The NBA Finals and the Shadow of Donaghy

So far the Celtics-Lakers series has been reasonably entertaining. The games have been pretty close, the players have worked hard, and the energy has been high. It certainly feels like it’s shaping up to be a classic finals. The one thing that can ruin it? The refs. And they’ve started pretty well.

Since the Tim Donaghy disaster came out, the NBA has done absolutely nothing to dispel the rumors that the officiating is a disaster. Rather, the official policy seems to be “let’s do nothing and hope people forget that our refs are literally fixing games.” Perhaps it’s working from a PR standpoint*, but from a sports aspect, it’s pretty apparent that something needs to be done soon, or the NBA is going the way of pro cycling.

*And if you need PR, there’s no better team to do your dirty work than the ABC announcing team. I was legitimately convinced that Breen, Van Gundy, and Jackson were one of the best teams in all of sports. My respect drops every time one of them says “that’s a great call!” on an obviously botched call. Each second of silence after a terrible non-call makes me like them less. If this series goes to seven games, they’ll be in Joe Morgan territory. On the bright side, Kim Jong-Il would do well to hire them to announce North Korea’s World Cup matches.

First, it’s staggering that the NBA would assign a referee to a Celtics game who filed a grievance against Doc Rivers last season. It goes without saying that anyone in such a position should be watching future Celtics games from his recliner. I don’t want to sound like a whiny homer, even though I do think the Celtics have gotten the worst of it this series. I think Lakers guards have gotten away with more handchecks, the Celtics have been called for more tickytack off the ball fouls, and I’m not sure, but someone in the Lakers frontcourt owes Kendrick Perkins dinner after this series for all the groping he’s taken. But every time I get worked up about it, I remember that Perkins has yet to set a clean pick and Rajon Rondo fouls someone every time he does his little open-the-door-then-try-to-strip-the-guy-from-behind play. So maybe the Lakers have gotten more calls, especially in the paint, but it hasn’t been a travesty.

But if you’re like me, you noticed the ridiculousness of that last statement. At this point, we’re hoping that the bad calls against one team even out the bad calls against the other. Rather than which team plays better deciding games, we’re in “I hope the refs don’t fuck this one up too bad” territory. Say what you will about Major League Baseball. When an umpire misses a call, he hears about it. Announcers blast the umps all the time. The league office occasionally descends from high to issue a “stern warning” to misfit umpires. What has David Stern done to allay fears that the refs are taking over what should be an all-time classic series?

It’s a cliche to say that sports should be decided on the field by the players, not by the refs or umps. But all cliches have an element of truth to them. We’re going to get to see a lot of hilariously bad officiating in the World Cup over the next month. But even the worst refs in soccer can’t decide a game short of awarding stupid penalty shots or cards. And when they do that, they get pilloried in the press and FIFA gets involved. NBA refs have a ridiculously hard job, sure. We all know how the difference between a block and a charge requires chalkboards filled with Calculus to call correctly. And it’s not helped by the diving, either*. That said, there are three officials per game. This is literally the most important series of the year. How is it possible that the NBA cannot find 3 refs that can call a good game?

*Americans like to make fun of Soccer players because of the diving. Basketball players not only dive more than soccer players, they complain to the refs more too. We need to start giving out yellow cards to people like Derek Fisher and Glen Davis for diving anytime someone dribbles near them.

There has been an average of 53 total fouls called per game so far. The stereotype is that playoff sports are tougher and grittier, but so far all we’ve seen is a bunch of pointless off-the-ball fouls called on incidental contact, inconsistent calls on drives to the basket, loose balls, and big men in the paint. Both coaches have spent a lot of time complaining about the officiating. What if this continues? For all the bleating about the Rivalry and Tradition and other Capitalized Words, the NBA has been extremely lucky since the Donaghy scandal broke. They’ve been able to coast because fans want to watch the Celtics and the Lakers and they want to believe the players are fighting for history. But with all the questions mounting, it’s possible that David Stern could end up with a nightmare PR scenario, where the series is decided by the refs. No matter how much they try to play up the teams and the games, if the series continues like this, questions will get asked. Because while the reopening of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry may have helped wipe the refereeing scandal under the rug, any lingering doubts about the integrity of the officials will be magnified and blown out of proportion. It’s a double-edged sword, and the NBA is wielding it pretty irresponsibly.

If I were David Stern, I would at least acknowledge the situation. Even the old Bud Selig gem of “we’re looking into it with our blue-ribbon committee” would be better than silence and speculation. He needs to buckle down and get his best refs involved for the rest of the series. And then, in the offseason, he needs to start totally overhauling the league’s officiating structure. Of course, he won’t. He’ll stand in the court, hand the trophy to Phil Jackson or Doc Rivers, grin that shit-eating grin of his, then go back to trying to fix the biggest American sporting problem today with silly putty and a pie in the face. And in the meantime, he’ll be quietly driving one of the major sports leagues into the ground because he’s too proud to admit there’s something wrong.

Say what you will about Gary Bettman. At least they let ’em play in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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