We watch sports for a variety of reasons. To revel in the thrill of head-to-head competition. To marvel at the athleticism. To root for the home team, in which we have somehow invested a piece of our own identities. To mark our place in the timeless ritual. To learn, even.
With the NBA, there’s one more reason: to see which narrative the league has decided is the most compelling.
Now, I’m not generally a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think the world is biased against me personally and I don’t believe that the refs are out to get my team. In most cases, my attempts to explain bad officiating, whatever the sport, need go no further than “basic incompetence.” Sometimes the zebras’ ineptitude balances out, and sometimes one team gets buggered a lot harder than the other, but usually it’s just a matter of chance, of which player or team was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And yes, refereeing is hard. Very hard, in some cases. So we cut them a little slack, if we’re educated fans. But even in our most charitable moments, there’s just no defending the whistle jockeys in most NBA games. And as we get deeper into the playoffs the agenda grows more and more transparent.
Recently, as I did my best to sit through game 4 between Dallas and Denver, I noticed how the closer we got to the end of the game the easier it became to predict every Dallas possession. The Mavs were going to bring the ball up and give it somebody, probably Dirk Nowitzki. (Hey, if he were on my team I’d damned sure give it to him every time down the stretch, too.) There would be a few dribbles, then the closest blue shirt would be whistled for a foul. Make no mistake – the Mavericks were going to win that game, no matter what.
Fine. I get the drill. But still, I marveled at the theater of it all. Case in point: the ref’s abject refusal to call Dirk for an offensive foul when he’d elbow his defender in the chest. In one sequence he did it three times in rapid succession. I honestly have no idea what you’re supposed to do if you’re guarding him. You establish position, he backs into you hard. You hold your ground and take an elbow in the sternum. You try and defend yourself, you take another elbow and get whistled for the foul. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Why even play defense? Let him have an uncontested layup, thereby minimizing the damage to two points. If you play D you risk an “And 1” call.
In any case, I didn’t sweat the ultimate outcome. The Nugs were going to win the series for two reasons. First, they had a better team, and that always helps. Second, the league has decided that theirs is a powerful narrative this year. Melo wins gold medal and matures as a player – big element. And “Chauncey Billups comes back to his hometown and miraculously transforms the entire culture of a punk-ass franchise” is one of the league’s top stories this year. The only issue going into the series was whether Denver had a sweep narrative working or whether Dallas deserved a bone. In the end, the rank conspiracy theorist came away concluding that preserving at least a little of Dirk Nowitski’s star cred outweighed the league’s hatred of Mark Cuban.
The question then becomes whether the league thinks there’s more magic in the Nuggets narrative or in the Kobe/LeBron story they’ve been stoking all year. The smart money says Lakers in six or seven – stick to the script, but wring all you can out of this wonderful Chauncey story. (If you’re thinking that Orlando is crashing the party in the East, stay tuned. Dwight Howard has major mojo, but neither David Stern nor Nike wants to see LeBron sent home early this year. That would be bad for business. I mean, does Nike have some Kobe muppet vs. Dwight muppet commercials ready to roll?)
The Five Sets of Rules You Meet in the NBA
So, Sam is a more or less rational guy, you may be thinking. But what he’s hinting at here, despite his “I’m no conspiracy theorist” protestations, is the sports world’s answer to The Da Vinci Code. Is he actually serious? Good question. Let’s answer it this way: I’m writing all this mainly because the NBA has made it impossible to believe that its games are reffed cleanly.
What I’m saying about The League is not true of Major League Baseball, the NFL, the English Premiership, MLS, WPS, the NHL, the NCAA or the Australian Football League. Those leagues have their good officials, their bad officials and their barely trained monkeys with whistles, but they do not, as best I can tell, have scripts. The various leagues might have dream scenarios – I mean, it’s always good for the league if New York is in the mix, right? – but you don’t necessarily get the sense that the league office goes over these scenarios with the officials before the games.
Let’s face it, there are at least five sets of rules in the NBA, and these rules are routinely applied in ways that we might charitably characterize as “inconsistent.” Or “capricious.” Or “worthy of a RICO investigation.” In ways that strain our willing suspension of disbelief.
