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Rosen: An Imaginary But Truthful Dialogue Between a Coach and Ref

THE TIME: After a day’s schedule of Summer League games.

THE PLACE: A hotel bar in Salt Lake City.

THE CHARACTERS: A veteran NBA coach and a senior NBA referee, both here to scout youngsters trying to break into what insiders call “The League”.

REF: “Hey, those two kids you drafted looked pretty good out there.”

COACH: “I guess they did, but these Summer League games aren’t worth all that much. Anyway, what about the guys you were watching?”

REF: “Two of them have potential, three of them will be washouts. We’ll have maybe a total of five of them working D-league games.”

COACH: “Are we allowed to be talking together like this? Isn’t it against some kind of rule?”

REF: “Look around …  Nobody’s watching us and if they are who gives a shit. We’re okay, as long as you’re buying.”

COACH: “No problem. But there’s something I’ve always wanted to ask a ref …”

RED: “Go ahead.”

COACH: “Why did you become a referee in the first place? Seriously. Why does anybody become a referee?”

REF: “Well, when I was in high school back in Americus, Georgia … A small high school, I mean a very small high school … Anyway, I played baseball, football and basketball. I wasn’t much good in any of them. Most of the time I was just a spectator in uniform. Maybe I was a tiny bit better in basketball. Like the third or fourth man off bench in my senior year. At least I played enough to know that liked basketball the best. Now, my basketball coach used to make extra money by officiating in junior college games in the area. He told me that since I was a gym rat and obviously had no future as a college player in any of the sports I played, I might be interested in officiating. And darned if he wasn’t right. And since I had been a player of sorts myself, I had developed what we call an official’s athletic-competition IQ.”

COACH: “What the hell does that mean?”

REF: “Something about being involved in the game, running up and down, understanding what’s important contact and what’s not. It’s kind of a vague concept that’s supposed to make us feel good about what we do. Like we’re real athletes. Or like we have a kind of a skill that other athletes don’t have. I don’t know. It always sounded like bullshit to me.”

COACH: “I agree.”

REF: “Anyhow, I was surprised to discover that I liked officiating better than I liked playing. Probably because I was better at it. And it was an opportunity to connect with the game in a different way. I liked being in the middle of the action, and I liked the challenge.”

COACH: “What kind of challenge?”

REF: “Well, just challenging myself to officiate a perfect game.”

COACH: “Hold on, now … What’s always bothered me about you guys is that, since you always have to be on the lookout for fouls, walking violations, palming, three-seconds … You know, mistakes. That you miss the beauty of the game. So what do you mean by a ‘perfect’ game? No fouls? No turnovers? A game where every call and every no-call is totally accurate?”

REF: “Ha! Everybody makes mistakes. Players, officials, coaches, Supreme Court Justices …  Everybody. Our job is to choreograph an athletic event. To give the world’s greatest athletes an even playing field where they can show their skills. If we can do that, then that’s a perfect game … Since you’re the one with the million-dollar contract, you’re still buying? Right?”

COACH: “Right.”

REF: “Anyway, to get back to the first part of your last question. Or the last part of your first question, I can’t remember … We can enjoy the beauty of the game when we’re reviewing the video.”

COACH: “That’s like living life second-hand.”

REF: “Hey, we can only do what we have to do.”

COACH: “I’ve got another question.”

REF: “G’head.”

COACH: “What about that game in Houston just before the All-Star Game, when you hit me with a T even though I didn’t say a word? What the hell was that?”

REF: “What are you? About 6-8?”

COACH: “Yeah, so what?”

REF: “Well, we don’t like big guys standing up and pacing up and down the sidelines. Hovering over us, you know? Smaller guys, yes. But big guys like you, no.”

COACH: That’s crazy.”

REF: “Hey, man. Officiating is a lot harder than it looks. The players are so big, so quick and so creative, and everything happens so fast that we got to have lightning reflexes just to keep up. If we want to take a real hard look at a play, why, then, it’s already too late because something else is already happening. So sometimes we’ve got to half anticipate what’s going to happen. But then these guys do some totally unexpected dipsy-doo, and we’re left blowing a phony whistle.”

COACH: “Is this when you do a make-up call?”

REF: “Not me, because that would be making two bad calls in a row. That’s like if a student screws up a math test, then in his next class he deliberately screws up a history test. Y’know? Makes no sense. But the thing is that videos prove that we make the right calls about 95 percent of the time. That’s a pretty good deal, don’t you think?”

COACH: “But what about the calls that you don’t make? Most of the time those are the most important.”

REF: “We can’t call what we can’t see, and not even the three of us can see everything. Especially with those big bodies in the way. But I will say this … We love working games with teams that run a lot of high screen/rolls, because there are only four players involved so it’s easy to see everything.”

COACH: “Screen/rolls can create a lot of scoring opportunities, that’s for sure. And the bonus is that you guys are much more likely to call fouls on the defense.”

REF: “That’s only because defensive players are reacting and offensive players are initiating, so defensive players do commit more fouls.”

COACH: “That sounds right. But what about this …? We, the coaches, absolutely believe that you guys protect the superstars and, in the playoffs, you favor the big-market teams.”

REF: “Come on, Coach. You know the score. The NBA’s not a charitable organization. Money, ratings …”

COACH: “Yeah, yeah. That’s why we absolutely believe that everything Tim Donaghy wrote in his book was right on.”

REF: “Please. I won’t even mention that twerp’s name. All I’ll say is that he had an ax to grind.”

COACH: “Well, he used that ax to draw a lot of blood.”

REF: “Yeah. Anyway. But, listen. I’ve got a way to improve how NBA games are officiated. You know those real high chairs that tennis judges sit on? Well, if two of those chairs were placed catty-corner with a ref in each one. Can you visualize this? Okay. Then the two refs sitting up there would only be responsible for calling offensive and defensive three seconds, goaltending and whether or not a defender’s foot is inside or outside of the charge-block arc. That way, we’d be able to concentrate on the action itself without having to count or look down or look up.”

COACH: “Sounds like a great idea.”

REF: “It is. And a bonus is that it would create more jobs. But the mental midgets who make rules say that it would block the view of too many of the expensive seats. Improving the way the game is officiated doesn’t concern them. They’re all bean counters.”

COACH: “There’s another way to improve the officiating.”

REF: “Okay.”

COACH: “It was proposed by John Chaney who used to coach Temple.”

REF: “Yeah, I remember him. A big-time ref-baiter.”

COACH: “Anyway, Chaney says that a part of each ref’s uniform should be a series of wires under his shirt and a battery attached to his belt. Each coach would have an electronic gismo with a push-button. When the button is pushed, the refs get a shock. But the coaches would be limited to only two pushes every half.”

REF: “Remind me to laugh … Anyway, I’ve got to go and report to my boss. But let me ask you a question … Why do you, or anybody, want to coach?”

COACH: “Because coaching is the next best thing to playing.”

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