NBA Refs are the Best, But Still a Problem

From Yahoo! Sports' Ball Don't Lie comes this reaction to the return of the refs:

Nobody seems to get the fact that, in spite of what that ref with the hair and the whistle and the whole thing just called, that these are the best in the world at a job that is pretty damned impossible. And that inviting a new series of crews into the league for only a moment's token notice would have just been a ridiculous and legitimacy-scarring operation.

It doesn't matter what you think, I've little patience for it. You might not care for the work of the typical NBA referee, but the typical NBA referee is fantastic at its job, and no amount of frozen-envelope YouTube clips can chase that away. [...]

The contrarian in all of you just needs to can it. There was no upside to chasing these refs away. And despite what you think of yourself as a basketball follower, this game wasn't getting any better with these refs on the sideline.

Okay. A bit abrasive with his "doesn't matter what you think" and "can it" commands, but hey, the man has a point. It would have been a full-fledged crime against basketball if the NBA had trotted out the replacements for the first few months of the year. Regardless of what you think of the NBA referees, they're the best at what they do, and the league's better off with them than anyone else.

If the NBA was trying to send a message with these labor negotiations (to the players' union?), they inadvertently established something else entirely. Namely, that all things considered, the NBA refs ain't half bad. But the lede in this reaction made me bristle:

The NBA and its referees are close to coming to an agreement that would allow them to call NBA games this year, and for several years following.

Don't give a rip? Hate the zebras? Constantly upset at their bias? The star-driven calls? Hoping they'd just dump the whole lot of them and start over?

You fool. You absolute fool, who doesn't appear to watch many NBA games with a discerning eye.

Uh... Hold on, before we get started, here was the closing line, as well:

Now, commence with the idiotic, "the refs be bums" twaddle.

Whoa. Whoa whoa whoa. I mean... 

What the hell is "twaddle?"

And more to the point, since when does criticizing the refs mean we don't have "discerning eyes?" This smacks of the condescending baseball fan's refusal to listen to criticism of our national pastime, who instead replies with a series of vague platitudes about the intricacies of the game, and how we don't appreciate them. Or the politician, citing broad virtues of "freedom" in opposing or supporting various legislation. Um, excuse me, but let's discuss the matters at hand, not appeal to some vague and completely subjective higher concept.

In this case, the higher concept is, roughly, an "appreciation for the game" that's culled only through watching many games "with a discerning eye." And I think that's a wrongheaded approach to this problem. Someone who watches that many games, that often, with close attention, isn't part of the audience the NBA needs to worry about. Instead, it's people like my brother, who doesn't watch basketball all year long, and then turns on the playoffs.

Someone like him is a better indicator of the NBA's relative health--diehards will always love the League. But where the NBA has struggled in past years is in convincing the average sports fans that its officiating is competent and that the proceeds in April and beyond are not rigged. When the officiating pendulum swings drastically back-and-forth from favoring one team to another over the course of the series, making a seventh game seem all-but-inevitable after 5 games, that's a problem.

When an official like Bill Kennedy consistently screws the Celtics, or Joey Crawford consistently snubs the Spurs, that, too, chips away at the integrity of the game. In fact, it's far more foolish to pretend there's nothing wrong with the current officiating system than it is to crow about its inequities. Some of the latter may be exaggerated, but that doesn't make the former concerns moot.

Simple as this: If you care about basketball, then you worry about the officiating. You just do. It's not fun to pour one's heart and soul into something that could, maybe possibly, be a partial lie. And while I'd contend that talk of "fixing" games is overblown, it's undeniable that whether it was the NBA Finals in '06, the Western Conference Finals in '02, or literally dozens of other playoff examples, the course of NBA history has been altered by referee biases. Is that inevitable? Probably, but the NBA could certainly do a lot more to inhibit the effects.

And foolish or not, I remember listening to the '98 Knicks-Pacers Game 3 on the radio, alone in my bedroom, and jumping up and down when Larry Johnson hit that four-point shot. I was maybe 11-years old and got goosebumps as I listened to the Madison Square Garden crowd. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. It was truly special. Now, more than a decade later, with my eyes more "discerning" and video to accompany what I'd imagined, I can't help but wonder about that foul call:


Call me a fool, but that's a problem.

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