, trying not toaggravate the aches that already cause his lips to purse. Yet this is the timeof year that Posey loves more than any other. Because this is when he mattersmost, even if it almost kills him.
This is an article from the April 27, 2009 issue
Posey has becomeexpert in both pain management and championship celebrations because he isamong the best in the league at drawing charges. When the Hornets' forward seesan opponent driving to the basket, he turns into a 6'8" Mahatma Gandhi witha headband. Leaving his own man unguarded, he scurries to the top of thesemicircle under the basket, faces his enemy and stands in nonviolent protestof the punishment that awaits him.
Over his 10-yearcareer with six NBA teams, Posey has averaged a negligible 9.2 points and 4.9rebounds. But his sacrificial approach to defense contributed mightily to tworecent championships—with the Miami Heat in 2005--06 and last season with theBoston Celtics—and persuaded New Orleans to sign him last summer for $25million over four years. Posey routinely dives chin-first for loose balls,wrestles through screens and bodies up against larger opponents, but it is histalent for drawing charges that defines his value to New Orleans.
The risks of themost selfless deed in basketball, though, go beyond the physical. That'sbecause the often-fractional difference between a charge and a block call isdecided by a referee who has to determine, in a split second: a) were thedefender's feet set, b) was he outside the court's semicircle, c) who initiatedcontact, and d) does the contact merit a call at all? What's really cruel isthat despite Posey's skill, anticipation and sacrifice, he could very easilysend the player who ran him down to the free throw line. Which can make thosepostgame walks across the locker room carpet ever more painful.
As defensestighten and All-Stars attack the hoop recklessly over the weeks of playoffsahead, the block/charge call will inevitably make its presence felt as theleast understood and most infuriating symbol of postseason intensity. Thehunger to attack and defend the paint leads to familiar arguments over who wasthere first: a violent crash, the whistle, two or more sneakered survivorslying askew and thousands of biased eyewitnesses awaiting justice. While abang-bang out-of-bounds play might equally test an official's reflexes, theblock/charge ruling can result in a personal foul and points, not justpossession. "It's an incredibly difficult play to call," says Nuggetscoach George Karl. "I could put 20 on tape that everybody would miss. Someyou would call charge, some you would call block. They're that close—where theoffense has the right to the territory and where the defense has the right tothe territory, it's a very thin line."
That line is onethat some of the biggest NBA names love to dance along. When LeBron James, KobeBryant or Dwyane Wade need points in crunch time, where do they go? They takethe ball inside, confident that the whistles will blow their way and freethrows will follow. Wade's ability to get the favorable side of theblock/charge call was key to the Heat's beating the Mavericks in the 2006Finals. "Who's charging who?" says Trail Blazers forward Channing Frye."If it's LeBron versus any other dude, they're not going to give [thedefender] the call. They want to keep [LeBron] in the game, or at least they'llgive him a break." Also, Frye says, refs almost automatically award foulshots to quick guards like Tony Parker and Chris Paul on the assumption thatthey must have beat the defender to the spot. Of course, a reputation as acharge taker can come in handy too. "If you're a good help defender,"says Frye, "90 percent of the time you're going to get the chargecall."
Bernie Fryer, theNBA director of officials, cries foul at the notion of star treatment. Againstthe vast weight of anecdotal evidence, Fryer insists that the relative statusof players has no influence on a call. The NBA's grading system ultimatelydecides which referees work in the playoffs and earn extra money, Fryer argues,so it's in the refs' best interest to get the block/charge right, whether it'sLeBron James or Jerome James barreling to the hoop. In an attempt to quell thecontroversy around block/charge rulings, Fryer recently invited a reporter tohis office to view replays of 13 calls. A difficult one from last season showedMiami guard Smush Parker driving around the Knicks' Renaldo Balkman andstraight into a suddenly appearing Jared Jeffries. In slow motion you can seethat Jeffries gets position, but in real time the players seem to arrive at thesame moment. "In the old days you know what [prominent former refs] JoeGushue or Jake O'Donnell would call?" says Fryer, breaking into a smile. Herotates his forearms, the signal for traveling. "Because he didn'tknow," says Fryer. "He didn't know, so he'd say, He must havewalked."
