Pop quiz, hot shot. Danny Biasone was …
(A) A failed “American Idol” contestant
(B) The little boy from “Who’s the Boss?”
(C) A reputed mobster living in Jersey
(D) The guy who once saved the National Basketball Association
The answer: D. He did it 55 years ago this summer. Our beloved NBA was floundering without effective rules to prevent stalling, intentional fouling and roughhouse play. Scoring had plummeted to an appalling 79.5 points per game. If you had a decent big guy, you planted him near the basket and tossed him lob passes, hoping he would get clubbed and sent to the line. If you were protecting a lead, your point guard dribbled around and waited to get fouled. If you were intentionally fouling someone, you popped him UFC-style to send a statement.
In Biasone’s day, players fought like hockey thugs, fans frequently threw things on the court and nobody could figure out how to stop the mayhem. You can’t overstate how excruciating the stalling and fouling tactics were. There was the time Fort Wayne famously beat the Minneapolis Lakers 19-18. There was the five-OT playoff game between Rochester and Indy in which the winner of each overtime tap held the ball for the rest of the period to attempt a winning shot, leading to a bizarre situation in which Rochester’s home fans booed and booed and ultimately started leaving in droves, even with the game still going. The ’53 playoffs averaged eighty free throws per game. The anti-electrifying ’54 Finals featured scores of 79-68, 62-60, 81-67, 80-69, 84-73, 65-63 and 87-80. You get the idea.
When the Knicks were knocked out of the 1954 playoffs in the first round, author Leonard Koppett wrote that their last game “encompassed all the repulsive features of the grab-and-hold philosophy. It lasted three hours, and the final seconds of a one-point game were abandoned by the network. The arguments with the referees were interminable and degrading. What had been happening, as a matter of course, in dozens of games for the last couple of years, was shown to a nationwide audience in unadulterated impurity.”
Unadulterated impurity … a little different than “Where Amazing Happens.” Enter Biasone, who owned the Syracuse Nationals at the time. An Italian immigrant who arrived on Ellis Island and made his money by owning a bowling alley — no, really, a single bowling alley — Biasone wore long, double-breasted coats, smoked filtered cigarettes and wore Borsalino hats. (Note: I don’t know what Borsalino hats are, but they sound fantastic.) For three full years preceding the catastrophic 1954 playoffs, Biasone had been unsuccessfully trying to sell the other owners on a 24-second shot clock that would speed up games.
How did he arrive at 24? Biasone studied games he remembered enjoying and realized that, in each of those games, both teams took around 60 shots. Well, 60+60=120. He settled on 120 shots as the minimum combined total that would be acceptable from a “I’d rather kill myself than watch another NBA game like this” standpoint. And if you shoot every 24 seconds over the course of a 48-minute game, that comes out to .. wait for it … 120 shots! In August 1954, Biasone staged an exhibition game using his clock with NBA players to prove the idea worked. It did. The other owners voted for the change. Scoring quickly jumped by 13.6 points per team. The Karma Gods rewarded Biasone when Syracuse beat Fort Wayne in seven games for the ’55 title, the second lowest-rated sporting event of all-time behind Fox’s “Celebrity Boxing 2.” Coincidence? I say no. Scoring cracked 100 per game by 1957-58. One year later, Boston beat Minnesota by a record score of 173-139, with Bob Cousy finishing with a record 29 assists. And the NBA never looked back.
Of course, the Basketball Hall of Fame didn’t induct Biasone until 2000, which would have been touching if poor Biasone hadn’t been dead for eight years. Really, inventing the shot clock and saving professional basketball wasn’t worthy of a Hall of Fame nod for 46 years? We should have created a 24-dollar bill and put Biasone’s picture on it. We should have retired “24” on every NBA team. We did nothing. The man saved the NBA, and there’s a good chance you didn’t even know who he was.
Where Aging Doesn’t Happen …
Fifty-five years later, professional basketball is played by the greatest athletes in the world. They run like gazelles and jump like kangaroos. They are chiseled in ways that we cannot fathom. They are taller, faster, stronger and more coordinated than us. We have nothing in common with them. That’s one of the reasons we like watching them. They are real-life superheroes.
