Friday, September 24, 2010

Stern Tightens Dictatorial Hold on League

Yesterday, the NBA announced a revamped set of rules concerning refs' issuing of technical fouls, specifying certain player actions -- "aggressive gestures, such as air punches," "demonstrative disagreement, such as when a player incredulously raises his hands," "running directly at an official to complain about a call," and "excessive inquiries about a call, even in a civilized tone" -- as grounds for an automatic T.

As Bill Simmons would say, "Ladies and gentlemen: your 2010-2011 NBA season!"

I'm not sure if this is more egregious or laughable (definitely some of both), but with each reign-tightening, dictatorial maneuver by Boss Stern, the NBA loses more and more credibility as a professional sports league to be taken seriously. How do you legitimize a competitive sports environment where the players are basically being instructed to become robots and cease showing emotion on the court?

"We don't want our players looking like they're complaining about calls on the court," said Ron Johnson, the NBA's senior vice president of referee operations, "because it makes them look like complainers."

Well, then.

Look, I understand that some players go over the top in their arguing with officials. Rasheed Wallace has earned a reputation as someone who goes ballistic over nearly every call, and that undermines his own credibility with the refs. But you're gonna tell me that every player in the league is now going to be treated like an uncontrolled infant and get muzzled before he has the opportunity to voice his opinion?

Actually, to answer my own question, no. You know that the league's prized possessions -- superstars like Kobe and LeBron -- are going to be given infinitely more free reign to vent than everybody else. And that underscores a larger point, that this measure is really just a tool to try to save face and further silence widespread player criticism about the blatantly unfair manner in which games are officiated. Raja Bell, you don't like that you just got called for three touch fouls on Kobe in 90 seconds? Well, too bad...because if you go and so much as discuss it with the ref, you're gonna be hit with a tech.

But once again, Stern has erred badly here. Look at how his league has been criticized by fans and players alike in the last couple of postseasons concerning the officiating. Does he really think that this is just going to go away? That ruling with an even more iron-clad fist is going to fix the league's image and credibility problem? News flash, Mr. Stern: this is just gonna make it worse. Much worse.

Well, I'm done venting for now. Please don't T me up.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

LeBron Jumps Ship, Heads to Miami

Wow, LeBron. I was never a fan. Now I'm even less of one.

In an over-dramatized, over-hyped hour-long TV special, The King let the country know that the Miami Heat will be the recipient of his services starting next year.

Ok, so let's state the obvious. The Heat will be stacked next year with James, Wade, and Bosh. That trio, if healthy, gives the Heat a chance to win the big prize for many years to come. LeBron has consistently stated in recent weeks that winning is his number one priority. So what's wrong with this decision?

First, let's think short-term. Right now, assuming Miami gets rid of Michael Beasley, the Heat will have a bunch of scrubs surrounding the new Big 3. That's definitely not a guaranteed recipe for success. And if James, Wade or Bosh gets injured for any extended period of time? That team suddenly falls in the average to good range...certainly not the 70+ win team that many are projecting them to be (40% of respondents in an ESPN poll think they'll break the 70-win threshold next year).

Now let's think long-term/LeBron's legacy...because we all know that LeBron is deeply concerned with his reputation and how people perceive him. Simply put, he's an egomaniac. Why then would he want to go to a team, that frankly, isn't really his? Miami is Wade's team; he's already led them to a championship, something that the King has never experienced. Given that, I can't really see Wade giving the reigns of the team to LeBron. How, then, will the King react in crunch time when Wade demands the ball and gets it? Will he pout and stop trying like he essentially did in games 5 and 6 of this year's Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Celtics? I could definitely see that happening.

And if LeBron and the Heat do go on to win multiple championships, how would people react to that? I think there would be a large contingent of people who would belittle his achievements, who wouldn't overlook the fact that he'd be winning them with another bona fide superstar in Wade. Given his failure to win a championship in Cleveland where he was The Man (the King, actually), you can just hear people saying that he "couldn't win the big one" by himself.

Count me among the critics. I would've respected him the most if he had stayed in Cleveland and committed to finishing what he started, but I still would've respected his decision had he decided to go to Chicago or New Jersey and build a team around young talent. But now? He looks like a sellout. He went for the sexy move, joining a mini All-Star team. He may win a championship or two or three in Miami, but clearly he will not have built the championship product from start to finish. A major contributor? Obviously. But at the end of the day, he'd still have jumped on board Wade's team.

