To excel as an NBA official, candidates need thick skin, dull hearing and slow tempers.
They need the ability to tune out frenetic crowds – including spectators mere inches away – screaming about blown calls and defaming refs’ genealogy.
They must live with split-second decisions to blow or not blow the whistle, even as lingering doubts are confirmed via replay on the arena’s big-screens and excoriated by talking heads on smaller sets.
When it comes to an enviable job, this one doesn’t qualify. Between complaining players, argumentative coaches, heckling fans and carping media, refs fully earn their six-figure salaries, first-class travel and luxurious accommodations.
The task is difficult enough. They don’t need the league office piling on to prove it.
In case you missed it, the NBA identified five missed calls – FIVE! – during the final 13.5 seconds Monday in the San Antonio-Oklahoma City series. That might rank second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game among records least likely to be broken.
The mistakes were revealed in a “Last Two Minutes Report,” an initiative launched last season. All calls and material non-calls in the final minutes of close games and the entirety of overtime periods are reviewed and released to the public.
“Our fans are passionate and have an intense interest in understanding how the rules are applied,” Mike Bantom, executive vice president of referee operations, said when the program was announced. “NBA referees have the most difficult officiating job in sports, with so many split-second decisions in real time.
“We trust this consistent disclosure will give fans a greater appreciation of the difficulty of the job and a deeper sense of the correct interpretations of the rules of our game.”
That was wishful thinking.
Instead, fans and everyone else are more frustrated when their suspicions are confirmed or denied. In Game 5 of the Miami-Charlotte series, many observers thought Dwyane Wade was fouled on a last-second drive. The NBA sided with the refs afterward, claiming they were right to swallow their whistles on the play.
From the report: “Zeller (CHA) comes towards Wade (MIA) from across the restricted area, planting his foot and jumping vertically to defend Wade’s shot. Zeller absorbs contact when it occurs and, while his arms are not completely vertical, multiple angles confirm they do not make contact with Wade. Therefore, Zeller maintains a legal guarding position as he attempts to defend the shot.
“Lee makes contact with the ball during Wade’s upward shooting motion, which makes his subsequent, minor arm contact with Wade incidental. Lee then makes contact with Wade’s arm again at about 00:04.9, however, Wade has already lost possession of the ball.”
The verdict does nothing to help Charlotte fans appreciate refs’ job or gain a deeper sense of rule interpretation. Because we’re still dealing with subjectivity, to a degree, and varying opinions late-game situations. There’s still major disagreement on a fundamental question:
Is a foul in the first two minutes necessarily a foul in the last two minutes?
Our head says yes; our heart says no. The definition of “incidental contact” becomes more liberal at crunch time, lest a game be decided on a ticky-tack foul.
We understand that the league’s stance must be a foul is a foul is a foul. But it’s human nature to consider the clock winding down in tense situations, where an iffy whistle can ruin the climax.
Besides, the NBA’s effort to be transparent is pointless. We already know that mistakes happen, that refs make bad calls and miss good ones throughout each game. Harping on the final two minutes – or all 48 for that matter – won’t change the result and it won’t lead to fewer errors in the future.
Unless next-generation officials instantly decipher action as clearly as slow-motion, frame-by-frame, hi-def replays.
“I think (the reports) send a bad message to our fans of thinking the game is only won in the last two minutes,” Cleveland superstar LeBron James told reporters last week. “A play in the first quarter is just as important as a play in the last four seconds. That’s how playoff basketball is played, that’s how the game of basketball should be played.”
Not surprisingly, refs aren’t crazy about the L2M reports.
After the league said an offensive foul was missed April 21 on a game-winning shot by Houston’s James Harden in Game 3 against Golden State, the NBA Referees Association tweeted: “@OfficialNBARefs disputes L2M decisions and calls for L2M process reform.”
My idea for reform is simple: Trash it.
There’s no hiding from bad calls and non-calls require no transparency. Both happen in front of our faces, viewed through our subjective eyes. Notwithstanding countless replays with the comfort of hindsight, there’s nothing to see.