The wall of respect between the NBA's referees, its players and coaches has eroded somewhat, according to those in the league, as confrontations between all parties have made as much news this season as the indoctrination of Chinese center Yao Ming and the potential fall of the champion Los Angeles Lakers.
During a 33-day span beginning on Jan. 3, five suspensions were handed out by the NBA for altercations involving players with referees, coaches with referees and, in one case, a player with an opposing assistant coach.
"There is a line that wasn't supposed to be crossed but has," Washington Wizards assistant coach Patrick Ewing said.
Miami Heat Coach Pat Riley, already fined $50,000 in December for publicly criticizing officials, is under investigation again after he ripped into the referees following his team's 14-point loss to Portland on Wednesday.
Trail Blazers forward Rasheed Wallace took things a step further, earning a seven-game suspension for allegedly threatening an official outside the arena after a home game. Utah Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan went beyond that, shoving an official after heated words were exchanged over what Sloan believed was a missed infraction. He was suspended seven games as well.
Ewing, and many others in the league, said it isn't just the players or coaches who have exceeded the unwritten -- and written -- rules of the game.
"Officials, some of them, they know they carry the wrath of God in a sense with that whistle," Wizards forward Michael Jordan said.
There are varying opinions as to why some incidents have exceeded previously sacred boundaries. Most cite the pressure to win, the inexperience of some players and officials, poor communication and a rise in machismo -- maybe more than anything -- as to why there have been a handful of controversial flash points this season.
"You have a young league that is in the process of transitioning," said Indiana Pacers Coach Isiah Thomas, who is coming off a two-game suspension for charging onto the court and confronting Toronto Raptors forward Morris Peterson after Peterson tripped Indiana forward Al Harrington and the pair exchanged words. "There's a transition with officials. You have a young league with young officials. There's a growth process that needs to occur. That's part of the growth process of getting back to what the league once was."
"The older guys -- me, Karl Malone -- when we talk to the older referees, there's a dialogue," he said. "The New Jacks, the new kids on the block and the new referees on the block, they're clashing because they're trying to establish power between the two of them. Back in the day we understood what the power was. The New Jacks are going to yell at [officials] because they've been talking with their boys and they've got this new attitude.
"You see more of the new referees walking around with the short T-shirts and are muscle bound so they're trying to establish themselves, too, so you have confrontation. One of them, you would think, is going to have to give. Obviously, they haven't given and you have so many confrontations because of that and coaches are starting to get into it, too."
Typically, if there is a problem or disagreement over a call or a non-call, players and coaches discuss things with officials during a stoppage in play, perhaps between free throws or during a timeout. How that discussion is handled often leads to the next phase.
"I complain, but I do it in a way where I don't disrespect them," Jordan said. "They don't want to be embarrassed. It's like how you talk to your teacher. You better be careful how you talk to your teacher because she has to give you your grades eventually. You've also got to know who you're talking to. You've got new referees coming in now so you've got to get to know them and you've got old referees.
"The new [referees], I push them because I want them to understand how important the game is. It's something that means a lot for us as players because we have a passion about it. So I could be in their ear, but when they say that's enough I get away. But the way the guys have taken it now, it's been a little bit abusive. You have to give them some leeway. Bumping into them and constantly cursing at them, then they're going to hold a grudge against you; you're going to hold a grudge against them. Now you're not going to get a clean basketball game because he's going to bust you the next chance he can, and you're going to yell at him the next chance you can and you forget about playing the game."
Stu Jackson, the NBA's senior vice president of basketball operations, said that although the on-court flare-ups have been somewhat severe in nature this season, there have been fewer than in past years. But not since the 1996 season have as many confrontations between officials and players or coaches made the evening sports highlight shows. That season Dennis Rodman was suspended six games for head-butting an official and Nick Van Exel was suspended seven games for delivering a forearm to an official that sent him onto the scorer's table.
"We've had this rash of off-court behavior that is a concern," Jackson said of recent events. He would not cite specific cases, however, suspensions for off-court actions have been handed out aside from Wallace's.
Golden State forward Chris Mills was suspended for three games after he got into an on-court scuffle with Portland's Bonzi Wells. Mills then parked his car in front of the Trail Blazers' team bus after the game and tried to board it.
Pacers forward Ron Artest was suspended for three games and fined $35,000 for tossing a television monitor and breaking an HDTV camera after a loss in New York. Artest, one of the most volatile players in the league, also was suspended for four games after making obscene gestures to the crowd in Miami and confronting the Heat bench after coaches complained about him roughing up Heat rookie Caron Butler.
From what he's seen so far, Butler said it's better to build relationships than to foster bad feelings that could last for an entire career.
"I'm learning the ins-and-outs of the game. I'm learning all the referees' names so hopefully, in a couple years, I get the same treatment. Hopefully, I can pound on a rookie here and there and don't get any fouls called on me."
New Orleans Hornets Coach Paul Silas said the behavior of some players, coaches and officials stems from their make-up and how different people will act and react differently.
"You are talking about a very emotional game and a lot is at stake nowadays," Silas said. "I was telling someone the other night when I came through [the league as a player] it was just taboo to touch an official. You didn't do it. I don't think the stakes were as high as they are now. The money has certainly played a part in that and owners can lose or make a ton of money and the pressure all comes down to the coach. And for the players it all comes down to a different thing. Artest and Wallace are very volatile guys. There's nothing you can really say about them except they have to try to curtail their emotions."
Jackson said officials have to keep themselves in check as well. Wizards forward Kwame Brown was ejected from a game at Chicago this season after receiving two technical fouls at the end of Washington's victory. The first technical was for arguing a foul, the second came in response to what Brown said was a profanity-laced warning by the referee.
After witnesses explained the account to league authorities, both technical fouls and the automatic fines that come with them were quietly expunged, according to Wizards officials.
"We encourage referees, players and coaches to deal with one another in a respectful manner," Jackson said. "Communications outside those guidelines is not going to be accepted."
That means reprimands in whatever form, will be doled out accordingly, even to officials. Jackson said referees are punished for acting out of protocol, but their reprimands are not made public by league policy -- a policy that rubs some players the wrong way.
"They should be penalized or they should make it known that they're being penalized so we're not as critical on them thinking they're not going unpunished," Jordan said.
Regardless, until all parties exhibit self-control, there will be situations that turn ugly.
"I don't know how you correct it other than to say the referees aren't untouchable and you penalize [the violators] like they've been penalizing them," Jordan said. "For the most part, that's going to get someone's attention."
Staff writer Todd Jacobson contributed to this report from Washington.