In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, with one second to play and his Cavaliers trailing by two, a 6-foot-9, 275-pound local kid from Akron bullied toward the basket like a tight end. His goal was to jump as high as he could, extend his hands 2 feet over the 10-foot rim, then catch a lob from 50 feet away that had to be perfectly thrown. When his path was cut off, he recalibrated his mission almost as a navigation system reroutes a car, darted away from the basket toward the top of the key, caught a pass coming from his left, turned toward the rim, took a split second to center his body, bounced off the balls of his feet, extended in the air, then arched a 24-foot shot over the extended fingers of a 6-foot-10 opponent from Turkey. Even as he released the shot, he was falling backward, so his momentum carried him toward the other basket. Somehow, the shot rattled home. And that’s when LeBron James turned around, sought out his teammates and joyously hopped into their arms.
This was one of the bigger moments in recent NBA history: The time when our latest hope for “The Next Jordan” actually did something MJ would have done. Like so many other die-hards, I spent the next 24 hours rehashing the moment through phone calls and e-mails and texts. This wasn’t about hype, or blowing things out of proportion, or racing to put the proper context in place before everything else. This was just a beautiful moment, one of those nights that made us remember why we waste so much time following sports.
Two nights later, Cleveland and Orlando played an unspeakably awful game that featured a whopping 58 fouls. All the momentum from Game 2 was gone. Here was the new NBA in its new age of unadulterated impurity: Teams hoisting bad 3-pointers, referees trying to “manage” the game and failing, players going one-on-five, stoppages again and again and again, free throws and more free throws, more stoppages, more mismanaging by the refs … by the time it was over, I wanted to commit a flagrant one on myself. The two teams combined to attempt 96 2-point field goals, 43 3-pointers and a staggering 86 free throws. In other words, there were nearly nine free throws for every 10 2-point field goal attempts. Egads. The next night, Los Angeles and Denver combined to play a similarly brutal game: 113 2-point attempts, 55 3-pointers, 84 free throws. Yuck.
You might argue this happens every playoffs: We bitch about bad calls or choppy games and nothing ever changes. But this spring feels different for two reasons. First, the NBA can’t seem to replenish its officiating ranks. 1937, 1939, 1943, 1944, 1947, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1951, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1955 … those are the actual birth years of 13 current referees. In professional sports, athletes slip from the ages of 34 to 39 unless they extend their stay with PEDs. In the NBA, in which officials are required to run or jog for 150 minutes and make split-second decisions on hundreds of plays, we’re expected to believe that the aging process doesn’t apply. And if you believe that, I have some Bernie Madoff stock tips for you.
Second, a league-wide objective to regulate physical play has inadvertently compromised a decent slice of competitive spirit. Come playoff time — with teams kicking into a higher gear, with edginess from a long series inevitable, with desperation in the air — the league seems more interested in constantly nipping things in the bud (even if there’s nothing to nip) over letting these guys compete as human beings would.
I played hoops until I was 33 years old and my back gave out. The best thing about basketball — really, the single best thing, what I miss over everything else combined — is the interaction between players. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours playing pickup in college; to this day, I can rattle off an extended list of everyone I loved playing with. Basketball is about connections. You connect with teammates, reach an advanced form of ESP with them, start moving in rhythm, and then it’s magic. The more you play with someone, the better you know them. Same goes for opponents. Play with someone enough and you learn every head fake, every stutter step, everything. I played with my buddy Bish so many times in high school that we just started swallowing up each other’s favored moves. That’s basketball. It’s like chess crossed with ballet.
Because of that, you search for any edge you can get. Maybe you piss off someone with a foul that’s a little too hard. Maybe you mutter under your breath, “Can’t stop me.” Maybe you make a 20-footer and preen a little too long afterward. Maybe you swing an elbow after a rebound simply because the little pest on the other team has an annoying habit of reaching in and invading your personal space. Basketball resembles real life in that way: You coexist for as long as you can, you try to get along, but sometimes, it’s impossible.
