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Crying foul
Posted: March 14, 2005

Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki was set up for the hero's finish, which seemed a fitting way to end a hard-fought game against Phoenix on Dallas' home floor. Here was the Mavs' star player with the ball in the closing seconds of the game. Dallas was down one, and Nowitzki had an easy path to the rim. Everything was set up for a thrilling Mavericks win -- except for one thing. The Suns' Shawn Marion swooped in from behind, blocked Nowitzki's shot and grabbed the rebound. No foul was called, the home crowd booed, and Phoenix won, 124-123.

After the game, Mavericks coach Don Nelson was red-faced and agitated. Surely Marion had not cleanly blocked the shot, not on a star such as Nowitzki, not at that point in the game. Surely there had been a foul. "It just doesn't seem fair," Nelson told reporters. "(Amare) Stoudemire got eight straight calls when he had the ball. And we clearly got fouled on the last play and didn't get the call for our best player. It should be a 1-point win in our favor, but it's not."

Strange to hear Nelson denounce the abject treatment of his star player when, just 2 1/2 months earlier, a young team in Chicago was decrying the preferential treatment received by Nowitzki, a four-time All-Star. The Bulls lost a home game against Dallas by one point after a questionable out-of-bounds call and had to deal with Nowitzki's frequent trips to the free throw line -- he took 19 free throws; the entire Bulls lineup took just 12.

After that game, Bulls vice president John Paxson said, "It's not unusual for the main player to get a lot of calls. ... All we're asking for is that the call be made the same way. I can point out a lot of examples every game where we don't get the same whistle."

In the NBA, the way the referees see fouls is essential to the game, and nothing whistles up more controversy than calls concerning the league's star players. The two situations involving Nowitzki are good examples. Which is it? Poor Nowitzki, who did not get the call he deserved despite his star status against the Suns? Or the poor Bulls, being picked on and toyed with thanks to some unwritten understanding between Nowitzki and all-too-compliant referees?

That depends. Players and coaches have long conceded that, when it comes to calling a game, there is a star system in place. That system dictates that high-profile players are looked upon more favorably than younger, lesser-known players. Problem is, no statistical evidence supports that assumption, and the league -- specifically new director of officials Ronnie Nunn -- is fighting to dispel it as myth.

Consider the Nowitzki examples again. When Nowitzki faced the Bulls, he was having an off shooting night (4-for-18), so he did what any good scorer would do -- he attacked the basket. To say that Nowitzki got to the foul line because the referees were using a star system ignores the fact that the Bulls had to defend him with an aging Antonio Davis and an overly aggressive Tyson Chandler. Both were bad matchups. It also ignores the fact that Nowitzki is immensely talented.

Against Phoenix, Nowitzki was facing one of the league's best shot blockers in Marion, who averages 1.4 per game. Why should the Mavericks be surprised that Marion blocked Nowitzki to close out the Suns' win?

On that play, the official who was monitoring the defense, Courtney Kirkland, made the right call. Nunn was at the Dallas-Phoenix game. "Everyone in the arena thought it was a foul," Nunn says. "But I talked with (Kirkland) after the game, and he said, 'I was watching Marion the whole way,' which is the right thing to do. He didn't see a foul. When I went back and looked at it on film, it was a clean block. He made the right call, which was a no-call."

But for Nunn and his army of 60 officials, there is little to be done about off-the-cuff remarks made after a game. Comments such as those from Nelson and Paxson leave the impression that officials cost teams wins with bad calls. Even when false, those comments feed the larger perception of a star system, which has become embedded in fans, coaches, media members and players alike.

Ask any NBA player, and he'll quickly tell you that, indeed, it's the stars who get the benefit of the doubt from the officials. "A guy like me, a young guy still trying to establish himself, there isn't a lot I can do," says Joe Johnson, a fourth-year guard for the Suns. "If I am going against a guy like Tracy McGrady or Ray Allen, then I know I am going to have to be real careful because they're going to get all the calls."

