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NBA referees must use judgment

MIKE BALDWIN Published: June 7, 2009
Most agree this has been one of the more entertaining NBA playoffs in recent years except for one thing — officiating.

But NBA referees are probably doing a better job than given credit.

In the overtime-packed Bulls-Celtics series, Boston point guard Rajon Rondo smashed Chicago center Brad Miller across the face. A dazed Miller missed two free throws that could have tied the game.

The following day league officials said it wasn’t a flagrant foul because "at some point” Rondo showed intent to go for the ball. Fans and the media went crazy, essentially saying: "What game were they watching?”

Then, at an NBA Competition Committee meeting in late May, Joel Litvin, president of NBA Basketball Operations said 15 committee members said it was a flagrant foul, 14 said it wasn’t.

"A room full of basketball experts couldn’t even decide,” Litvin said. "It’s just a hard call to make. It’s not because there’s ambiguity. Unlike leaving the bench or throwing a punch, some calls aren’t black and white. There’s judgment involved.”

Woody Mayfield, who lives in Norman, was an NBA referee for 10 years after calling Division I games in the Big Eight, Southeasteern Conference, Southwestern Conference and Missouri Valley.

"They get 99 percent of the calls right,” Mayfield said. "In every game there probably are two or three plays that are controversial whether it’s a buzzer-beater, a 25-point blowout, the NBA Finals or a nothing game like the Clippers-Sacramento.

"Whistle reaction time and knowledge is almost a science. They see play after play. Fans don’t want to hear it, but these are the best referees in the world. Nobody can touch them.”

Try telling that to a Lakers fan the day after Denver’s Dahntay Jones tripped Kobe Bryant and no flagrant foul was called.

Or try using "the best refs in the world” logic when replays show a referee clearly blew a call or Dwight Howard is slapped with a technical for taunting when he was merely celebrating.

Flagrant fouls have become the hot-button issue. What’s complicated matters is league officials sometimes overrule the on-the-court call the following day.

Commissioner David Stern said 92 percent of flagrant fouls are called correctly. But with possible suspensions involved he said slow-motion replay and eight camera angles can correct calls.

"We review those and then you get comments like, ‘It’s all very nebulous or ambiguous,’” Stern said. "I’d like to invite everyone to referee training camp next season and tell me.