Here’s the crucial wrinkle: It’s rarely personal. You’re only trying to win. If someone makes you angry, you get over it. I played basketball for three decades and remember going after only one person, during an intramural game in college, when someone nailed me too hard in a must-foul situation and I responded with a hard push in the face. Ten seconds later, we were fine. That’s basketball. Put 10 competitive guys on the same court, have them bang bodies for an hour or two, and stuff WILL happen. It’s inevitable. You might have some yelling and pointing and staring and everything else. Big deal. That’s just testosterone doing its thing.
That testosterone fueled the NBA in its heyday. My favorite game ever (and not just because Boston won) was Game 4 of the 1984 Finals, the ultimate example of stacked teams battling with an extra edge. I rewatched it last summer and couldn’t get over how it would have been wrecked today. McHale gets tossed for the Rambis clothesline. Bird gets T’d for nudging Cooper out of bounds. Kareem gets tossed for nearly slicing off Bird’s wispy mustache with an elbow. Maxwell gets T’d for walking across the lane and choking himself after Worthy’s missed free throw. On the crucial play of OT, when Magic gets switched onto Bird and they fight for position down low — with Bird finally draining a turnaround over Magic’s mug — the officials would have called Magic for a foul before Bird’s shot happened. Six of the iconic moments of the game … ruined. Could they have competed as hard with the current rules? No.
My single favorite old-school moment of the past two decades happened at the end of Game 5 of the 1993 Eastern finals, when Chicago’s Jordan, Pippen and Grant famously blocked four straight Charles Smith shots to clinch the victory in New York. Were the blocks clean? I don’t know. Did the Knicks complain after? No. Because you had to watch the whole game — that play didn’t just happen. All four quarters were played with that same cutthroat intensity. Unlike today, the officials didn’t change their minds midway through the game on what contact was acceptable. They didn’t try to manage the game. They let the players decide what happened and intervened when necessary.
That’s basketball. At least, that’s what basketball should be.
The General Motors syndrome
The 1993 playoffs were the last time players were allowed to compete like that. Things already were changing; we just didn’t know it yet. Blame the Bad Boy Pistons and Pat Riley’s Knicks: Once the sport became faster and more athletic in the late ’80s, teams used violence and intimidation to even the odds for themselves. Blame ESPN, the Internet and the 24-hour sports cycle for enabling any negative incident to be hashed, rehashed and re-rehashed a million katrillion times. Blame the NBA’s arrogance: not just its failure to acknowledge any officiating woes until the Donaghy scandal (and even then the league just shuffled a few Titanic deck chairs and called it a day), but its refusal to come up with a better infrastructure for evaluating and developing referees. And by “better,” I mean “competent.”
Once the game sped up after various (and sorely needed) rule changes before the 2004-05 season, the officials struggled to handle the increased swiftness. The NBA’s solution was to blame players and not officials: by discouraging contact and preventing juices from flowing, as the theory went, the games would be easier to control. The Artest melee in November 2004 became a catalyst of sorts, even if it was the perfect storm of crazy players and crazy fans and couldn’t possibly be replicated. We’ve been paying for it ever since. The NBA’s ensuing overreaction would be like the airline industry reacting to Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger’s Hudson River flight by refusing to allow any planes to take off with birds in the air.
The insinuation is pretty clear: The league believes its players cannot police themselves, that every movement and innate reaction during a contest played at the highest possible speed should somehow be controlled. Two great Game 4 examples from this week: Andrew Bynum’s “flagrant” foul on Chris Andersen (really, just one guy preventing a layup by slapping down on the ball with both hands), and Dwight Howard getting T’d up for reacting after Anderson Varejao fouled him from behind, wrapped him up and tried to prevent a shot, only Howard still made it falling backward, then turned and screamed in delight at Varejao. (This call was so bad the NBA rescinded the technical Wednesday.) You’re not allowed to get excited after a great play? Really? You’re not allowed to gain any kind of a mental edge over a guy you’re trying to beat?
