Speech: Why the NBA has a lot more in common with Biddy League in 2010-11

by mikeflanagan1

This is a speech I gave to my Argument & Advocacy class this morning. I hope I did a good job of explaining the basic ins and outs of basketball for my class of sports-shy Emersonians, many of which have probably never seen all 48 minutes of a basketball game.

When I played youth basketball as a kid, we played under strict rules; every critical utterance toward a referee resulted in a technical foul: two free throws for the other team’s best shooter, a stern chastising from the coach, and usually a few extra minutes on the bench.

These rules were in place to make sure we spent that precious hour-and-a-half a week learning the game of basketball, and not inflating our young but rampant basketball egos. If there was too much passion, there was no room for fundamentals. The game, for us, was about developing our skills, having mutual fun, and fair, healthy, educational competition. It was about the kids playing, not the crowd of parents watching.

The NBA, on the other hand, is about watching the best basketball players in the world compete for a coveted NBA championship…not to mention a pretty gigantic bonus check. It’s about giving the fans what they want to see, and they want to see their favorite superstars go at it against their favorite rivals with fire in their eyes. The players have had the fundamentals of basketball down pat for years, and the egos are what the fans want to see.

When you’re playing against the world’s best basketball players, having all the skills just isn’t enough…The great players have to have an unwavering, unstoppable desire to win at all costs. Sometimes this desire translates to arguing with the referees after an unfavorable call, whether that means getting in the ref’s face and yelling at him or walking over during a timeout to have a calm back-and-forth.

This transaction is vital to balancing the control of the game between the three teams: the home team, the away team, and the referees. Unlike a youth basketball game, an NBA game has a lot at stake, and the players are under pressure to perform well and to entertain the paying audience. However, under the NBA’s new technical foul rules, the NBA players are subject to the same patronizing restrictions during basketball games as 11-year-old children.

The official NBA rulebook defines a technical foul as “conduct which, in the opinion of an official, is detrimental to the game.” When a technical foul is called against a player, the opposing team gets to choose their best shooter to take two uncontested free throws, and then the opposing team gets to take the ball out of bounds. A player can be ejected from a game for just one technical foul, and MUST be ejected for his second.

According to ESPN, under the NEW RULES, NBA referees are instructed to call technical fouls for:

  • Players making aggressive gestures, such as air punches, anywhere on the court.
  • Demonstrative disagreement, such as when a player incredulously raises his hands, or smacks his own arm to demonstrate how he was fouled.
  • Running directly at an official to complain about a call.
  • Excessive inquiries about a call, even in a civilized tone.
  • Using body language to question or demonstrate displeasure
  • Taking the long path to the official; walking across the court to talk to a referee

The so-called “Respect-for-the-Game” rules are coming on the heels of a 2010 NBA postseason that saw the Celtics’ starting and backup centers, Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace, in major foul trouble throughout the spring. They both had six technicals early in the playoffs, and seven results in a one-game suspension (and an additional game for each technical after that). Such suspensions can singlehandedly change the outcome of a high-stakes playoff series, and even the threat of a suspension make players reluctant to play at the high energy level fans pay to see.

Many of Perkins’ and Wallace’s technical fouls were decidedly unfair calls, based on the two players’ reputations for scowling at the referees. The referees’ calls were as rooted in heat-of-the-moment impulses as the players’ sometimes heated, but often mild displays of emotion. But instead of instating rules to balance the conversation between refs and players, the NBA gave the refs totalitarian power to forbid any kind of conversation whatsoever.

NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Stu Jackson said, “complaining has never changed a non-call to a call, or a call to a non-call.” But to forbid the players and coaches from having even civilized conversations with referees is to give the referees an opportunity to put their fingerprints on the game and control its outcome. It prevents players from approaching officials to ask why a foul was called so that they may be sure not to commit the violation again. Instead, it’s a juvenile “what I say, goes” mentality.

Surely the referees are sick of letting players berate them with curse words and unconstructive criticism. Eliminating this unsportsmanlike practice would do much more to restore the respect for the game. But the refs and NBA commissioner David Stern must realize that the officials are a part of the game as well, and need to show respect to the players in the same way the players must respect them. There has to be a balance of respect, with neither side feeling a sense of inflated self-importance or authority.

The more opportunities a ref has to stop the game clock with a technical, double technical, or ejection, the more opportunities he has to see his face on SportsCenter the next morning.

According to SportsGrid.com, over 100 technicals were called through the first six games of the season. That’s an average of 2.3 per game, a 50% increase from last season.

Ron Johnson, the NBA’s senior vice president of referee operations, said, “Our players are more personally connected to fans than any other sports…People expect hockey players to be fighting. They expect baseball managers to be kicking dirt on umpires. But that’s not our game. That’s not what our fans want. They tell us in many many ways and I think we have to adjust to meet the needs of our league and our fans. It’s a business.”

However, NBA basketball is driven by the organization’s superstars; fans pay to see their favorite players dominate and compete with other superstars. If a referee gets frustrated with one of these players, he has the power to throw him out of the arena at the drop of a hat.

Brett Stone suggested in The Bleacher Report that players should be forced to spend a small amount of time on the bench for the first technical offense. “Anything to avoid the stars of the best game in the world being relegated to the locker room,” he wrote. Stone was referring to an early season Celtics-Knicks name in which Kevin Garnett was ejected for talking to a referee after a technical was called on his teammate Jermaine O’Neal.

Another call for which the NBA officials have garnered widespread media criticism occurred in a Chicago Bulls game early this season in which forward Kyle Korver gently tapped his elbow after a play to suggest he was fouled. Korver was not looking toward a referee; he was simply running back to the other side of the court to play defense. If the refs had let that small, virtually unnoticeable gesture go, the game would have played on. Instead, they insisted on calling attention to it and stopping the game clock for several minutes. That is NOT respect for the game.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom said he’s all for referees trying to control the integrity of the game, but that the new rules pit the referees even more against the players. “It’s hard to determine what’s detrimental to the game,” Odom said. “If you drop an ‘F’bomb while you raise your hand, then I can understand. If you try to intimidate with body language, I can understand. Or if you go a little crazy using your body, I can understand…But if you’re making a gesture that’s not pointed at anyone, then how could a ref off the ball or on the play call a tech? I think it’s pretty tough.”