THE REFS CRY FOUL
Lakers executive vice president Jerry West gasped in horror on
the night of April 9 when his young point guard, Nick Van Exel,
shoved referee Ron Garretson into a scorer's table in Denver. It
was a blatant act of stupidity that blackened the eyes of the
storied Lakers franchise and the National Basketball
Association. West was so upset, said team sources, that he vowed
that either Van Exel or forward Cedric Ceballos, who went AWOL
from the team last month, would be gone by next season--maybe
both. "This is the low point of the Lakers organization," West
said late last week.
Maybe not. Forty-eight hours after West spoke, during the
Lakers' game against the Suns on Sunday, his elder point guard,
Magic Johnson, who had strongly condemned Van Exel's actions,
was ejected for bumping official Scott Foster with his upper arm
after approaching him for an explanation on a non-call. The two
Lakers incidents, combined with Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman's
head-butt of referee Ted Bernhardt last month, has left the
league with a public relations migraine.
"This is the NBA's fault, pure and simple," said one incensed
referee, who, per order of his union, the National Basketball
Referees Association, cannot speak for attribution. "What are
they waiting for? For one of these guys to haul off and belt me
in the face? What good is some bogus fine going to do if I walk
off the court with a broken nose?"
Fred Slaughter, general counsel for the referees' union, has
requested a special meeting with NBA executives before the
playoffs begin next week. In a written statement, Slaughter said
the referees were "extremely concerned and appalled by the
recent occurrence and subsequent escalation in physical abuse of
referees by NBA players."
However different their offenses, Van Exel and Johnson were
relatively unchastened. Van Exel defiantly suggested Garretson's
tumble was "a good Hollywood job." Johnson claimed Foster, who
has been in the league two years, should have explained the
non-call, insisting, "It never would have happened with a
veteran official. I was wrong, and so was he for not talking to
Rodman received a six-game suspension and a $20,000 fine for the
head-butt. Van Exel's transgression earned him a seven-game
suspension and a $25,000 fine, a punishment many viewed as too
lenient. That included the Lakers brass; thus it may be the
first time in league history that the player's team favored a
stiffer penalty than the one meted out.
Rod Thorn, the NBA's senior vice president of basketball
operations and the man who administers the punishment, explained
that Van Exel's actions were deemed comparable to Rodman's
head-butt, only a little more extreme. "In 49 years we never had
any incident involving this kind of physical contact with an
official," Thorn said. "We're literally writing the laws as we
Rodman was amused by Van Exel's punishment. "The league's hands
were tied," he said. "They had no choice. If they would have
given him $10,000 and three or four games, I would have pitched
a fit. The league had to make a statement. I had to be the
guinea pig. Now whoever touches a referee, it's got to be six
games or more, no matter who it is."
Not exactly. Johnson claimed his contact was "accidental," but
given the current climate, he should have known enough to avoid
any contact, intentional or otherwise. On Monday the league
slapped Johnson with a three-game suspension and a $10,000 fine.
If teams feel poor refereeing is even partly to blame for the
assaults, no one was willing to say. After surviving replacement
officials during last autumn's lockout of league referees, said
one general manager, "We're happy to have these guys, even if
they aren't perfect."
THE ENVELOPES, PLEASE
It's time to select the NBA's outstanding regular-season
performers for 1995-96, and while there was a movement to keep
this an all-Chicago affair, guys on other teams were playing
decent basketball, too. Here's one ballot for the league's top
Most Valuable Player: Michael Jordan, Bulls. All that Scottie
Pippen talk was quaint, but who wants the ball, gets it and then
delivers when the game is on the line? Yet it's the little
things that make His Airness so valuable, and that's why Nuggets
coach Bernie Bickerstaff made his team watch a tape of Jordan
diving for a loose ball in a meaningless regular-season game.
Runners-up: None. This was an uncontested slam dunk.
Coach of the Year: Phil Jackson, Bulls. Is Jackson's team
loaded? You bet. But nobody handles a collection of formidable
egos and idiosyncrasies in a more masterly manner.
