*It’s not easy, the life of a National Basketball Association ref. It can’t be. All sports are hard to monitor effectively- how can you really ever be sure you’ve made the right call on a bang-bang football pass interference play, or correctly judged the miniscule distance between a ball and a strike on a 90-MPH fastball – but basketball, of all the major sports, is by far the hardest to ref. It’s a sport of blur and motion, played by gigantic, swift men of the highest athletic ability, crashing into and spinning around their opponents quicker than any human has any right to be.
Every postseason, the Zebras of the Summer seem to become more and more maligned. Bashing refereeing is about as old as the sport itself, but with the advent of the modern, superstar-driven NBA, where replays are as quick as a flick of the index finger and controversial plays are immortalized for all time on YouTube, the cries have only grown louder and more pronounced. There was the horrifying Game Six Kings-Lakers screwjob from 2002 that essentially cost Sacramento a NBA title, followed by the Dwyane Wade “breathe on him and we’ll whistle” 2006 NBA Finals that gave the title to the Heat.
Could these current Eastern Conference finals be the tipping point? Game one saw an overzealous referee crew toss technicals out to the Celtics players and head coach Doc Rivers like candy on Halloween night; game two – which could have gone down as one of the all-time great playoff games, complete with an astonishing Rajon Rondo performance, was marred by some absolutely mystifying missed calls. It was an ugly, ugly scene, one that immediately brought up Oliver Stone-esque calls of “conspiracy!”
The NBA conspiracy theories are probably as hookum as all of Stone’s JFK theories, but the more horribly-officiated games that take place and end-up benefiting big stars or big teams, the more the casual fan will get turned off. There must be a way for the league to address this – increased scrutiny and review of referees, the use of replay – in order to put the referees back into the background, where they belong. This has the potential to be a classic series, with the ancient Celtics trying to overcome the fearsome twosome of LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. There’s no room in this storyline for the referees.