Good for Phil Jackson.
Before Thursday's Game 3 loss to the Thunder in Oklahoma City, David Stern addressed the media and hammered coaches -- mentioning Jackson and Pat Riley by name -- for the way in which they work the officials through the media:
"I wish I had it to do all over again, and starting 20 years ago, I'd be suspending Phil and Pat Riley for all the games they play in the media, because you guys know that our referees go out there and they knock themselves out and do the best job they can. We have coaches who will do whatever it takes to try to work them publicly. What that does is erode fan confidence, and then we get some of the situations that we have. So, our coaches should be quiet because this is a good business that makes them good livings and supports a lot of families, and if they don't like, they should go get a job someplace else."
There are times when it's good to have 10 rings, make $12 mil a season, and generally be regarded as the greatest coach of the modern era. It affords the opportunity to speak with less fear of retribution. Today at practice, Jackson did just that responding to Stern's threats to criminalize gamesmanship with penalties going beyond tax-deductible fines for the often-super rich. "I think when you start throwing one- and two-game suspensions in the threats, I think that means a lot to both ball clubs and coaches," Jackson said. "It seems awful heavy-handed to me, but David is one who isn't shy about being heavy-handed."
Taken as a whole, the tenure of David Stern has been a monumental and unqualified good for the game of basketball. The NBA is light years healthier now than it was when he took over in the early '80s, but the last few years have been defined by a much more dictatorial and Draconian league office.
I don't blame Stern for wishing he could go back in time and eliminate the culture of conspiracy theory from the NBA landscape. He's right, it doesn't help the product. What he seems not to understand, though, is the league's, yes, heavy-handedness in penalizing minor and otherwise forgettable criticisms of officials serves only to draw more attention to the problem. Protecting the refs from even the most innocuous of comments only fuels the notion they need to be protected, and focuses on the inevitable inconsistencies in officiating.
It's like telling people not to think of elephants.
I don't believe in conspiracy theories. I don't believe the league picks winners and losers. I think they have preferences -- all league's do -- but actually manipulating games? No. Even after Tim Donaghy.
The NBA is the most difficult game in professional sports to officiate. Players are growing increasingly bigger, athletic, and skilled, yet the court remains the same size. I'm actually shocked most of the time they perform as well as they do.
Speaking today, Jackson got to the core of the issue with officials, something most people understand (even if it bugs them) but the NBA refuses to acknowledge. He was referencing the possibility of home crowds influencing calls, but the point extends across the game, generally.
"It's not an objective thing, it's subjective," he said. "We try to make it objective, but it's subjective."
Stern would be wise to admit as much. It would be great if all games were called the same, if all officials saw everything identically. But they don't. They can't, because it's impossible. Overall, I think advantages and disadvantages even out, and officials reward the more precise, aggressive, and talented group.
If Stern wants to stop the NBA fan's obsession with questioning the integrity of the league and its referees, he might want to start by not looking like there's something to hide.