Might one drop of bad blood lead to the next Artest melee or Kermit Washington punch? In the NBA’s mind, yes. The league apparently believes its athletes — who hail from a veritable melting pot of backgrounds and countries, by the way — should behave like the “Dead Poets Society” kids without exception. Those players are expected to be exceedingly polite and articulate at all times. They are expected to perform in front of thousands without ever getting irritated. Each one of their mistakes is graded in black and white with no shades of gray. Step off the bench because your teammate just got decked, you miss a game. Clobber someone on a hard foul, and the referees review that foul and determine a penalty: slow-motion justice for an act that happened in the blink of an eye.
What I can’t understand: We’re seeing just as many whistles and flagrants and technicals as ever, but we’re also seeing more long-range shooting now that so many teams have embraced corner 3s and the slash-and-kick game. Shouldn’t the number of whistles be dropping with considerably fewer big guys battling for position? Colleague Ric Bucher believes NBA players have become too quick and too fast; since it’s not as if the officials can improve their vision or instincts, they can’t keep up, and that explains the current mess. I disagree. You can’t tell me that Pippen, MJ, Mailman, Mr. Robinson, Worthy, Barkley and everyone else weren’t as gifted as the current crew. There might be MORE good athletes now, but any difference is negated by the difference in play. Back in Jordan’s day, you fought like hell to control the paint on both ends. Now? You run high screens, jack up 3-pointers or tell your superstar to go one-on-five. That’s it.
In that respect, Jordan was both the best and worst thing ever to happen to the league. You know the good things he did, but he also paved the way for a generation of one-on-one players who careen toward the basket in big moments, create some form of contact and hope officials will bail them out. With four seconds to play in Game 4 and his team trailing by 2, LeBron put his head down, dribbled as fast as he could and prayed Michael Pietrus would either bump him or trip him. If you watch the clip, he’s moving so fast that it would have been humanly impossible for him to make a shot. That wasn’t his goal. He wanted a call. And he got one. Their feet got tangled, LeBron lurched forward, and the refs bailed him out.
Dwyane Wade won an NBA Finals for Miami that way. Three years later, LeBron nearly saved Cleveland’s season that same way. It’s a reprehensibly effective strategy that has nothing in common with anything we would ever see on a playground, an intramural game or a one-on-one battle in someone’s backyard. I have been writing this column for 12 years dating back to my old Web site. Never have I received as many “I hate the referees” and “I hate watching these guys drive to the basket and get bailed out” and “Why can’t they just let these guys play basketball and act like human beings?” e-mails as I did this spring.
The crucial difference between 2009 and the last few years? This spring featured the most talented group of playoff performers we’ve seen in 16 years, as well as two truly quirky teams coming into their own (Denver and Orlando). That makes it more personal for us. The league should be in great shape. We want it to work. All the pieces are in place. It’s like going over to a friend’s beautiful new house, walking in and being appalled by the shoddy wallpaper, ugly furniture and disgusting wooden floors.
Buddy, why won’t you fix your house?
In this case, David Stern is the buddy. Today’s games should be easier to call because they’re more predictable. Teams run the same play five or six straight times down the stretch. For Cleveland, it’s the high screen with Ilguaskas and James. For Boston, it’s the high post play with Pierce. For the Lakers, it’s the “Let’s run the triangle for 42 minutes, then we’ll just clear out for Kobe for the last six” offense. For Denver, it’s either a high screen for Chauncey or a clear-out for Carmelo. Only the Magic (God bless them) seem interested in playing a style that doesn’t revolve around the same guy hoisting 3s or barrelling toward the basket again and again.
You would think that seeing the same types of plays run again and again and again and again would be an advantage for referees. It’s not. The question is why.
Time for a revolution
The NBA’s failure to develop a new generation of decent referees might be its single biggest misfire of the past 20 years. You can’t tell me that someone in their mid-50s or older has the same eyesight and reaction time as people 20-30 years younger. I can’t think of another profession that works quite this way: No accountability, no repercussions, nothing. Whenever they make a crucial mistake — such as all three refs missing J.R. Smith’s jump ball violation that helped decide Game 2 last week — the league invariably pulls its Frank Drebin routine and stands in front of a burning warehouse with fireworks exploding.
Please disperse! Nothing to see here! Please disperse!
