Like many casual basketball fans, I grew up watching the NBA two ways: on television, and occasionally, through extraordinary good fortune, from the cramped, obstructed-view seats of the old Hemisfair Arena. Both, to me, were amazing. I developed a love of the game and an undying affection for my hometown Spurs. I also learned, early and thoroughly, an essential truth about professional basketball—refs suck.
How could they not suck, my logic ran, if *I* could see the violation happening from miles away on my tiny TV screen, and they could not, when it was right in front of their faces? The essential unfairness of it chaffed a bit, but eventually I accepted it, just as all adults learn to accept the myriad injustices that surround them as an act of survival. I never became, nor really understood “kill the ref” guy. Sure—I chanted it at high school football games, but more because it was fun to publicly threaten an adult than because of a desire, born out of righteous indignation, to see injury done to the person. To me, ref-suckitude was simply an innate component of the game, like a rim height of 10 feet, or the three point line.
Later in life, I had the opportunity to attend Spurs games more regularly. My love of the team grew ever deeper; I was one of thousands in attendance when the Memorial Day Miracle turned a moribund mass of spectators into an adoring throng that would soon decorate their every vehicle with brooms. But I had an epiphany, courtesy of some good seats. Really good seats. I mean, RIDICULOUSLY good. The guy who was sitting in my seat on the other side of the court? Mark Cuban. The guy who was sitting diagonally in front of me? Red McCombs. That good. The game itself was meaningless—it was the last game of the season, and the Spurs had already clinched home court advantage, so Tim and others were benched against the Mavericks, who suddenly weren’t that interested in winning either. So the game wasn’t that great, but what was great was to see the game from that vantage point. I was watching a lot of subs and scrubs, and these guys, who looked like they were in slow motion when they got subbed into the games that I watched on TV, were so big and so fast when they were moving in front of me, that I often had to crane my neck up at the jumbo-tron to hope for a replay of what had just happened in front of me. And the refs were there, completely unfazed. They saw it all. They had it under control. It hit me like a freight train—in their position, I would be lucky to get ANYTHING right, and they get through most nights with 90+% of their calls unchallenged by a highly partisan, highly inebriated crowd. My God… the refs didn’t suck… they were actually g.. g… good.
So I let that realization simmer in my noggin for a while, and in the mean time I had another eye-opener, courtesy of the tennis courts. I was coaching the JV team at my high school, which made me the varsity bus driver to boot, so I spent that year watching endless matches. Many of you probably know this, but at the high school level, almost all matches are not refereed—the participants call their own. Because of this, there are constant complaints, worries, and fears about players who “hook”—intentionally calling an “in” ball as “out,” especially at a critical point in the match. Do players do this? Yes, they do. However, from watching match after match, I realized that the number of balls that were hit clearly out, and yet played as in dwarfed the number of times (at most one in a match) where an in ball would be called out. The only way to be hurt by this was to let the perceived injustice throw you off your game for the next point.
And this is when I began to realize the artistry of the NBA official. We’ve had a couple of new guys break in to the ranks, and of course we’ve had replacement officials this pre-season. And invariably, the pace of the game suffers, because too many fouls are called. The fans’ reaction? “Awww, c’mon ref!! Let ‘em play!!” And this is the heart of the artistry of the NBA official. It’s not that they don’t see what is happening. They see it all. It’s not that they don’t know the rules. The problem is that they live in a world of grey that is pretending to be black and white. To clarify, I think it would be an enormous challenge to even be a good enough official to be a replacement NBA official who would be criticized for calling too many fouls. And let’s face it, if we read the rules, there are countless fouls committed throughout the course of an NBA game. Just as in my classroom, I don’t send every child to the principal for every infraction of my classroom rules, and NBA official can’t call every infraction of the rules a foul or the pace of the game suffers. So the artistry of the NBA referee is learning to be a genius at painting shades of grey. Every once in a while, they will see a grey that they think is on the white side of the spectrum, while the fans yell black. And vice versa. But at the end of the day I recognize that they are doing a job that I neither could do nor would aspire to. So write the damn check, Stern, and bring our watch-able basketball back.