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NBA Officiating Sucks, But Not For The Reason Chris Paul Thinks It Does

Photo: Ezra Shaw (Getty)

The Houston Rockets think veteran referee Scott Foster is being mean to them, which is not new. Lots of teams have thought that about Foster over the years, (a) because he is under-burdened by the onus of player relations skills, and (b) because he isn’t easily bullied. Many teams would love to be able to dictate that Foster never work their games again, because who wouldn’t want to handpick their hall monitor? But he is in fact of the league’s few reliable officials, and has been for years.

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We’re not here to defend Scott Foster. His main fault is almost certainly that he has good and fearless judgement, but he is also a white-hot ball of imperious disdain. He is part of a generation of officials who were raised by the league and its official supervisors to be imperious, annoying and unapproachable, he and his mates are dealing with the most empowered generation of players in the history of any professional sport, and both parties are dealing with a league office that neither knows nor particularly cares about why the perception of their officials is so poor, let alone how to repair it.

And I say that fully cognizant that ESPN just ripped off the scab of the Tim Donaghy case, reminding everyone how fragile the entire structure is. Indeed, Chris Paul flexing Thursday night and saying he has spoken directly with league officials about Foster, and James Harden saying the league should no longer schedule Foster for Rockets games isn’t happening in a vacuum. They both know, as do their contemporaries, that the league neither backs its officials nor figures out how to empower them to deal with the game they are charged with supervising. This is a combination of ideas that seemed good at the time but went wrong because the people who thought of them neither understood, trusted nor particularly liked officials or officiating.

This all goes back to two major miscalculations and one failure of development. The first miscalculation came in 1981 when the league hired its best referee, Darell Garretson, to be the supervisor of officials. Garretson’s judgment was as close to unassailable as any NBA official’s could be, but his imperiousness with players and coaches make Foster seems like Mr. Rogers, and to nobody’s surprise the other officials took on Garretson’s view of the players and acted accordingly. Thus, the start of the long-simmering-and-occasionally-boiled-over issue about player-official interaction that goes on to this day. What worked for Garretson really only worked for Garretson, as it turned out, because that’s how he worked best. That’s how elite works in all workplaces, players included. When he tried to transfer his mode of work to others, it failed, often miserably.

The next good intention-gone-bad happened 30 years ago, when the league expanded to three officials out of a logical assumption that three is better than two because all officials are essentially the same anyway. Three would be better than two if that second postulate were true, but it plainly isn’t. The NBA didn’t expand its rosters with 20 more Earl Stroms and Hugh Evanses and Jake O’Donnells; it expanded them with officials who were neither as good nor as respected by the players, and the resultant drop in quality and rise in free-range bitching built over the next decade-plus to give us the game’s greatest proponents of relentless dissent, Rasheed Wallace and Mark Cuban.

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Then came 2007 and Donaghy, whose personal dumpster fires devastated the business of officiating, and now everyone agrees based on nothing more than their own particular oxen being gored that all the games are fixed. They believed it before because that’s what people do (“My team got screwed because EVERYONE IS ON THE TAKE!”), but Donaghy gave them cover to say, “See? My irritating paranoia is justified because this one guy went south.”

And now we have Harden and Paul, who have stretched the elasticity of the essential playing of the games with greater facility than almost any other players of their generation, wanting Foster banished from their particular kingdom because, well, because they decided they get to decide these things, or at the very least make him the reason for their failure. Perfect.

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I grant you that the Harden-Paul-Foster problem is a small one that would be settled immediately if Monty McCutchen, who was the league’s best official until he got bumped upstairs to run the whistle factory, sent Foster back to the first Rockets game he could get him to to let Paul and Harden know the limits of their advocacy, and keep him there until they all figure out how to co-exist. Watching them try would be at worst hilarious, at best efficacious.

But the excavation of the Donaghy story reminds us that legal gambling is upon us and will spur the tinfoil-hat brigades to think that Arnold Rothstein’s ghosts have action on every game from Suns-Wizards to Warriors-Bucks, and that WWE officials are more impartial, so fixing the whistle problem is actually more important to more people in the sport than they realize. If Adam Silver doesn’t know that this is a profoundly vulnerable pressure point in the rolling ATM that is the National Basketball Association, he should probably outsource the job, but on the greater likelihood that he does know that, he should do the following (in addition to finding better officials on the middle and lower tiers of the roster):

  • Make McCutchen visible and hands-on in untraditional ways, like force-feeding Foster to the Rockets.
  • Make the officials more mobile within the three-man system, because too many of them plant in one spot and look like they’re hoping the play will come to them. The danger areas of a court are growing with every new team trying to emulate Golden State’s shot selection, so an official who stands still may as well just have his or her image painted on the court for all the good they do.
  • Make the officials available and actually useful after games for media questions, and if every once in a while the answer is, “I just looked at the play again and we might have gotten it wrong because we got blocked out/had a bad angle/just missed it because humans are humans,” people might be less inclined to believe they are in league with the North Koreans.
  • Remind the players (and good luck with this one, I know) that part of the job of being a pro is knowing which officials like to call which things, and which are more willing to talk and listen, and, more cynically, how better to develop relationships with officials in the forlorn hope that it might help somewhere down the road.
  • Allow the officials to use common sense and expertise to sort out things like, well, walking. The double-Euro step is upon us, and dribbling is already sufficiently out of fashion without telling the players in so many words that you don’t care if he ran all 94 feet with your ball under his arm like a canned ham.
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Or, if none of those strategies, take:

  • Make Don Nelson the next supervisor of officials, if only to apply his name to a placard posted in every locker room that reads simply, “I know you’re unhappy about whatever the hell you’re unhappy about today, but I’m just way too high to give a damn, or even to be bothered enough to learn the names of more than ten of you. You’re on your own, bitches. It’s festival seating from now on. Nellie Kush, out.”
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Ray Ratto thinks America would be a hell of a lot better off if Joey Crawford had been elected President. Or named King. Or First Prefect Of The Nine Vectors Of The Fourth Universe. Any of them are good by me.

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