Posted by Neil Paine on September 24, 2009
Maybe the biggest immediate news in the NBA right now is the fact that the referees' union is currently locked out of officiating NBA games because of a collective bargaining dispute, and the league has a group of replacements ready if the two sides are unable to reach an agreement before games tip-off. For many who have been critical of the officials in the wake of some rather unpopular performances this decade (criticisms fueled by convicted felon Tim Donaghy's allegations of systematic referee game-fixing), the reaction has almost been welcoming -- the idea is that the replacements can't get any worse than the crop that was in place the past few years, right?
Fourteen years ago, the N.B.A. locked out its referees, handed their whistles to an army of wide-eyed substitutes and watched the insanity unfold.
The games got messy. The players got antsy. They wanted their old referees back — the same ones who, in any other season, would be the targets of their fury.
“They need five of these guys to equal one of the regular refs,” Charles Oakley, the former Knicks bruiser, complained in 1995. He described the replacements in one word: “Terrible.”
Then again, circumstances were different back then, assures one NBA executive:
NBA executive Joel Litvin argued that the league is better prepared to impliment a replacement officiating staff than it was 14 years ago.
"In '95 we were using replacements who were for most part CBA refs and college refs, and by contrast we're now using referees that are from the WNBA and D-League -- sort of our extended family. They've also reffed summer league games, and so unlike '95 these refs have been trained in our mechanics and interpretations. They are already in the NBA pipleline, and we think that makes all the difference in the world."
Then again, today at CelticsBlog, Bent also went back in time to '95 and looked at some game tape from the replacements:
I decided to go back and watch a few games from the time of the original lockout and I have to say that the officiating didn't seem all that bad. Of course it would have differed from crew to crew, but the number of protested calls by players, coaches and even Tommy Heinsohn were no higher than any other game, whether it be 1995 or 2008. With that said, there were a few things that stood out:
- Apparently, they had just introduced stricter rules about disrespecting officials and being called for technical fouls. I don't know if this was done to counter the fact that the league was anticipating the players not having much respect for the replacements.
- One of the games was refereed by a college crew, who called a few travels on the perimeter which, although correct, would never normally be called in an NBA game (although perhaps they should be.)
- The CBA refs seemed a little better, although there were maybe more offensive foul calls on screens or down low and fewer what I would call "ticky-tack fouls". These are probably a closer representation of the replacement referees this time round than the college crews because they were used to dealing with pro players and NBA rules.
- The TNT announcers made reference to a game in Chicago which did almost descend into farce because there were an inordinate number of three second violations. Again, these were probably the right calls, but usually overlooked in the NBA, although it is a non-call which was - and remains - one of Tommy's biggest bugbears.
So were these referees all that awful, or did they just call everything by the book and ignore the NBA's unwritten rules?
Either way, if the lockout continues, we're going to be afforded a rare opportunity to see exactly whether the NBA refs of the past few seasons have been above the mythical "replacement level" or not.