Look, we still don’t know everything that happened with Tim Donaghy, or whether his claims of playoff fixes in the past were valid. We still don’t know why Donaghy called fellow referee Scott Foster hundreds of times before and after games. We still don’t know why certain referees get assigned to certain games, why Bennett Salvatore always seems to be involved when a home team needs a win to change the momentum of a series, why Joey Crawford keeps getting assigned to Spurs games, why Danny Crawford keeps getting assigned to Mavericks games, why Bill Kennedy would get assigned to a big Celtics game only six weeks after an argument cost Doc Rivers money. We are told that referees don’t matter, but that’s the thing: They do.
Whenever TNT’s Charles Barkley bitches about the officials, you can count on Kenny Smith to interject that they miss calls just like players miss shots. That’s not the point. We shouldn’t have a league in which every game is officiated differently. Game 2 of the Bulls-Celtics series was beautiful to watch: 118-115, 146 2-pointers, 36 3s, 39 fouls, 54 free throws. The chippiness increased through the next four games, culminating in skittish officials ruining Game 7 because they were so desperate to manage it: 109-99, 114 2-pointers, 41 3s, 52 fouls, 75 free throws. Guess which game they’ll show on ESPN Classic 20 years from now.
In a perfect world, officials should crack down on everything early and set the tone. From there, the players make necessary adjustments and then we’re fine. We keep seeing the opposite pattern: lots of leeway early, then a catalyst that leads to a massive overreaction, followed by quick whistles and frustrated players the rest of the way. Game 3 of Orlando-Cleveland changed as soon as Anthony Johnson belted Mo Williams. Game 4 of L.A.-Denver changed as soon as Dahntay Jones tripped Kobe Bryant and the refs missed it, then Kobe flipped out to the point that the refs overreacted to everything that followed. This happens routinely: One aberrant moment shaping the next few hundred moments that come.
(Another underrated problem: The three referees are constantly in flux during games. Joey Crawford might end up under Cleveland’s basket on one side and standing at midcourt on Orlando’s side. Why does this matter? Because he calls everything tight. So if he’s whistling everything by the book on one end, and his partner is letting things go on the other end, how are the players supposed to adjust to the constant ebbs and flows? They can’t. This is why certain games become hopelessly choppy. God forbid all the refs called games by the rulebook without their own personal spin.)
Only when a championship gets swayed by a bad call will Team Stern admit there’s a problem. (Hell, they won’t even fire longtime referees.) You should have seen the number of e-mails I received during and after Game 3 of the Cavs series, with many readers making the same point: “I was out on the NBA until LeBron’s shot, so I thought I’d give it another chance, and now I remember why I left in the first place.” Great.
You could counter that doomsday routine with the league’s healthy ratings and wealth of likable superstars — and, by the way, both points are true — but that doesn’t mean things can’t be better. Sadly, there isn’t one simple solution like a shot clock this time. For instance, I love Jeff Van Gundy’s idea of a “penalty box” (basically, banishing guys to their bench for a specific period of time). Say Rafer Alston slaps Eddie House again: instead of a one-game suspension, he’d be benched for the first half. Say Amare Stoudemire drifts off the bench because Steve Nash got whipped against the scorer’s table and it’s human instinct to protect a teammate: maybe he’d miss the first quarter of the next game. Maybe instead of double technicals for jawing, players would get sent off for five minutes to calm down. You get the drift.
A grander idea: Since the league is already throwing tens of millions behind self-serving ventures such as the WNBA, the D-League and the Redeem Team, why wouldn’t it spend a few extra bucks on D-League officiating salaries in an attempt to lure better talent? Better yet, why not splurge on a development academy for younger officials? Shouldn’t Team Stern be actively recruiting former players as future refs? Just this past year, we learned USA Basketball is building a $1.2 billion facility in The Middle of Nowhere, Arizona, that makes absolutely no practical sense whatsover unless you remember that longtime Stern crony Jerry Colangelo brokered the deal. So, we can have a $1.2 billion headquarters for USA Basketball, but we can’t have a tiny NBA Referee Academy somewhere?