Back then, everyofficial had his own view of what constituted a charge, in much the same waythat each umpire applies his own strike zone to a baseball game. Theavailability of video has resulted in a more uniform standard in the NBA:Referees study up to three hours of block/charge plays at their six-daypreseason camp in Jersey City, and throughout the season they refer to theleague's online "video rule book," which is constantly updated withplays that illustrate the right and wrong way to make each call—an indicationof the ever-changing variables at work. "We have a lot of these in our gamenow, we call them 'passes and crashes,'" says Fryer, playing and replayinga video from last season of Magic forward Rashard Lewis, after dishing theball, leveling Cavaliers guard Shannon Brown in the lane for a charge. "Hismomentum carries him into the defender," Fryer says. "In the old dayswe may lay off that play [and make no call], but it's getting to be [like a]train wreck, so we say, What's the call? It's an offensive foul."
Today it is fareasier to draw a charge than when Fryer began officiating games in the late1970s. It used to be that if a defender flinched at all before drawing contact,he was called for a blocking foul. By today's standard upper-body movement islargely irrelevant: The key to drawing a charge in the lane now is to have thefeet set before the driver takes his last doomed step. Of course the defenderhas to be outside the dotted semicircle, which was added in 1997—though if he'sinside the half-moon, he can at least avoid a blocking foul by jumping straightup with arms high. In such a case the driver could even be called for anoffensive foul if he causes excessive contact. Are you starting to see whyplayers, let alone fans, might be confused? "This [interpretation] ishugely misunderstood," says Fryer, who acknowledges that Cavs forwardAnderson Varej√£o is among the best at avoiding or drawing fouls while in thesemicircle. "He really works at it. Even though he flops a lot, he's stillvery good at getting into the defensive position and knowing when to govertical."
It's Varej√£o, the6'11" forward-center of top-seeded Cleveland, who is most likely to be inthe middle of a charge call that inspires exasperation from players andopposing fans. Among players in this postseason, Varej√£o was the regular-seasonleader in offensive fouls drawn, with 52. The Cavaliers ranked No. 1 indefensive field goal percentage and points allowed, and much of the creditbelongs to their astute defensive switches, which often culminated in theirfriendly 26-year-old Brazilian lying back-down on the floor. "It'sinspirational to me when Andy puts his body on the line and takes charges,"says Cavs coach Mike Brown. "He's not afraid to take one across the chopseither. He'll know that it's our ball going the other way."
Lockdown teamslike the Cavaliers and the Celtics emphasize the importance of bodilysacrifice: Their well-practiced rotations liberate Varej√£o or Boston's Glen(Big Baby) Davis to seek a charge, knowing that a teammate will shift over andcover his man. "Our defense is about getting our body to the spot,"says Boston coach Doc Rivers, who used to give $100 cash bonuses for each drawncharge when he was running Orlando. (The league has since outlawed the practiceas a salary-cap violation.) "When you're a great help defensive team,[opponents] know—even if it's not a charge—that somebody's going to be thereand it's going to be physical."
A generation agodefenders protected the basket by delivering hard fouls. "It used to be,Hey, suck it up, get that blood off the floor, and let's shoot freethrows," recalls Rockets guard Brent Barry, 37. But since 1993 the leaguehas suppressed its thuggish image by giving flagrant fouls and suspensions tooverly aggressive defenders. So in this generation the new villain becomes aplayer like Varej√£o—who by the traditional standards of Bill Laimbeer or BruceBowen isn't villainous at all. If anything, he should be pitied, like one ofthose destitute souls who runs in front of moving cars for the insurance money."Sometimes I hear I'm a dirty player, he's going to flop, whatever,"says Varej√£o. "But you can see I never hit nobody. I just look for a way tobe important to my team."
And so what if, tomake his importance stand out, he has to go to the floor sometimes? As the lateJohnnie Cochran might have put it, if he doesn't fall, he won't get the call.Varej√£o has been drawing charges since he was a skinny teenager playing withgrizzled pros in the Brazilian league—the age when he unwittingly gained anadvantage by growing out his dreadlocks to their current Sideshow Bob length.Now his hair splashes out with each flop to emphasize the punishment he isabsorbing.
If the Cavaliersadvance as expected to the second round, they could find themselves facing theHeat—a series that would put even the best ref's skills to the test. You wouldhave Varej√£o stepping into the lane to draw charges on the relentlesslypenetrating Wade, who led all guards in free throw attempts this season, with9.8 per game. Wade has his own take on those collisions under the hoop. For allof the preferential treatment he is accused of receiving, he believes he earnshis whistles. Especially when he's more horizontal than vertical afterlaunching knee-high into the chest of a defender who appeared out of nowhere,like a deer on the highway. "You're up high, and it's a long way down,"says Wade. "When you get hit, you know this is going to be a bad one righthere."
And so he waitsfor the crash to the floor. And then, he hopes, a free throw or two.
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