Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

The NBA Got Out Of Basketball's Way

Photo: Thearon W. Henderson (Getty)

When Allie LaForce was dispatched to get a postgame interview from Tuesday’s Rockets-Warriors game, she or maybe her producer chose the sport’s third eye, Klay Thompson. Not bad, as these things go. Thompson is always a better choice than nearly anyone else for these say-little-and-then-go-inside sessions.

But it was still the wrong choice. The correct choice would have been the man who saved basketball for one evening, official Scott Foster. It was Foster, and the meth-driven commentaries surrounding this series’ doom and the general distasteful nature of Game 1 and the teams themselves, that pulled Rockets-Warriors from the edge of the abyss.

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What did happen—Warriors 115-109 (covering the spread by a point, as you must know), and injuries to Stephen Curry and James Harden—was the basketball we all came for, athletes being athletes, coaches being coaches, and audits of year-old game reports left behind for the repository of Basketball-Reference.com.

And all it took was using Scott Foster as a stand-in for Thanos.

Foster and his bandmates for the evening, Eric Lewis and Ed Malloy, were the focal point for an entire day’s game prep after the ghastliness of Game 1, but it was mostly Foster who caught it. A 12-time Finals official with a reputation for simultaneous judgment of and disdain for both players and coaches, he was considered the scourge of Houston and Oakland simultaneously. He was Everything Wrong With Officiating. He was the reason the rank-and-file would rise up in an offseason revolt beneath Houston general manager Daryl Morey waving the banner of the Sloan Analytics Conference.

He was also, however, part of the audience’s fevered two-day rage against this series and the two teams themselves (though in fairness that was more Rockets than Warriors in this instance). By aggressively misunderstanding officiating in general, the rules they apply and the league’s methodologies in their selection for games, Basketball Nation shrieked, “Enough! We hate this, and we kind of hate you.”

The NBA has done storylines and theatrical narratives for most of the last 20 years, and most of the time they have held the audience, especially in the offseason where burning money is its most aromatic. But this tableau of raw, naked government-level manipulation and unchained math and printouts from the gates of hell stuck in everyone’s craw because it was aggressively obscuring the one thing that brought everyone inside the tent to begin with—the idea that the game is getting better and more enjoyable. The system was being worked to no good end, and using the officials as a focal point seemed like an egregious form of punching down.

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And everyone seemed to hear that message. The game went off without a hitch, unless you count Harden’s eyes and Curry’s middle finger (unrelated). Other than a sketchy double technical called by Malloy on Nene and Draymond Green that might be rescinded, the coaches and players were universal (and maybe even genuine) in their praise for the officials. This is a rarity typically reserved for the spotting of a two-headed tortoise because all the other games this year in which the officials performed well attracted neither questions nor answers. Reason: Nobody really cares about officiating.

It is why Foster was used by people who know less than they think they do as a bedtime story to frighten the children. He was brought in after Game 1 to be Adam Silver’s spiked backhand (except that he, Lewis, and Malloy were scheduled to work this series before it began, as is normal procedure). He was brought in to punish the Rockets after being kept away from the team since February after Harden roasted him by name (except that officials routinely go months without seeing any particular team; the Warriors hadn’t seen James Capers since November for example). He was Hell’s Dean of Students (except that he isn’t).

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And a full day of Foster talk suddenly hit all the participants in the face. It resulted not in Foster’s vilification so much as the universal condemnation of weaponized whining and fouling for fouling’s sake. This was not what the players and customers were in the basketball thing for. They all saw where this was heading and, in an organic show of common sense, decided they were sick of it too.

So the game went off, and while the Warriors controlled the scoreboard, the Rockets gave them the full 48, even when Harden was out. It was good playing and good watching. Both teams got to show their goods by concentrating on showing their goods. Kevin Durant was as he has been, dominant without being ball-centric, Harden was fighting valiantly against blurred vision, Green continued to remind people what makes him a valuable five-position player, Andre Iguodala was Inspector Gadget all over the floor, Chris Paul was Chris Paul—and nobody acted like they were watching their house burn down.

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They demonstrated that working the officials might be an occasionally effective tactic, but it sure isn’t effective entertainment. We had all reached critical mass, and something had to give.

And all it took was the naming of the officiating crew at 9 a.m. ET, and a full day of the commentariat firing middle fingers at both teams and the league in general to end it. It was a festival of “How did you think the game was officiated?” and “I thought it was great” to avert at least temporarily a crisis that could have destroyed the most anticipated series in a year in which the ratings are already problematic.

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This isn’t going to make Scott Foster a beloved figure in league history. Your grandparents aren’t going to put framed portraits of him on the mantelpiece. But he put to the lie the old line about “The best officials are the ones you don’t notice.” America noticed the hell out of him, and in a very weird and unintended way it turned out to be of positive benefit to mankind. And even though he was but one of three as all officials are, it was his name and his stats that everyone invoked when everything was turning bad.

So some of the credit ought to be his, just on G.P. He at least should have gotten the postgame interview with LaForce. It wouldn’t have been Thompson-quality stuff, but it would have been a small reward for inadvertently saving basketball from its worst impulses, at least for one day.

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Ray Ratto’s new book, “Auditing Old Games Instead Of Watching New Ones: Sports’ New Frontier” is in development.

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