(The following is absolutely true: Last week, the NBA sent out a memo for its Development League Referee Tryout Camp, which is scheduled for June 19-21 in Los Angeles. Participants officiate two games with prospective D-League players and need a minimum of two years experience at the high school level or higher. Not only do the participants have to pay their own way to get there, but the NBA charges them a $550 fee that covers “lodging for two nights at the camp headquarters, transportation to and from the games, and a camp officiating jersey.” YOU HAVE TO PAY TO TRY OUT! The NBA, where amazingly dumb happens.)
Finally, the logic behind “flagrant fouls” was that it was supposed to prevent … (drumroll, please) … flagrant fouls! Do you feel like that mission has been accomplished? Imagine your local police force telling you, “Since our crackdown on home robberies, home robberies have doubled in the past three years. We couldn’t be happier!” Wouldn’t you think they were insane? The “flagrant” rule not only slowed down games and made them more confusing; it certainly didn’t curtail rough play, that’s for sure. I’d rather see Van Gundy’s penalty box idea. Make these guys feel repercussions with playing time instead of their already fat wallets.
The question remains: What’s wrong with a few rough fouls? Isn’t that an occupational hazard, no different than pitchers occasionally getting hit by line drives or defensemen getting nailed by slapshots? What’s wrong with the occasional shoving match where nobody gets hurt, or the wild roundhouse right that never connects? What are we afraid of? Why does hockey condone fighting and baseball still allows dugouts and bullpens to empty during brawls, but the NBA doesn’t allow glaring? If everyone else in society can butt heads from time to time, why can’t NBA players? What makes them a higher form of being? There’s no answer.
I don’t see the NBA bending on that idealistic philosophy. The league is turning into a Disney movie come hell or high water. At the very least, we can pressure Team Stern to fix its shaky officiating. That’s why I’m calling on the Internets. If you want a blog that gets traffic, start tracking bad playoff calls. Read the rulebook, familiarize yourself with it, watch each game with a fine-tooth comb and jot down every missed call and incorrect call. Chart how the fouls go up and down depending on the quarter. Chart the inconsistencies. Chart the number of calls, as well as the types of calls, that each referee makes and see if there’s some sort of common theme. If you do a good job, I will send you traffic and so will everyone else. It’s that easy.
One other thing to chart: Does the NBA “control” the outcomes of certain games by assigning referees with certain call patterns? For instance, the 2008-09 Celtics were the most physical team in the league. Let’s say they were leading a series 3-2 and the NBA wanted a Game 7. Would it assign some of its most whistle-happy refs to that game? Or let’s say the NBA needed Utah to pull out a must-win game at home. If it had one or two refs with a history of being intimidated by tough crowds, would it feed them to the wolves in Utah? So let’s see this stuff on paper. We have hundreds of stat-obsessed lunatics tracking Derek Jeter’s defensive range or unearthing new ways to rip off VORP; we couldn’t find a few of them to pick apart officials and assignments?
Remember this: The league will change only if it’s embarrassed enough. Web sites tracking official statistics and playoff calls would embarrass them. YouTube clips edited to include every bad call from every playoff game would embarrass them. (For instance, an edited reel of questionable calls from Wednesday night’s Game 5 would be eye-opening, especially Nene’s last two fouls and the 73 times that ‘Melo got hacked without a whistle.) Maybe this column will embarrass them. And if it does, I’m glad. A reader e-mailed after the 86-FT Game that he would rather watch a playoffs in which players called their own fouls. At first glance, ridiculous. Within a few seconds, I started talking myself into it. By the three-minute mark, I was genuinely excited. No referees. The players policing themselves. Pickup rules for the playoffs. Hmmmmmm.
That’s how bad things have gotten. An idea THAT dumb got my wheels spinning. The thing is, we don’t need filtered cigarettes, Borsalino hats and a radical invention to save the league from itself this time. We need common sense. We need ideas. We need spinning wheels. We need the league to stop the Frank Drebin routine and start fixing things. Fifty-five years ago, fans had to revolt during an unwatchable playoffs for NBA owners to accept Danny Biasone’s shot clock. I don’t know what the tipping point will be this time around. I just know it’s coming.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.