Let's get back to the bottom line, though. LeBron stabbed the city of Cleveland in the heart. The reason this is so egregious is because he did it in slow-motion, with his LeBronathon primetime TV special, instead of just stating his decision and being done with it. He obviously understands the anguish that Cleveland sports fans have suffered over the years. But he couldn't care less. And that about sums up LeBron: he's largely indifferent to the plight of those around him. Of course, he wants everyone to show him the love, but he doesn't realize that you have to be, at the very least, respectful to people in return in order to be universally liked (or loved). Obviously Cavs fans would've been pissed even if LeBron had announced his decision to leave in an understated manner. But would they have been burning his jersey in the streets and throwing eggs at his giant "Witness" billboard in downtown Cleveland, as they were in the immediate aftermath of The Decision (sponsored by Vitamin Water and a collection of other James-endorsed products)? I don't think they would have.

How LeBron's career unfolds from here on out remains to be seen. But by signing with the Heat, LeBron made the decision that gives him the least to gain and most to lose. Not to mention a growing number of people who hate everything he stands for.


p.s. Dan Gilbert is my new favorite owner. He tells it like it is.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"Personal Foul": A Telling Account of a Corrupt Enterprise

In 2008, during his 11-month sentence in the Pensacola federal prison, disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy began writing his memoir. Part admission of personal wrongdoing and part exposé of his former employer, Personal Foul: A First-Person Account of the Scandal that Rocked The NBA is a candid account of Donaghy's fall from grace after he was convicted of betting on hundreds of NBA games throughout his 13-year career as an NBA referee. Through revelations of his own misdeeds, Donaghy discusses the "culture of fraud" that exists in the NBA with respect to the way games are officiated. He reveals how he was able to correctly pick 70 to 80 percent of games he bet on just by knowing which officials were slated to ref which games. Personal biases, relationships, and vendettas -- all of those come into play for a startlingly high number of referees when they work a game in the NBA. The refs often have an agenda -- and so does the league as a whole. In fact, Donaghy explains how in certain cases during his career (especially during the playoffs, when the stakes are highest), a referee crew would take directives from higher-ups in the NBA headquarters who wanted the game called a certain way so that the desired team would win.

Call it like you see it? When it comes to NBA refs, that couldn't be further from the truth.

In the last chapter of his book, titled "Fixing the NBA", Donaghy diagnoses the biggest problems facing the NBA today and the hurdles to overcoming them. First is the contention, repeated ad nauseum by David Stern in the wake of the scandal, that Donaghy was a lone "rogue referee" who acted out of line. This is simply untrue; the league is rampant with corruption. Moreover, there exists a marked lack of true accountability to uphold the integrity of the game. Donaghy explains how in July of 2008, the NBA hired Ronald L. Johnson, a retired U.S. Army General, to fill the newly created position of Senior Vice President of Referee Operations. Johnson would be responsible for "all aspects of the NBA's officiating program, including recruiting, training and development, scheduling, data management and analysis, and work rules enforcement." Johnson was to report to Joel Litvin, the NBA's President for League and Basketball Operations, who described Donaghy's allegations of a culture of fraud among NBA referees as "the desperate act of a convicted felon who was hoping to avoid prison time."

Clearly, Litvin is just the sort of person who would be complicit in this culture of fraud, someone willing to sweep the league's issues under the rug...definitely not the person you'd want in charge of referee operations if your true interest is reforming the game. It gets better (worse), though. Later that month, the NBA announced that one of the three individuals charged with reporting to Johnson in a restructuring of the Referee Operations Department would be Joe Borgia -- the same ref who once purposely changed a foul from Chris Webber to one of his teammates uninvolved in the play so that Webber wouldn't foul out (the reason being that fans hadn't come to see Webber sit on the bench).

"If I were an NBA fan," Donaghy wrote about all this, "I wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry." Me neither.

But the real heart of the issue that Donaghy addresses in this chapter concerns the league's shameless marketing of, and favoritism toward, individual athletes. Clearly, every time Kobe and LeBron put on their uniforms, the leauge is hoping that they perform well because they are the league's moneymakers; their success is the NBA's success. It logically follows, then, that the league does not want them to rack up fouls, sit on the bench for long periods of time, and get thrown out of games. But this presents problems -- namely, the fact that the refs frequently allow them and other high-caliber superstars to play according to a different set of rules than everyone else on the court. As Donaghy writes, the league has to "make up its mind about whether it's putting on real games featuring real competition, where the referees have the power to enforce the rules in the rule book, or whether it's putting on a show." If it's a show, Donaghy continues, then let's just come out and admit it: "simply change the NBA rule book to reflect that certain players get special treatment, marquee players get 10 fouls instead of six, and global icons are permitted to move their pivot foot. At least we'd be telling the truth."

