A 4-Step Plan To Put The NBA On Right Foot

By David Aldridge
Updated: July 30, 2007

“So, you want this [bleeping] job.”

President Kennedy, to Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater in early 1963, as recalled in The Final Days.

PHILADELPHIA — For two decades, David Stern was almost always the smartest guy in the room, and he didn’t mind letting you know it. But he’s out of his depth now, having to be briefed by law enforcement about the virus that’s infiltrated his NBA and needing to depend on the kindness of bookies and other miscreants to find out whether it’s metastasized.

To see Stern, a liberal who has been occasionally approached about running for the U.S. Senate, talking about wiretaps and 24-hour surveillance of his referees on Tuesday, as the FBI and other law-enforcement officials have apparently discussed as potential remedies, was to see someone in intellectual pain.

But that’s where the league is today, searching for some way to stanch the bleeding that the FBI’s investigation of former referee Tim Donaghy created.

It is not imperative to throw the baby out with the bath water. No matter what you hear and read, NBA officials get it right most of the time under conditions that their brethren in the NFL, baseball and the NHL don’t face. Yet most everyone with a laptop thinks the NBA guys stink, when in reality, most referees are pretty good.

But Stern has to move quickly to address the public perception that his sport has been and is tainted and that the league favors certain stars and teams. It no longer matters if there’s any truth to it (Would a league looking to raise its TV ratings allow the ratings-death Spurs to be in four Finals since 1999?); that’s what far too many people believe.

Here are four suggestions:

Step 1: Blue-ribbon panel, stat. While Stern said this week he would get his hands “as dirty as they possibly could be” in trying to find solutions, he needs to recuse himself on this one. Someone outside of Olympic Tower needs to take a long, hard look at the league’s structure for hiring, retaining, grading and teaching its officials.

Stern should appoint a five-person panel that would operate independently of the league’s investigations. The panel should have free rein to look at everything and interview any and everyone, examine all relevant documents — including referees’ ratings, for example — and come back by next year’s All-Star Game in New Orleans with recommendations that Stern will take to the league’s Board of Governors for immediate consideration.

One panel: Jerry West, Bill Russell, Billy Cunningham, former Knicks executive Ed Tapscott (who’s also a lawyer) and, if he’s up to it, former referee Hugh Evans, who works for the league but whose integrity during 28 years as a ref was beyond reproach. (Evans has had health problems in recent years.)

Step 2: Rehire Joey Crawford – and do it publicly. Crawford is scheduled to go to New York this week to meet with Stern for the first time since the league suspended Crawford from the playoffs. His crime was recidivism; again hijacking a high-profile game by tossing a star element — in this case, Tim Duncan — while Duncan was sitting on the Spurs’ bench, laughing.

Crawford had been warned before by Stern not to bigfoot big games, but his famous temper again got ahead of his brain. And for a while, it looked as if the 29-year veteran had worked his last game. But after the Donaghy revelations, bringing back the game’s best official is imperative.

Step 3: Engage the players. Player concerns about officiating aren’t just sour grapes. There are some players who genuinely care about the game and could make meaningful suggestions. For example, coaches and general managers are part of the ratings system for referees; why aren’t players? Think about the likes of Derek Fisher, Malik Rose, Antawn Jamison, Steve Nash and Michael Redd.

Yes, there are some players with grudges against officials and vice versa, but this will not work if everyone isn’t part of the solution.

Step 4: Be bold. Perhaps it’s time to take the referees out of the league office all together, just as the league has farmed out its drug-testing program. Maybe the NBA’s refs should be graded by officials from IAABO, the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, instead of the league.

No matter how well-meaning, the league has biases that favor certain styles of officiating over others. And the league’s director of operations, Stu Jackson, and the supervisor of officials, Ronnie Nunn, have their critics. That would be the case no matter who was grading the refs, but as Stern said Tuesday, the league has to look at everything.

“Is it working? I don’t think it is working,” a veteran official said last week. Officials “look at how far they move up, and they only really care about what Ronnie and Stu want them to do. If somebody gives them a tidbit of information, they’ll say, ‘Well, what do Ronnie and Stu think? Because they’re the ones who hold my life in their hands.’ ”