tension reigns between refs, players, coaches
BY TODD DYBAS | MARCH 8, 2018
CAPITAL ONE ARENA — Not long after the explanations about a need to come together, the screaming begins. It happened to multiple coaches in the last week. Asked pregame about the tenor of relationships between referees and those they oversee, a handful of NBA head coaches talked about the need for respect, better communication, patience, all those things that can lead to a more conducive relationship between any group. Then, the ball went up.
Interactions between referees, coaches and players have come under extreme scrutiny this season. Things seemed so bad that leadership of the players’ association met with heads of the officiating side during the All-Star break. Though, in practice, veteran coaches don’t think much is different this season. The process is time-honored and the same. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr explains.
“I don’t think it’s any different than it was 20 years ago,” Kerr said. “It’s just that there’s a microscope on every single thing that happens, honestly. Twenty years ago, it was the exact same relationship. Ref makes a call, player yells at him, ref calls a T. Player yells even more. Player gets tossed. That’s how it works. It’s a contentious relationship by nature because it’s a high level of competition and everybody’s on edge. The key is, can you say afterwards, ‘Hey, no big deal, let’s move on.’ That’s the key with any good ref. The players, too. They have to be able to look past any personal animosity. As I said, I don’t think anything’s different than before. Just way more media coverage.”
Other coaches — Toronto’s Dwane Casey, Indiana’s Nate McMillan and Washington’s Scott Brooks — echoed Kerr to a degree. Like Kerr, McMillan and Brooks played in the league before becoming coaches. Casey has been coaching in the league for almost a quarter century.
But, perception also reigns. Discussions with various players delivered a different sentiment. Some feel like they can’t talk to referees anymore (or about them on the record). They also think this season has been worse than in the past. Quick triggers for technicals. Inconsistent calls. Missed calls.
The Wizards’ coaches and players met Tuesday with former official Monty McCutchen, who was named vice president, head of referee development and training in December, to listen to his perspective about respect for the game and officials. The meeting is part of the league’s initiative to help relationships between the dueling sides since the NBA is smart enough to know that optics relate to ratings.
The meeting appears warranted. Markieff Morris claimed that issues between players and referees are at “an all-time high.” He proved it later that night.
Casey remembers when interactions would be different. Not more productive necessarily, but different.
He went back to when he first entered the league as a coach. He joined the Seattle SuperSonics as an assistant, which provided him a clear view to point guard Gary Payton haranguing referees — and just about anyone else — on a nightly basis. Payton was animated, non-stop and loud. He also used choice words. At that time, Casey said, Payton would receive them right back.
“There’s always been that tension,” Casey said. “You have highly competitive people in a small space for 48 minutes. Officials are competitive or they wouldn’t be officiating. I think a lot was made — you have social media, every call is now replayed on television [ad] nauseam. Instant replay, players go back and say, ‘Oh, he missed that call.’ I think all that added together has caused it to seem like it’s more.
“But, there’s been some days back in the 90s where there were some words going back and forth from the officials to the players, and the players back to the officials. It’s been a long time. I remember Gary Payton going at Mike Mathis and guys like that who will tell you where to go and how to do it. So, it’s been an age-old thing. I think it’s more publicized probably now than it’s ever been.”
McMillan added another issue percolating from all the coverage, which also falls into the perception category.
“Times change,” McMillan said. “The game has changed. It’s a lot faster than when I played. Officials knew your name, would call your name, and I would be surprised when they’d say, ‘McMillan.’ I couldn’t believe they even knew my name. But, those guys, the game, is a lot different. Everything that these guys do, they’ve got a hundred cameras on them. So, if they are conversing with one player or one coach too long, then they feel as if they’re giving them something. The game has changed.”
Replay in arenas, reaction on social media, opportunity to go back and look — no need for the film room when your boys, girlfriend or wife is texting a video of the play — are all on the uptick. When Bradley Beal was called for a foul Tuesday, he ran under the basket, sat on the stanchion and immediately looked up. He was waiting for the replay to roll on the home team’s enormous video board hanging over the heads of referees. Predictably, the home crowd booed when the play was shown. Beal shook his head. The call stood. Animosity stirred.
“It’s a struggle this year,” Beal told The Sports Capitol. “It’s been a real struggle. I think the biggest thing players want out of refs is just consistency. If you’re going to make a call on this end, you’ve got to — sometimes as players, we feel like it’s the exact same call, not even half a possession later. Granted, we know they want to keep the pace of the game up, speed the game up and not call too many fouls or call too many calls or whatever it may be. It happens.
