Notes from a Day with NBA Referees

I spent just about all day learning about NBA referees and the job they do.

I took notes.

Here are some of the points that struck me as most interesting.

First of all, about the rules of basketball, and how the game is called in the NBA. A genuine focus of the day was just straight education. A lot of what we the media and fans, see as bad calls, are in fact products of our misunderstanding of the rules. So, in that spirit, here are some things I learned today:

  • A lot of calls that look like charges are correctly called blocks. When you rewind these plays on your Tivo, don't do what referees make fun of fans for doing: Trying to decide if the players feet were set before the contact. That's not the standard. What you want to know is: Is the defensive player's torso set in position before the offensive player begins his upward motion? The defense can not slide into position after the offensive player has reached this stage. Why did they set that standard at the moment of upward motion? Joe Borgia, the NBA's director of officiating programs and development, says "because we had to set it somewhere. He adds that "the moment of alighting is too late." In years of watching film, however, Borgia has confidence they chose the correct moment.

  • Defensive players also have to let offensive players land.

  • A standard for assessing if that contact was enough to warrant a foul call: Did it affect the players' "speed, quickness, balance, or rhythm?"

  • A lot of people grew up watching or playing high school and college basketball. Me? I grew up watching NBA basketball. I believe this is why I simply do not notice the vast majority of travels. I think this might affect NBA referees, too. More than once we were showed video clips demonstrating block/charge or some other fine point of the game, and after watching it in slow-motion, the room was full of "travel" muttering. And on the big screen, in slow motion, once you focus on it, it was obvious. But the professionals leading the session hadn't even focused on it. One big instance of that: Remember that 2007 Eastern Conference Finals game which Cleveland lost in Detroit on a big no-call? LeBron James drove into the lane, and everyone in Ohio was just certain he was fouled by Rip Hamilton. But there was no call. In reviewing that play, we learned that it was in fact, in the league's view, a mistake. Indeed, it should have been a foul on Richard Hamilton, who initiated contact with his arms that affected James' would-be game-winner. Bernie Fryer refereed that game, and said that watching the video of that last play was "brutal ... not a happy ending for the referees ... the referees didn't get any sleep that night." But as we were watching it, the "travel" whispers echoed around the room, and we watched again and again, and pretty quickly, Fryer -- I give him a mountain of credit for honesty -- admitted that since it had been pointed out, he now believes the correct call would have been a travel. (You'd have to ask, though: Can anyone remember a superstar on the way to the hoop in crunch time ever getting called for a travel? I'm sure I have seen it, but I sure don't recall an instance.)

  • If you catch the ball deep in the paint -- deeper than the deepest part of the circle around the free throw line -- then that whole "restricted area around the hoop" rule does not apply. Defenders can draw charges as deep as they want on a play like that.

  • Speaking of that semi-circle under the rim, and the "no charge" area, the defensive player's foot must be all the way outside. Standing on the balls of your feet, with a heel or two hovering in the air above that line, is not good enough.

  • We saw a play where Kobe Bryant was stripped of the ball, and then made a menacing run at the referee, punching the air with his fist. The referee called him for a technical. Meanwhile, the Celtics had the ball on the fast break, and might have had a layup negated. Fryer says that as called, everything was fine, but ideally the referee would let the Celtics finish their fast break, then call the technical.

  • You know how sometimes there is a shot clock violation about the same time as a turnover or a rebound of a shot that didn't hit the rim in time, and instead of letting them play, they whistle the shot clock violation? It slows the game down, and is kind of annoying, right? Here's why they do that: At the end of the game, the clock situation can be affected. Let's say your team has a one point lead and the ball with 26 seconds left. You could, in theory, launch a shot at the shot clock buzzer. Now if you're the team that's trailing, would you rather have that rebound, when you get it maybe with less than a second left, or would you rather have the violation and your full two seconds. So that's why they call it that way. And for consistency's sake, they prefer to call it the same way all game.

  • You know the continuation? If you foul me on the way to the hoop, I get to toss up a shot and it will count if it goes in? That continuation goes away if I make an offensive foul, travel, or commit some other violation. So, to re-cap, if you foul me as I head to the hoop, then I take four steps and make a layup, I get two free throws, instead of a bucket and one free throw. Same goes for if I mow down your point guard who came over to help out.

  • In a section of video about technical fouls, there was a hilarious scene in which a kid sitting courtside looks absolutely shocked when he overhears something that Earl Watson shouted in anger at a referee. It made for a funny moment. The overarching point was: Barking something in the heat of the moment seems OK, if you then turn away and the whole thing dissipates. But having the cranky stuff linger, especially as you approach the referee ... they don't like that. Also, it seems like players clapping pisses off referees. It might seem cute, but I wouldn't do it if I were you.

  • Just a personal observation: For whatever reason, Rip Hamilton showed up in several of these videos. And time and again, what he did looked clean at game speed. But in slow motion, just about every time he was involved, he was actually committing a foul.

  • At one point Joe Borgia asked an honest question of the media people in the room: "Do radio guys," he asked, "have replay?" Meaning, can they see plays after the fact, in slow motion? "Yes," came the answer. "Well then," countered Borgia, "use it."

  • Replay can only be used for very specific things. For instance, was that foot on the 3-point line, or not? Did that shot beat the buzzer, or not? But for judgment call things (like was that a goaltend?) the league does not use instant replay. Basically, they want to limit the number of times the game is held up for reviews.