The rules can be applied so as to effect any number of desired outcomes, should one, you know, have a desired outcome (*wink wink*). And everybody knows it. League officials have gotten pretty good at keeping a straight face when they swear that the refs are calling it straight down the middle, but you hear players and coaches and analysts, time and again, saying things like “you’re never gonna get that call on the road” or “X is going to get the benefit of the doubt.”
Well, let’s look at those statements. What, literally, is being said? The officials have discretion about what they call, and the decisions are situational. That’s a far cry from “we all play by the same rules and the rules are the same in all cases.” Nobody except David Stern and his merry band of bookers even pretend anymore.
In one of the first two Lakers/Nuggets games – I can’t recall which without the video in front of me – we had a couple of moments that strain all credulity. In one, you had Melo guarding Kobe down low, and what was going on can only be described as “a UFC championship bout.” A few minutes later we had the same kind of exchange between Nenê and one of the Laker bigs. In both cases you could have called four or five fouls and a couple misdemeanors against all participants. The results: no foul in the first case, and in he second the mayhem finally settled down, at which point we got a whistle for a touch foul that I still couldn’t find after watching the reply twice.
What the fuck? Even if we assume that I’m okay with the NBA being harder hitting than the NFL, wouldn’t it be nice if the casual fan had some way of understanding what was and was not against the rules? I still have no idea what the hell is going on in cricket, but I know that there are rules and if I wanted to study a little I could figure it all out. But this? This is a cross between Calvinball and The Warriors.
Yes, I’ve written about this before, back when the whole Tim Donaghy mess erupted. And I may write about it again, just because there’s only so much my innate sense of fair play can abide. So at the risk of repeating myself, let’s review…
The various sets of rules used (or not) in the NBA:
1: The official rules. Somewhere the official laws of the game are written down. No one knows why.
2: The interpreted rules. The official rules may say that X is a foul, but X can happen 45 times in a game and you never hear a whistle. The refs all have interpretations of what the rules mean, so don’t get hung up on what they say.
3: The home team rules. You get calls at home that you don’t get on the road.
4: Established star rules. If you’ve been in the league awhile – and especially if you’re a marquee player – you get calls that rookies and journeymen and lesser beings don’t get.
5: Late in the game rules. It may have been a class A felony in the first quarter, but all’s fair in love, war and the last two minutes of the game. After all, you have to let the players decide the game, not the refs.
I’ve spent years playing along, years watching great games ruined when the rules changed in the last few minutes of the game. I remember a game some years back when the then-Charlotte Hornets had Michael Jordan’s Bulls on the ropes. A Hornet player beats his man, heads to the time and is preparing to finish the Bulls off when Jordan comes sailing in from the off-side and absolutely murdelizes the whole play. If it had happened in the parking lot it would have been jail time for MJ. There was nothing close about the play, either. It was a clear mugging on the floor, it was a clear mugging from the cheap seats, and it was a clear mugging on replay from every camera angle in the building.
No call. Bulls win. Because that was Michael Jordan, bitches. You want a call? Fine. You make the league as much money as Money has and get back to us.
If you watch The League, you realize that what I describe here isn’t anomalous. It’s the norm.
If it walks like a fixer…
Ultimately the league seems to care more about the narrative than it does anything else. Other leagues leave results to chance, but the NBA just about guarantees a morality play. It’s like they sit down every year and ask themselves what the story that America would most like to see in The Finals?
So, am I really accusing the NBA of rigging outcomes? Let’s put it this way. Whether I am or not, a lot of smart people out there would bet on a WWE match before they’d wager against the prevailing NBA narrative. And it’s just about impossible to tell them they’re wrong because the NBA does business in such a way that lends credibility to conspiracy theories.
I guess my message to the Commish is fairly simple. You may be clean as a whistle, but nobody trusts you and that’s your own damned fault. You want to restore some integrity to your brand, call in your refs and make it clear that there’s one set of rules for everybody. Whether it’s a rookie in garbage time on a Tuesday in early December or your top star in the last minute of game 7 of the Finals.
If you act like a fixer, people are going to wonder if you are, in fact, a fixer. And that’s on you.
Nuggets/Lakers, game 4 tonight. At this point all I can hope for out of the rest of the series is a rip-roaring good tale and maybe that the Nugs will play well enough to make it hard on the storytellers referees.