Supposedly, it's even worse for rookies. "I remember in the beginning of the year, trying to guard Antawn Jamison, and it seemed like everything was a foul," says Hawks rookie Josh Smith. "I was like, 'What can I do?' "

Of course, reverse the question, and the star system disappears -- players will readily complain about other guys who get frequent foul calls, but none will admit that, yes, the referees smile upon me. McGrady, acknowledging that some players get favorable treatment, says, "No, no, not me. They make me work for mine."

Or, better yet, as Jamison says with a hearty laugh (and a pardon my French), "Someone told you I get calls? Who the #*@! told you that?"

The star system is a deep-seated perception. Former Washington star Phil Chenier says it "goes back to Wilt Chamberlain to Michael Jordan and right on through today. Everyone knows it is there, and you just have to deal with it."

The perception about the Bulls' preferential treatment because of Jordan is based in reality -- even Paxson acknowledged that as he was complaining about Nowitzki's 19-free throw night. In 1998, Jordan pushed Bryon Russell to the floor before making a championship-winning shot against Utah. In 1997, Jordan bumped Mookie Blaylock out of bounds to force an Atlanta turnover and secure a Chicago playoff win. In 1995, Jordan held the arm of the Hornets' Hersey Hawkins -- and admitted it -- to prevent Hawkins from making a winning layup that would have sent the Bulls-Hornets playoff series to a Game 5 in Charlotte.

As Hawkins explained, "It's Michael Jordan, and I'm Hersey Hawkins."

More than any other player, Jordan solidified the theory that star players get calls. But things have changed. Now, Jordan is retired, and referees are being held to a different standard.

The reality: There is no statistical evidence of a star system in the current NBA. Factoring in how often players are statistically credited with touching the ball, Danny Fortson actually gets to the free throw line more frequently than anyone in the league. Dwight Howard, a rookie, shoots free throws more often per touch than two-time MVP Tim Duncan. Antonio Daniels gets a higher percentage of favorable calls than teammate Ray Allen. Even Austin Croshere outdoes LeBron James when it comes to free throw frequency.

"There are a couple of things to remember with star players," Nunn says. "One is they are stars for a reason, and that's because they have tremendous ability. When you have tremendous ability, sometimes the only thing a defender can do is foul you. The other thing to remember is that they have the ball a lot more. So it might look like they get to the line more than everyone else, but that's only because the ball is in their hands."

There's a deeper reason NBA refs shun a star system -- officials employing such a system soon would be out of jobs. Every game a ref works is subject to four levels of scrutiny. First, the ref watches a tape of the game and reports missed calls. Second, a "standard observer" watches each game at the arena, then reviews a tape and files a second report on missed calls. Third, Nunn has four assistants who monitor 15 referees each -- those assistants also review missed calls. Finally, there is Nunn himself. The referees are given accuracy scores based on their missed calls.

When referees are graded, there is no weight given to the players they are officiating. If a ref favored a star player, that ref's accuracy score would plummet. Nunn, who was named director of officials before last season, has made it his goal to make officiating more scientific, and the grading system is part of that.

"In the past, refereeing was done a lot by feel," Nunn says. "So, maybe in the past, you could have star players who got more calls. But in our league, right now, it's a myth. We are getting this down to right and wrong. No gray area. I want night and day, not dusk."

Despite the opinion of players who are neck-deep in the star system myth, Nunn has been successful. When he took over, he estimates the league's refs had an accuracy rate of 90 percent. Now, the refs are, on average, "between 94 and 95 percent," Nunn says.

Nunn even has -- gasp! -- gotten praise from well-known ref critic Mark Cuban, owner of the Mavericks. "Things have really gotten better since Ronnie Nunn took over," Cuban said in an e-mail. "This past year has definitely been an improvement and has shown an effort to call the games by the book."

NBA refs are not perfect, and they never will be. "We're going to get some things wrong," Nunn says. "But people need to be better educated on the subject before they start in with things that are just false. Players, coaches, the media, everyone. You have a right to complain when we get something wrong, but not when these complaints are based on myths."

All Nunn has to do is convince 30 coaches, more than 400 players, thousands of media members and millions of NBA fans that he is right. Now, that is a tough call. TSN

Sean Deveney is a staff writer for Sporting News. Email him at sdeveney@sportingnews.com.

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