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Right Call, But the Wrong Ref

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By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, May 29, 2008

BOSTON Calling fouls in the NBA has always been absurdly subjective. I once watched from 10 feet away as Robert Parish delivered a closed-fist combination to the face of Bill Laimbeer in a playoff game here in the old Garden, and no foul was called. Not only that, but referee Jess Kersey, looking directly at the contact as well, motioned to Laimbeer to get his butt off the floor and play on. The larger point here is that nobody has ever known what is and what isn't a foul in professional basketball.

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The contact Derek Fisher made with Brent Barry with two seconds remaining in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals Tuesday night has caused a great dust storm of controversy, as only the NBA playoffs would have it. And the conversation swerves off the main road, necessarily, to everything that is exciting and tiresome about the postseason. Still, Fisher's contact, given that it came with two seconds left, was not called and should not have been called a foul. Not after Barry put the ball on the floor to avoid the contact. Had he gone straight up and into his shooting motion? Yes, that would have been accepted universally as a legitimate foul.

What constitutes a foul is as subjective as calling balls and strikes in baseball. It's a definition that moves and morphs, not just over long periods of time, but from game to game, from ump to ump. It is, as everybody says now, what it is. And it shouldn't be considered in a vacuum. The Spurs wouldn't have been within two points if something quite objective had been called correctly.

That whole sequence began with Fisher missing a shot, which was ruled an air ball, when it in fact hit the rim. The Lakers should have retained possession with the shot clock turned off. Instead Kobe Bryant had to force a shot that missed, giving the Spurs a final possession they didn't earn and shouldn't have had.

So in the end it evened out.

And it also obscured something else that was far more serious than whether Barry was fouled.

The referee who didn't make the foul call, Joey Crawford, should not have been working the game in the first place.

Little more than a year ago, the NBA suspended Crawford for throwing Tim Duncan out of a game essentially because Duncan laughed at Crawford -- in other words, Crawford ejected him needlessly. It was the last straw for the league and for Commissioner David Stern, who, quite understandably given previous warnings, sent Crawford to the sideline for the rest of the season.

The NBA, more than any other professional league in this country, is concerned about its image. That's why Stern and the league instituted a player dress code a couple of years ago, then sought to crack down on arguing with referees during games. The NBA is annoyed to no end, also understandably, about the notion that results are manipulated to favor the biggest stars and teams in the biggest or most glamorous markets. Every columnist in the country, this one included, has received at one time or another a phone call from the league asking to not use the "C" word, or conspiracy . . . as in, "You know the NBA had Joey Crawford work that game because they already know he hates the Spurs and the league wants the Lakers in the Finals anyway."

Everybody in the NBA anticipates these conversations, and cringes at anyone having such a perception.

It's not about whether Crawford can work the game fairly. Of course he can. He's one of the best referees the league has had, and certainly one of its best now. The Spurs did Crawford (and the league) a huge favor after the game by refusing to make the non-call an issue. Every Spurs player I saw interviewed, starting with Barry, said, "That's not going to be called at that point of the game."

Still, why assign Crawford to Game 5 of a series with a team he was so notoriously involved with just last season? Why allow people the chance to harbor such a perception? Why, when your league is still reeling from the Tim Donaghy betting scandal, would you not go to the ends of the earth to avoid any appearance of impropriety, no matter how small. And why put Crawford in such a position? Any controversy at all involving the Spurs was going to leave him vulnerable, and everybody in the NBA office had to know that. There's another playoff series, the one here between the Pistons and Celtics, he can work. And now, with the Spurs teetering on the brink of elimination, he can work the Finals without the Spurs.

It was terrible judgment to send Crawford to San Antonio. A lot more egregious than not calling a foul on Fisher.

It's as subjective as anything in sports, calling a foul. You can't get a consensus from people who've been in and around the game for 100 years. Former coach Hubie Brown, now an analyst for ABC and ESPN, said here Wednesday night: "No question that was a foul on the floor [meaning before the shot]. He should have been shooting two foul shots." Brown thought it should have been called a foul, as did former coach Avery Johnson, as did former coach Jeff Van Gundy. But Mark Jackson said no way, no foul. And get this: Jon Barry, Brent's brother, said no call was the right call. The debate raged all afternoon, into the evening, when an NBA spokesman said a foul should have been called. The difference of opinion demonstrates how difficult it is to call fouls in certain situations.

Contact that might be called in the first quarter isn't a foul in the fourth. A smack on the elbow of a scrub has never been treated the same way as a smack on the elbow of a megastar. Ask Bryon Russell if Michael Jordan pushed off before taking and hitting "The Shot" in 1998. The Spurs know all about tough rulings, considering they benefited from one last year at the expense of the Phoenix Suns on the way to an NBA championship. Whatever whining you hear from coast to coast about the foul that never was, it's quite honorable that none of it is coming from the dressing room of the Spurs.


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