Superstar whistles, irate people

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When superstars attack, whistles blow and everybody gets upset -- but for different reasons.Superstars, on video, getting fouled. That's what I've been watching.

Every single time, for instance, that Chris Paul has been fouled this year. Kyrie Irving, too. Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant. Tony Parker. LeBron James. Dwyane Wade. James Harden. Kobe Bryant.

I was looking for intentional hard fouls for an ongoing series about keeping players safe. And I saw plenty of those.

But I also saw a lot of, well, weak calls. Fouls whistled for contact that was incredibly light, or in some cases nonexistent.

Superstars, getting calls

If it seems like stars get a lot of help from the referees, it's because it's true. They draw a hell of a lot of calls.

This claim is not new, or is it even really disputed.

When I was growing up, fans fumed that Michael Jordan got the calls. As a special gift, I got a pair of tickets to see young Jordan in person way back in 1987. My eighth-grade buddy Jimmy and I watched Jordan shoot 20 free throws, precisely none of which the people in the seats next to me thought were legitimate.

(Now Jordan, Bobcats owner, sounds just like those guys, whining about the exact same thing.)

Some of that has always been hogwash. The guys sitting next to me that night in 1987 didn't know or see basketball better than the referees. What they had going for them was that they didn't want Jordan to get calls. Every whistle registered with them because they hated every one, even the good ones. That was their big trick to identifying this "bias."

Meanwhile, drawing fouls is a skill. It takes athleticism, drive, recognition of tendencies, mastery of ever-changing conditions and bold aggression -- the exact same things that make a superstar.

On top of that, the superstars have the ball all night, and are precisely the guys who are toughest to stop with normal defense. They're also the people everybody, including referees, watch most.

Of course they get fouled way more than anybody else. That has long been the NBA's position on this. They're the best players. They have the ball all night. They play long minutes.

But the video -- and remember, I wasn't even looking for this -- shows one other element, too. Again and again I saw plays like this:

There are 45.3 seconds left in the second quarter of a close game between the Nuggets and the Heat. LeBron James finds himself under the hoop with a "mouse in the house" -- he's single-covered by the smallest man on the court, point guard Ty Lawson. James starts shoving the feisty Nugget to make room under the hoop. When James throws his body at Lawson, but Lawson digs in, momentum brings James' chin down hard onto the top of Lawson's head.

Both players recoil. Head-to-head hurts.

Foul on Lawson.


There are dozens more examples from James this season alone. These were both from very narrow Heat victories:

  • With 8:05 left in the first quarter of an early-season Heat game in Atlanta, James makes an uncontested layup while Jeff Teague may or may not have rested a hand on the small of his back. AND-ONE. We can argue you have to leave the airborne player alone, but we can't argue that many other NBA players would get that call.

  • A few days later, with 31.3 left in the second quarter of a Heat game in Houston, Jeremy Lin waves a hand in LeBron's line of sight while the star is attempting a layup. The shock of the referee's whistle sends Lin into an angry power dance.

It's not just James, of course. I'm sure you could name a thousand such plays you have seen. (We invite your feedback on Twitter with the #WorkingBodies hashtag.)

Kobe Bryant draws a foul on an opponent every 6:36 he plays, and he plays a lot. Referees have called whoever is guarding Bryant for 30 fouls already this season just against the Thunder. Makes you wonder how the Thunder could ever win a game against the Lakers, until you realize Durant gets even more calls than Bryant -- one for every 5:50 he plays.

Over just four Thunder vs. Lakers games this year Bryant and Durant have combined to draw 60 fouls and shoot a mighty 87 free throws. The dead ball eternity of those walks to the line has done little to endear fans to the game. A few moments from the Dec. 7 meeting between the Lakers and Thunder:

  • With 8:21 left in the second quarter, Durant's breaking down the left wing and makes a layup. Jordan Hill takes a swipe at the ball, near Durant's head, and contacts, to my eyes, nothing but air. Foul on Hill.

  • Not three minutes later, in the open court, Bryant has Westbrook to beat. Westbrook shuffles his feet laterally, trying to guide Bryant baseline. As Bryant draws near, Westbrook withdraws his own arm as far as possible, practically retracting it into his own chest in a parody of demonstrating to the referee that "hell no, I'm not touching that guy!" Bryant shoots a shoulder hard into Westbrook. Foul on Westbrook. The cameras then show Westbrook, rehashing things with the ref, demonstrating he hit me.

