The NBA's real integrity problem
In the wake of the Tim Donaghy gambling-ref scandal, NBA Commissioner David Stern spoke of reaffirming “our covenant with our fans;” a key pillar of which is that our games are decided on their merits.”
Alas, often that is not the case, even if it turns out that Donaghy never attempted to influence the win-loss outcome (as opposed to the point total or point spread) of a single game. The NBA’s covenant with its fans has long been broken because the commissioner’s definition of “integrity” is as narrow as the president’s.
While campaigning for president in 2000, George W. Bush repeatedly pledged to restore honor and integrity to the White House in one breath and lied about taxes and Social Security in the next. Once in office, Bush further demonstrated his honor and integrity by remaining faithful to his wife as he lied the country into war. I documented his administration’s “techniques of deceit” prior to the invasion of Iraq in a series of essays, including this prescient masterpiece.
Stern is no liar; in fact, he’s much more the “plain-spoken straight shooter” that Bush pretends to be but is not. But Stern shares Bush’s gift for compartmentalization, which enables him, on the issue of NBA integrity or lack thereof, to miss the player-coach-announcer forest for the Donaghy twig. What has undermined the league for years is disreputable players deceiving honest refs into making bogus calls. This has led to an unknown number of games being decided on something other than their merits.
For 23 years Stern’s silence has implicitly condoned flopping, flailing, diving, leg-kicks and unnatural arm-lifts by shooters (the two fastest growing forms of cheating), and other fool-the-ref techniques employed to gain unmerited free throws and/or saddle key foes with unmerited foul trouble and unmerited bench time in pursuit of unmerited victory. The problem is perpetuated by coaches who teach or at least condone these tactics and by broadcasting clowns who praise the deceivers and thus teach the next generation of hoopsters that this is how a true pro plays the game. Would a devout guy like Ben Gordon become a leg-kicking devotee (the main reason for his dramatic increase in free-throw attempts, from 3.4 per game in 2005-06 to 5.4 last season) without this chorus of seemingly respectable people condoning this stuff?
These devious tactics — and the sordid strategy I call “minutes shaving,” where you use deceit to prevent an opponent from getting his regular playing time — win games. Fans know it, which is why they roar whenever a real or bogus foul sends Tim Duncan, Amare Stoudemire, Shaquille O'Neal or some other star to the bench. (Even if the benching foul is legit, if an earlier one was bogus then it is the bogus one that made the difference, because without it the guy would still be on the court.)
Big guys are whistled for legit fouls at a high rate because of the requirements of their position and the perverse nature of the modern NBA game, as I explained in this 2006 essay. Thus, it may only take one early fraudulent foul added to the player’s accumulating total to transform an active, splendid 42-minute night into a half-active, half-cautious 30-minute night — and a likely win into a frustrating loss.
A court document in the Donaghy case noted that “NBA referees are subject to a collective bargaining agreement and to rules of conduct set by the NBA. Those rules of conduct require that NBA referees conduct themselves according to the highest standards of honesty, integrity, and professionalism . . . .”
Unfortunately, Stern holds players to no standard of on-court integrity (though he does have zero tolerance for such serious stuff as untucked jerseys). His legacy is an ethics-free league where blatant forms of cheating are not called cheating but are elevated to legitimate basketball “skills,” on a par with dribbling and shooting.
It’s not like the league is unaware of its problem. Last season, an occasional question on Director of Officials Ronnie Nunn’s weekly show on NBA-TV, in the segment where he and his guests reviewed difficult calls from the preceding week, was “Block, charge, or flop?” Nunn’s predecessor, Ed T. Rush, told Charley Rosen in 2003 that “There's a long list of veteran players whose sideline game is ‘fool the ref.’" Such players “are extremely good at things like flopping or pulling an opponent down on top of them. . . . The younger officials are more susceptible to being fooled than the veterans.”
Indeed, though I’d add that plenty of experienced refs are susceptible, and there’s a long list of young players in addition to the veterans with a bag of fool-the-ref tricks.
A “cheater’s tax” to eliminate fool-the-ref deceit
In today’s NBA you can cheat without ever having to think of yourself as a cheater, which explains why so many of the best, like Gordon, are fine, upstanding citizens in their non-basketball lives. The likes of Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Chauncey Billups, Anderson Varejao, Reggie Evans, Raja Bell, Mehmet Okur, the Collins twins, Andres Nocioni and Desmond Mason — among many others — might be reluctant to go into their act if they knew every leg kick and every flop, dive or flail from incidental, imaginary or self-initiated contact would get them compared to the latest blood doper or steroid user. And they’d 'really' be reluctant if their team had to pay a “cheater’s tax” every time a ref thought one of them had just tried to pull a fast one.
I recommend a one-point tax for players without a cheating reputation and a two-point tax for established cheaters, who deserve to be in a higher tax bracket. The points would be added immediately to the other team’s score. This, in my view, is superior to a technical- foul penalty, advocated by Jeff Van Gundy and some anonymous current refs (who bargained away their free-speech rights to Stern and thus cannot speak publicly on officiating issues without a permission slip), because there’s no prolonged stoppage in play for a free throw and the penalty is a sure thing. It would all but eliminate this nonsense and might do wonders for the NBA “brand” — a key concern for the image-obsessed and basketball-clueless commissioner.