While reading this, I found myself identifying with Donaghy's views to a tee. NBA basketball as it currently stands is unlike any other type of basketball that exists in the world. It's hardly real athletic competition; instead, it's a show, a performance, much like a circus. You'd think that over time, the tendency would be toward reform as more and more people have caught onto the egregious way in which the league operates (type in "The NBA is" on Google and the first three terms that the search engine provides to complete the sentence are "fixed", "rigged", and "a joke"). But here's the problem for me and other people who actually want to see genuine, fair basketball: we're outnumbered. I'd say that there are many more basketball fans in this country who simply want to see the "show" version of the sport, or as Donaghy puts it, "the opportunity to see some of the world's most amazing athletes perform physical miracles that you and I can only dream of." And if rules get broken along the way -- if Kobe is allowed to shove a defender to the ground while hitting one of his ridiculous turnaround fadeways, or if LeBron is able to take 5 steps on the way to one of his breathtaking dunks -- well, so be it. It was cool to watch.

To sum up, Donaghy may be a convicted felon, but in this book he tells it like it is. He admits his own mistakes, and he uses them in part to shed light on the culture of fraud and corruption that permeates the NBA. He closes, sadly enough, by resigning himself to the fact that everything he said throughout the course of the book will undoubtedly fall on the deaf ears of the league; after all, he's a disgraced ex-referee who gambled on NBA games, and he's going up against a powerful enterprise steadfast in its determination to paint him as that one bad apple, the "rogue referee". We should know better. As Donaghy concludes, "Just because I may not be the perfect messenger doesn't discredit the ideas I'm putting forth."

No, it certainly doesn't. Just like doctors used to smoke cigarettes while giving their patients sound medical advice, Donaghy can bear the burden of his faults while accurately diagnosing the NBA's problems. The question remains, will enough people ever care to correct them?


In completely unrelated news, what a past few days for U.S. sports! First U.S. soccer advances to the Round of 16 with a memorable goal in stoppage time over Algeria, then John Isner closes out the longest match in Wimbledon history with a 70-68 (70-68!) 5th-set win over France's Nicolas Mahut. Wow!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Celtics-Lakers Game 7

I'm not going to comment at length because there's really not a lot to say.

This was one of the ugliest NBA Finals games -- hell, maybe NBA games -- ever. So much sloppiness and poor execution. On the flip side, you can say that this game was a defensive stalemate with each team refusing to give the other anything easy. But that doesn't take away from the ugliness.

In the end, the Celtics offense completely fell apart and the Lakers hit some key free throws to pull out the win and get their 16th NBA title. With the Lakers up 3 and about 30 seconds left, the Lakers got a huge call when Kobe barreled into Rasheed Wallace but earned the blocking call. You could argue that Rasheed was moving slightly. I think it was a pretty clear charging call -- Wallace was outside the restricted area, and Kobe ran him over. Kobe hit the two free throws, and the Lakers went up by 5. The magnitude of the call became apparent when Rondo hit a three on the Celtics' next possession that would have tied it.

For the 4th quarter, the Lakers shot 4 more free throws (21) than the Celtics did for the entire game (17). Kobe alone shot 9 free throws in the quarter.

I'm running out of things to say regarding the refs and star treatment. Stars are always the beneficiaries of close (or in certain cases, not so close) calls, presumably because most people want to live in a world where there are stars to glorify and make money off of. In the end, Kobe got his 5th ring, tying Magic for most in a Laker uniform, and so now we can credibly begin the debate on "Who's the best Laker ever???!!!" Yay!

I think the way the whole league operates -- the tyrannical nature of its commissioner with regard to stifling criticism and doling out fines, the blatant star treatment, the lack of consistency and accountability among referees, the multitude of adoring fans who vicariously soak up all the glamor and glitz of a few players' superstardom -- is sickening. Whatever, life isn't fair...obviously. Money talks.

There's always next year, though. Maybe next year we can have a Jazz-Bobcats Finals.

Or maybe I can keep dreaming.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Celtics-Lakers Game 5

What a game. What a freakin' game.