  • Just minutes after that, Bryant fakes Durant into the air. As Durant lands very near Kobe, the Laker launches a jumper, which goes in. Unclear from the replay: If there was any contact at all. Steamed, Durant paces the length of the floor to calm down as broadcaster Mike Breen declares there was "not a lot of contact there!"

  • With 2:35 left in the third quarter and the shot clock winding down, a double-teamed Bryant drives to the left sideline, where he rises and fires a 3 over Hasheem Thabeet. Cash. "Good contest by Thabeet," intones Jeff Van Gundy. "Didn't see the foul." Replay from three angles eventually show that perhaps Thabeet's fingers, at tapping speed, actually did touch Bryant's hands on the release.

That very same night, with 45.3 seconds left in the second quarter of a game against the Rockets, Spurs star Tony Parker fell down while making a layup, and then went to the line to complete the and-one. The only issue was that Omer Asik, who was called for the foul, did not touch Parker.

What's happening?

You can find these plays almost every night, and they are usually accompanied by some guy in some seat next to you theorizing it's the league's conscious effort to make the famous players, who drive the league's popularity, look good. The league, the thinking goes, is stronger as a business when those guys succeed, and referees have their marching orders.

I have no urge to lend any credence to any conspiracy theories -- I have no evidence of any such marching orders, hushed phone calls or secret meetings.

I'm not even going to tell you that none of those were fouls.

What the video shows me is that these many borderline calls, which are fairly common for the best, are rare for the rest.

What 15 years covering the NBA tells me is that no matter what the league says, coaches and players think it really happens. After studying a lot of film, David Thorpe has begun to advise his clients, when guarding superstars, to set up shop a full step back from where they'd normally stand. "If there's contact of any kind," he says, "it's iffy who'll get that call."

I even had a GM tell me once that the reason you have to have a superstar on your team is because they come with that extra help from referees. If you're playing merely with guys who are treated normally by officials, you're at a disadvantage.

In fairness, replay often shows some of those seemingly weak calls in superstars' favor were actually dead on. And while I criticize NBA referees, I do so in the context of knowing there are not better basketball referees anywhere else. The problem isn't incompetence, or an intolerable rate of mistakes. The problem is that several of those mistakes fall into this predictable category.

It makes people irate.

We've been thinking about making a tragicomic TrueHoop TV video of nothing but NBA players reacting to being called for fouls against superstars. The anguish is so extreme, you'd have to set it to opera. Players can't lay into the referees, which you know they want to, so they contort their faces into some of the most soul-crushingly sad faces you've ever seen. To be falsely accused is dreadful. To be falsely accused and have rules against even pleading your case ... it's ultimate powerlessness. I've heard some players wear mouth guards not to keep their teeth safe, but just to force them to slow down when they get the urge to scream bloody murder at referees. These are those moments.

Obscuring another story

Meanwhile, watch those same clip reels from the NBA's video scouting service ... all the times James, Bryant, Durant and company have been fouled this season, and very often you'll see the superstars end up irate, too. They're mad about something else entirely: getting tackled and the many other kinds of dangerous intentional fouls. That happens a lot, too.

Let's be real: It's only a matter of time before somebody is seriously injured by an intentional foul.

And stars are mad.

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have piped up about rough play already this season, and they won't be the last. Anyone who does should be lauded for their courage. Saying "I'm vulnerable" is one of sports' most profound taboos. Nobody wants to hear it.

But in this case, because of the superstar calls nobody wants to hear it from them. Superstars not getting enough love from the referees? That's the sound of half a billion global NBA fans rolling their eyes.

Two sides of a coin: Superstar calls and tackle basketball

One of the most dangerous fouls of this season was committed by David Lee on James. I asked Lee why he did it, and he talked about how he knew as soon as he touched James that a foul would be called. Implied: That it's because James is a superstar.

But knowing that changes the math for Lee. If it's a foregone conclusion that James is headed to the line, Lee need not bother about being dainty, nor indeed about the rules of basketball at all. The foul is as good as called already, Lee is as good as convicted of the crime. All Lee has to worry about is making absolutely certain James doesn't get a bucket. The way to do that is to hit him hard.

Think about that. James is irate at hurtling to the floor off-balance and sideways at warp speed. Lee is irate knowing regular defense will get a whistle. Fans are irate that James is getting so many calls.

And meanwhile, everyone has a warped view of what's really happening out there: People see those touch fouls on the perimeter and declare the game soft as tissue. Meanwhile, for players who attack the rim, the bodies and fouls are bigger, stronger and faster than ever. The game is harder and softer than ever, all at once, and everybody is steamed.