Repeat offenders, along with their enabling coaches, could be suspended for 10 games or so. If a player still refuses to clean up his act, ban the bum for life. No one will miss him, and every young hoopster contemplating a career as an NBA con man will get the message.
Broadcasters for cheating
Speaking of Van Gundy, he was a breath of fresh air this past postseason, expressing on ABC and ESPN his contempt for floppers. But his appearance was a fluke — a result of the Rockets’ early playoff exit and the networks’ odd desire to add a coach with TV experience to their broadcasts. The Disney subsidiaries could just as easily have saddled viewers with the equally qualified Doc Rivers, a proud flopper as a player and long-time proponent of the view that fool-the-ref tricks are legit b-ball skills. (When Rivers and Van Gundy were co-analysts for a 2006 playoff game, Van Gundy joked about how much he appreciated Rivers’ flops when he played for Pat Riley’s Knicks and Van Gundy was an assistant coach, thus demonstrating that even he subscribes to the situational-ethics philosophy that so many coaches live by.)
The majority of ABC/ESPN broadcasts don’t include Van Gundy, and here is what we typically hear whenever a con artist goes into his act: Mark Jackson and Mike Breen praising his salesmanship as he dives out of bounds to draw a bogus rebounding foul or collapses from marginal — and thus legal — contact. On the league’s other broadcast partner, TNT, Reggie Miller, John Thompson and 1970s flopper Doug Collins will compliment a trickster for a “smart, veteran play” as he kicks out a leg to draw an unmerited shooting foul. Heck, Magic Johnson might even salute him for playing the game “the right way”! He did just that for Miller — arguably the most prolific cheater in NBA history.
A great game degenerates on Stern’s watch
On-court cheating didn’t begin with Stern’s tenure. But it has increased, diversified and gained widespread acceptance under his ostrich-style watch, which commenced in 1984.
Stern inherited from predecessor Larry O’Brien a fast-paced, free- flowing, wonderful game. The great Celtics-Lakers finals of 1984, 1985 and 1987 featured an occasional endangering cheapshot — usually by a Celtic — but were generally flop-free affairs. Yes, Detroit’s Bill Laimbeer and other floppers littered the NBA landscape, but back then he was widely despised because of his flopping. If he were playing today, the 'Inside the NBA' show would invite him to demonstrate his techniques on one of its ludicrous 'TNT Fundamentals' segments.
Typically, 'Fundamentals' isn’t devoted to fool-the-ref tricks. Instead, it unintentionally highlights another aspect of Stern’s disastrous stewardship, as TNT’s chosen experts demonstrate how to brazenly break the rules in plain sight while counting on Ronnie Nunn’s refs to take the violator’s side. Last season, Carlos Boozer demonstrated how to dislodge a low-post defender, Sam Cassell how to create shooting space by pushing off and (via replay highlight) how to draw a shooting foul by jumping into an airborne defender who’s not remotely in your space, and Shane Battier how to draw a bogus charge by sliding over late and relying on the ref to make a bad call. Battier didn’t put it quite that way, but a majority of the segment’s dozen or so replay highlights of his so- called “defense” should have been blocks, not charges. Even his how- to demonstration with teammate Steve Novak was a late-arriving, leaning-and-sliding block!
The frequency with which conscientious refs botch those particular calls suggests that the problem is not with the refs but with the guidance and directives from their supervisors and, even more so, from the Rules and Competition Committee headed by Stern’s tone-deaf vice president, Stu Jackson. (Another Bush-Stern parallel: when it comes to senior staffers, both leaders place greater value on loyalty to the boss than competence.) Yes, refs in the pre-Stern era missed their share of calls, but at least the rules they imperfectly enforced made common sense. Dislodging wasn’t a legit “move”; therefore, thin centers could guard powerful ones and neither guy would be at undue risk for foul trouble. If a shooter on the perimeter took an unnatural jump into an airborne defender, chances were good he’d be called for an offensive foul. The pump fake was a tool to get free for a shot, not a license to jump sideways or abnormally forward and collect an automatic reward of two or more free throws.
With Stern at the helm, the NBA followed one of its best decades, the Eighties, with its worst. With each passing season the game became increasingly more slow, brutal and boring. The league hit its ethical low point in the 1996 Finals, when Dennis Rodman’s incessant successful flopping made a joke of the game, the refs and the commissioner — and tainted the Bulls’ title. These days the game is still played at a snail’s pace by many teams. And while NBA ball is slightly less brutal than in the Nineties and the first few seasons of this decade, today’s game is actually far more dangerous, thanks to recent rule changes that reward undercutting, as I explained in this Letter to Ronnie Nunn. So cheating is just one of the on-court problems that has worsened under Stern.
