We are not talking — at 8:32 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday evening, as I sit down to write this piece — about the magnificent and thrilling Final Four national semifinal game played by the Auburn Tigers and Virginia Cavaliers. We are talking about officiating.
Most people will discuss the foul committed by Auburn with 0.6 seconds left because the result of the foul was a bundle of made free throws by Virginia’s Kyle Guy which turned this game 180 degrees in its very last second.
A total of 2,400 seconds encompassed this game, but Tigers-Cavaliers wasn’t decided until the last second. Since a foul call occurred in a game with relatively few fouls — especially in the act of shooting — the play stood out more than it would have in a game with a lot of fouls.
Sports fans who are at least 40 years old very likely recall Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals between the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks. Scottie Pippen was whistled by Hue Hollins for a foul when the Knicks’ Hubert Davis released a jump shot with 2.1 seconds left in the game with the Bulls leading by one. Much like Bill Laimbeer’s foul on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game 6 in the 1988 NBA Finals, contact was — let’s say — minimal, to be generous. People will debate forever whether those were fouls or not, and those calls have often been used as examples of “letting players play.”
Yet, I never thought of those calls as “letting players play.”
What does it mean to “let players play”? Let them be active, let them be energetic. Make sure fouls mean something when you call them.
Minor contact on a play which has no effect on a shot, or who gains possession, or who gets low-post position, isn’t changing the game. That contact can be allowed to go.
Contact on a shot — as we saw in the final second of Auburn-Virginia — can be relatively minor yet hugely influential. Contact doesn’t have to be severe to be warranted. Contact has to affect a significant play. If it does, blow the whistle. That play was handled in textbook fashion. It was a textbook foul by Auburn. That’s not the problem we have here.
Let’s get to the real problem:
I officiated high school basketball, and while I certainly wanted to enforce the rule book, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t nitpicking every last act. Players get smothered and suffocated if referees are nailing them for every little flaw.
Yet, there is inevitably a balance an official must strike: “Letting them play” must be balanced by enforcing the rule book. The rules don’t mean much if they exist and won’t be enforced. The solution to not enforcing the rule book is to eliminate the rules as they stand, and rewrite the rule book.
This is the discussion we need to have with the Auburn-Virginia endgame, in which the foul call was not the problem. It was the missed double-dribble on Virginia’s Ty Jerome just before he was fouled with 1.5 seconds left.
I should know the rules of basketball, but even I did not immediately think “DOUBLE-DRIBBLE! THEY MISSED IT!”, when Jerome picked up his dribble after dribbling off his back foot. Charles Barkley, who obviously wanted Auburn to win, didn’t immediately think that on CBS television. I didn’t see people on Twitter rail about the missed call until Gene Steratore (an officiating expert who ACTUALLY adds value to a telecast, a rarity) pointed it out.
Having officiated basketball, why was I not attuned to that play? I would be lying if I said I had a clear answer. My initial response is that I got caught up in the moment of the last four seconds of a Final Four game. Jerome’s dribble off his own foot put Virginia in greater danger, and that elicited a moment of natural drama.
As a referee, I know that in sequences such as that, I have also reacted as a human being, not as a referee. Inside my mind, I have looked at such sequences and thought, “OH MY GOD, HE MESSED UP HIS DRIBBLE!”, when I should have been telling myself, “HE PICKED UP THE DRIBBLE INSTEAD OF CONTINUING TO BOUNCE THE BALL! DOUBLE DRIBBLE! BLOW YOUR WHISTLE!”
We could simply chalk this up to that kind of instinctive, emotional reaction on the part of the official who was closest to that Ty Jerome dribble. That might be all it was, and if so, how unfortunate for Auburn and that official himself.
However, there is still something to say even if the official was simply caught up in the moment: Your training as an official is meant to make you fully focused on your job, to not get caught in the moment like that.
This is where the need to enforce the rule book — not just in basketball, but ANY SPORT — matters so much.
Everyone knows that traveling and other violations such as palming the ball are simply not called very much in the pros or college ball. We know this.
Therefore, it becomes hard to get into a prolonged or emotional debate about how THIS traveling call was missed or THAT palming violation was missed. If they’re regularly not enforced, what’s the point of debating?
Well, THIS is the point of the debate right here.
If officials regularly were in the habit of calling travels, and palming violations, and double-dribbles, and lane violations on foul shots, and other non-contact violations, they would miss fewer plays akin to the Ty Jerome double-dribble.
Moreover, if fans could see that refs called all those things in a reliable and consistent way, it would be a true shocker of a mistake — something everyone would have noticed in real time, not when Gene Steratore pointed it out — for a ref to miss the Ty Jerome double-dribble.
This is the bottom line: Auburn got jobbed, but it got jobbed on a missed call very few if any people identified in real time. So many of us who watch basketball have become conditioned to not expect officials to make calls on non-contact violations.
“Let them play” doesn’t really make sense in this context, does it?
“Enforce the rules” is always better — not just for fans, not just for coaches, but most of all, for the officials themselves.
Call everything all the time, and maybe Ty Jerome’s double-dribble gets called. Why? Because officials would have been in the natural habit of making that call, of making their training their best guide of reliable performance in the final seconds of a Final Four game.
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