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Original Issue

When Push Came To Shove In The NBA

With the regular referees locked out, pro basketball has taken on the appearance of height night at the fights

The NBA season has barely begun, but already the need for some rules changes is apparent: The foul lane should be expanded to a 20' X 20' area enclosed by ropes, the hardwood floor should be covered with a mat, and the four 12-minute quarters should give way to 10 three-minute rounds, ending with a bell and not a buzzer. Also, those guys with the whistles who are filling in for the locked-out NBA refs, whose contract expired on Sept. 1, should get combat pay, and there should be someone on hand to count for the knockdowns at the bell.

In the NBA—which some people are calling the National Boxing Association—the first Tuesday night of the regular season brought three super heavyweight bouts in three different rings. In Pontiac, Mich., Detroit Center Bill Laimbeer, weighing in at 245 pounds, and Milwaukee Center Bob Lanier, tipping the scales at 265. squared off in the second quarter underneath the Pistons' basket As Lanier jockeyed for position, he elbowed Laimbeer in the face, then turned and landed an overhand left that broke Laimbeer's nose—and sent him down for the count.

In East Rutherford, N.J., the Nets Buck Williams, a 215-pound power forward, warned his antagonist, Lonnie Shelton, who goes about 270, "Not to night, after Shelton jolted Williams with an elbow under the Jersey basket in the early moments. Minutes later the two squared off and threw punches

In action out West, Phoenix' Maurice Lucas, a 238-pound intimidator from way back, and Seattle's Tom Chambers, a 225-pounder who is rapidly gaining a reputation as a pugilist, were battling for position in the foul lane, when suddenly elbows and knees were flying everywhere chambers landed on the floor, Lucas had to be restrained by team-mates—and Don King and Bob Arum were bidding for the rematch.

The best Fight Night in the NBA occurred on Oct. 16 during a preseason game between those longtime 15-round foes, the 76ers and the Celtics. In one main event, Cedric Maxwell, 217 pounds, had the courage to wrestle with Moses Malone, 255 pounds. In another, Larry Bird, 220 pounds, boxed Marc Iavaroni, 225 pounds. As an extra added attraction, Red Auerbach, the Celtics' 66-year-old general manager, bounced out of the stands to challenge Malone. "Go on and hit me, you big s.o.b.," Auerbach is alleged to have said. Luckily for Red, Mp didn't take him up on that otter.

For their actions, Auerbach was fined $2,500, Bird $2,000, Iavaroni $1,000, Shelton $2,500 and Lanier—the president of the National Basketball Players Association—a paltry $5,000.

So what's going on here, anyway?

The fact is, law and order no longer exist in the NBA—and it won't return until the league reaches a contract settlement with the 29 referees it has locked out. And the mayhem that has pervaded NBA games has, at the same time, lowered the quality of play considerably.

"There's no doubt that we've been hurt by the fight issue." says Scotty Stirling, the NBA's vice-president of operations. "We have a problem with game control. But individually, it's hard to lay altercations off on the replacements."

Actually, it's not so hard. Granted, most basketball fights are spontaneous, but often they are the result of pushing, shoving, elbowing and jockeying for position that occurs away from the ball. The experienced refs are able to cope with this; the replacements—who include college officials and men who normally work Continental Basketball Association games—are not "They're not watching off the ball." says Chambers "They're keeping their eyes on it and away from the ball someone's getting hit in the head."

No matter how competent a replacement might be, he doesn't get the respect a regular ref does, and the players try to get away with more and more on the court. The replacements are also largely unaware of the key matchups. To rectify that, Darell Garretson, the chief of officiating, has been phoning the subs to review the matchups in the games they're scheduled to work. Also, the NBA has had Garretson work a full load of games until there's a settlement, which may not happen for quite a while.

Stirling contends that Richie Phillips, the counsel for the locked-out officials, "isn't motivated to make a deal." Phillips has been highly visible throughout the lockout. During the Shelton-Williams dustup, he was hustling from behind one bench to the other, imploring New Jersey Coach Stan Albeck and Cleveland's Tom Nissalke, "Hey, are you gonna let them [the substitute officials] get away with that?" The next night, in Boston, Phillips and some of his referees handed out 2,000 whistles to fans, urging them to "blow the whistle on the scabs."

Stirling himself has become one of the key issues in the situation. The officials are evaluated each year, and Stirling's rating of a referee counts for 25% of the final evaluation. Coaches, general managers. Garretson and a six-man panel of observers account for the other 75% Phillips and the refs contend that Stirling, whose background is in administration, isn't qualified to rate the refs. Aside from the usual differences over regular-season salaries, expense money and air travel, the biggest stumbling block has been the amount of money the officials will receive for working during the playoffs. The NBA has offered what amounts to a pay cut for work in the postseason—when the owners accrue their greatest revenues—from a per game average of $1,240 to approximately $1,130, but with more games to work "That's like telling a worker that he's being given a raise but he has to come in on Saturdays and Sundays to earn it," says Phillips.

On the whole, the fans could probably care less about who's officiating as long as Larry Bird can be Larry Bird and Julius Erving can be Dr. J. But that hasn't been the case, which, as time goes on, could become a bigger problem than the fisticuffs.

In at least one case, a questionable call and a non-call indirectly decided the result of a game. In the final minute of a contest in Philadelphia on Oct. 28, Washington had come back to tie the 76ers at 114. Jeff Ruland, who scored the tying basket, claimed he was slapped in the face by the Sixers' Bobby Jones, who later admitted that he had fouled Ruland. When Ruland objected too vociferously about the non-call to substitute Ref Bernie Fryer, a former NBA player who had failed two tryouts as a league ref, he was given a technical. Jones sank the technical, then Andrew Toney made two free throws, and Philly won 117-114 There is an unwritten rule in the referee community that says that technical fouls are never issued in the waning moments of a close game unless a player either makes physical contact with an official or utters that obscenity known to the players as the magic word."

One person in the referees' corner is Bird, whose $2 million annual salary will be more than the total salaries of the 29 locked-out officials. "You've gotta have good refs to play good games," Bird says. "I don't think they're asking for enough. I guess I've always been a union man. I mean, I respect the substitute officials, but I have a helluva lot more respect for the other ones walking outside with families and mouths to feed."

And how badly has the quality of play deteriorated? On Oct. 29 Los Angeles defeated Utah 120-115 in an endless game in which there were 68 fouls five technicals and 99 free throws. "Playing out there," said Laker Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, "was like ending up in London and driving on the wrong side of the road."

Well, that's still preferable to hitting the bricks.


In Boston it was no Garden party for picketing refs.


When Philadelphia battled with Boston, Auerbach (back to camera) really saw red.


Lanier stooped after conquering with the $5,000 left that fractured Laimbeer's nose.


Substitute Ref Jesse Hall had a Bird in hand after the Sixer-Celtic preseason brouhaha.


Abdul-Jabbar was disgusted about the upsurge in fouls.


Even though he was in Maxwell's house, Malone wouldn't stand for any undue guff.


The Lakers and Coach Pat Riley took to the floor to argue a point with Ken Mauer.


Garretson: Watch the matchups.