Red erupts over 1970s flopping explosion
A decade before Stern took command, Bill Bradley chronicled the 1973-74 season in his insightful diary 'Life On the Run'. Here’s what he said about the Chicago Bulls distinctive brand of defense: “They fall down in front of offensive players at the slightest brush” (p. 53).
Dick Motta’s Bulls, led by Jerry Sloan, had actually been playing that way for a few seasons. Back then flopping was fairly new — and much more common at the college level than in the NBA, where only the Bulls were making a joke of the game by relying so heavily on the odious tactic. But it was just a matter of time before it spread throughout the league.
One of the first to cry “Enough!” was the legendary Red Auerbach. To be sure, Auerbach was no paragon of virtue in his 16 seasons (1950-66) as coach of the Celtics. For example, he didn’t seem the least bit troubled that his original “sixth man,” the great Frank Ramsey, was the first NBA player with a fool-the-refs obsession. Nevertheless, by the mid-1970s there were so many players performing for the refs that even Auerbach was disgusted. So he devoted an edition of his CBS halftime feature, 'Red on Roundball', to flopping and another tactic Motta (a terrrific, underrated offensive coach) brought from the college ranks that Red rightly considered bad for basketball: help defenders running to the spot where an airborne driver is likely to land, in hopes of drawing an unwarranted charging foul. (Our discussion will stick to the flopping part of the segment, but it’s worth noting that Red had no use for Battier-style defense even before the future Dukie was born!)
First, Auerbach had Mike Riordan demonstrate how an offensive player can “fake a foul” by setting a screen and then collapsing convincingly from slight contact that ordinarily wouldn’t cause him to budge. Next, Clem Haskins showed how a defender can use the same no-resistance technique to draw a bogus foul from a dribbler. Those displays set the stage for Red’s rant: “Coaches today — in high school, college and pro — are teaching the players how to fall. This is unreal. They’re teaching them how to fall! . . . I’m very, very much opposed to this type of basketball.”
Auerbach said his critique was not directed at referees. “It’s aimed at coaches. It’s aimed at players. What are we going to do about it? Let’s clean this thing up. Let’s not hurt the game.”
Alas, the NBA didn’t clean it up, and the game is still hurting. At least that’s how Red (in his after-coaching life) would see it. But he was old school. For a modern, sophisticated, Stern-Era outlook on fool-the-ref deceit, let’s turn to the Suns’ much-admired two-time MVP, Steve Nash.
But let’s first recall that, like me, the anti-war point guard had a low opinion of the fool-the-citizenry deceit employed by Bush, Colin Powell and other senior officials as they repeatedly presented unproven and implausible allegations about Iraqi WMD and links to al Qaeda as established facts. Is it Nash’s credo that “All is fair in love and sports, but not war”? Read on.
The perfect Stern-Era MVP
It’s Game 5 of the 2007 Suns-Spurs series — the infamous “suspension” game, with Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw out for the Suns on an absurd technicality and instigator Robert Horry out for the Spurs.
In the minds of most fair-minded fans, those facts mean that it is impossible for the Spurs to win this game on Stern’s beloved “merits.” (Then again, this fair-minded fan thinks the Suns stole Game 4 with a furious comeback fueled by a fourth-quarter flop fest that robbed the Spurs of possessions and put Duncan alternately on the bench and on egg shells. Then yet again, Stoudemire spent most of the series in foul trouble, and it’s possible the Spurs — who employ Horry and two award-winning Argentinian actors — had a conscious strategy of performing for the refs in hopes of blunting the lethal weapon that wreaked such havoc in the 2005 playoffs.)
Even though this is only the Western Conference semifinals, because these are clearly the league’s two best remaining teams this game may very well determine the NBA championship. The series is tied 2-2, and tonight’s winner will be in the driver’s seat.
The Suns are ahead by 5 with 3:10 remaining when Nash is whistled for a shooting foul as Manu Ginobili fires and misses from beyond the arc. Ginobili makes all three free throws, keeping the Spurs rally alive and providing the ultimate margin of victory (88-85).
After the game, Nash commented on that critical play and Ginobili’s ability to appear to be fouled even when he isn’t: "Manu's great at that stuff. I really admire it. When I say that, I don't say it with any disrespect. I don't know if I fouled him or not. I just felt like when I ran to him, I was like, 'Pressure his shot, and don't foul him,' and the next thing you know, I was on top of him. I don't know if he pulled and kicked a bit, but it was a terrific play, unless I just fouled him."
I take Nash at his word. He and his coaches and some of his 2006-07 teammates (not clean-playing Stoudemire and Shawn Marion but definitely Raja Bell and Reggie Miller-protégé James Jones) subscribe to the whatever-it-takes ethos that is rampant in Stern’s NBA, where only the easily suckered refs are expected to be honest.
Nash thinks this is cool, that tricking the refs is basketball at its most elevated and sophisticated. Auerbach, however, is rolling over in his grave. What does Stern think? Isn’t it time he pulled his head out of the sand and took a stand? Does the NBA’s global ambassador really want to be remembered for teaching the world how to wink at and legitimize cheating?
Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.
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