Runners-up: Mike Fratello, Cavaliers; Doug Collins, Pistons;
Rudy Tomjanovich, Rockets. The Cavs appeared destined for a
rebuilding year; Fratello wouldn't hear of it, and at week's end
his team was on the verge of clinching a playoff spot. Give
Collins one more season and the improving Pistons, 10 games over
.500 through Sunday, will be back near the top. Rudy T
distributes playing time with the best of them--and with little
complaint from his defending-champion team.
Rookie of the Year: Damon Stoudamire, Raptors. Yes, he put up
great numbers (19.0 points, 9.3 assists through Sunday) on a
lousy team, but so did the 76ers' Jerry Stackhouse (19.2 points,
3.9 assists). The difference is that Stoudamire won games for
the Raptors with gutsy play and good decisions.
Runners-up: Stackhouse; Joe Smith, Warriors; Arvydas Sabonis,
Trail Blazers. Smith was a consistent presence on an
inconsistent team plagued by personality clashes, while the
savvy Sabonis was a key to the Blazers' late-season run.
Defensive Player of the Year: Gary Payton, Sonics. He is the
single biggest menace in the game today, and, equally important,
his commitment to defensive pressure is constant--regardless of
how he's faring on offense.
Runner-up: Dikembe Mutombo, Nuggets. He will lead the league in
blocks for the third straight season but could have and should
have done more to get Denver into the postseason.
Sixth Man Award: Sam Cassell, Rockets. No clear-cut winner
emerged, thus Cassell gets the nod even though an inflamed right
elbow shelved the Rockets guard after 57 games. The Lakers'
Magic Johnson didn't orchestrate his comeback soon enough to get
my vote, but no one understands the game better.
Runners-up: Toni Kukoc, Bulls, and Sabonis. Kukoc was a valuable
reserve, but he tended to have his best games as a spot starter.
Sabonis started in the final month, which hurt his sixth man
Most Improved Player: Chris Childs, Nets. With his gritty play,
the New Jersey point guard made Kenny Anderson expendable. Now
he's a juicy free-agent attraction.
Runners-up: Bullets center Gheorge Muresan, the 7'7" Romanian
who proved he belongs in the NBA; and Celtics guard David
Wesley, who learned to play the point on the job.
AROUND THE RIM
Last summer, Suns forward Charles Barkley, 33, told U.S. Olympic
team selection committee members that he thought a younger
player should have an opportunity to play on Dream Team III
instead of him. But when the committee approached him again last
week and asked him to reconsider, Barkley agreed to play. The
selection team, which also added Kings guard Mitch Richmond to
the squad, liked Barkley's strong personality. But it could be
they were also turned off by the fact that the other most
prominent forward candidate, 26-year-old Shawn Kemp, missed a
Seattle team flight as they were making their final
determinations.... Eric Gingold, the 7'4" Williams College
senior who impressed pro scouts during private half-court
workouts in Connecticut (SI, Feb. 26), chose not to participate
in the showcase Nike Desert Classic last week and has decided
not to play at the predraft camp in Chicago in June. But Gingold
has agreed to scrimmage, full-court, for selected teams in
COLOR PHOTO: WEN ROBERTS/PHOTOGRAPHY INK Johnson would admit only an "accidental" bump and insisted Foster should share the blame. [Scott Foster ejecting Magic Johnson from basketball game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH When healthy, Cassell was a cut above the other players who were the first to come off the bench. [Sam Cassell in basketball game against Los Angeles Lakers]
SI'S 1995-96 ALL-NBA TEAMS
GUARD:¬†ANFERNEE HARDAWAY, Magic
GUARD:¬†MICHAEL JORDAN, Bulls
FORWARD:¬†KARL MALONE, Jazz
FORWARD:¬†SCOTTIE PIPPEN, Bulls
CENTER:¬†DAVID ROBINSON, Spurs
GUARD:¬†GARY PAYTON, Sonics
GUARD:¬†JOHN STOCKTON, Jazz
FORWARD:¬†CHARLES BARKLEY, Suns
FORWARD:¬†GRANT HILL, Pistons
CENTER:¬†HAKEEM OLAJUWON, Rockets
GUARD:¬†REGGIE MILLER, Pacers
GUARD:¬†ROD STRICKLAND, Trail Blazers
FORWARD:¬†VIN BAKER, Bucks
FORWARD:¬†SHAWN KEMP, Sonics
CENTER:¬†SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, Magic