Referees. Also known as zebras, assassins, unprintables and aging zombies with whistles whose sole function is to disrupt the balletic flow of pro basketball games. Referees give and take away with astonishing caprice. Not their fault necessarily, but in the past few seasons, this arbitrariness has been given credit for helping to foment two of pro basketball's most explosive plays—the technical foul and the bloodbath.
Because violence became so conspicuous in the NBA last year, the league had no choice but to act. Out of limbo came an old suggestion that a third official be added. Commissioner Larry O'Brien, whose intention to eradicate violence from the game was made manifest by his tough disciplinary action against combatants last year, agreed with the proposal. "But adding policemen does not, by itself, eliminate crime," he says. O'Brien's special committee on violence agreed that most passionate disagreements on the court begin with "hand checking," that wholly illegal, irritating-as-hell but tolerated practice in which the defender uses his hands to "feel" what the offensive man is doing.
"John Havlicek was the absolute master of the hand check," says Phoenix' Paul Westphal. "He'd look like he was just resting his hand on you, but he was so strong and sneaky that he'd actually be grabbing a whole handful of your gut. By the end of the game you'd be all black-and-blue."
The rule against hand checking has been on the books since Dr. James Naismith nailed up his first peach basket. In the NBA it is covered by Rule 12B, Section I: "A player shall not hold, push, charge into, impede the progress of an opponent by extended arm, knee or by bending the body into a position that is not normal...." At the college level, the hand check has also always been taboo, but in the NBA, pushing, holding, slapping, slashing have been condoned for years, like the famous "three-step-no-travel" and "no harm, no foul" philosophies. This year, however, the rule carries an addendum: "...hand checking will be eliminated by rigid enforcement of this rule by all three officials. The illegal use of hands will not be permitted."
Suddenly, players are finding that the slightest brush of the fingertips against an opponent can draw a whistle, and that there are three, not just two, whistles to be wary of. Hand checking is still a judgment call, the key word in the rule being "impede." A simple hand on a man is still not supposed to be a foul unless the man is actually impeded. But what is allowable has been drastically narrowed, and according to instructions from Supervisor of Officials Norm Drucker, anyone who touches another player is officially "suspect" and subject to a referee's judgment. And most referees are judging a touch to be a foul.
Before the season started, the mere thought of such tight control had NBA people conjuring up images of three-hour whistle concerts and free-throw shooting contests. Amazingly enough, early returns show that the new restriction is working better than even its most optimistic proponents thought possible.
Through the first 68 games, there were exactly 1.5 more fouls called per contest than in the same period last year, and the average time of a game—two hours and seven minutes last year—has soared by a full four seconds. In fact, the only statistic that has changed substantially is scoring, with point production up by an average of 4.6 points per team per game. While the advent of three referees and no hands has brought predictable moans from certain teams that object to playing basketball the way its inventor had intended, the overall effect is a game that is cleaner, purer and more fun to watch. The offensive artists, like George Gervin, Julius Erving, David Thompson, Marques Johnson, Elvin Hayes and Westphal, can move to the basket without getting mugged. The true defensive specialists, like Bobby Jones, Don Buse, Artis Gilmore and Quinn Buckner, are plying their art with their feet rather than their hands.
"The league did such a good job educating the players and promoting the new rule that they don't have to call hand checking as much as we all expected," says Westphal.
The third official is also working out, although complete acceptance of anything new in the NBA takes a millennium, especially anything having to do with officiating, which, says Earl Strom, a 21-year veteran official, is more idiosyncratic than in other sports. "There are no natural parameters to judge from," he says. "No strike zone, no foul line, as in baseball. No line of scrimmage, as in football. Nothing is black or white. And every basketball official has his own philosophy about the game. One man's block is another man's charge."
After the league owners voted last June to spend the $700,000 to implement the three-man system (it had been stalled, as too costly, for five years), Drucker scoured the Eastern Basketball Association, the industrial leagues and the college conferences to find enough rookie referees to fill the required 13 working crews, each with a veteran as chief. According to the format Drucker designed, the crew chief works a totally new position for an NBA official, from foul line to foul line along one sideline. The other two refs go up and down the floor, alternately working under the basket and in the backcourt near the sideline opposite the crew chief. The three always form an equilateral triangle. But the presence of the crew chief on the sideline means that the most experienced official never gets "into the pits" where 75% of the shooting fouls are called. And that is where the new system most commonly comes under attack.
"I think we should put the officials with the most experience under the baskets, where the crucial calls are made," says Portland Coach Jack Ramsay. "The lead ref is just a spectator," says Washington's Dick Motta. "It's like surgeons who stand around and watch the interns perform the operation," says Houston's Tom Nissalke. "This could get confusing," says New Orleans' Elgin Baylor.
Drucker disagrees. "Those fouls close to the basket, your mother-in-law could call," he says. "The problem we had with two men was that gray area around the key where all the picking and movement happens. The man under the basket can see what's going on in front of him all right, but beyond three or four big guys he's screened out. The outside official is watching the ball and the guard play. That leaves the whole key area with each man 10 to 15 feet away and with obstructed views. Now, the most experienced man can see in real deep and pick out exactly what's going on in there from the side, which is an angle we've never had before. He's got the best look at goal-tending, three-second violations, an offensive man pushing off, the elbows and picks around the post. It's also the first time we've had a man who could watch the middle of a fast break. I think the most experienced man has to be there."