“There’s probably more techs given out this year than in a long time. Refs kind of have a short fuse. Us as players, we’re emotional on the floor. We want to win. We’re competing at a high level. We just feel like we want more consistency out of them. Flow with us. Talk to us. Some refs are better than others at communicating. Some kind of just shut you down and have a quick fuse.”
Beal’s prime concern is what happens to him off the ball. He wants to be able to have freedom of movement, something the league has stressed in recent years, and feels he is held or impeded too often. He wants to have space to land on his jump shots. He also doesn’t want to bombard referees with complaints.
“They’re in a tough spot. I’m not always crazy hard on them,” Beal said. “They’re not perfect. But it is kind of frustrating when you ask all three of them on the same play and all three of them say the same thing, ‘I didn’t see it’ or ‘I wasn’t looking there.’ On top of that, you just go with the flow. I always tell the guys in the locker room leave the refs alone. They’re not going to stop the game, say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and change the call. They’re not going to do that. Let’s just keep playing and be aggressive and force them to use their whistle… If we’re just complaining, complaining, complaining, they’re not going to respect it.”
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra feels there is one distinct difference this season: his amount of technicals.
Spoelstra is in his ninth season since taking over for Pat Riley in Miami. He claims he has long been toward the bottom of the league in technicals per season among coaches. This season, he is near the top, tied with two other coaches for the second-most technicals in the league, despite avoiding the proverbial “magic words.” That has him confused.
“I have not cursed at one official this year,” Spoelstra said. “I would like to get my money’s worth if I’m leading the league.”
He turned more serious and broached another layer of the situation by citing recent turnover among the league’s referees. Recently out are highly visible officials like Danny Crawford and Joey Crawford. In are a slew of young officials. When Brooks charged onto the court to scream at a referee for missing a call against Beal on March 4, he was yelling at Gediminas Petraitis, who is in his third year in the league (and a Maryland native). Brooks deemed himself “out of control” a couple days later, but didn’t regret blistering the official for not calling a foul when Beal was knocked to the ground in the first quarter. Spoelstra thinks the adaptation process for fresh officials is roiling the in-game process.
“I think the biggest thing from my vantage point right now is there is a transition from a lot of veteran officials to a new wave of officials,” Spoelstra said. “There’s also a new program in place to develop the officiating and work on the respect of the game and the respect of communication. All of that. I think all of that — the programs and initiatives the league has set up — is absolutely with the right intent and it’s going in the right direction. I’ve seen the communication.
“You’re just not used to seeing so many new officials on a nightly basis. And, I think that can sometimes lead to a little bit of … I wouldn’t say necessarily explosiveness, but just getting people out of their comfort zone, what you’re used to, can lead to erratic behavior. But, I think it is needed. We all want to be part of a league and competition that there is a level of respect. I think it will get better. And, these young officials will eventually become older, veteran officials and I think all of it will be good.”
Brooks went to one of his standard bromides when initially addressing the situation between referees and everyone else. He explained that it’s a privilege to be in the league in any position. Brooks also said it’s important for everyone to respect the other.
“We all have a great responsibility to our profession to treat each other with respect,” Brooks said. “Understand we all have a tough job and to be able to manage the emotions that go into the pressure of each game and each play. Especially later in the season. Playoffs are riding. Positions are riding. But, you still have to respect each other’s job.”
Then, a joke.
“I think when I started we had only two referees to yell at,” Brooks said. “Now, there’s three.”
In reality, there is no dynamic rise in technical fouls among players this season. Coming into Thursday, 32 players had five or more technical fouls with less than a quarter of the season remaining. Last season, 43 players finished at that mark. The season before it was 33.
Though, 203 players have been called for at least one technical this season. And, two of the consistent contributors to technicals called — DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall — are playing far fewer games.
The Wizards’ meeting with McCutchen seemed to change no one’s mind. Players were at least hopeful things would improve next season — recall some think the current climate is as low as it can get — but still carried gripes about this season. A few hours after McCutchen addressed respect, Brooks talked about good communication and Spoelstra touted how hard it is for officials, the ball went up with veteran Scott Foster flanked by two officials. One, Marat Kogut, is in his ninth season. The other, Ray Acosta, is in his first.
Foster called a blocking foul on Morris late in the third quarter. Once he reached the offensive end, he had also earned a technical from Kogut. His ninth technical of the season placed him near the top of the league. He didn’t feel the pregame meeting with McCutchen had any influence. The proof played out on the floor that night.
“I still got a tech tonight so honestly, all of that just went in one ear and out the other,” Morris said.
Photo by Brian Murphy for The Sports Capitol