All along, I've wanted to see a seventh game. But not if it had to come about like this.
If you care about basketball, Friday night's Game 6 of the Western Conference finals was a rip-off. The Kings and Lakers didn't decide this series would be extended until Sunday; three referees did. Statistical evidence is usually circumstantial, but consider this anyway: the Lakers had shot an average of 22 foul shots through the first five games of this series, but on Friday night here at home they shot 27 -- in the fourth quarter.
Hardly ever in 12 years of writing commentary have I devoted an entire column to the issue of refereeing. Overwhelmingly, these guys are terrific at a next-to- impossible job. And the three men assigned to call Friday's Game 6 -- Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney and Ted Bernhardt -- are three of the best in the game.
But to ignore the role officiating played in Game 6 of the NBA's showcase playoff series would essentially be to ignore the primary story line in the Lakers' 106-102 victory. And not addressing it would leave unexamined the swelling chorus of concern among everyday basketball fans that the league and/or its TV partner, NBC, has an interest in either helping the league's most glamorous and marketable team, the Lakers, or at the very least prolonging an already dramatic series.
Of course people believe that. The players themselves sometimes believe it. Yes, Vlade Divac has a flair for the dramatic, but he spoke for any number of people when he said late Friday night, "Why don't they [the NBA powers-that-be] just let us know in advance? We come here, we go back to Sacramento, back here. Just let us know."
Let me start by declaring I have no ties to Los Angeles or to Sacramento, and have no rooting interest in the series other than that I did pick the Lakers to win in six games. And I have zero tolerance for "conspiracy" stories, that the NBA and NBC conspire to influence if not straight-up arrange the outcome. Don't believe a word of it, never have.
Having said that, I have never seen officiating in a game of consequence as bad as that in Game 6. It was bad in Game 5 in Sacramento, when the Kings got the benefit of some very questionable calls, then unforgivably rotten on Friday night in Game 6. Scot Pollard, on his sixth and final foul, didn't as much as touch Shaq. Didn't touch any part of him. You could see it on TV, see it at courtside. It wasn't a foul in any league in the world. And Divac, on his fifth foul, didn't foul Shaq. They weren't subjective or borderline or debatable. And these fouls not only resulted in free throws, they helped disqualify Sacramento's two low-post defenders.
On the other hand, Kobe Bryant elbowed Mike Bibby in the nose in plain view with the Lakers up by one, but no foul was called on Kobe, even though Bibby lay on the court and then went to the sideline bleeding. The difficult thing about refereeing an NBA game, compared with Major League Baseball and NFL games, is that virtually every single call is subjective. But the calls made on Friday night were just plain wrong, right out in the open for everybody watching on TV to see, even before replay.
I wrote down in my notebook six calls that were stunningly incorrect, all against Sacramento, all in the fourth quarter when the Lakers made five baskets and 21 foul shots to hold on to their championship. I don't believe for one second the referees have any agenda. Still, what would account for perfectly competent officials making such bad calls in such a big game? Maybe the same thing that affects players, like nervousness, or being intimidated by the crowd (or mouthy participants), or anticipating contact instead of waiting for them to occur.
Whenever I'm feeling so absolutely certain about some complex basketball issue, I consult my basketball mentor, former Post colleague David DuPree, now of USA Today. And DuPree told me Saturday afternoon that while he, too, has no tolerance for conspiracy notions, "I've been covering the NBA for 30 years, and it's the poorest officiating in an important game I've ever seen."
And when I checked my voice-mail late Friday night, I heard exactly what I expected to hear: outrage. And these callers live mostly in metropolitan Washington, D.C., with little emotional attachment to either the Lakers or Kings. If people watching these games at home see Pollard fouled out of the game without touching O'Neal, what do we think they think? I know what they think. They think exactly what Divac thinks, that Sacramento would have to have been letter-perfect to win Game 6 in Los Angeles because there is a larger agenda.
I didn't say that's the reality of the situation. But that is, increasingly, the perception. And therefore, the NBA has a problem.
It's not particularly new; we started hearing this in the late 1970s, heard it through the Bird-Magic era, heard it sometimes when the Bulls dominated. But I don't think the perception has ever been so widely held as it is now.
I talked Saturday morning to an NBA season ticket holder and marketing executive, a rational and insightful observer of sports. I asked him what he thought of Game 6. "I didn't think it was that bad at all," he said of the refereeing, momentarily stunning me. "It wasn't that bad because we all knew NBC needed a Game 7."
This is what happens when you have such a wild disparity in fouls called from one game to another, ridiculous 180-degree swings from one game to the next to the next, as if Shaq ramming his elephantine shoulder into a defender is a foul on Wednesday night, but not on Friday night. The Kings shot 20 more free throws in Game 3, and Phil Jackson whined like a little pooch that the Lakers were getting hosed. Then the Lakers shot one more free throw in Game 4. The Kings shot 10 more in Game 5, prompting accusations from Shaq that somebody was cheating the champs. And the refs responded by awarding the Lakers 15 more free throws in Game 6. "Our big guys get 20 fouls called [in Game 6] and Shaq gets four," Kings Coach Rick Adelman said. "They obviously got the game called the way they wanted it to get called."
It speaks well of the Kings that they were overwhelmingly composed after Friday's game, though a couple of veterans worry the younger Kings will adopt a "They're-all-against-us" defeatist mentality that could hurt Sunday. The Lakers, seemingly oblivious to being taken to the mat again, appear to have regained some of their swagger. "We're the champions," Bryant said. "They're going to have to take it from us."
The key matchup for Game 7 isn't Kobe vs. Bibby or Peja Stojakovic's health or the Lakers' three-point shooting; it's how the referees are going to handle Shaquille O'Neal. When we get deep enough into the game to make that determination, we might have a handle on whether it's the Lakers or Kings who will be headed to the NBA Finals.