Two months ago Knick coach Pat Riley unloaded on the league's referees. He felt that a Jan. 18 game at Cleveland had been "taken away" from the Knicks by the officials. He also claimed that refs had shown increased "awareness" of questionable New York violations since a Dec. 26 game at Madison Square Garden against the Spurs when flagrant fouls were whistled on Patrick Ewing and Anthony Mason of the Knicks. And having obviously researched the subject himself, he challenged reporters to check whether his points were well taken. Fred Kerber of The New York Post did just that. He studied figures for almost a month following the Spur game and found that the officials called almost three more fouls per game on the Knicks than they did on New York's opponents. Riley, incidentally, was fined $2,500 by the league for his unsolicited research.
More recently, Warrior coach Don Nelson suggested that Sarunas Marciulionis, his vastly improved third guard, was being victimized by some referees because he's a foreigner. In a game at Dallas on Feb. 24, several journalists sitting courtside heard referee Ed Middleton say, after calling a double dribble violation on Marciulionis, "Maybe you can put two hands on the ball in Russia, but not here." Jeff Chapman of The Oakland Tribune thought Middleton was serious; Ron Bergman of The San Jose Mercury News and George Shirk of The San Francisco Chronicle thought he was joking. Apparently Nelson didn't. He said that two years ago during an exhibition game, a referee silting in the stands had said, referring to Marciulionis, "I wouldn't give that Russian any call."
Last week, an NBA source quoted Middleton as saying he was joking. Middleton then worked the Warriors' 110-100 win over Houston Saturday night in Oakland and told reporters the matter had been resolved, but he wouldn't discuss the resolution. Rod Thorn, the league's vice-president of operations, also refused comment about the outcome. Nevertheless, the statements were particularly galling to Marciulionis because he is from Lithuania.
The question for the NBA is whether there are double standards in officiating—for any reason. Many players and coaches, while allowing that refs get involved in personality clashes from time to time, believe that calls balance out over the course of the season. "I think I've been treated fairly in my career, and that's all I can compare it to," says the Sonics' Ricky Pierce. But just as many others feel that prejudicial refereeing is common.
"Referees see reputations, not plays," says an Eastern Conference player, a former All-Star. "It damages the integrity of the game and—you know what?—there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. Complain, and you get fined. Ask them quietly, and they'll come after you even more." A Western Conference coach agrees: "I don't think it happens very often that a ref will intentionally go out to screw one guy. But I do think you have guys, like [the Pistons' Bill] Laimbeer and, for a while, [the 76ers' Charles] Barkley, who committed a lot of flagrant fouls, and those guys get watched closer than others." (Players and coaches would not go on record with negative comments about officiating, for fear that they would be eternally doomed, not to mention heavily fined.)
One Eastern Conference coach believes that the biggest clashes occur when certain refs work particular venues. "It takes guts to make calls against the home team in Detroit, Utah, New York and Boston, arenas where the fans are very intense and close to the court," says the coach. "When I walk into one of those buildings and see a certain crew, I think to myself, 'Forget it. Unless we play a perfect game, we have no chance.' The fact that some refs can't work in that atmosphere docs not say much for the league."
Others subscribe to the oft-expressed notion that better-known players get better treatment. "Take [the Celtics'] Robert Parish, for example," says one Western Conference general manager. "He hasn't had to establish a pivot foot for 16 years. He walks every time he gets the ball. Once they let a guy establish a move, he can usually get away with it." Says another Eastern coach: "With the way the game is marketed, who do you think is more likely to get a call on the blocks—Patrick Ewing or, say, Greg Kite?" One Western coach with a losing record puts it this way: "If there are 10 calls that could go either way, I believe seven of them will go to a team with a winning record."
One referee, who asked that he remain anonymous, says that personalities do, indeed, clash during games. "If I've got a guy who's always on me and said some bad things about me in the past, sure, I'm probably going to be tougher on him," admits the ref. "Or at least I'm not going to give him anything. It's human nature. But it doesn't happen that often, and we don't talk about it among ourselves officially. Sure, before a game I might think, 'Uh-oh, I just had trouble with so-and-so.' But the topic of personality conflicts and keeping certain refs away from certain coaches does not come up."
What about Riley's comments? "I had one of those games when Pat was complaining," the same referee says. "He was really upset afterward that Ewing hadn't gotten to the foul line. But I remember that game and Ewing never took the ball to the basket. That happens."
Do referees single out certain players in the heat of the action? "Coaches are obsessed with that," says the referee, "but, personally, I'm not sure when Ewing is playing against Brad Daugherty and when he's playing against the worst center in the league. I do think referees should have some idea of what the foul situation is. It doesn't look very good, for example, if it's 7-0 in fouls for one team or the other, and I might do something to straighten it out. But even that doesn't happen much. I think coaches give us far too much credit. I don't think we're smart enough to think of all the things they accuse us of."
