Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Inside David Stern's Bubble

Let’s focus, once again, on the inevitable subject of conversation coming out of this Magic-Celtics Game 5: the refs. It’s a shame that the refs are the first subject of conversation, rather than the reemergence of the Magic as the same team we’d thought they were (another defeat to the goldfish’s judgment of character). But it has to be the refs.

It’s no secret that NBA refs are awful and no secret that they’ve been awful for a long time. But because it’s no secret, it bears repeating, particularly when they deserve it. Did ejecting Kendrick Perkins singlehandedly determine the outcome of the game? No, I think not: the Magic were operating at a very high level in the first half before Perkins’ ejection. Nevertheless, it was a petty move.

It’s something of a commentary on judges and arbiters of all stripes. Perkins was given two quick technicals for very ordinary complaints—at least from the view from my television set—which raises the following questions. If it was simply complaining, then this doesn’t inspire confidence: that a judge isn’t secure enough in his or her decisions to eject someone indicates a peevishness of character that doesn’t exactly bode well for his or her other decisions. If, on the other hand, something that was beyond the pale, then we should hear about it—not the oh we’ll see response delivered via Doris Burke. That’s asking us to trust you; the “trust me” response is reliable only once—after that, you’re simply concealing something.

It’s worth noting that one of the refs—Joey Crawford—is so bad that he actually got suspended by the NBA. Crawford is the man who T’d up Tim Duncan…for laughing on the bench. Now, doing something so bad to get suspended as a ref requires an extraordinarily bad response to the circumstances, and Crawford did that. Recall that Tim Donaghy never got suspended (in fact, the ultimate indictment of refereeing is that we had no idea Tim Donaghy was a bad ref. Tim Donaghy—a ref who was trying to fix games—was virtually indistinguishable from his presumably legally upstanding colleagues.)

It’s a problem where every player complains about the refs after a loss, or Phil Jackson attempts to work the refs before every tough game. Stern fines the people complaining but does nothing to address the underlying issue: his refs aren’t good. And fans know it and complain about it constantly. And yes, I realize that fans have been complaining about refs for the same length of time the coaches and players have: forever. But the underlying problems only seem to be tolerable forever, until, suddenly, they are not. I realize that this is a fashionable analogy in these days, but: bubbles pop. The NBA reffing bubble will pop someday soon, and it will create a crisis of confidence for the league.

This is a shame: the league is rarely as bad as the stereotypes about it, and most serious fans agree with that. But the serious fans—and the casual fans, and the players and the coaches—all agree that refereeing is a serious problem. Are they really all wrong? Is that really David Stern’s position? David Stern receives a free pass from the media, and insofar as anyone earns a free pass, Stern has. But this free pass has excused him and has has enshrouded him in (there’s that analogy again) a bubble. No complaint seems to penetrate, only reach him indistinctly such that he says the same refrain over and over again: refereeing is difficult, we review our referees extensively, they are very good, there’s nothing to mind here. I thought that this bubble might have been pierced by the Donaghy scandal, but it hasn’t. But something will pierce it, and something will pop it, if Stern doesn’t do something, and that popping will have the same effects that a popped bubble always has: devastation.

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The unthinkable becomes thinkable: might the Magic be the first team to come back from a 3-0 deficit? It is. But it’s not likely: the Celtics have two bites at the apple, and I suspect that they will adapt and win in Game 6. They’d better: that’s their Game 7.

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