|Saturday, October 26
Class, let's review how replay will work
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
The veteran ref -- you'd know him -- leaned in while pouring a cup of coffee.
"We don't cheat," he said. "We mess up."
The fact that that needed to be reaffirmed gives you some idea of how sensitive the striped shirts and their bosses at Olympic Tower are about the perception of how referees do their jobs. We know the litany of just last season: Mark Cuban and the Dairy Queen and Baron Davis's shot in Orlando and Game 6 in Los Angeles. And everyone having their own unshakable beliefs about who these people are, and what motivates them to do what they do.
I have my own, evolving opinions. But I was fortunate enough to get more insight on these folks after being invited by the league with a handful of other reporters to spend half a day at the league's annual referee seminar in New Jersey earlier this month. Every year before the preseason kicks off, the refs get together for a few days to hear from supervisor of officials Ed Rush and league V.P. Stu Jackson, look at hours and hours of tape, get the word from the home office what calls the league would like re-emphasized in the upcoming season and take several refresher quizzes on existing rules.
Whatever you think of the refs, understand one thing: They have forgotten more about the rules than you will ever remember. They have to make snap decisions on bang-bang plays and they have to have a mastery of the case book soldered into their brains when they do it. Lest you think it's easy, here are some of the quiz questions.
Well ... we're waiting.
The point is, these officials don't just show up after the commish tells them who he wants to win that day. Theirs is a ridiculously difficult job, and the fact that they get most of what they call right is a testament to them. Every year, 50 new officials try to make the grade. Those who make it usually have years of experience in college -- and, now, the WNBA. They receive training tapes from Rush's office 12 to 14 times a year, according to Jackson. They meet with observers -- usually former officials -- after every one of their games. They are required to provide a game summary and report after each game to New York. They are quizzed weekly and required to evaluate themselves, both on tape and in person. To those of you who think a certain shirt is always killing your team, no official can work more than nine of any team's games in one season, nor can any ref work two games within the same city within 14 days.
And make no mistake: They love ball as much as you and me. Many of them played in high school and college, and reffing was a way to stay in the game.
I say all this not to change your mind, because you're going to believe what you believe, but just as food for thought as the league implements its new instant replay system starting next week. The decision was simple: To have to determine whether a guy shot the ball within a hundredth or so of a second was just too difficult for the naked eye to do consistently. So there will be limited instant replay -- even though the commishes of other sports told David Stern not to do it.
In the NBA version, there are four, and only four, triggers for the replay system. Replay cannot be initiated by a coach -- no "challenge" system here -- or even by the officials themselves. The triggers are automatic, and unambiguous:
Once one of those four triggers occurs, the crew chief goes to the scorer's table. Each of the two other officials goes to each of the two teams, keeping them at arm's length from the crew chief. At the scorer's table will be a pair of headphones, a monitor and a clock on top of the monitor. The crew chief will push a button that will connect him (or Violet) with the television producer who's doing the game. (If the game is being broadcast nationally, it will be the national network's producer. If the game is being broadcast locally, it will be the home team's producer. If the home city isn't broadcasting the game, it will be the away team's producer.) Once the crew chief punches the button, the clock on top of the monitor will begin counting down from 2:00. When that clock reaches 0:00, the crew chief has to make a call, one way or the other.
The crew chief can ask for as many replays as he (or Violet) can watch in that two-minute period. There will be a couple of new innovations at the crew chief's disposal to help determine whether a made basket was shot in time. Each arena will have a bank of red lights running from midcourt several feet in both directions atop the scorer's table to help determine, for example, whether a made halfcourt shot was released in time. And each basket will be ringed with an LED display of red lights for the same reason. If the ball is still in the shooter's hand when the lights come on, the shot doesn't count. And the game and 24-second clocks have been modified. Instead of the one clock facing the floor above each basket, the clocks are now four-faced, ringing the top of the basket so that they are in view from almost every camera angle-baseline, behind the basket, what have you.
The crew chief's primary review is, of course, whether the shot was released in time, or whether the foul was committed before time expired. (The crew chief cannot reverse a foul call, even if it is obvious by replay that the foul did not occur. Once it's called, the only question is whether it was committed with time on the clock.) But the crew chief does have the discretion to alter certain calls. The crew chief can reverse a made basket, for example, if it is determined that an eight- or 24-second violation has occurred. The crew chief can change a two-point basket to a three (or vice versa), if it is determined that the shooter was (or wasn't) behind the 3-point line when the ball was released. Or, the crew chief can disallow a basket if it is determined that the shooter's feet were out of bounds when he left the floor.
A call will be reversed only if there is "clear and conclusive" evidence. That will be left up to the crew chief's discretion. If the three officials disagree, the crew chief will make the final call.
It may sound like a lot. It really isn't. In fact, the league believes that replay would have been applicable under these criteria last season in only 16 situations. When you consider that each team plays 82 games, with four quarters in each of those games, that's 328 potential replay situations per team. (According to the league, 15 of the 16 situations would have been upheld by replay.)
I'm not being Pollyanish here. I'm sure that part of the reason replay was instituted this season was to ward off the perception that officials were blowing calls left and right, even if they weren't. The league is proactive when it comes to protecting its refs. There is some PR at work here. But I also believe there is a notion that if there is something extra that can be done to make sure the calls are correct, then that something extra should be used. Players have every means at their disposal to improve their performance. Why shouldn't the refs have the same thing? They're people, too, whether you want to believe it or not.
By the way, the above answers were true, true and true.
David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.