  • One thing referees will have as a point of emphasis this year is cleaning up the madness of hacks and grabs that occur while the ball is inbounded in close games. We saw video of Jose Calderon commit the king of all jersey grabs, for instance, in a setting like that. Fouls that occur then are brutal in close games. If the inbounding team is grabbed or held, it's an "away from the play" foul which results in one shot and the ball back for the inbounding team.

  • We saw one play where two players were running, but collided in a way whereby one mowed the other one down. It looked like a clear foul to me. But on replay, the mowee had cut off the mower, although only at a slight angle. "When you have moving opponents," said Borgia, "you have to give them a chance to stop or change directions."

There was also a fair amount of talk about bigger picture, league-wide things involving referees. Not too much of it was about Tim Donaghy, but his presence was felt in who was doing the speaking. Bernie Fryer, Joe Borgia, Ronald Johnson ... none of them were in charge of these kinds of things a year ago. (In fact, last summer Fryer was a c
of the referee oversight system.) But they are now! As heads of a new department of officiating.

  • There was not a lot of talk about Tim Donaghy himself. Although at one point, Borgia did make a direct appeal to broadcasters for the various teams to go easy criticizing the referees. "We have sort of a perception problem. ... As announcers, you are very powerful. You keep saying they're wrong, and people are going to think they are wrong." Borgia then showed video of TV broadcasts with some correct interpretation of complicated rules, and showed some other broadcasts with some rules getting mangled, and some referees being maligned for making the correct call. There are a lot of reasons for the league to hold an event like the one today. But one of the biggest, surely, is to get everyone in the media thinking that "the referee blew that call" is something that should be said with extreme caution.

  • There were two apparently conflicting viewpoints. Bernie Fryer talked about the many reviews that occur of every game. The in-arena observer does a report noting all the bad calls. The referees themselves do a report based on their own video analysis. And people in the league office do their own review. The three feed into a referee's accuracy score, which, Fryer says, affects things like lucrative crew chief and playoff assingments. Fryer said that was why referees wouldn't do a "makeup call" after a bad call -- two bad calls kill your accuracy score! Fryer cited results like that as drivers of the decision to introduce three new referees (replacing three others who lost the prime assignment) to the Finals. Later, however, the NBA's president and Fryer's boss, Joel Litvin, said that when they chose the referees for the 2008 Finals, Litvin didn't even know the different referees' evaluation scores. So, do they matter or not? I think this is the kind of thing that can happen with a new crew in charge. But it's also the kind of thing I'd really want to have crystal clear if I made my living with a whistle.

  • There has been talk, at various times, about how the NBA has all these camera angles we don't have at home to assess calls. I can tell you, however, that at the moment the final say in whether a call was good or not comes from Bernie Fryer. He apparently had to be reminded such other angles existed back at the league office. He makes his determinations watching the same broadcast you and I watch, and in leading us through a typical "deep dive" into game tape, the TNT broadcast was the only video on hand. I know, however, that those other angles exist. But I'm also quite confident that in a typical case, I'll be seeing what the referee bigwigs will be seeing.

  • Sounds like the brass that oversees the referees spends a lot of time fielding complaints from coaches and GMs. In part to address that, the league created an educational website for coaches, where they uploaded around 200 videos of controversial calls, with explanations. The idea was that everyone would get more informed about the rules. "About three coaches," says the NBA's assistant director of officiating, Bernie Fryer, "logged in all season." (This season they have a new website, whereby coaches and other team personnel can file complaints about botched calls. I bet that site gets whole bunch more traffic.)

  • There will be no big new effort to prevent flopping this season. The league says they will be monitoring it, and there were rumblings about some rule in the future. Bernie Fryer mentioned that in Europe they give people technicals for that, and I thought I detected a hint of envy in his voice. But that could be reading between the lines.

  • Not too long ago, the president of the NBA, Joel Litvin, told me, of this season: "Expect the referees to be more available to the media. There are all kinds of ways we can do a better job getting the fans to know the referees better, and to increase the image of officials." I don't know if this is happening or not, and today didn't much help, although at one point new referee honcho General Ronald Johnson explained why he was not in favor of referees talking to the media after controversial calls. We'll see what happens.

  • At one point, a member of the media told the organizers that these events were having the intended psychological effect. "Now when I see a guy make a bad call," he said, "I think: That referee made a bad call. But he's a hell of a nice guy."

  • Eddie Johnson, the former player who broadcasts Suns games, points out that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of times players require explanations from referees of judgment calls. Referees in the room, nodded vigorously. It's something the league is watching, and may consider doing something about. As it is, captains are entitled to garner an explanation of judgment calls. But the hope is they won't need every judgment call explained.

  • There was talk of certain referees being biased against certain teams. Joel Litvin said that they do not take that into consideration at all in assigning referees. And if they really did think a referee had a problem with a certain team, it would be much more serious than an assignment issue. "If we think a referee is biased against a particular team," he says, "he's going to be off the staff. That's a serious, serious issue."

  • The main things I come away thinking: This is a great day to help us in the media gain confidence in referees. It's a system based on trust -- there's no way around that. But when trust is broken, and from my e-mail, the trust between fans and referees is well broken -- people don't want promises and smiles. They want evidence. And the NBA says it has tremendous internal evidence that these referees are worth trusting. Why not share that with the public? Why not put everything I saw today online or on TV? Why not prove how good these referees are, even if it means admitting some botched calls now and again?