This one had it all. End-to-end excitement. A Kobe-Pierce offensive duel that, for a stretch in the 3rd quarter, overshadowed the rest of the game. Hard-nosed defense. Stretches of ugly, sloppy play -- which has been an all-too-common theme in this year's playoffs. But whatever, I'll look on the bright side and say that both teams played a tough, gritty game and laid it all out on the line. Celtics were just a little better (even though they had one of their patented 4th-quarter semi-collapses where it looked like they were trying to give the game to the Lakers -- including Kevin Garnett losing a jump-ball to Derek Fisher. Really, Garnett? And Phil Jackson had no qualms about voicing his thoughts on the Celtics' tendency to blow leads during a timeout when he was Mic'ed up and essentially said for the country to hear that the Celts were the league's best chokers. Gotta love Phil. You know that will be major bulletin board material for Boston as they prepare for Game 6).

One other thing I'd like to note is that while Kobe completely went off in the 3rd quarter, scoring 19 of his team's 26 points in the period, the Celtics were still able to extend the lead (they stretched a six-point halftime advantage to as much as 13 before settling for an eight-point cushion at the end of the quarter). More evidence for the "team is more effective than an individual" argument. Look, there's no denying the Black Mamba's a ridiculously talented basketball player who can do things with a basketball that almost nobody else on the planet can. But while Kobe was schooling defenders and hitting a bunch of seemingly-impossible fadeaways, the rest of his team was stagnant, having gone into "stand around and watch Kobe" mode. And that hurt the Lakers, as all the guys in purple not named Kobe were largely ineffective both in the quarter (7 points on 3-for-10 shooting and only two players scoring) and on the night (Fisher/Artest -- 4 of 18 from the field combined; Bynum played 32 minutes but attempted just six shots; Gasol looked out of sync and missed a number of jumpers he normally buries).

Boston, on the other hand, played their typical team style, dishing the rock and getting everyone involved. The "Big Four", in fact, all had big games on offense: Pierce led the way with 27 points, followed by Rondo and Garnett with 18 apiece, and Ray Allen with 12.

Extremely telling stat for the third quarter: Kobe -- 7-of-9 shooting, 19 points; Celtics -- 12-of-19 shooting, 28 points, 5 contributors to the scoring load. Celtics > Kobe.

Extremely telling stat for the game: number of assists for Boston -- 21; number of assists for LA -- 12. When you play together, it boosts team morale and gets everyone to play harder and more effectively. The Celtics were an embodiment of that concept tonight.

The Lakers, on the other hand, are moving in the opposite direction; Kobe has now attempted twice as many shots (120 FGA) in this series as any of his other teammates (Gasol is second with 60 FGA).

Now the series shifts back to LA. Will Boston take one of two on the road to wrap up the franchise's 18th title? If they keep playing Celtics basketball, I think the answer's yes.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bud Selig Strikes Out...Again

One of the worst calls in the history of sports has been cemented by possibly the worst decision in the history of sports. And somehow, I'm not surprised.

Bud Selig announced today that he will not overturn the call that ruined Armando Galarraga's perfect game last night, which adds another layer of incompetence to his inept regime as commissioner of MLB.

Jim Joyce, you messed up big time. But -- and I can't believe I'm saying this a night after I witnessed what I did -- Bud Selig, you just messed up even worse.

Pouring salt into a wound? Try shooting a bazooka into a fire pit.

This was a unique situation that should have been dealt with in a unique manner. A pitcher got robbed last night on the final out of the game. Galarraga knew it. Joyce knew it. Selig knew it. All the commissioner had to do was invoke the power that he had and overturn the call. Galarraga would have officially gotten what is rightfully his. Joyce would have been relieved of his egregious error and could have breathed easier for the rest of his life, knowing that the power of reason had prevailed and prevented his ineptness from denying a pitcher a piece of baseball immortality. It was the logical and correct decision.

Too logical, I guess, for clueless Bud.

This isn't the first time that Selig has been the poster boy for ineptitude in sports. Flash back to the 2002 MLB All-Star game in Milwaukee, where the game went into extra innings as both teams used up pitcher after pitcher. In the middle of the 11th inning, with each side having only one available pitcher left, AL manager Joe Torre and NL manager Bob Brenly met with Selig to discuss the situation. Selig ultimately determined that if the NL didn't score in the bottom half of the inning, the game would end in a tie. As the bottom of the frame progressed, the crowed booed mightily and serenaded the commissioner with chants of "Let them play! Let them play!" As the camera panned to Selig, the commissioner, in what will go down as one of the enduring images in all of baseball, responded with a pathetically comical shrug of the shoulders, epitomizing his utter incompetence and lack of command over the situation. The game ended in a tie.