As for Marciulionis, few observers outside of Golden State think that he is a target for the refs. For one thing, only a handful of players—most of them superstars such as Michael Jordan, Karl Ma-lone, David Robinson, Barkley, Clyde Drexler and Kevin Johnson—get to the line more often than Marciulionis, and only the Mailman shoots more free throws per minutes played. The consensus is that Marciulionis's hard-driving, go-to-the-basket style initiates contact that is called both ways. "It makes it hard to know when to call the foul for him or against him," says Seattle center Benoit Benjamin, who drew the ire of Nelson with a hard noncall on Marciulionis a few weeks ago. A Western Conference general manager says: "Marciulionis gets every break. He walks every time he gets the ball, for one thing. And he does one trick where he puts the ball right in the defender's chest, pushes off and shoots his shot. I think the complaints were all just a ploy by Nellie to get his player more breaks."
The contract between the NBA and the referees expires on Sept. 1, and the most recent bargaining session ended in failure. "The salary proposal offered by the league was a piece of crap," says one referee who was at the meeting during All-Star Weekend in Orlando. The NBA would not comment because of an agreement with the referees union not to negotiate in the press. The main issue is salary. The officials are seeking parity, or something close to it, with major league baseball umpires. At present, the top salary for an NBA referee with 25 years experience is $123,000; it's $175,000 for an umpire. Starting salary? For the ref, $36,000; for the ump, $60,000.
"I'd say we have a ways to go," says the referee.
Top of the Heep
Since Earl Strom's retirement after the '89-90 season, the unofficial mantle of "best referee in the league" has fallen on the shoulders of veteran Jake O'Donnell. Does it belong there, or is O'Donnell, a tough-minded yet engaging fellow, merely popular with the media?
It belongs. Eighteen of 25 coaches and general managers who responded to this week's poll named O'Donnell the NBA's best referee, most of them as unequivocally as the Eastern Conference coach who said, "That's the easiest question of the year." Joey Crawford, Dick Bavetta and Ed T. Rush (not the young ref Eddie F. Rush) got two votes each, while Jess Kersey got one. All are veteran refs with experience ranging from 25 years—for O'Donnell and Rush—to 15 years for Crawford. The non-O'Donnell voters liked Crawford's and Bavetta's control of the game (the former through bulldog tenacity, the latter through diplomacy), Rush's composure and Kersey's consistency. What did they like about Jake? Everything.
An Eastern coach: "Like Felix Frankfurter, he's fair and just. There couldn't be any better combination for a ref."
A Western Conference executive: "Jake is very consistent and has complete control of the game."
An Eastern Conference assistant coach: "He's the game's ombudsman. He makes sure the standards are kept high. If he thinks a player is being [singled out] by a certain official, Jake will step in and make the next call on that player. 'Now you deal with me,' he's telling the guy."
Playoffs or Lottery?
The marquee race in the NBA is between Golden State and Portland for first place in the Pacific Division, but the most intriguing race is shaping up in the nether regions of the Eastern Conference, down there in .500 land, where six teams are chasing the final three playoff spots...with what might be varying degrees of enthusiasm. This is not to suggest that the scenario most dreaded by the NBA—a possible late-season tank job—has been discussed by any team. But consider this.
At week's end, four Eastern teams had all but assured themselves of making the playoffs—the Cavaliers, Knicks, Pistons and Celtics. The Bulls are in. Behind those five were three teams from the Atlantic Division (the 76ers, Heat and Nets) and three from the Central (the Hawks, Pacers and Bucks), all within range of playoff spots. But consider for a moment which of those teams really wants to get to the playoffs.
Miami? For sure. Being the first of the four most recent expansion teams to play in the postseason would be hot for the Heat, which needs competitive experience, not more young talent.
New Jersey? Definitely. In the past two years the Nets have gotten a No. 1 (Derrick Coleman) and a No. 2 (Kenny Anderson) out of the lottery. The team is young enough, and it is just itching to make the postseason for the first time since 1986.
Indiana? Assuredly. The only thing that will save this season for the underachieving Pacers is, at minimum, a repeat of last year's dramatic playoff effort that ended in a five-game defeat by Boston.
But circumstances are different for Atlanta, Philly and Milwaukee, teams that have displayed similar postseason profiles over recent seasons, i.e., good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to go very far; not challenging for a championship but not sinking low enough to pluck a prime draft pick. Moreover, each of these teams has a definite need that could be fulfilled in what appears to be a strong lottery (SI, March 9).
Again, there is no evidence that the T-word has ever been uttered in any front office this season. But it will be interesting to see how intense the stretch battle for the final playoff spots becomes.
Marciulionis's rugged play doesn't go unnoticed by refs.
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS
O'Donnell, who came out tops in SI's poll, has adroitly handled many delicate situations.
Coleman (44) and the Nets can prove they have the right stuff by making the playoffs.