Despite the coaches' complaints, the results so far have been better calls, with many fouls drawing two whistles simultaneously—by the man underneath and by the veteran on the side. And because of the new restraints on the defense, there is less tolerance of liberties taken by the offense. "O.K., we've taken away the defense's hands," says Strom. "We have to protect them by not letting the offensive man turn around and back his way in anymore. We're calling that as much as hands."
Thus, in a game at Portland, Jess Kersey, working under the basket, called a blocking foul on Phoenix' Gar Heard as Mychal Thompson attempted a shot. Had there not been a third official, Thompson would have gotten two free throws. But because Kersey could only see Heard's back, he could not see that Thompson had pushed Heard as he went up for the shot. Strom could, and he whistled a foul on Thompson as well. Double foul—jump ball. No free throws and no argument from Ramsay.
"We're not getting as much hell," says Don Murphy, another crew chief. "When two guys call something at the same time, there isn't going to be much to argue about." Of course, there was the night in San Diego when three whistles blew simultaneously—one signaling a defensive block, one an offensive foul and the third a three-second violation.
The change has most upset those coaches whose teams would be hurt by any regulations limiting their defensive freedom. "I can't stand the three-official rule," says the Nets' Kevin Loughery. "The whole philosophy stinks." Detroit's Dick Vitale had to be dragged off the court kicking and screaming by a 250-pound security guard after being ejected by rookie Ref John Borgia, son of the fabled whistle-blower Sid. Motta, in the past an excitable type, was beside himself over a charging foul called by rookie Referee Jess Thompson in a game in Portland. "I think the league overreacted to the violence last year," says Motta. "Heck, our games are still safer than being in the parking lots afterwards."
Another coach says, "I was in favor of the third official 100%. There are only about four to six good officials in the league anyway and they need all the help they can get. But then the NBA had to compound the thing by instigating the no-hand-checking rule at the same time, and that defeated the purpose of the third official. The real superstar was hard enough to stop before. Now he can't be stopped at all."
"In a month every team in the league will be playing a zone," says another coach. "How else can you win? How are they going to stop that?"
"You can see the hands so much easier outside," says Laker Coach Jerry West, "but right now there is still grabbing and holding inside around the pivot. It has not changed as much as I would like to see it changed." Nor has it changed enough to suit West's center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "This is the first year I've noticed the officials approaching their job with sanity," he says, "but I'll still get held and checked and pushed. The referees—they're short people—they don't know what it's like. They think because I'm bigger and stronger than most of my opponents, I don't need the benefit of the rules."
And Knick Coach Willis Reed raises the logical question. "If they were to eliminate all hand contact entirely," he says, "it would be clear when a foul should be called. Why leave it to an official's judgment whether a player is being impeded or not? He can't judge a person's strength."
Some players who operate from outside the key have struck a mother lode. Milwaukee's Marques Johnson, second in the league in scoring with a 29.9 average, is as close to being unstoppable as anyone. Erving and Thompson are romping as they did in the wide-open ABA. Hayes and Phoenix' Walter Davis can hardly be deterred without hands, nor can San Diego's Lloyd Free or the Nets' muscular John Williamson. Little guards who used to disappear with one good hand check have attained new stature: Cleveland's 5'11" Foots Walker, a career six-point scorer, pumped in a career-high 26 against the Lakers, and Washington's 6'1", 160-pound Larry Wright is shooting 68% from the floor.
Listen to San Antonio's Gervin, a 6'7" guard who was the league's top scorer last season and is leading it again this year. He is averaging 32.8 points, had a 46-point game against San Diego and is as giddy as a child at Christmas.
"I don't think about the officials at all, let alone count them," Gervin says. "No hand checking? It's beautiful. You just have to understand that if you put your hand on me I'll go to the foul line." And if you don't, he'll go for 46. "How am I supposed to stop Gervin if I can't touch him?" asks Philadelphia's Henry Bibby.
"It should get to where only the better players can play in this league," says West, the purist, "and not the veterans who have slowed down a lot and have to grab and hold on to stay here." Thus the Bibbys, Fraziers and Hudsons have found themselves with a surfeit of bench time, while the Knicks' Butch Beard caught a plane home to Louisville.
"My whole game was hand checking, holding, pushing," says Norm Van Lier. "If I can't touch a guy it's going to be hard." Maybe that is why Stormin' Norman was ignominiously cut by his once-beloved Bulls (he was claimed by Milwaukee last week).
Fortunately for the occasional hand checker, things have a way of evening out. After a hand-checking call against Kansas City's Otis Birdsong, Chicago's Reggie Theus missed both his free throws. Birdsong swiveled and said to Referee Garretson, "Justice?"
"Justice," replied Garretson. "I knew you'd say that."
One of the 13 crews includes the veterans Earl Strom (top), who works along the sidelines, and Jess Kersey (above) and rookie Jack Nies.