Eight years later, who would've thought that that infamous All-Star game would be so mightily trumped by an even more egregious display of Selig's buffoonery?

Well, here we are.

Now, to those defending Selig's decision: sorry, but I'm not buying the "Pandora's box", "this would open up a can of worms," "where do you draw the line?" schtick. That's ridiculous. First, overturning this particular call would not have affected the outcome of the game. Second, this could have set the tide in motion for implementing a new and specific policy on instant replay... WHILE CORRECTING THIS PARTICULAR DEBACLE! Please tell me, what would've been so bad about correcting this call, acknowledging that the system currently in place is ill-equipped to deal with umpire error, and coming up with a workable policy to be used from here on out? Selig's already shown this innovative, quick-thinking spirit (well, for him, anyway) back in August 2008, when he implemented the current policy of instant replay for home runs. That went into effect immediately, to be used for the rest of the '08 season and the playoffs. Selig could've done a similar thing here.

He had the ball in his court -- a clear opportunity to right the wrong, to extricate the league from this quagmire.

But instead, Selig struck out...again.

What a coward.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Dream Denied: Galarraga's Perfect Game Ruined by Umpire

As if I needed more fodder to berate people who officiate/ref/umpire sports for a living.

Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers pitched a perfect game tonight, but umpire Jim Joyce called Cleveland Indians batter James Donald safe on his grounder to first with two outs in the ninth -- even though he was out by a full step -- in what will go down as one of the worst calls in sports history (if you measure worst in terms of degree of significance and impact).

Terrible. Embarassing. Shameful. Egregious. Call it what you want.

Some people's reasoning might go like this: Joyce missed the call. Professional officials in every sport miss calls all the time. Thus, we shouldn't vilify Joyce more so than any other official that makes a mistake throughout the course of a game.

This logic is faulty. We can and should vilify Joyce...more than your run-of-the-mill blown call. Much more. Galarraga was one out away from a perfect game. One out away from baseball immortality. Given this, Joyce should have been mentally prepared for the situation that unfolded right before his eyes. He should have thought to himself, "Ok, if there's a close play at first, I must make sure I'm ONE HUNDRED PERCENT CERTAIN that the runner is safe in order for me to call him safe." It's just common sense.

Joyce said the right thing after the game: "I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay...I don't blame them a bit or anything that was said. I would've said it myself if I had been Galarraga. I would've been the first person in my face, and he never said a word to me."

But honestly, let's not rush to laud the man for his words. If you cost a major league pitcher a perfect game, what the hell would you possibly say differently? Would you become defensive? "Oh, yeah, I might've gotten the call wrong, but screw everyone who's criticizing me." Anything other than what Joyce had said and he should've been tarred and feathered.

If I were Bud Selig, I would officially overturn the call and give Galarraga his perfect game. This wasn't a subjective judgment call, like a foul in basketball or pass interference in football. No, Joyce got the call wrong. He was solely responsible for Galarraga not getting credit for a perfect game. That's egregious.

Silver lining from this debacle: MLB will expand its use of instant replay. It has to. History shouldn't be altered the way that it was tonight, and the least we can do is learn from our mistakes. Our country's history is replete with examples of this. People have made some egregious decisions in our country's past -- some infinitely worse than what Joyce did -- but for the most part, we've been able to overcome them and have progressed as a society.

Now it's time for one of those progressions. Joyce's flagrant error has scarred our country's pastime, in plain view for all of us to see. The "purists" -- those who love talking about the necessity of preserving the game's "human element" -- must fade into the background. We need to do everything in our power to increase the accuracy of calls in professional sports. Expanding instant replay in MLB would lead us on the right path (frankly, I think replay should be heavily expanded into basketball as well since NBA refs suck so much, but out of respect to Galarraga I'll keep my focus here on baseball).

I like the idea ESPN writer Jayson Stark proposed: keep the home run replay system as is, expand it to all fair-or-foul plays, and give each team one challenge to use throughout the course of the game. The thinking behind the latter idea is that teams will be inclined to save their challenge for later in a game when it matters most, thus mitigating the potentially devastating effect of a blown call that decides the outcome of a game. Or, you know, a call that robs a pitcher of a perfect game.

I'm feeling so many emotions from this train wreck. Anger. Frustration. Sympathy (for Galarraga, not Joyce...while I consider myself a sympathetic person, I just can't find it in me to feel sympathy for a man displaying incompetence and lack of preparedness on the scale that Joyce did).

Bottom line, the system is broken. Let's fix it.